Floating high above my holiday wish list is Cape Town, South Africa. This has grown more urgent in the past few years due to an increasing amount of friends on Facebook visiting the city, for travel but also for living and working there. I saw the pictures, read the amazing stories and felt like this city built itself up almost unrealistically in my mind. The nature, the food, the sun, the sea, the fun language and the immense diversity of culture and people. I’ve been trying to go, to find a way to go, each year for a couple of years now but it always fails.
Whenever I talked to my boyfriend about this matter, he would flinch and call Cape Town the city “where most tourists are murdered”. I am too naïve to believe this sort of talk and frankly, I don’t want to be scared to go anywhere – cause anything can happen at any time and I don’t want to feel like I have to live in fear somewhere. Lots of girls my age went to and returned from Cape Town. Last week I had a conversation about this with a friend of mine who spent a few months in the city, as I shared my idea of working on an organic farm there (Wwoof – more about this later). Her face changed a little and she replied she didn’t quite know if that would be a good idea.
Now. I decided to have a conversation with three different friends of mine who all went to (or are now in) Cape Town and discuss what’s relevant. I’m completely aware of the fact that I am a white girl from Western Europe and I don’t want this to turn into a “rich girls going to Cape Town to party and ignorance is bliss” kind of article. I believe in doing a bit of research on the area you’re about to go on a trip to and I think it’s important to know the history of a country. South Africa has a difficult history, politically, and when I talked to these girls I noticed it’s still a very relevant history – in the sense that it’s still happening.
I talked to Jaco, 24, who went to Cape Town as a model, Hiu, 28, who did a six-month-internship in Cape Town, and Aisha, who’s in Cape Town for an internship at the moment.
How do you relate to this all? Were you in any way nervous before travelling to Cape Town and how did you feel when you were there?
J: No that wasn’t a problem at all for me. You just have to stick to the rules of the city a bit, like don’t go out on your own when it’s dark. Take a cab or car at night. And don’t go to the more poor areas without knowing your way. I always took the mini vans, like the locals do, which was a lot of fun.
H: To be honest, I was quite nearly robbed in Cape Town (in broad day light) and my roommate there was actually robbed. I think so far, Cape Town is the most dangerous city I visited. It’s just what Jaco says, you have to use your common sense.
J: It’s common sense, indeed. It happens. You get used to paying attention to your belongings quite easily.
Is there a noticeable difference between the neighbourhoods?
J: For me, Cape Town was just fine, really. Central can be a bit dodgy at night but then you just don’t go there. And there are slums but that’s not a part of Cape Town you experience as a tourist.
H: I think the gap between rich and poor is huge in Cape Town.
J: The conversation we had, about you wanting to work on a farm near Cape Town, I think there’s too much of a difference in thinking there. The farmers are rather old-fashioned, outdated really, and none of the people working on the land there are white.
But how do you ‘deal’ with stuff like this? Will you surround yourself with people and always stay in the rich part of Cape Town to feel safe? Did you at all feel ‘guilty’ being a rich person from Western Europe?
H: Yes, to me it was as you describe. I did feel that way. Especially in Campsbay where we saw lots of children begging on the streets while we were going clubbing there or something. That doesn’t feel okay at all.
J: I didn’t feel guilty, I think. It’s just horrible how society there has to be part of such segregation. But I’ve heard murder-and-stealing stories from white South Africans too so you get to look at it from different viewing points.
H: I didn’t go to the poorer areas.
J: It is terrible, right Hiu? But you feel like there’s nothing you can do.
H: In the end you do close your eyes to the sadness of it all.
J: Sometimes I gave some of my food to beggars, but there’s really nothing else you can do.
H: You know it’s bad to ‘turn your back’, but you think what’s there to do? What can I do? I did work at a homeless shelter while I was there, but when I think of it now that was maybe out of guilt.
J: Really Hiu? That’s great.
I think I see what you mean. You are in a weird position because you can’t really change anything yourself while you’re there – but is this a reason for you guys not to go there?
H: I think Cape Town is a city everyone should see, because of its overwhelming culture and nature.
J: And it really is a must to go to Robben Island. Really intense, but so much to learn there.
H: Oh I thought Robben Island was a terrible place to be actually. From the moment I stepped off the boat I felt so much sadness and pain, I just wanted to go back immediately. I did think it was really interesting though and we used to watch documentaries about Nelson Mandela in our house as it was so significant politically, and still going on.
J: Yes that’s why it was so impressive – because it was so horrible. You have to see it. Even if it’s just out of respect for the city and its history.
A: In Cape Town I am classified as a ‘coloured’ person – while I’m not thinking about things like that at home in the Netherlands at all. That’s really something that struck me.
Do people say that to you? Or in which context are you a ‘coloured’ person?
