Day Two: 2005 Cape Town International Jazz Festival
The city of Cape Town is located in the area where Portuguese navigators first made the open water connection between Atlantic and Indian Oceans over four hundred years ago. In subsequent development by the Dutch, it became an outpost for East-West trade routes, and it's still an important port for the region. All that international activity over the years meant that Cape Town would quickly become a cosmopolitan hub; among other things, it was the place where American sailors first introduced jazz to South Africa. Cape Town's still a haven for a distinctive west coast style of South African jazz. According to localsand confirmed by my own observationsit's more laid back and open than the bustle and tumble of Johannesburg.
You can still see first-hand evidence of the area's colonial beginnings if you visit the oldest building in the city, the five-pointed defensive fortress which also served as the early seat of government. The Castle of Good Hope, finished in 1679, has now been converted into a national monument. To get a cannon's eye view of the western part of the city, climb to the top of its walls, where six flags tell the story of European power, independence, and the eventual birth of the democratic Republic of South Africa in 1994. (Pictured above: the view south from the Castle of Good Hope: new and old buildings stand together in front of Signal Hill.)
You probably wouldn't know this unless someone told you, but Cape Town used to end at Strand St., where the beach originally began. In recent years the city has instituted an aggressive plan to reclaim land from the sea; the waterfront area is now home to hotels, the convention center (where the annual jazz festival is held), jazz clubs and restaurants, and vast shopping areas. All this development provides tourists and locals a place to frolic, but the rest of the city also offers plenty of opportunities and you'd do well to break free.
Cape Town's most prominent feature, right near the city center and visible from miles around, is the flat-topped, 1000m-high Table Mountain. Pictures don't really do this place justice, because it's just too enormous and dramatic to fit on a page. A short drive takes you to the visitors center, where a funicular rises steeply to the top. As you go up, the thing rotates a full turn, which can be a little disorienting if you don't expect it, but makes good sense since it offers everyone a full view of the landscape below.
Once you get to the top of Table Mountain (and yes, you can hike up there if you feel like a more rugged experience) you can stroll the flat part at the top, which offers dramatic and striking vistas all the way around, including Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the downtown area, Signal Hill, and Robben Island (the site of the famous prison which housed Nelson Mandela for many years and has now been converted into a museum). According to our guide, the plant diversity is greater than on the entire island of Britain. Other than a few birds here and there, the dassie is the animal you're most likely to encounter. These small mammals are not at all afraid of people, probably because they know there's a pretty good chance you'll break the rules and offer them a snack.
Our guide, Ebrahim, was eager to explain the history and place things in perspective. He offered a personal account of District Six, a multicultural community which was declared a "whites- only area" by the government in 1965 and subsequently bulldozed to physically remove all traces of blacks and colored people. Ebrahim used to live there and has faint childhood memories of his home turning into rubble. Interestingly, all the wreckage was dumped into the sea in the area where the shopping center was recently built. Apparently many older veterans of District Six aren't too keen to go shopping there, which actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Go to the museum to learn more.
The people of South Africa have been through a lot over the years, and they deserve a lot of credit for being open and honest about it. Looking back on apartheid legacies like passbooks (which every black worker had to carry and surrender to police for inspection) and the "pencil test" (by which authorities would determine your racial status by sticking a pencil in your hair and then seeing if it fell free when you shook your head), it's almost impossible to believe that South Africans could have endured such constant humiliation. But it was very much real; people remember it; and they're proud to have given birth to an open democracy that celebrates diversity.
The Western Cape province where Cape Town is located has three official languages: English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa. Students start school early in their mother tongue, then learn the other two down the road. We learned that the proper pronunciation of the word "Xhosa" involves a sharp tongue click in front of the "h," and with some assistance and a bit of practice, most of the American group was able to get somewhere close to saying it right. There are a few different ways of clicking, actually. Once you wrap your head around these clicks, you find yourself doing them at the oddest times. Eventually mischief kicked in, and someone suggested that maybe we should go back to the "[click!]hotel" if anyone was "[click!]hungry." Even the locals had to laugh.