Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Morning Stroll

One piece of advice that I always give to tourists heading to Cape Town is this:

The second you have a clear, windless day, go up the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. You may not get the chance again.

I hadn't taken my own advice. I'd done laundry instead of grabbing my chance on the first day, when the weather was perfect. 24 hours later, the cape was covered in fog and rain.

Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed on Saturday morning and walked over to Tourist Information. I knew I could take a minibus along Long Street as I had dozens of times before, but I couldn't remember how or where to catch it. And I hadn't yet noticed that brand-new bus lines that had come to Cape Town along with the World Cup—these wonderful things could zip me all the way from a block below Kloof Street to the V&A Waterfront and back.

"It's only you today," said the South African guide who met me to lead the walking tour of the City Bowl and Bo-Kaap. "No one else is here because of the rain!"

He offered an umbrella but I'd brought my own. We sloshed off into the pedestrianized center of downtown.

First stop was a VOC icon engraved in the sidewalk. That's the emblem of the Dutch East India Company. Who knew? Not I. Primarily because I don't speak Dutch. If I did, it would have made perfect sense as the Dutch East India Company is Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch.

 We walked through the drizzle to the escalator near Woolworth's. Yes, Woolworth's still exists in South Africa—but it's not like the low-rent, vintage-y dime store we're familiar with at home. Woolworth's in southern Africa sells mid-range clothes, upscale groceries, or both. I'd bought a sun hat at this branch in 2001. It's currently making its second trip around the world with me.

The escalator took us to a shopping plaza, one I'd been through dozens of times. But I'd never noticed what we were looking at now—a communications rock, with messages carved into it, left by one Dutch ship for another Dutch ship a few hundred years ago, and the ruins of Cape Town's first aquifer.

We continued on to the former Cape Town City Hall, where Nelson Mandela had addressed the nation on his release from prison, and then checked out downtown art deco buildings before moving on to a monument to former slaves.  This was an eye-opener for me—I hadn't realized that Cape Town's history was one with slavery, and that the slaves had been imported from Asia. And I suddenly understood why the region is so culturally diverse and multiracial.

Oddly, the names of the slaves were all Dutch. Slaves were all given new names and their real names had been lost. 

We visited the Company's Gardens (the Company with a capital C again being the Dutch East India Company)—where a statue of Cecil Rhodes encouraged us to go forth and take over the continent—and St. George's Cathedral before heading up the hill to Bo-Kaap, the colorful Muslim part of town. The sun peeked out just as I realized I'd been to Bo-Kaap before, but completely forgotten about my previous visit. If I didn't keep blogs, I wouldn't remember where I'd been most of the time. 

And finally, I left my guide and headed to Greenmarket Square. I was looking for a mask for Anne, who had contributed to the "Get A Souvenir" part of

I first tried an African art store, where I had a great time chatting with the shop owner.

"Where do you get your masks?" I asked him.

"Congo, Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria," he said.

"Do you go yourself?"

He sighed. "Yes. It is difficult."

"I KNOW! I just came down via Congo! Do you go around via Cabinda?"

He did. For him, getting an Angolan visa is a lot easier than it is for me.

"I go into remote villages. People try to charge me a lot, so I have to use local helpers. And then getting them across the borders..."

Ha. I laughed. I knew exactly what he meant.

"Yeah, I had some problems with that in Kinshasa."

"One time, I had all this art I'd collected in Nigeria. And I got to the ferry in Calabar, and the customs man saw my bag and said does this belong to you? I had to leave it. I said I didn't know who it belonged to. Now I learned how to do it right. I pay a Nigerian to carry the bag across the border, and no one checks then."

I wanted to buy one of his beautiful masks, but they each cost hundreds of dollars. I took my leave and instead went to one of the tables in Greenmarket Square.

Where there were all kinds of masks. Some of them were just carbon copies of local South African tribal masks, but many were rare pieces from West Africa. A Senegalese man told me his grandfather was the one who transited around Cabinda, collecting art piece by piece.

In the end, I bought from him.


  1. That second photo resolves to a log-in for something called I have no idea what that might mean, but you might want to take a look at it.

  2. Oops. That would be the way I have to get around the system to get onto Blogger where I am. Will repair.