South Africa Part 1: Calling on Cape Town

FIRST POST OF 2014 and the month’s almost over. Gotta remove the digital cobwebs gathering on this blog, just in time for Chinese New Year (which I am psyched about ‘cos it’s my first in Singapore in four years!!!).

So first things first. Resolutions. I do have some specific goals I’d like to complete by 31 Dec 2014, like: finish the screenplay I wrote in my last semester, have my mother stop calling me bak-bak, and not re-read this post 12 months later only to break down in a maniacal whine, wondering where the year has gone and what I have done with my life.

Now for reflections. All in 2013 was eventful and fantabulous — I graduated, travelled a fair bit, survived the first stretch of LDR, and started my first real job (which I was surprised to find myself psyched to return to after my South African holiday, though one older colleague remarked, “Everyone’s excited about their job when they’re six months into it.”).

But before the bitter reality of her statement sinks in, here’s the first post on South Africa. I spent 16 days exploring Cape Town, traversing the Garden Route, roaming the wild safaris of the Greater Kruger National Park and trying not to get killed worry myself to death about getting killed in Johannesburg. All this with mah favourite boy in da whole world.

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In the weeks before I flew off, my mom would give me these weighted… looks. I am not sure how to describe them, they were like, “Daughter, you disappoint and worry me with your ‘exotic’ holiday locales.” Later I found out from my sister that whenever she went out with friends and they offered to pay, she’d settle the cheque and say, “Just pray for my daughter.”

Well, PTL we’re okay!!! Honestly, we felt 150% safe in Cape Town and during the Garden Route. That said, Alan says for our next holiday, we should just tell my mom we’re going to Egypt/Syria/Israel first before presenting our actual, tamer-in-comparison destination.

“Who knows, she might even pay for your flight to (tamer-in-comparison destination)! And mine too!!!” — my damn jian boyfriend

So without further ado… CAPE TOWN.

What I Love About Cape Town

  • The beautiful mountains and hills that cusp the city
  • The food (Mom said I ate too well — “I can tell, looking by your face” FML)
  • It’s relatively affordable (for the median fresh grad working in Singapore, disclaimer first ah)
  • That it’s on this NYTimes list, so I can irrationally think I have bragging rights

What I Didn’t Fancy About Cape Town

  • Why is it so ridonkulously hot in summer… (Seriously, I have been exfoliating every other day since I came back and my foundation still looks like I’m wearing a getai mask when I put it on)

How much time should you spend in Cape Town?

We allocated five days for Cape Town. More than enough, or so we thought. We ended up skipping a bunch of things (most of the intellectual stuff like museum visits were the first to go) and we thought we could still have easily spent two weeks here.

There’s a bunch of things you “have to” do while you’re in Cape Town, like walking around its iconic V&A Waterfront, going up to the top of Table Mountain, walking round the Bo-Kaap district, heading out to the Winelands. I’ll try to cover most of them in this first post.

V&A Waterfront

We went to the V&A Waterfront three times, more out of poor planning than by choice really.

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The first time was probably the best, since it was where Alan and I had our first meal together in four months. We dined at Baia Seafood and indulged in lobsters, scallops and prawns (and also a whole bottle of strawberry wine) for US$88. Of course at the time I was damn excited about lobsters la, but how was I to know that we would eat even better seafood during the course of our trip??

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Post-dinner we walked around the wharf, which is Singapore’s Clarke Quay with a more open view of the sea. There are plenty of shops located in the Victoria Wharf shopping complex — a labyrinth of seven or eight buildings (who really knows) — but getting from one place to another is so ridiculously complicated you’re not sure if the architect really intended for you to come away having bought something.

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Our second time to the V&A was on New Year’s Eve, where we decided to throng with thousands of people to partake in what was touted as Africa’s biggest, free party in 2013. AFRICA the continent, hor. So of course the bar was raised la!

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The organizers got in a bunch of big-name, local bands to play, including Prime Circle supposedly quite popular not just in South Africa. (I really like their track, Breathing, which played on the airwaves a few times.)

