Sizing Up South Africa



 The area down along the waterfront (where my hotel, the Table Bay, was located) had that slick pavilion feel to it—a big mall, paved plazas, huge parking structures. Most of it was new, including the new stadium nearby. Smooth and ovular, it glowed at night like a florescent bar of soap. My friend Alison, who lives in Cape Town, met me to go out to eat, and we walked past it. “I swear this wasn’t here three months ago,” she said. So I wasn’t the only one amazed by the buzz of activity—even the locals were in awe of the complicated changes in their country.

I saw examples of the “new,” World Cup–inspired Cape Town everywhere. The Old Biscuit Mill—a well-designed, hip marketplace in the Woodstock section—is a cute grotto of shops and food stands where families and young hipsters hang out on the weekends. Here is where you can eat organic food and shop for mid-upscale merchandise: woven baskets at Third World for $25, a ceramic bowl with a blood-red interior at Miso Miso for $225, or a reclaimed door of stained glass at Green for $745.

Lucky for me, I was led around by Saleigh—a friendly, hugely knowledgeable tour guide with Jarat Tours who took me on a comprehensive three-day speed-through of the city and the outlying areas—from the wine country in Stellenbosch (where I visited the swank Delaire Graff estate), up the tram to Table Mountain (which has a new, impressive café on the top), and out to the windy, gorgeous tip of Cape Point, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. All along the way we discussed Cape Town’s deeply violent history (not like our country is so tame), recovery from apartheid, and promising but fragile future.

At my request, Saleigh drove me through the massive shantytowns in Cape Flats, located to the southeast of the central business district, hundreds of square miles bigger than the township in Knysna. People were living, essentially, outdoors—cooking, yelling, playing, drinking—the chaos of poverty. On the side of one street I saw some wizened doorframes for sale that looked much like the ones displayed at the Old Biscuit Mill. Some people weren’t benefiting from the World Cup. Life is complicated.

One thing that doesn’t seem so complicated: the gay scene. The grid of gay bars in De Waterkant (the gayish, fashiony section of town) have names like Manhattan and Crew—just like gay bars you find in Chelsea or Denver or wherever—unoriginal, with shaved bored-faced, balloon-muscled go-go boys dancing on the bar to that same damn Lady Gaga remix. Alison and I ate at Beefcakes, a gay restaurant with gay waiters and gay diner fare and a little stage with boas and hats in a box beside it. When our food came, students from the musical theater school nearby dropped in and started singing the sound track to Grease at the top of their lungs. It was like all the most annoying parts of Glee performed in front of you while you ate.

I am sure there is more to gay life here. Maybe if I stayed longer I would find some incredible creative crowd in Woodstock or meet a gorgeous surfer/wine merchant down at Sandy Bay, the gay nude beach. But instead, I was too busy taking everything in. It’s like the entire country wanted me to get to know it first. But that’s just me being narcissistic again.

Tags: Travel