Africa Lite

  Welcome to Cape Town

Cape Town is disdainfully dubbed Africa Lite, intended to separate its European ambience from the real Africa of out-of-control cities such as Dakar or destroyed cities like Kinshasa. It is true; Cape Town is surely one of the most delightful cities in the world but the fact that it shares a continent with Mogadishu does not make it less authentically African…does it? Cape Town proper is in the process of getting its best foot beautifully shod and putting it way forward in June for the World Cup. You cannot not sense what this means to all of Africa—a place on the world stage of important game-worthy, tourist-worthy continents. And South Africa, former pariah of the sports world—hosting the cup. Makes Africa-aficionado hearts beat just a little faster whether you care about soccer or not!

I try to figure out my fascination with this country—where I am about to spend over a month, a few days of that traveling by bus just to feel what the non-urban South Africa is like. Of course I am drawn to every corner of this continent with some old-fashioned desire to explore or maybe explore-lite is a more apt term since I’m not exactly sleeping in the bush. But South Africa is unique; it is the country in the world with which we share the most history. We (the US and South Africa) are so alike, almost mirror images of each other in some ways with the colors reversed like one of those old negatives. It’s true that the black minority has never dominated in politics or finance in the US while the white minority in South Africa did for a very long time. But the history of apartheid is similar in both of our countries and white power has never been anything except harsh in either.  Now it’s a new day…and we look at what might be. It feels like both countries could get it right with Barack Obama in our present and Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s past and, hopefully, Joseph Zuma up to the task of South Africa’s future.

I left the US, happy to be gone from endless news of the American fundamentalist forays onto the political battlefield from every ditch and cave. I come here to a society in big economic trouble with a president who is on the verge of becoming a stereotype for bad boy behavior but nevertheless a country that in many ways feels more eager and open than us to discussing the BIG issue which is how to move past race and get on with the work of the nation. Americans said on election night November 2008 we had done that. Wrong. Nelson Mandela hoped it would happen here when apartheid ended. Wrong. Still, considering the relative newness of both countries attempts at color-blind societies, it is amazing that the US has a black president and that South Africa, a country whose leaders once considered Adolph Hitler their political guru, is witnessing a multi-racial society pretty close to working pretty well.

My airline seatmate on the flight from Dakar, a pleasant and successful young white South African who markets expensive liquors and other high-end products in West Africa—what could the Congo possibly need more than high-class gin and vodka—says of course apartheid was terrible but, he also says, instead of simply replacing whites with blacks in as many positions as possible couldn’t there have been some thought given to training and education first.  Of course he’s right in a way, but how does any new leader say to a people who have been hugely repressed and discriminated against for their entire lives that now you must somehow spend the next many years getting educated (as though the facilities existed to do that) before you can have a position that pays you a living wage. Impossible. So the alternative is sometimes putting people in jobs they’re not qualified for but will grow into, and watching the country slip a notch or two on the efficiency ladder. It can right itself, and in fact is, with the government hopefully sincere about paying extra attention to education. While the problem is bigger in South Africa, the US has a ways to go before we reach an educational high ground that includes every kid of every race and ethnicity. More similarities.

My taxi driver from the airport, a black South African, said “Yes, the President is doing some good maybe, but he’s a joke with all those kids and wives and girlfriends.”  (President Zuma just took a new wife, his third, and the news just broke that he has fathered a new baby with the daughter of one of his government officials. “And” says the driver, “Now the blacks are treating the whites just like the whites did the blacks before.” He doesn’t seem to think that ‘turnabout being fair play’ is going to get the country anywhere. But did I know that Thursday was the 20th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison? “We’ve come a long way,” he says.


I was in Cape Town for more than a week and it is a lovely low-key city. Beautiful old buildings, Table Mountain looming above, the Atlantic right at the city’s edge, full of restaurants and stores and prosperous looking people of all hues. I have been describing it as San Diego with character. But San Diego doesn’t have townships? And on the edge of Cape Town, everyone’s-favorite-city, lies the Cape Flats…where the black, coloured and Asian populations were forcibly moved during apartheid, in fact moved into separate neighborhoods even in the Flats. Now downtown and the ‘good’ suburbs are increasingly home to coloureds and Asians but still not so many blacks. The mythical color-blind society is still a long ways in the future. But, admittedly knowing little of New Orleans, I understand that it is a city of neighborhoods approaching the intensity and color concentration of the townships of South Africa. Am I wrong?

