CITIES I’VE SEEN. CITIES I’VE FELT
Despite the many blessings I’ve enjoyed all along - wonderful family, surfeit of friends, book shops in every city my dad was transferred to, and an education system that played perfectly to my, now rusty, ability to learn anything by rote – by 26 I’d still managed to make a pretty good mess of my life. Even if it wasn’t apparent to most people around me. So much so, that when I flew into Cape Town on a sunny December afternoon in 2003, it was a flight from my life in India in more ways than one. My stay in Cape Town marked the beginning of an ~18 month period when everything seemed to go right in my life – with such little contribution from me – that I went from being a non-believer in all things providential to a mere sceptic. Five of those wonderful months were spent in Cape Town.
That summer in Cape Town is pretty close to as good as its ever got for me. I was happily surprised by its very European vibe…and infrastructure…at decidedly African prices. It was the first time I was going to spend a decent length of time in a foreign city when I didn’t have either of the two problems that had bedeviled me previously – no money (destitute exchange student in Paris), or no understanding of the local language (isolated intern in Tokyo). In addition, for once, sunsets at nine o’clock occurred after work-days set at around five or six. And so I had a lot of time to kill and fortunately Cape Town provided a lot of ways to kill it.
Landing in Cape Town, the first thing I noticed was Table Mountain. Not just because it’s a permanent, massive presence looming (benignly, a little like a pet plateau) over the city but also because it is on every other picture post-card, shop name and hotel billboard advertisement. 'Rooms with a view of the Table Mountain' the billboards boasted, as if there could be any that didn’t. Over the following months, Table Mountain did justify this obsession – mostly thanx to its schizophrenic relationship with the local cloud community. Embracing and rejecting the cloud cover randomly on a daily basis, it yielded beautiful ever-varying views...that I never got bored of. It also provided endless opportunities for small talk with strangers in bars...that unfortunately I never made use of.
Gazing at Table Mountain's was only one of the ways of killing time in the city. Lazing on any one of several spectacular beaches that nature has so thoughtfully hewn out of the cliffs that line the Cape’s coast, gobbled up many of my weekend afternoons. Tourist quick-tip - Mornings in the Cape summer are windy. Windy enough to blow away beach umbrellas along with that contented sun-facing closed-eyed look that one gets on the beach. So its better to just club till four in the morning, sleep till noon and then head to the beach to get your tan going.
Late afternoons or evenings, back from the beach, I’d head over to the V&A Waterfront to watch the hordes of street performers or grab an early dinner at one the many seafood restaurants. For those of you who saw Blood Diamonds and cried at the contrived ending (How could you?!) – the Waterfront is where Jennifer Connolly was dining when Di Caprio called to bid her farewell (Spoiler alert! I guess). I had tears in my eyes too – but only because I had an urgent craving to jump onto the next flight to Cape Town and couldn’t since I’m still ad-less on this blog and so have to hold down a job that expects me to give advance notice of vacations.
The City had scads of cafes and restaurants to while time away in. The variety of cuisines and the number of good restaurants to choose from was such, that deciding on where to eat took up a good chunk of time too. I’m pretty sure Zagat food reviewers flying to Cape Town, keep their return dates open - there’s just no knowing how long it would take to do justice to the city’s restaurant scene. The range of cuisines was particularly gratifying to my greedy, easily-bored, foodie self. There was game meat to try out – a culinary safari available at your fork-tips - the menus boasted of items like Boar cutlets, zebra and free-range ostrich steaks, or crocodile tail. I gamely (pun unintended) tried nearly everything except warthog; crocodile tail in case you wanted to know, tastes like chicken. For eating something tamer you still could choose from a range spanning African and European cuisines from multiple countries and every fusion variant in between. One of my favourite restaurants was a pan-African one. It served dishes purportedly from all over Africa…from Zambia to Egypt, and from Senegal to Ethiopia. Hobbled by a single entry South African visa, there was no way for me to use a weekend fly-back to one of those countries to confirm the authenticity of the dishes...but somehow I was OK with taking the restaurant at its word. Instead, I reveled in feeling wonderfully cosmopolitan by just reading the menu.
Other weekends were spent driving or ferrying myself around the Cape where there was tons more to do and see. One particular weekend stands out. It involved driving through the wine-country, less than an hour outside the city: rolling green hills covered with vine-rows, charming old estates you could stay in over the weekend if you had lots of money, and lots of wine to guzzle while pretending you’re only swizzling it. The perfect day was marred somewhat when my then partner R, who’d flown in for a couple of weeks, scolded me for refusing to try most red wines on the philistinic grounds of preferring whites. It quickly became alright again when we lunched at a restaurant whose name I forget, situated on a sun-drenched slope with a fantastic view of the surrounding vineyards. We had to wait despite having reservations – because you really couldn’t expect people to hurry through their gourmet courses, could you? But I didn’t really mind because it gave me more time to laze on the grassy slope and soak in the view. Yeah, lazing was quite a theme with me in those five months…still is actually.
What else do I remember fondly? Well, there was the day spent walking along the winding elevated plank-paths on Boulder Beach. Cute, largely mute African penguins on both sides - huddling in their hole-in-the-ground nests or waddling around companionably with a friend or sometimes just standing still in groups at the water’s edge.
And there was the day spent on Robben Island, Cape Town's Alcatraz - accessible by ferry - where Mandela was imprisoned for decades. The most chilling part of the visit was not the prison itself but the quarry that the prisoners had to work in – breaking stone all day, every day only to have it carted away and dumped in a different part of the island. The quarried stone was never used for anything. The idea apparently was to break the prisoners’ not just physically by making them do back-breaking work but also mentally, by making them do superfluous back-breaking work. Robben Island has the second largest penguin colony after Boulder Beach. Predictably, the prisoners were also not allowed to go anywhere from where they could view the penguins, lest they derive some simple pleasure from it. Talk about a petty, perverted system.
And finally the day spent standing at the southern edge of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope (have loved that name since childhood) trying to tell the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Indian Ocean. There’s some other spot which is actually a little further to the south, but its further away and more difficult to get to from Cape Town. And so, both tourists and locals alike are happy treating Cape of Good Hope as the point at which all roads lead northwards. The topography at the Cape was breath-taking. The land didn’t end in a gentle beach sloping into a gentle sea; but rose up forming high cliffs that plunged into the crashing waves below. A strong, sometimes howling, wind was blowing that day, bending the proteas (natives shrubs after which the cricket team is named), every which way. Coming down from the main cliff, you could see a couple of ostriches, generally hanging out on the small beach. They were accompanied by a couple of representatives of some species of very large rats and a large porcupine with a very impressive quiver. All in all, the scene had a wild, untamed quality to it. There it was. Finally. A visual that at least partly fit my conception of Africa.