Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Five Days in Cape Town

The first thing everyone in Cape Town wants to tell you is how friendly everyone in Cape Town is. They’re a bit obsessed with friendliness, these Capetonians, and although they tell you this thing about everyone being friendly in a very friendly kind of a way you get the sense it could start to become tiring or feel a little bit aggressive if you had to spend more than five days in the city, which I haven’t.

I say “these Capetonians” like someone who has recently completed a census but in my five day stay a good 70 per cent of the locals I dealt with were the taxi drivers who ferried me from hotel to conference centre, conference centre to drinks, drinks to dinner, dinner to more drinks, drinks back to my hotel. It doesn’t seem fair to judge a city on its taxi drivers and in the case of Cape Town it would be more or less impossible: those I encountered didn’t seem to fall into any one category or share any particular characteristic, apart from the aggressive friendliness I mentioned before. There was the driver who listened to rap music very loudly, singing along and using the steering wheel like a drum when we stopped at the traffic lights; the driver who couldn’t write a receipt and seemed dozy as fuck in a dozen other tiny ways that made me slightly nervous in the back seat where I was pretending to read my Kindle, the driver who watched me walk into a pole but was too polite to laugh; the driver who didn’t say anything except for the number on the meter at the end of the trip and the driver who told me the story about American tourists asking him if they had computers in South Africa. He was my favourite.

My least favourite was the driver who picked me up outside the Cullinan Hotel – one of the many quite posh CBD-adjacent hotels in South Africa, where I’d been having drinks with finance-types, including one I’d supposedly met in a bar a month or three earlier and who had attended my school but who I did not remember and could not have picked out of a line-up (which gave me some pleasure because 1)he was super dreamy and successful in a way that made me feel unreasonably irritated by him and 2)I later met a friend of his who told me Dreamy Stranger was a massive player, thus semi-justifying, I felt, my unreasonable irritation.)

I digress. I was leaving that party and en route to another when this crappy driver picked me up outside the hotel. His maxi taxi was already mostly full of passengers, one of whom leaned out the window to ask if I was heading towards the Waterfront and wanted a lift. Writing this on the plane home from Cape Town (ten hours to Dubai, an hour stopover, another ten hours back to Perth next to a women who won’t stop sniffing – use a tissue) it seems like a really stupid thing to have got into a taxi with these strangers who turned out to be part of a Virgin crew in town for a few days (“We’re Virgins” they told me within 30 seconds of my getting into the front seat) but could just as easily have been murders and/or rapists. But at the time they looked too fresh-faced and wholesome and young to be white-slavers. And they were lovely, these Virgins, so if the taxi driver hadn’t turned out to be a total dick by double billing us in a really gross and duplicitous way, I would have had fond memories of our little 15 minute drive together. Instead the experience left a bad taste in my mouth so that the next time a taxi driver told me, over his shoulder while changing lanes, how friendly South Africans were in general and Capetonians in particular, I only smiled and didn’t say a word.

The other thing about Cape Town everyone wants to tell you is how beautiful it is and they’re right. So long as you have money in Cape Town everything you see is liable to be beautiful: hotels and apartments are stacked up around the water like South Africa’s answer to the Amalfi Coast and the view of Table Mountain from my hotel bed every morning is one of the better things I’ve ever seen, including the two days I spent working on Company magazine’s Bachelor of the Year photoshoot. (You can get little hints of how it might not be so beautiful in Cape Town without money only on the ride to and from the airport because the drive takes you close to the slums, which look exactly like you’d expect slums to look. It is possible to go on tours of the slums, which I was assured are nowhere near as gross and exploitative as they sound but I opted not to because, you know, it sounded gross and exploitative.)

The seals outside my hotel window were my favourite thing about my view of Cape Town’s harbour, although I never really figured out if it was the same two seals there every day - alternately swimming around and sleeping on a low-lying wooden structure I guess is probably not a jetty but which I’ll call a jetty because I don’t know how else to describe it - or a whole lot of seals that only ever appeared two at a time. I tried not to anthropomorphise the seals and make them into Mr and Mrs Seal but it was hard because they looked pretty comfortable snoozing together in the sun. When they weren’t sleeping they’d be doing somersaults in the water and waving their flippers around like the world’s laziest semaphore practioners. What I’m trying to say is: they were freaking adorable and if I could have found a way to slip them into my luggage and bring them back to Perth with me I would be rubbing Mrs Seal’s belly right about now.

Drive an hour out of Cape Town and it gets more beautiful very quickly. South Africans are proud of their Stellenbosch wine region, which looks incredibly beautiful unless you’ve spent much time in Margaret River or the Yarra Valley and then it just looks very pretty.

Wine tasting and lunch had sounded like a pretty cruisey way to spend the day right up until the point where I realised it was me and 49-odd dudes, including exactly two I’d met before.. On the drive up I talked to Trent in the seat in front of me, who was expecting his first grandchild and… Ben?... across the aisle, who had been cage diving with great white sharks off the coast of the South African coast. At the first winery I talked to two analysts from BCF whose names I’ve forgotten about Cape Town generally and the Mining Indaba conference in particular, including some semi-disturbing stories from last year’s conference that I won’t forget in a hurry. At the second winery, where we stopped for lunch I wound up next to a Canadian geologist who gave me the best explanation of the US housing crisis I’ve ever heard and I think we got along pretty well generally right up until the point I realised I’d completely forgotten to take the photos intended to accompany an article and had to snap them all in two minutes, half cut, before we all got back on the bus.

On the way home I slept for an hour, oblivious to the fact I was being whisked past some of South Africa's most expensive real estate. Back in Cape Town, with the bus parked a five minute walk from my hotel I woke up groggy and disoriented, along with the rest of the bus, wishing I was at home in Perth where it was possible to hang out with people with whom I didn’t have to make small talk.

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