It seems to me from my various conversations that one difference does stand out as the races reconsider who they are. In the US, people of mixed parentage typically identify with the race of color or the “minority” race that makes up some part of their heritage. Two of my grandchildren are half-Filipino and they very much identify as Asian. Barack Obama has described his path to becoming African/African-American. In South Africa, with apartheid’s divide and conquer strategy always in play, the divisions between white, coloured, Asian and black were so clearly marked and so programmed into the minds of the population that the divisions still exist although one would never know it in downtown Cape Town. More complicated than simply being a ‘person of color.’

The racial criss-crossings and animosities and attractions and the very way history records and defines the relationships creates something of a conundrum. If Cape Town doesn’t feel very “African” because so much of its visible downtown population is white and whites are a tiny minority in SA, then does New Orleans not feel very “American” because much of its visible population is black and only a minority of Americans are black? We think of New Orleans as practically our favorite American city, don’t we? Or another way of saying this. Why do African Americans seem completely American and white Africans not quite African? The latter is a topic of discussion and dissension all over Africa, apparently always has been. I’m sure there’s an easy answer like—whites came willingly to Africa, Africans did not come willingly to North America. But I’m not sure it’s that easy.

I mentioned to my Cape Town friend that actually in South Africa it did feel that whites were South African and I’ve never quite had that feeling elsewhere in Africa. Did that make sense I asked. She said, “Yes of course. Think of it this way, whatever good and bad was to follow when those early Dutchmen arrived they came to stay, not to colonize and return home. They started calling themselves Afrikaners early on whereas the French and the Brits never claimed Africa as their homeland.”

The Township Tour!

 I have always felt a little queasy about poverty tours from the old photos of Bobby Kennedy in Appalachian shacks to the favela tours of Rio and on down to me with some other Europeans taking a van into the Cape Flats. I have now been on two such tours in South Africa, a few years ago to Soweto and now to Langa, Khayelitsha and Crossroads. All in all, I guess if it is done respectfully and it brings business into the township and a bit of understanding of what real poverty looks like to a few more comfortable people, it’s worthwhile?

It really becomes important to read a history of this country in conjunction with being here and before doing this. I had just picked up Dominique Lapierre’s 2008 book, A Rainbow in the Night, and spent a mildly-sick day in bed reading it from cover to cover. It’s as even-handed as one could possibly be when considering apartheid is at the heart of this country’s history, and it was an update for me on details that had been forgotten or never known. For example the story of District 6 and the forced removals of its multi-cultural population into their own compounds/ghettos by race: black, coloured or Asian; then the area was razed so the sinful example of races living peacefully and equitably together could be erased from history. And Crossroads where the march against the bearing of passbooks originated, or Landa, the first township and the home of our guide.

The tour was well done. The guide was matter-of-fact and comfortable,taking the six visitors into all but the “informal” sectors where no services are provided among the shacks truly cobbled together from whatever scrap of material can be nailed to the next. Areas within townships are classified by degree of stability and, in a way, prosperity from the “informal” on up to areas where the shacks have gradually been replaced by tiny concrete structures then by larger concrete homes with several rooms, plumbing and small yards. The single men’s dormitories that housed the thousands of men who came from all over South Africa and the rest of Africa to find work in the cities and who were absolutely restricted to hideous overcrowding with no facilities to maintain any measure of privacy, cleanliness, humanity still exist. Woman and children came to join their men, initially living in the same conditions. Now, very gradually, these structures are being turned into apartment blocks; at the low-end a family of six or so sharing a room with bunk beds climbing the walls, shared cooking facilities, pumps in the yard, miserable outdoor toilets. At the high end and the eventual goal, they become two or three room apartments with proper plumbing, etc. It’s  also true that modern life goes on, hard to maintain but TVs are on with teenagers doing homework while their cell phones charge; the mamas are cooking and shooing the babies about and the men are at work.

We stopped at a dirt-floor dark and claustrophobic Shebeen, shared a pail of traditional beer, all yeasty like bread dough in the process of rising; at a traditional healer’s, nasty skins and tiny heads all about; and visited a bed and breakfast where I will certainly stay for a day or two when I return to Cape Town. It’s in an area of Khayelitsha where the structures have all become concrete houses and the dirt streets are trash-free but it’s still smack in the middle of the Township. It is a lovely B and B really, airy bedrooms, neatly made beds with their traditional quilts; you can tell the house is pieced together over time but all the more character because of it. I’ll publish the name of it when I return home.

