Thursday, May 27, 2004

Cape Dear

A former Memphian salutes Memphis in May's honored country, South Africa.

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2004 at 4:00 AM

At the tail end of our honeymoon, Gina and I found ourselves at the tail end of Africa with nowhere else to go. We were going over some of the highlights of the previous months with travel buddies while we sat in Mama Africa, a funky ethnic restaurant in Cape Town. We listened to an absolutely incredible marimba band and we drank Amarula, a creamy liquor made from marula fruits. Soon we stopped talking because it was time to dance, and it got wild in there. We realized we needed to work out a way to stay in this far-out place.

I found a job the following day teaching at a school in Constantia. Constantia is a posh suburb of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela, LaToya Jackson, Desmond Tutu, and Margaret Thatcher (among others) have beautiful homes. Thatcher's grandson is in my geometry class.

It is stunning here, and as I sit gazing out my classroom window, I see the setting sun blaze over the distant hills just above Elephants Eye Mountain. The colors will go mad in a few seconds.

Constantia is a beautiful place indeed, but it is in stark contrast to other places just minutes away. The first informal settlement most visitors see upon leaving the airport is Langa, a sprawling network of closely huddled and vibrantly decorated shacks loomed over by two giant cooling towers (resembling the ones on The Simpsons or at Three Mile Island).These settlements are part of the townships and are a legacy of the apartheid era.

Nearby is Khayelitsha, one of South Africa's largest townships and home to more than one million residents. If you increased the population density of Memphis by 45 percent, that would be the density of Khayelitsha. The majority of the people there are Xhosa and speak in a language marked by clicking sounds. More than two-thirds of the 45 million people in South Africa are black, made up of Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho groups, among others. These groups banded together in 1912 and formed the African National Congress but remained without basic human rights under the rule of the white settlers from Holland and Great Britain until apartheid ended in 1994.

Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa. That makes 2004 a special time, the 10-year anniversary of freedom for blacks in South Africa. They succeeded bravely in a long struggle, and now this country is ready for growth and diversity. With the dark shadow of apartheid lifted, South Africa is blossoming with possibilities. The currency is steadily strengthening against the dollar, and last year South African real estate increased in value more than any other country in the world.

Where else but Cape Town can you spot wildebeest and zebra grazing along a mountainside and then drive 15 minutes to some of the world's greatest surfing beaches to watch whales breaching off shore? They name their winds here (that's how cool this place is), and the surfers take it seriously. The famous "Cape Doctor" is a bracing summertime southeasterly wind that causes a strange mop of clouds to sit on Table Mountain, accessible by foot or cable car. On top of Table Mountain is a strange vegetation called fynbos, the world's smallest floral kingdom. There is also dassie, which look like giant rats, but oddly enough are most closely related to the elephant.

Last year, Gina and I went to Kruger National Park, an area about the size of Rhode Island, to see the lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and the many varieties of antelope. And this year we camped in the Kalahari Desert where we saw many more lions in the wild, the world's largest birds, and meerkats too.

Just the other day, Gina and I were on our way for a weekend trip to visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach nearby, and we stopped to return a video. A large mix of people were crowded there watching the television as it was announced that the 2010 World Cup will be held here. You should have seen the people cheer and jump for joy. When we walked out of the place and got in our car, we noticed everyone was swerving back and forth, honking their horns and flashing their lights in celebration. It was a little scary but touching to witness this display and feel the hopeful spirit of this burgeoning country unified by this honor.

On the random now: Public transportation here is not very good. People cram into small vans. It's better to try to get a car. Strangely, no one pumps their own gas. It is done for you to create jobs. The candy is amazing, probably because of the Dutch influence. They are one-fifteenth of the population and speak Afrikaans, which is to Dutch as Old English would be to English. No Mexican food. Instead, they have Portuguese. Peri-peri is hot stuff! Everyone runs around barefoot (even at banks and in fancy shopping malls). The health care is excellent, with some of the world's greatest doctors. (Remember, this is the home of the first successful heart transplant.) The weather is a little like San Diego and helps to yield grapes the size of golf balls. There are baboons too, always getting up to mischief. And I'm still talking about Cape Town. That is just one tiny part of South Africa.

The long and short of it is that this is a sophisticated, forward-thinking, socially and environmentally conscious place with a booming economy and infinite options for fun and exciting ways of life, people to meet, places to visit, nature to experience, and things to do. We're livin' the good life here.

Come visit. There is room for everyone. n

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