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We awoke on the third day, our first actually in South Africa, to a cool, overcast day in Cape Town. I don’t think we ever adjusted to the time difference — we basically just passed out every night and woke with the alarm every morning. So I never felt “jet lagged,” only constantly exhausted, yet exhilarated by all that I was seeing.
The Mount Nelson is an old, shabby, but still stately hotel, and first on our agenda that morning was the full breakfast buffet. For someone who almost never eats breakfast (I know, quelle horreur!), I quickly got used to the made-to-order omelets. Whenever I travel abroad, I’m fascinated by what they serve for breakfast. Cape Town clearly has a European influence, so the buffet included the requisite smoked meats and cheeses. The pastry spread was unbelievable, and we ended up eating a chocolate croissant every morning — it became tradition, whether we felt like it or not. I was also obsessed with the yogurt and exotic fruits, like fresh guava and passion fruit. [Which I ate in addition to my omelet and croissant, because breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? Okay.]
On the way to the hotel the night before, we had counted off to ensure that all 35 of us made it on to the bus before every departure. Even though the bus was filled with MBA candidates and PhDs, our system totally fell apart that first morning. I mean, we never did find #6.
We headed first to Table Mountain, the flat mountain ridge that looms over the city. On a clear day, the views must be breathtaking. That day, the weather wasn’t bad enough to stop the cable cars from running to the top of the mountain, but it also wasn’t the sunny day you’d hope for after traveling halfway around the world.
Since I was raised at sea level, I have a slight (okay, huge) phobia of heights. So I had to stand in the middle of the cable car and go to my happy place just to make it through the ride up. Once atop Table Mountain, we walked along the trails, stopping to admire the sheer drops to the ocean and panoramic scapes of the city below us. The vegetation was so different and interesting — just entirely foreign to what we see at home!
For our three days in Cape Town, a guide traveled with us to narrate our sightseeing and give us the history of South Africa. I had inadequately studied up before I left, despite the best of intentions, so I’m glad that Mark was with us to provide context. After Table Mountain, we drove along the coastline through Clifton and past the beaches. There are some stunning, modern houses built into the cliffsides there that eerily reminded me of Australia or Southern California. All of the homes also had gates and tall security fences — a not-so-subtle reminder about crime. Mark told us that of the 48 million citizens in South Africa, only 6 million pay taxes, which is a stark commentary on South Africa’s economic and racial divide. Most land and homes are still controlled by whites, but there is a growing population of wealthy black South Africans.
We left the main part of the city and headed south to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. I was surprised to learn that the Cape of Good Hope is not actually the southernmost point in Africa — that’s Cape Agulhas, 3 hours away. It’s not where the oceans meet either; that’s Cape Agulhas too. The Cape of Good Hope can claim to be the southwest tip of Africa, though. We rode a funicular, a counter-weighted car pulley system, to the top of the Cape Point Lighthouse, where multiple signs warned us about baboons. Apparently they can be rather “cheeky,” especially if food is involved, but we didn’t even seen one. The lighthouse gave us spectacular views of the coastline and ocean.
We loaded the bus again for a short jaunt over to the actual Cape of Good Hope. It was initially called the “Cape of Storms” by seafarers but became known as the “Cape of Good Hope” because once you successfully traversed it, you had hope that you would get where you needed to go.
One of the students on our trip had lost her mother two years ago that week. Since her mother loved to travel, she takes a bit of her ashes on every trip so she can sprinkle them all over the world. She invited us to the waterside for a ceremony, which was a really beautiful, touching and personal tribute to her mom. To get out there, we had to climb out over many yards of slippery seagrass and rocks. We formed human chains to help each other, which was actually a neat bonding moment on the first day, since we didn’t really know each other yet. And, miraculously, no one broke an ankle. Before departing the area, we took a group photo in front of the official Cape of Good Hope sign and drove back toward the city.
By this time, we were several hours past lunch and behind schedule. We were headed for the penguin colony, but Mark decided we should stop for lunch first because he was “afraid we might eat the penguins.” We stopped at one of the little towns along False Bay called Simons Town for a lunch of fish and chips at Bertha’s. South African ketchup really surprised us — it’s unique and unusual, with a strong spice component, maybe of cloves. I wasn’t a fan. For dessert, we shared a Malva Pudding, the traditional South African cake with custard sauce. We ate it every day for the rest of the trip. That first pudding was markedly different from the rest, though — more of a sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce rather than a custard.
Leaving the restaurant, we encountered our first street market, and I successfully bartered for my first souvenir: a 35 Rand ($5) carved statue of entertwined giraffes. It’s cooler than it sounds, promise. We had to hurry over to the penguin colony before closing. The African penguins, which live there year-round, are also called “jackass penguins.” (Ha.) They were cute and little, if rather smelly, and they continuously called to each other, which made their little bodies convulse as they let out their shrieks. Aw. Like the baboons, penguins are apparently fierce enough to warrant plenty of warning signage, so we kept our appendages inside the barriers at all times.
On the ride home, poor Mark tried to give us some history of South Africa, but given a) the closing hour of twilight, b) Mark’s monotone voice, c) facts and figures of history and d) our general sense of fatigue, we all pretty much dozed until we got to the hotel.
After a 5-minute refresher, five of us (plus the driver) piled into a Prius taxi and headed to Cape Town’s waterfront mall. It was a pretty regular mall, with normal department and specialty stores, but it was neat to see how the locals shop. The waterfront plaza attracts plenty of musicians, and we stumbled on an amazing all-male African acapella group. I even bought their CD. Around the corner we found a guy playing several instruments and drums … by himself. If you were just listening, you would think it was a multi-piece band — incredible! We rode the ferris wheel with views over the waterfront and began to reflect on our first day in South Africa.
We had learned so much about the culture and racial issues beforehand, but hadn’t really seen much evidence yet. Where was the real South Africa, we wondered. Not the one in the brochures and on the sightseeing tours, but the real way that people live. There had been no mention of AIDS or racial tensions. We’d only seen pretty beaches and homes that indirectly reflected undercurrents of division in wealth and race. We talked about the people living in the townships, questioning why the government didn’t do more, if corruption was to blame or if the system was just too overwhelmed by need. We needed to understand it more.
We took another cab back to the hotel and had dinner at a little tapas joint across the street called Cafe Sophia. The food was great, and we washed it down with a signature cocktail called “Pimp Juice.” (I wish I was kidding.) It was pineapple-y and fruity, and despite the name, delicious.
It had been a big day, so we found our way back to our rooms and promptly passed out.
Day 4 to come…
**Photo credit: Damon Rumsch