Art and Stories

This meandering travel commentary needs lots of editing but I must get it on the blog before it keeps me in blog block any longer. Just to finish with a note. The stories one hears from friends, artists, taxi drivers, hotel staff are endless. Like the US, South Africa subjugated more than one race, treated them brutally and will be dealing with the results for decades to come. The complicated consequences are being explored by everyone and—whether the story is of Native Americans and African Americans raising their voices through theater or the young African choreographer I met yesterday talking about the role the history of this country (Namibia, where I am now, was part of South Africa) plays in his work—it is a rich field of inquiry destined for many art, social and political investigations in the decades to come.

Dining on Happy Exotic Animals

They ran and they played…and then I ate them.

Since I only eat free-range meat or none at all and think hunting is not a real sport but rather some kind of bizarre male bonding ritual leftover from the ‘hunter-gatherer’ era and since I believe in conservation of natural wild things…tonight’s dinner was solely done to prove to my San Diego son that I’m not an exotic-food wimp. I did not break all of my rules; I am quite sure the springbok, kudu and impala I ate for dinner were wild and happy until slaughtered by some great white hunter type who took the heads home to White Bear Lake or Syracuse, and they’re not very endangered…are they? And ostriches are living everywhere. This one probably got loose from the local ostrich farm and was hit by an out-of-control truck between here and Stellenbosch.

Here’s how it all happened. I was wandering around my lovely Green Market Square neighborhood after a site-based performance work that started oddly but ended normally with Jesus (I think) dragging a big broken metal table over the cobblestones and out of sight, his feet all bloody and robe torn and a haunting African melody to cheer him on his way. There’s a sweet restaurant called Da Capo next to my hotel so I decided a meal would be a good thing since I’ve only eaten exotic pancakes since I’ve been here. Through a long and convoluted discussion with my waiter I wound up ordering the following plate under their tapas menu:

  • Ostrich filled with fresh spinach and secret sauce;
  • Springbok filled with artichoke, tuna and tapanada;
  • Kudu filled with exotic wild mushrooms and
  • Impala filled with creamy chili and tuna puree.

I copied that directly from the menu as I said a silent forgiveness prayer to the pagan Norwegian god of turnips and rutabagas.


And here’s the critique. Kudu is REALLY good. It’s very light somehow. Like the best steak imaginable—the melting in your mouth kind. Absolutely elegant. And I never have to eat it again. Like going to Luxembourg; it’s done and you don’t have to go back even if it was a pleasant experience. Springbok tastes like a nice light pork with a slightly liver-like texture and Impala tastes like a wild animal. I know I must have eaten venison growing up in Minnesota, and once I tasted bear meat. Impala tasted like I imagine that tasted. About ostrich. I could not do that. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the Swiss Family Robinson kids rode around on them so I associate them with horses. Or because they are so truly ugly. Or because they are being farmed, penned up, not wild and free like I like to imagine my meat having been just prior to my chewing it up.

Now I am having instant cappuccino and dried out ginger cookies for dessert as I write this. Already too much adventure for one day.

Robben rocks

Welcomes should never be taken at face value!

The late summer sun beats down on this denuded island of scrub brush and the odd patch of faded weed and dry grass, but the ever-present Cape wind cools its glare. We’re tourists come over from Cape Town on the Robben Island ferry. “Anyone here want to get married today?” Thabo, our guide for the first part of our trip asks. Funny question I think. But after all it is February 14th and there are 29 couples marrying today on what seems an odd choice of sites. Thabo offers his crowd-pleasing explanation, “They say marriage is a life sentence so where is a more appropriate place to begin serving your time!”

Marriage as a "life sentence!"

Thabo asks us from where we hail and the answers include Japan, Gabon, Belgium, California, the Netherlands, Johannesburg, New Mexico, Botswana and, he laughingly adds, “and my township, this mama in the front row knows me, I better speak well…”  The tour bus drives slowly about the Island stopping often for the young man’s stories of life at Robben Island. His soft and easy South African-accented English is almost mesmerizing as he tells the tales of an island used through time as a place for isolating the region’s troublemakers. “I know you are anxious to see where Nelson Mandela lived but he would be the first to remind us that everyone coming through here during apartheid played a part in the struggle.”