Even though there were thousands of people pushing for spaces near the wharf’s edges, we decided to be chill and found some space near a huge Christmas tree. We had a pretty good view of the sky — a huge untainted expanse of black and nothing else because there weren’t ridiculously high towers unlike back home.

We killed time, we talked, we took photos. And then the countdown began. Goodbye 2013! Happy 2014! LET THE FIREWORKS BEGIN.

In my mind I was expecting something at this level:

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But all we got was this single column of fireworks located on the opposite end of the wharf. I had to crop this to make it look less lame than it did. It was so unbelievably imbalanced, the ratio of sky occupied by fireworks to sky with nothing in it.

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Afterwards, Alan and I laughed about how different from reality the “biggest free party in Africa” turned out to be. What a way to start 2014, eh? “Don’t think so much. Shoot low.” (Which actually isn’t too bad a philosophy — I did not expect to get a pay increment so soon after I started my job that when I got the letter last week, I had to triple-check that it wasn’t addressed to some other Rachel. And for 15 minutes after that I was convinced that HR was taunting me: “Look, we raised your pay to a level where your grandfather’s pension is now only slightly higher than yours! Oh, just kidding!!!!”)

The last couple photo of 2013:

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Our third trip to V&A took place only cos you have to go to the Nelson Mandela Gateway located nearby in order to board the ferry to Robben Island.

One of the more iconic landmarks at V&A is the Clock Tower, which is normally red but has been repainted yellow to celebrate the country’s status as World Design Capital this year.

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City Center — Adderley St, Government Avenue and the Bo-Kaap District

(Actually, the city center was the least exciting part about Cape Town but we did spend a whole day there so I feel obliged to say something about it.)

The whole country was still celebrating Nelson Mandela’s legacy, three weeks after the politician’s death. It was not uncommon to see posters on walls or banners on buildings or even TV spots thanking the anti-apartheid revolutionary for his contributions.

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When we drove into Cape Town on Dec 31, there was a New Year’s party right smack in the center of town that promised to usher in the New Year and remember Madiba’s legacy.

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We headed down Government Avenue — an extension of the city center’s main artery, Adderley Road, lined with, duh, government buildings. This is De Tuynhuys, the office of the president.

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We meandered around the nearby Company’s Gardens for a bit, but it was much too hot to lie down and read. In hindsight this was a pity, because now that I have started work I don’t really have the time / mental fortitude to finish the remaining 25% of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch 🙁

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At some point of time we were tempted to join these boys’ water party.

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Actually, there are lots of museums in the city center that would have probably enriched our understanding of the city. But we were lazy la. I hope that’s the last time, though, and that I’ll regain my curiosity by my next trip.

We sought respite at a cafe near Greenmarket Square (home to a flea market that sells crafts, jewelry, masks and that kinda thing) that served substandard strawberry milkshakes (which is honestly quite a common thing these days. Is it really that hard to throw ice cream and strawberries into a blender without making your customer feel like she’s drinking berry-flavoured toothpaste?).

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The terrible milkshake got me thinking about how sometimes in life we never really reach our full potential. So in an effort to better myself, I pointed Alan in the direction of the Michaelis Collection — a museum built in Cape Dutch style, housing a collection of “minor but interesting seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings.” Cheem, right!

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Once inside, we attempted to channel our Art History 101 into the way we looked at the portraits and landscapes hanging on the wall. We used phrases like “loose brushstrokes” and “atmospheric” and tried to spend more than 20 seconds on each painting.

Aiyah, I think art appreciation is 50% instinctive (read: primal), 50% making shit up as you go along. I walked in and was taken by this painting, Concert of Birds by Flemish painter Frans Snyders.

concert of birdsIt’s a pretty huge painting in real life, and it seemed so out of place next to all the dull, sombre portraits,  with its cheery, personified depiction of birds hanging out. I don’t really have anything intellectual to say about this, but I just wanted to record that I like this painting for posterity’s sake. Some things are just inexplicable, I guess.

Took photos I wasn’t supposed to take in the museum’s second floor:

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After that we headed for the Pan-African Market near Long Street, a four-storey complex (and part-labyrinth) filled with stalls with indistinguishable borders, where masks and earrings run the entire length of a wall and into a random shop.

