27 01 2010

We’ve been here in Cape Town over a week, and I think the best adjective to describe this place is stunning.

To begin, there’s the physical environment; Table Mountain continues to stun me with its majestic qualities and sheer beauty. We have spent most of the week exploring the city and its environs, and each view or hike seems more impressive than the last. Cape Town is giving San Francisco a run for its money on my list of “Most Beautiful Cities.”

View of Cape Town and Table Mountain from Signal Hill

I’m also quite stunned, maybe naively so, by the segregation of Cape Town. This city has been the slowest in South Africa to diversify its neighborhoods, and it shows, both in look and feel. After ten days, I am only beginning to understand the complexity of apartheid’s legacies, and yet, I also think it’s quite simple. Some people here aren’t ready or willing to share their residential space with other groups. During the day, there is mingling in business or commerce areas, but by nightfall, the city feels much like it might have twenty years ago.

I’ve seen both intense poverty and exorbitant wealth before, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a gap this wide and this close. The historical reasons for the gap are also glaringly evident. I find myself wanting to corner most white people I see and ask, “What were doing you twenty years ago? What was your role? And what are you doing now?”

Cape Town seen from Lion's Head

I know this view might be seen as unfair. There are some days where I look around at the interactions and communities we visit and smile at how far this country has come since the history I’ve only read about. I don’t know all that went into the changes of the last fifteen years and I know the small steps I see represent huge strides for South Africa.

I also can ask the questions above to myself, a white woman of Dutch heritage. As much as I can argue that I’m a Dutch Jew whose family wasn’t even living in Holland during the 1600s, let’s be honest. There are things from which I have benefited that were, intentionally or effectively, at the mercy of someone else’s disadvantage.

Truthfully, this place feels very similar to the U.S., in terms of glaring inequities and a wealthy minority doing seemingly little to address the core issues of the lower class. Of course, there are many middle class South Africans whose life work is to transform their country, but I fear it will not be enough. My worry is that South Africa will become even more like the U.S., where the wealthy construct a worldview that ends up blaming poverty and lack of opportunity heavily on the poor, thus absolving themselves of taking any action or sacrifice to change the economic landscape.

I recently read that one lasting effect of apartheid is ignorance about the other. “People don’t know how much they don’t know,” Catherine Besteman argues in her book, Transforming Cape Town.

Her statement names the frustration I often feel when trying to explain my students’ life situations to friends or when debating why dysfunctional families are not the only ones responsible for unmotivated and unsuccessful youth in American cities.

Her statement could also apply to me, to my time here in South Africa, to my life back home and to my ancestry.

It’s complicated. My mind is racing and I feel stunned. At almost the same time.

On the home front, I’m blessed with a stunning partner, who is eager to talk through and tackle these issues, all the while creating a cozy place to rest and eat. In answer to your inevitable question, neither of us has decided exactly how we’re going to spend our time here. We’re still figuring out where we fit. Stay tuned.


Two Week Winter

19 01 2010

2010 began with winter. It started in Istanbul, with temperatures between forty and fifty degrees. Tough life, I know. Our wintery season culminated in ten days of below freezing temperatures in the Netherlands, complete with a few days of snow and lots of frozen canals, lakes and sidewalks. We wrapped ourselves in borrowed wool sweaters and long underwear bought in New Zealand, but the cold germs still knew where to find us. Two colds and many bowls of pea soup later, our winter came to an end. We have now arrived in Cape Town, to a sunny climate of twenty-five degrees to thirty degrees. Celsius. Next time we see winter, we expect it to be in Boston in December.

Despite the cold climates, the last two and a half weeks were a huge respite for us. Istanbul was a fantastic city, and we were reintroduced to the world of fats: feta cheese, gyro meat, bakhlava, creamy eggplant salad. Not only that, but we found ourselves in a city where we could walk for hours. As many of you might guess, that made me very, very happy. We walked, ate, and marveled at the juxtaposition of old and new, Christian and Muslim, Europe and Asia, for days.

In the Netherlands, we were surrounded by family. For the first time in three months, excluding our home stays in New Zealand, we lived in homes, ate home-cooked meals, played games with more people than just each other, and rested. It was so nice to reconnect with my mom, sister, stepfather, aunts, uncles and cousins, and we look forward to future visits from Sunny’s and my parents in South Africa. One thing is certain: while we love traveling, we miss the people in our lives. It was a treat to be surrounded by people who love and know us.

Now, we’re in South Africa, and it’s clear that a different phase in our traveling is beginning. For starters, we’re not going anywhere else. We’re here to stay. Secondly, we’re here with some sort of purpose. It’s nice to take off the tourist hat for a bit and leave the well-worn track behind, but I must admit, I’m already a bit nostalgic for the months previous, when it was just us, our two backpacks, and a map.

Our reception in South Africa has been overwhelming. We find ourselves surrounded by several South African “mothers,” each one going far out of their way to help us find a flat, car, or simply a place to eat. Truly, each person we meet seems to be more generous and interested than the last, and while we’re still straining to understand the varieties of English spoken here, we feel surrounded by new family and friends.

We’ll post more pictures and stories soon, but we wanted to let you all know that we are safe and sound in Cape Town. We’ve managed to secure a small flat, so if you need a break from winter, our doors are open!