I had six days at the Third Health Systems Global conference at Capetown and the experience was truly enriching. But at first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the city. (this trip was two weeks before Cyclone Hudhud ergo the delay in this post)
Before going to Capetown I did a bit of research and even some of the Capetonian ‘natives’ i spoke to said that the city was extremely unsafe. How could this be rated as the ‘best city in the world to visit’ by Trip Advisor if it was unsafe. When I got there i realised that it was the CBD area after dark that was unsafe. It’s quite a generic looking area too – grey buildings, a bit scruffy but of course, much much nicer, cleaner and more organised with proper pavements, street lights, pedestrian crossings, than anything I have even seen in India. Some parts reminded me of the better, cleaner parts of Brixton actually.
Coming back to safety, taxi drivers would only drop you off right in front of your hotel at dusk and not even across the road. Long Street where I spent my last night was crazy, alive, buzzing and a lot of drunk people around even at 4 am when I left for the airport. I had been warned of pickpockets on this street. It was crazier than London’s Soho or Brixton and the bars were open till much later than anywhere I’ve been to. I didn’t feel very safe there even though all I did on this street was go from taxi in to the hotel and wait at the door of the hotel. Basic rules apply – don’t make eye contact, don’t linger around, don’t whip out your ipad/cellphone etc on the street. You can do all of this at the Waterfront area as it is heavily policed…but no where else. This is a real shame because I found that everyone I met in Capetown was charming, delightful and wanted to tell you their entire life story.
This is the colourful Bo’Kaap area where the ‘cape coloureds’ live. Don’t worry it’s not a derogatory term. It’s what they call the people who are not white, not black but slaves or immigrants from Malaysia, Indonesia etc who intermarried with everyone else. This is a largely Muslim area and apparently as a part of the end of Ramadan the houses are painted and it’s a big community decision on which house gets painted what colour.
The real Capetown is not the CBD but ten minutes outside around the beaches like Camps Bay, Hout Bay or drive up Signal Hill to the picnic spots with majestic views of the city on the Atlantic coast.
Not only did I learn things at the conference and not only was my talk well received but I got to enjoy the city as well…Ok not all of it…Table Mountain still eludes me. I went three times: the first time it was completely clouded over, the second time it closed 10 minutes before I arrived and the third time, the weather was perfect but it was a Saturday and the line was incredibly long. I took a gamble and decided that it was more important to see many things than see just one thing. So off to Boulder’s beach I went passed through Chapman’s Peak, Simon’s Town (the Naval base) to see the penguins, went on a sunset cruise followed by lots of shopping at the Waterfront.
Since my trip was paid for by the organisers I got to stay in the wonderful and luxurious Southern Sun Cape Sun Hotel. The staff were incredibly polite and very friendly, all the time. I even got upgraded to a suite because my room was not ready and I made a desperate plea for a shower and a lie-down. So I ended up with a view of Table Mountain, a giant bedroom, two flatscreen TVs, two writing tables, a bathroom the size of my current bedroom, a walk in closet, a dining room, living room area, another bathroom and a coffee making station. Super!!
The conference was spread over 3 days and we had a 1.5hr lunch break everyday, that I was determined to make the most of. So I would hop off to the Waterfront nearby and head to the Market Wharf – an organic and fresh food market that I had read about online. This place was so fabulous, two floors of friendly producers and stall owners. I had some of the tastiest food over here. It’s also where I bought kilos of Biltong (that tasty, chewy air dried meat – beef, ostrich or kudu) and had the famous boerie sausage sandwich, argentinian empanadas, home made pies, cakes and fudge and I stayed well clear of the Indian food.
A few hours after I landed I had a tour booked of the city and Table Mountain. Also staying at my hotel, and going on the tour as part of the conference, I met a Nepali guy, PhD from Cornell, has worked and lived in the US/Vietnam/Myanmar/Cambodia and now living in Dhaka. He’s my age but on the fast track in the development world and while we are poles apart in our career trajectories, we hit it off really well. And he was great company for beer and fish and chips at Camps Bay and steak at the Waterfront. I think I made a good friend.