A: Well, especially when I’m with black people, but white people have told me the same, they would go: “I am black, you are coloured, that’s what we call it here.” Conversation always touches upon race or culture and they always want to explain how everything works around here. There’s different connotations to different races or skin colours here, ‘coloureds’ have their own way of dressing, their own accent, etc.
A: Segregation is strong here, but everyone does get along very well.
H: Coloureds have it even worse than black people in Cape Town. Companies are mandatory to take on so and so many black people because of new laws.
A: Yes often people tell me like: you look better than other coloureds, regarding the way I dress etc.
H: No one really takes care of the coloureds. Very sad, I didn’t quite know that before.
So you’re put into a category automatically so people can form opinions about you and know where you, and they, stand – bluntly put. Am I right?
H: Yes. Coloureds have it as bad now as black people did only a few decades in the past. Just because they are coloureds. Bizarre.
A: Yes. And the black middle class is increasing.
Would you want to go back to Cape Town?
H: To live there? Or just on a holiday?
J: Yes very badly.
A: Yes this is literally the best thing I did in my life. Except for studying.
H: I would only want to live there if I were very rich. But on a trip – definitely.
J: I was so very impressed by the nature and the effect it had on me. I felt on top of the world in Cape Town.
Is it in some ways very interesting to go there because it’s so politically burdened? Or is that naïve.
H: No, I did think so. You’re really close to it all. It’s what Jaco says, the vibe that’s covering Cape Town is amazing, I’ve never experienced anything like it elsewhere. They don’t call it the Mother City for nothing. I think it’s because there’s so much positivity, it really touches you.
A: There isn’t a magical vibe like the Cape Town vibe anywhere on earth.
J: Yes it’s quite bizarre, even more because there’s also so much misery.
That does sound bizarre.
H: Well, yes, you must know that I was there as a ‘rich’ student, I have experienced a bit of the poor areas because of my internship, but most of all I lived the life of a queen: spending money all day because everything’s unbelievably cheap there.
I appreciate your brutal honesty.
H: It’s precisely that – you live in complete luxury over there. Going out, going to dinner, sunny weather.. It’s a dream life. Quite surrealistic. I at least thought it was very overwhelming. When I came back to the Netherlands I really had to come to my senses and come ‘back to earth’, in a way. But I really want to show Cape Town to my boyfriend..
A: It’s a complete dream world – just what you’re saying. I often have this feeling I’m living in Inception (the film). I’m so happy here, in a very surrealistic way.
I’m trying to create this link between the happy and the sad, but maybe I shouldn’t and just accept that it’s a dream world.
A: No you shouldn’t indeed. There’s so many positive vibes here and I don’t feel hatred or anything at all. I’ve met people of all colours and everyone is so very open about everything.
J: I was completely down to earth in Cape Town. I didn’t go clubbing often, but especially went hiking a lot, and work, and yes go to dinner. I was so down to earth there that I missed it when I came back home. The relaxed atmosphere.
H: But going out to dinner and doing and seeing so much – that’s a luxury right? I really felt like that when I came back because I don’t live like that in the Netherlands.
Well that depends on what you’re used to, of course.
J: Yes it’s a luxury! It’s just I had just come from Barcelona where I went out to dinner a lot as well so I guess I was spoiled before I even went to Cape Town.
I remember when I went to L.A. and everyone went out for food almost every night because it was almost cheaper than cooking yourself – that didn’t feel like a luxury though. Because the food wasn’t always that healthy. But you’re talking about fresh air.
J: The air is superb in Cape Town.
H: I loved the beach there, I went to the beach almost every weekend.
J: Yes, so great! But the water.. COLD! Unreal.
H: Haha yes so freezing cold.
Okay now give me all your tips!
J: Definitely a wine tour! And the penguins at Boulders Beach. Hout Bay Market and Old Biskit Mill.
H: Bike & Wine tour in Stellenbosch, Montagu, Langebaan, Laguna.
A: Simon’s Town, Betty’s Bay, Cape Point, Stellenbosch (nice student town with lots of wine), Kommetjie, Noordhoek, Chapman’s Peak Drive (beautiful roadtrip over mountains with an amazing view).
Maybe this story is without conclusion. What would you make of this? When I spoke to these girls I almost only got really positive responses to Cape Town as a whole – so what they remembered from going there was (almost) pure, impressive bliss. It’s the political stuff that’s maybe hidden more underneath the surface, and it depends on where you are going in Cape Town whether this comes out or not. I still want to go there and discover this dream world for myself – without forgetting its history and without ignoring the segregation part. But that’s just me saying this without having ever been to Cape Town. And I don’t think it’s possible to create a well-formed opinion about a place I’ve never visited. So! To be continued, hopefully.