Nelson Mandela

After an hour or so with Thabo he bids us good-bye and we are turned over to a stocky smiling man in his fifties, an ex-prisoner, who will take us through the prison compound. Here the story becomes more personal and both more and less horrific than we imagine it to be. John was here for over six years. He lived in the open barracks, a long room heavily barred but for most of his years without window panes to keep the cold and stormy ways of the Cape at bay; they had only mats on which to sleep at first although eventually bunk beds were installed. There were three meals a day but even then the cruel pettiness ever-present in the “divide and conquer” schemes of the apartheid government came into play. A menu board lists the daily rations for “Coloureds/Asiatics” and for “Bantus” who simply received less of everything, including “No jam/syrup” while the lighter-skinned “coloureds” got treated to a daily “1 oz.” of the treasured sweets. 

In response to a question about daily life though, John says “I’d be lying to you if I told you every day was bad. It wasn’t. We made a life under the conditions that existed and it had its joys. We worked five days a week, mostly out in the quarries, and we played soccer and tennis on Saturdays. We could socialize, each within our building mostly, but the best thing was our education programs for the kids who wound up prisoners. They had their first real schooling by all the professors and doctors and lawyers sentenced here…remember for most of the apartheid years Robben Island was only for political prisoners and many were professional men.”

Mandela's cell

We finally get to Mandela’s cell, the climax of our trip. The 8 by 8 cell holds only the bucket which for many years served as the prisoners’ only container for, in turn, drinking water, bathing and waste; a small stool and a mat and blanket. The leaders of the movement had their own cells, sparse though they were, and usually the ability to communicate freely inside and outside where they grew their gardens of flowers and vegetables, both to make time pass and try to maintain some vestiges of normalcy.

This sunny Valentine’s Day in 2010, it is hard to get my mind around the impact of this place on the men who lived here and the society that put them here. Robben Island wasn’t a place of physical torture or outright murder for the most part—that was done elsewhere. This non-descript island with its fairytale view of Cape Town and Table Mountain just a brief span of blue sea away, was a place to play the mental games necessary to break spirits not bodies. What a testimony South Africa today is to apartheid’s inability to conquer those spirits.

John shared a closing thought that would make a striking Valentine’s card image. “You know the prisoners could have visitors, their wives and children over the age of 16, but no one younger could come to the Island. Well, one summer the guards who lived here got to bring their small children to their compound which was at the other end. It seems that by mistake, their babysitters brought them over to the guards’ golf course near the quarry to play. There were many prisoners working in the quarry that day, digging, pounding, crushing the hard rock, when the sound of children’s laughter came to them. All of them stopped dead still and just stood in silence, almost at attention, with tears making tiny rivers down their dusty faces as their thoughts went to their own children and life as it was supposed to be lived.”

But it’s 2010 and there is a Robben Island souvenir shop, and a summer swimming competition is being organized to commemorate some event of Island history, and animal rights activists are up in arms over a government scheme to shoot all the Robben Island bunnies because they are consuming every shred of plant life on the island. So life moves on.

The view of apartheid

I have a butternut squash pancake and nice South African wine back on the mainland and think about the reality that never quite lives up to the hope and inspiration of big movements but how inspiring it all is anyway.  And I think how one of the few places I ever feel lonely when traveling alone is when I’m participating in a group tour. Can one be ‘a wallflower at the tour?’

Time to leave

The basic vehicle of travel

It’s that last 36 hours before the journey begins. When you wonder what in the world you are doing. Why does anyone leave the comfort of their own space to be humiliated by security, trek down endless halls to your next flight which is always at the other end of the terminal. Get the seat next to a person eating something full of garlic and onions. Wonder if the snow in DC will ever stop. Know you should read the instructions for your new camera. Pay the utility bills. Stop the papers. Throw out the last of the milk.  AAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHHHH! But tomorrow I’ll be in love with whole idea again. My hotel in Cape Town is booked and apparently staffed by lovely people who send e-mails to assure me they’ll pick me up at the airport where I’ll arrive quite late at night. And to get to my hotel in Windhoek  the next week I should tell the cab driver at the bus station to take me to the hotel across from the “fruit and veg” street. Okay…I’m already happy again.