I did a lot of shopping – too much to photograph. What I liked about Capetonian products was the attention to provenance – where a product was made and more importantly who made it featured prominently on product labels. Whether it was single mothers from the Cape Flats or blind people in District six. They were also very proud of things being made in Capetown, rather than another part of South Africa. I think some sellers in India have started doing this for weavers of sarees but I wish more companies would, starting with Fab India. It makes you feel that even though something is produced in large quantities that there is a person, a face, and a life behind it. I feel it makes you value the items more. I know I only started realising the value of the effort in growing vegetables when I started (tried) growing my own. It made me appreciate what farmers do and the struggles they face.
The other place I was delighted to have made it to was Milnerton Flea Market. This is on Saturdays and Sundays, it is quite far outside of town, over 10kms and if you don’t have a car make sure you ask your taxi to wait because this is a largely industrial area and you will not find cabs. But I got some amazing discounts here and unique items I didn’t find in any shops. Unfortunately, a beautiful terracotta dish didn’t survive the journey home…
I was early and people were just setting up but i got some fantastic deals here. It was such a huge market I didn’t have enough time to wait around for everyone to set up or to explore all those who had set up. My first purchase was from this lovely couple (who couldn’t stop talking but in a nice way) who sold the organic honey they made. They are second generation honey makers from Stellinridge selling Pure Cape Honey. The wildflower honey is delicious – like no honey I’ve tasted before (the DH says it tastes like the Australian Capilano honey but I don’t often trust him when it comes to matching flavours…!). They also had red gum honey (eucaplyptus) which has a distinct flavour that comes from the bees hives on these trees. They had a lovely dog who was 12 and just wanted her belly rubbed – which I gladly did.
Milnerton was not a patch on Istanbul’s flea markets but I’m so delighted that my organised tour got cancelled and I got to come here! And enough though it’s just a car park, you can’t beat table mountain in your sights.
Here’s a list of things I did and was happy to spend time doing in Capetown. I could have done a lot more in 6 days…but i was there for a conference after all! And links to useful websites for these:
— The V&A waterfront (hours of fun eating, shopping and taking a boat cruise), Don’t be put off with shopping at a mall – this has all sorts of things from wonderful capetonian made wares (fabric, household stuff) to the branded shops found globally. The V&A is also where you will book tours and water activities. There’s the big Wheel at the centre which is a great meeting point and there’s always some African group either singing, dancing but always playing fantastic music. I highly recommend eating steak at the Belthazar, on the waterfront. I also dined at the Habour House which had good seafood, equally beautiful lovely views inside and out with efficient service.
— The Red Shed Craft Warehouse at the V&A (beautiful African products, with live workshops, very reasonably priced)
— Green market square for masks and bric-a-brac (must bargain)
—Market on the Wharf at the V&A (two small floors of organic producers from tea to cured meats; selling amazing fresh food and baked goods, some curios as well, i regret not buying the hand made lamp shades). Must visit the Froggit stall which has amazing combinations of salad dressing,flavour combinations your palate has never experienced. And there’s a great fudge stall and gelato. Just check out the vendors page
–A visit to Camps Bay and eat Fish & Chips at Ocean’s basket (or Hout’s Bay)
— A visit to Table Mountain and hopefully all the way up
–See the Penguins at Boulder’s Beach and drive through the picturesque Chapman’s Peak
–Shop at Milnerton Flea Market
Things I didn’t do but wish I had:
–Seen the whales at Hermanus
–Visit the Stellenbosch winelands
–Visit Kirstenbosch botanical gardens
–Go to Hout’s Bay Organic Food market
–Go to Cape Point – the tip of Africa
I would have liked to leave you with a few excellent videos of the penguins swimming, fighting and laying very still but the damn thing is on my Ipad and since we are an Apple free household and the videos take forever to upload to the internet, I need to find an Apple user to finally get these from one system to another. So the penguins coming right up after I tell you about cyclone HudHud that caused plenty of GudBud. Somehow i feel i haven’t done justice to telling you about the Capetown experience because of the cyclone looming large in my mind..But there’s a nother post on all the bric-a-brac and the videos.Till then here’s some pictures of the penguins