A Day in Cape Town

by Jacob on March 27, 2012

I have been to some beautiful cities in my time. I was born in San Francisco, and anyone who has stood on the Marin Hills overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge with the rolling streets of the San Francisco Peninsula and the expanse of the Bay stretched out before them will surely agree that it is one of the greatest sights in the world. In trying to describe the magnificent landscape of Rio de Janeiro I usually tell people it looks as if a city was built in the middle of the Yosemite Valley…except the Yosemite doesn’t have gorgeous beaches with beautifully tanned, bikini-clad people playing beach volleyball and soccer on them. That and samba gives Rio the edge over Yosemite for me. Other beautiful cities I’ve had the pleasure to visit: Paris (natch), Istanbul (majestic), Jerusalem (inspirational), Cartagena (colonial), Jodphur (blue), New Orleans (fecund)….the list goes on.

There’s no question, Cape Town deserves inclusion on a short list of the world’s most beautiful cities. Not because of the architecture, which is not particularly memorable. In Cape Town, its all about location, location, location. The city is built at the foot of Table Mountain, which rises 3300 feet above downtown, its nearly vertical cliffs looking to me like massive tidal wave of rock that’s about to collapse down into the waters of Table Bay. Thick white layers of cloud often billow behind the mountain, yet they are blocked from passing over, leaving Cape Town with sunny skies and warm yet not oppressively hot temperatures. Throw in the vast stretches of beachfront with surfer-welcoming waves, a richly multicultural population, great wine, and a high standard of living and Cape Town seemingly comes pretty close to paradise on earth.

Nothing’s perfect, however, and the stretches of shanty towns that line the freeway leading from the airport to downtown are a clear sign that the divide between the haves and the have-nots is unacceptably large. Ironically, on the very day I left the US for South Africa the New York Times ran an article about the racial inequalities that divide the city. Don’t think I didn’t notice that every single patron at the the nice Italian restaurant by the sea that some friends invited me to was white and every single staffperson was black, or “colored”, a term to describe people of mixed race that is still in common usage here.

And, I’ll be honest, while I was only in the city for two days, a lot of the urban landscape seemed a little antiseptic to me. The Waterfront, a popular shopping destination where my first hotel was located, was a pretty but generic mall of touristy stores that could have been San Diego or Long Beach for all I could tell. Cities that are too clean just don’t have the charms of grittier places like Rio, Bogotá, New York, New Orleans or even San Francisco, which has enough of an edge to be energizing.

But the view…oh, the view…Cape Town is one of those cities where every few minutes your breath is taken away by the striking environment that surrounds it. Practically spiritual moments of awe at the majesty of your surroundings can make any city a pleasure (and they don’t have to be inspired natural beauty as anyone who as looked down from a tall building on the Manhattan skyline can confirm). Just check out some of these photos:

Cape Town View

Cape Town View 2

Cape Town View 3

I started my day in Cape Town by heading over to the office of Putumayo Africa, the outpost that oversees sales, marketing promotion and distribution for Putumayo and Cumbancha across Africa. The familiar Putumayo artwork on the building marquee confirmed I was in the right place:

Putumayo Africa Sign

Putumayo Africa Sign

While I had communicated with PA’s Oliver Barnett and Belinda van der Merwe many times over email and phone I had never met them in person. Among the things I like most about Putumayo are the people that work there…and I can now add Oliver and Belinda to the many great individuals I have gotten to know in the nearly 15 years I have worked for the company.

Oliver and Belinda of Putumayo Africa

Oliver and Belinda of Putumayo Africa

Putumayo Africa's Office

Putumayo Africa's Office

The first place Oliver and Belinda took me to was, of course, a record store: The African Music Store on Long Street. As soon as I walked in the door I knew that was pretty much all I was going to be doing that day…in fact I asked the owner if he would mind if I moved in. Racks upon racks of African music CDs, as well as as funky musical instruments, trinkets, cards and clothing. The owner claimed he had the best selection of African music in South Africa and I don’t doubt it.

The African Music Store

The African Music Store, Long Street, Cape Town

South African CDs

South African CDs

A few hours later, about $700 poorer but about 80 CDs richer (more details on what I bought in a future post), Oliver, Belinda and I celebrated my haul with a lovely Ethiopian lunch of injera bread with a tasty variety of chickpeas, lentils, mushrooms and more.

Ethiopian Food

Ethiopian Food

Oliver then suggested we head over to The Castle of Good Hope, an old Dutch fortress turned museum, to check out an exhibit about Hugh Tracey, a pioneering Ethnomusicologist who traversed Africa in the 1930s through the 1960s recording, documenting African music. The exhibit featured many of the unusual instruments, photos, videos, vintage recording gear and of course audio recordings Tracey collected over the years. In the Ethnomusicology pedagogy, Hugh Tracey is a core figure and without his efforts many traditional music forms would be just faded memories.

Image of an African child from the Hugh Tracey Exhibit

Image of an African child from the Hugh Tracey Exhibit

Vintage vinyl at the Hugh Tracey exhibit

Vintage vinyl at the Hugh Tracey exhibit

Boy playing drums

Boy playing drums

The images in the Hugh Tracey exhibit show a far different Africa then the one I have experienced so far. Maybe that Africa, the one of tribal communities living in grass huts on the savannah, still exists out there…maybe not. The shiny shopping malls, skyscrapers, four lane freeways, fashionable hotels, restaurants and boutiques I’ve seen in Cape Town are just as much a part of Africa as those traditional societies are, maybe even more so today.

The Africa presented in Hugh Tracey’s photographs is probably the one that first comes to mind for many people in America. But I have been experiencing a very different reality in Cape Town, and its one that the rest of the world needs to know about as well.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Khepri Neteru March 27, 2012 at 9:56 PM

Love it!!!!

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Bernie April 3, 2012 at 3:10 PM

Thank you for visiting and loving my city :)!! Bless

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Daluxolo Moloantoa October 15, 2012 at 3:38 AM

Hey,i really like how you describe our city in your article,and YES!! the African Music Store is a gem for music from all over the continent.Thanx!!

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