9,351 miles to Albuquerque

There’s always the next cup of coffee

This is WINDOW SEAT. Now, before this slightly misleadingly-named blog proceeds, I have a confession. After years and years of ALWAYS taking the window seat in whatever conveyance, I’ve now had a relatively short period of asking for the aisle. I used the excuse that I was getting older and wanted to access the bathroom more freely, stretch my legs to prevent deep vein thrombosis and most of the time it was either black night or a sunny blue-domed cloud-carpeted world outside the window anyway. Okay, I repent. I’m back to my window seat. It is actually worth the climb over a bulky sleeping seatmate to catch that first glimpse of the hills or valleys or streetscape of my next NEW place. Here’s an itinerary that will be admired by some, but envied by few if the truth be told. Most people actually do not want to travel. Took me a long time to believe that about apparently rational people. Some of my best friends in fact. But travel as opposed to vacationing isn’t for everyone. And I must admit to being rather a softy as travel goes…no Amazonian rapids or Himalayan peaks…just the next cup of coffee at a very distant counter. But that’s okay. My itinerary feels a little daunting to me too. Roughly it’s this. 7AM to DC, 5:40PM to Johannesburg, an 18 hour flight, gas up in Bamako or Dakar. Late that evening into Johannesburg. (All courtesy of frequent flyer miles—keep your mileage, every single mile and then if you actually wanted to go somewhere you could!) Couple hours flight to Cape Town and I’m home for a week. Although at this moment in time I don’t have a hotel.  Cape Town has HISTORY. The Afrikaner stronghold. The white town. The most beautiful city in the world. The racist heart of South Africa. Seems to be all of that. I hope to walk many streets and climb Table Mountain and find Deon Meyer, one of my favorite police/detective novelists and to think about what this city means in relation to Birmingham or New Orleans or Mobile or any one of the American cities where our own racial history is writ large. But in my everyday life for the week I’m focusing on dance and theater. What are artists in a city that is geographically at almost the bottom of the world—9351 miles from Albuquerque—thinking about right now? How to find that out in one week? BUT here is what endlessly fascinates me. How we each think we live at the center of the world. And then we fly for 24 hours or so and it’s somebody else’s center of the world. So then I’ll have a cup of coffee and sleep and get up and walk around this center of the world.

Still Practicing

Okay, I vowed that I would blog every other day if I got into this. Now it’s the third day and I must say something about travel…or dance. That is primarily what this blog is about. I’ve been writing grants all day (for dance) and now a wine and NCIS LA—which isn’t nearly as good as the other NCIS.  Although I’m thrilled that little old lady (we must support each other) Linda Hunt has a role.  What does this have to do with travel? Well in my moments of pacing before the next grant paragraph I thought about all the steps to make my Africa journey productive, inspiring, fun and how to lose eight pounds while I’m away. This is pertinent why? Because the only way I can do the latter is to walk and walk and walk. And I can’t afford to eat anything really delicious anyway (that’s part of the travel budgeting decisions). Walking a lot will put me in touch with the streets of Cape Town, Windhoek, Gaborone and Johannesburg. And during the overnight (maybe) in a town in Lesotho. As most travel books will tell you, planning is half the fun. I did most of my packing last weekend. So early. Because. The suitcase MUST be light. Clothes, a couple of emergency books, although I want to buy many books in South Africa where a splendid display of literature we never hear about is available. Need some instant coffee, underwear, one pair of flats in case dressing up calls for something other than a big size of white tennies. That’s it for today. Am I allowed just to chat like this on a blog? Or is that really tacky? Where do blog virgins go to learn protocol?

Window Seat

Sitting on the curb…waiting for the WORLD

WINDOW SEAT is alive and well…as a travel blog with some dance and theater and maybe a personal bit or two thrown into the mix. WINDOW SEAT, the book, will be how I got to here—a not-very-young woman with limited funds who is compelled to go-to-every-country-in-the-world-before-I-die. I have so far been to 61 countries which leaves 131-134 to go depending on who is counting and what month or year it is. Countries do come and go—for example, who knew TWO (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) would become MANY (about 15)—so I must be concerned about whether my travel stamina and curiosity can keep up. I am fortunate to have a great job working with contemporary artists of every culture, every background and every ability. Often my travels are to see new work and perhaps invite these creative global adventurers to our art center in New Mexico. AND SOMETIMES MY TRAVELS ARE BECAUSE I NEED TO GO ROUND THE NEXT BEND OR SEE OVER THE NEXT RIDGE—revealing my love of road trips even if most places on my travel agenda cannot be reached in my trusty but aging Mazda.