I flew in and out of O.R Tumbo International airport in Johannesburg on the same day of the week, a Tuesday, both times extremely ill, searching for a bathroom. A shiny new airport, each floor several blocks in length, had almost no seating and restrooms were miles apart. The only solace was the free luggage carts. I soon found out there was not much thought given to whether this would hurt the income of the black and colored porters.
Waiting for the flight to Cape Town, a good part of it visiting restrooms, I found so many fast food restaurants to choose from that I almost considered going hungry. I had just been transported from third world Cameroon to modern civilization, wondering if it was an improvement. I picked Mugg and Bean, the least unhealthy looking food chain, and ordered harmless coffee and croissant. The waiters were colored, many of them appearing as if this was their first day on the job. The customers were mostly white, many overweight, dressed much like middle America, who do most of their shopping at JC Penny and Target. Unlike the Dutch, French or Italians, South Africans did not exhibit a sophistication in fashion.
Unlike most Africa countries, flying in South Africa was very economical with a choice of several small competitive airlines. With names like Mango air and Kulula air, I had a hard time making a choice. I ended flying with Kulula and was amazed at the new planes with lots of leg room, actual tasty food, on timeliness and a roundtrip ticket for $250. After Cameroon, Cape Town was an oasis on a continent plagued by dictators, poverty, AIDS, illiteracy, civil wars and suffering. I have left out corruption which has become rampant since Mandela left office.
From the Christian Barnard hospital to the black township of Gigoletti, I explored Cape Town with my Ghanaian friend whose family I lived with in Cape Coast in 2008. Four hours and one inept nurse at the emergency room of Christian Barnard hospital, I left with a bruised right hand and no longer any malaria detected in my blood. Advice to travelers, always have emergency medical insurance which includes evacuation to the best medical care available.We celebrated my free of malaria diagnosis at a delicious Kurdish restaurant complete with a belly dancer, Turkish kilims and an opulent decor. The food was authentic and delicious. I was not as excited about downtown Cape Town. Expecting breathtaking views and unforgettable architecture, having read that Cape Town was exquisite, I found fast food restaurants, cheap department stores, outdoor markets and empty store fronts. The Waterfront area, like the San Francisco wharf, was a huge complex of modern generic buildings filled with shops and restaurants. I never made it to Table Mountain which towers over thetown or to the beach towns on the coast which boast million dollars houses. Instead I chose to visit one of the black townships.
We took a rundown minivan out to the black township of Gigoletti, near the airport. I was the only white person on the bus.. The slums we visited were no better than the conditions in most of black Africa. Tin shacks had broken windows, a few outdoor water taps available for hundreds of families and outdoor toilets shared by many. I video taped several different groups of people, asking about conditions, how long they had lived in this situation and what did they have to do to qualify for the new houses the government was building for the townships. I don’t know if I would have been able to do this without my Ghanaian friend beside me. We visited several of the new houses built next to the shacks the people had lived in. Some chose to use the shacks for storage, others rented them to less fortunate and some were torn down by the government. I also heard that some of the people who had gotten new houses rented them out and stayed in the shacks with new cars parked in front. A crazy world.
From the township we returned to Cape Town and we took a private cab to another world, the famous Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens, located in the wealthy white suburbs of Cape Town. Walking around acres of rolling hills, small lakes, manicured lawns, and every species of plant and tree imaginable; the morning in the township seemed worlds away. Missing the last bus to town, I convinced my friend Mavis that I would find a private car to give us a ride. Within minutes an older couple who work at the gardens told us they were leaving and to follow them to the car. Being white in Africa is definitely an advantage. On the way downtown we stopped at Mavis’s apartment in a working class neighborhood twenty minutes from Cape Town. She lived with other Ghanaian students in a slightly rundown 70ish building which reminded me of apartments on TV movies where the police always end up breaking down the doors looking for drug dealers. I got the sense that there were only black and colored renters.
During the two days I spent with Mavis wandering around Cape Town, we met so many different people from all over the world. There was the young Indian girl, the belly dancer at the Kurdish restaurant who thought I was a television personality. On our way to the famous Cape Town Waterfront, a tourist destination, our taxi driver sounded like an old Jewish man from the lower East side of Manhattan. When I asked him where his family had originated from, he said he never had gone back that far in history. He only knew that one grandfather had immigrated from Ireland. His Afrikaans accent sounded so much like Yiddish. He was a bricklayer when he was young but machines had taken his job away so now he drove a cab . Toothless and cynical, he added that no one ever asked him so many questions.
Mavis left me at an internet café while she went to church. The black kid working there had a rough presence about him and spoke broken English. Curious, I asked where he was from and I was not surprised when he told me he was from the Congo. He was a bit arrogant and unresponsive and had recently come to South Africa. I imagined he was one of the child soldiers who had committed unspeakable acts of violence. Unfortunately he shared no information about himself.
The two Italian brothers who had opened a café bar in the up and coming artsy area of downtown said they wanted freedom to live their life, so they moved 5000 miles away to another continent. Three doors away I walked into a stark white room that at first I thought was an art gallery. It was a trendy modern café that was opening in three days. The owners, two young girls in their twenties, offered me a piece of cake they had just made. I, in return, shared my restaurant story and gave them my secret mousse receipe.
Mavis, my Ghanian friend, was traveling by bus to Durban where she had found a teaching job in the secondary school. I was going to spend the weekend in the university town of Stellenbosch an hour by train from Cape Town.. We said our goodbys,not knowing when we would meet again.