the beginning—June 1st and 2nd, 2013
I arrived safe and sound in Cape Town after about 22 hours of traveling. I got to the airport, check in was a breeze (the feel of security is so much less tense when you aren’t flying into the US or on an American airline!), and then I got on my flight. There were tons of students there in the waiting area and on the flight. I was sitting next to one who’s interning right in Cape Town on the flight to Jo’burg. It was a nice vibe, almost like we were all traveling in a group. That leg of the flight was pretty intensely boring—we had a nice meal about an hour in, with wine and little appetizers and some dessert, but after that it was about 13 hours of nothingness. They turned off all the lights in the plane so people could rest (i.e. to make us go to sleep) and there were little wimpy reading lights and movies on the TV, but it was pretty unstimulating. I read a little bit of this book of short stories, then a bit of The Courage of Truth by Michel Foucault because I may participate in an event at the University of Cape Town for which this is a requirement (I always overestimate how productive I’ll be on planes and other kind of transportation), a chapter of Land, Custom and Power for my internship, and a little bit of Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt (because I was hit by a brief wave of loneliness and wanted the company of someone who thought and wrote while in exile, as Arendt did). That brought me to hour three. Then I miserably tried to sleep, watched Argo, tried to sleep and failed once more, watched a chunk of Les Mis, and restlessly dozed for about 7 more hours. At that point, I gave up and chatted with the quasi-insomniac public health intern in the seat next to mine, rummaged irritably through my things, and reviewed everything I’d ever heard about Cape Town in my head. Then, around 1 am our time, 7:50 SA time, we had a nice little breakfast, some tea, and some fruit later on and I gave in to the fact that it was going to be 37 hours with no sleep. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.
When we landed, I met two interns on my program standing in line! It was nice, because my seatmate and these two other girls and I all dealt with disembarkation, customs, and navigating the airport together which made it less of a stressor and more of an adventure. We hopped onto a tram that took out of the Oliver Tambo Airport (named after Mandela’s law partner, ANC/MK anti-apartheid activist, the man who was in exile in London while the entire senior rank of the ANC was in Robbin Island for well over 25 years basically directing the whole movement from behind the scenes, rallying support! He died never having known a free South Africa…). We were driven to a smallish plane (not stereotypically tiny, but only about 30 rows) and we climbed up into it through a metal set of stairs umbrella’d by this plastic canopy. This ride was very pleasant. They gave us coffee and sandwiches. I read another chapter about land rights and then caught a nap for a few hours. When I woke up, the immaculately dressed woman looked on indulgently as I peered around her trying to catch a glimpse of aerial Cape Town (damn you, center seats!), and asked “first time here?” We had a good chat. The weather was disastrous for Cape Town, ~55 and rainy, and all the locals in the surrounding seats kept assuring me it’s not that bad here most of the time. I’m not sure what they’d do in New England winter! We exchanged some money, met our driver and four other girls from the program. Of the six on that flight, I was the only one living in the “Holiday Apartments,” while they were living together in Perspectives (the slightly nice, quick to fill-up, albeit not as close to my workplace, main housing). There are about 12-15 of us in the Apartments, but it was odd to be dropped off and walked in and left alone. The apartments are adjacent to a shopping mall (more on that later) so he walked me in the front door with my suitcase, which I then had to roll down the mall corridor and up a lift to find reception. A group of teenage boys hollered ‘hey-ey suitcases!’ at me, so I got some stares. I checked into the apartment, which has the most spectacccccular view (see attatched) of Table Mountain, a nice sitting room with table and chairs, two nice beds with another huge window and a little kitchenette and dressing room with adjacent bathrooms. It’s pretty lovely and a perfect low budget set up for two students who don’t want to have to furnish a whole apartment but also can afford to buy a few things and settle in in our own way.