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We snuck into a store selling drums (the kind with some special leather skin over the drumhead) and started mucking around with them, pretending to go crazy like those people in the percussion band Stomp. Should have seen my guilty face when the owner stuck his face around the door.

We had tapas at the next door Fork, which worked out to US$7 for five bite-sized morsels, a glass of wine and tea. Honestly, the food portions were like, sufficient only for mice to eat (even if they were yummy). A bigger-boned American at the next table took one look at her tiny burger slide and said, “Yeah, I know what I need. Another three of these.”

Post-tea we headed to the Bo-Kaap district, where the Cape Malays were historically known to reside. It’s become something of a tourist attraction now, what with rows of colourful houses sitting at the foot of Signal Hill.

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But centuries ago, the Dutch brought slaves from Indonesia (a Dutch colony, remember!) were brought here and generations of Cape Malays ended up in cheap, white-washed houses. It was only after apartheid ended that they could own their homes. Not really sure why the houses in such bright hues — some websites say it’s a declarative statement against apartheid, others say it’s to celebrate the end of the Ramadan season. Owners may paint their homes whenever they want, as long as there’s variety on the street.

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Whatever the case, many of these long-time residents must now contend with rising property prices and with it, a changing demographic. Economics is a cruel, cruel thing.

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As I said, it was New Year’s Eve when we headed to the city center, which was also the site of a NYE celebration. It was about 4ish, and we were walking back to the car when we realised… All the roads are barricaded!

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When we got to the parking lot, our car was the only one left. Seriously, did all the other drivers get the memo beforehand or something?

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Thankfully, the police let us out without much fuss. But two minutes later, we were pulled over by an irate officer because Alan ran every single red light along the way. “Do you not see the robot?? Does your country not have robots??” “Robot” is the term South Africans use for “traffic light,” which I knew beforehand cos, well, I read stuff. Alan did not go down said path of enlightenment, so imagine his confusion when this policeman starts asking about the robots in the country. Anyway, he let us go without a fine, mostly because Alan had this damn blur face on. Later, he said he ran all the lights because “the streets were barricaded so I thought nobody would be walking.” Men and their assumptions.

Okay, I shall end off with the last meal of 2013 — dinner at Hussar Grill, located in this FREAKING SKETCH part of Cape Town. A lot of the shops along the stretch were closed, there were a few graffitied walls and there was nobody walking on the streets. We did see a few people loitering underneath the carpark, which is clearly code for sketchy activities.

So dinner at Hussar was this bubble, insulated from whatever troubles may be brewing in the neighbourhood (a common feeling through our trip, actually). In the middle of this deserted street, an attendant waits by the curb to escort you to the door. Waiters come in, place napkins over your lap, smile and everything. It wasn’t an atas place by any means but it was clearly different and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

In case you’re wondering, we went back to our hotel — located 20 minutes away from town — just to change. We were so vain! But it was worth it — I feel like our attire helped heighten the atmosphere and made us appreciate our food more, which was already amazing (not to mention overindulgent). For example, we got two starters in generous portions, like my #1 guilty pleasure, tomato soup.

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For mains I had the Hussar Carpetbagger, which is a slab of steak, oozing with cheese and smoked baby oysters, and then topped with prawns.. That’s probably the double daily calorie intake anyone should be consuming.

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But yeah, that was the last meal of 2013. 🙂

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* * *

Still have so much to share about my trip. Was way too ambitious with this post, trying to squeeze four days’ worth of things but I’ll be back (and eventually with the rest of my Trans-Siberian too, haha).

I have two short vacays in the horizon, both with my girlfriends, which is something to look forward to. But until then, there’s the frenzy of Oscar nominee-consumption to keep me going.

* * *

Catch up on the rest of our South African adventures!

Part 1: Cape Town
Part 2: Stellenbosch
Part 3: Robben Island & Kirstenbosch Gardens
Part 4: Cape Peninsula
Part 5: Table Mountain
Part 6: Garden Route (Part 1)
Part 7: Garden Route (Part 2)
Part 8: Safari in the Kruger
Part 9: Johannesburg

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