When I arrived, my roommate had moved in and left, so I unpacked and explored the apartment. She arrived after about an hour and we immediately hugged—we were both so glad to see another friendly face, which makes things fun and novel instead of scary or lonely. She had picked up some wine and cheese and fruit so we toasted to the summer. Then we took a walk down to the other housing to meet up with some people. Then we walked back to the shopping center to get proper groceries. The walk was a little stressful, mostly because I had warnings ringing in my ears, but once I calmed down, it was lovely. Where I live is pretty urban business-y but with cute little shops and lots of guest houses, not particularly gorgeous, except for the stunning moments where a gap in the building reveals the mountains, which happens ALL the time. We identified a famous bookstore, The Book Lounge, and agreed to attend some readings whenever possible. Then we went shopping and oh my god, the prices here are just nuts—I spent the equivalent of 10$ to buy eggs, bread, wine, spinach, (fancy) cheese, yogurt, almonds, corn, some spices, and several mysterious candy bars to share with my roommate because we were curious. Good wine is maybe 30 rand, and great wine is available for 50 or 60, where the exchange is slightly better than 10:1. We cooked a meal, drank more wine with cheese, explored a honeycomb bar covered in dark chocolate, and watched some South African News. The anchors were freaking out about the cold front coming in, which made is (wait for it) 45 degrees with possible freezing rain. Apparently this never happens. Of course I brought the snow, #thanksamherst.
Then, around 9:30 CT time, we went to bed and slept until 12:30 am, woke up rather scared and feeling very alone and a little bit sore from the plane. The view of the city is stunningly beautiful at night with all the lights, but it seemed a bit ominous at the time. I should mention that lovely as the new digs are, the apartment has no heating (typical in SA) and rather loose windows. The wind off the mountain is VERY intense and it sounds like an airplane is overhead a lot of the time. I will get used to it, and in some ways it’s a bit cozy, but if you’re inclined to feel scared of bumps in the night as I was at that moment, it kind of sucks. I got back to bed at 2:30 and woke up at 11 refreshed. I’m learning that there’s a difference between learning to be safe (which everyone I spoke to as I was planning this trip stressed like crazy, but which is very possible using common sense and the normal precautions, plus a few specific to Cape Town) and feeling safe in a new place. The former is related to the latter, but feeling safe is also about learning how to relax not be too paranoid and I suspect takes a bit longer than simply finding a situation where you are safe. In any case, there is a TON of private security in Cape Town, everywhere really, and that includes the Mall where I live. By the way, it’s pretty great living in the mall, because we have a grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store, clothing, coffee shops, books, DVD rental, and anything else you might imagine an elevator ride away. It also means that even though many of the people I’ve met live 15 minutes away, they are constantly hanging around the mall and stopping in to say hello.
In any case, in the morning, my unease was much reduced and my roommate and I went down into the mall to look around more. We bought a small space heater, sat at a coffee shop and people watched, and then went home. For lunch, it was still raining but by standards was temperate, maybe 55-60 degrees, but that alternated with sun and plenty of clouds with no rain, so we decided to venture out. We went in search of a place I found online, Beleza, that promised a fireplace, wine, good food, and an adjacent vintage clothing store. Sold. Surprisingly, almost everything is closed on a Sunday, so the city was a bit deserted, but not desolate, especially when the sun came out. We walked from Gardens where we live, past Cape Town High School, down various streets and onto Kloof Street, a rather high end, chic little street with churches and bistros and some clothing stores. From there, we wandered over to Tamboerskloof, apparently the hipster neighborhood, got a bit turned around, and finally found Beleza, which looked warm and inviting. We went in, and I ordered a huge plate of Mozambiquian Peri-Peri prawns, which were honestly on the list of the top five things I’ve ever eaten. By CT standards it was a splurge—R80—but 8$ for a high-end meal seems VERY cheap by our standards. While we were there, it began to hail! The waitresses all screamed and ran, I thought, for cover. However, they all shortly emerged with camera-phones, many of them overwhelmed with excitement. One told me that it was the first time she’d ever seen snow! I was simultaneously amused and reassured that this is an uncommon experience.
After a lovely long meal, my roommate and floor mate and I walked home, rested and hung out for a while, took another brief walk and stumbled onto the HUGEST rainbow over table mountain (like something out of a movie, seriously!) and then came back and decided to cook dinner. We bought a packet of Korma powder and made chicken, spinach and rice in a curry. Now it’s utterly freezing in here and I’m sitting and reading under a blanket and writing this email and will go to bed soon. Tomorrow is program orientation, then work on Tuesday. Wish me luck and good weather.