I just got back from my month-long visit to Cape Town. As my friend and collaborator John Xia put it this was my “vacation from [my] second job.” By this of course, he meant open source scientific software development. Hopefully I didn’t shirk my duties too severely during this month off. And if I know you from these communities and you live in the Western Cape, I am sorry for not contacting you! This was a much needed recharge month.
So how was it?
It was hands down, no fooling, rock solid, cross-my-heart brilliant!
Cape Town is a fascinating city and I believe that the people and attitudes are positively influenced by its geology and geography significantly more than in other, lesser cities. Approximately 10% of the city by area (mostly in the west and south) is occupied by Table Mountain National Park and another 10+% is in other protected wilderness areas. This is combined with a long and winding and stunning coastline and a Mediterranean climate.
This means that people who live beyond the lentil curtain and in the False Bay (Valsbaai) area in the south are beautifully sandwiched in an region approximately 1 km thick. Sea & sand on the one side, 1000+ meter peaks in nature reserves on the other side. In the course of three hours one can easily dry off from an afternoon of surfing by scrambling up to an overwhelming vista, fall back down the mountain, put on a swimsuit, and paddle around tide pools during sunset.
Such close and easy access to nature seems to have a deep effect on the culture. Imagine if you plopped a national park right in the middle of Los Angeles, which is the US city with the closest population size to Cape Town. Suddenly people might enjoy being outside, have a fundamental respect for nature, and nice beaches might not just be a pleasure afforded Malibu. I think that this is exemplified by Slow Life, my favorite café in Muizenberg, where the simple act of living is supposed to be pleasurable.
Now don’t get me wrong. South Africa still has major political and social issues to work through. However, it is fairly clear that the average citizen of the Western Cape has internalized America’s best idea far better than most Americans. This is highly commendable and I keep a good hope that it holds up to further industrialization and development.
In many ways I felt at home. It is socially acceptable to be vegan there in a way I have seen rivaled only in Austin. Linguistically, the Afrikaans and English mix in a way that is pleasingly reminiscent of the English-German-Yiddish pidgin that I speak with my family. There is a metro light rail system that is good enough. The distances between the tiny stads are very walkable. You can hear the glorious waves crashing while you lie in bed, making it a suitable replacement for Santa Barbara.
However in some ways my Cape Town experience was better than home. Exhibit A: penguins in their natural habitat. Nope, we don’t have those in ye olde Northern Hemisphere.
The wind itself, a proud force of nature, must be Exhibit B. In Chicago, the wind is mostly artificial - caused by the many sky scrappers and thin streets - and is occasionally enough to push you off your bicycle. In False Bay, the wind is often enough to push you off your feet. You can feel this on the beaches where the sand rips your skin and see it in the mountains as the cloudy tablecloth flaps on a gargantuan scale.
I could continue to expound on the many virtues of Cape Town and my visit. In the interest of time I’ll fast forward to my last action-packed weekend. This was the one weekend where I rented a car and left the city. The first stop on this trek was the Vortex’s “Open Source” 5-day trance party. With a name like Open Source how could I not go? It was a bit like Flipside’s sound camps but without the gift economy and less variety. This made the festival convenient if not communal. Still South Africans are pro at these events. They have at least one a month, often in beautiful natural environments. I was intermittently there for only two days because I decided to do my first ever bungee jump!
On the way back from listening to the same bass beat over and over again, I decided to take a 100 km detour to see the southern most point in Africa. This has the distinguishing feature of being the divider between the Indian and Atlantic oceans. This makes it interesting because unlike other natural critical points I have visited (ie mountain tops), this is a critical point for land, sea, and air simultaneously! This was just another pretty beach in the same way that a mountain peak is just another unmatchable vista.
Finally, no discussion of South Africa over the past month would be complete without mention of Nelson Mandela’s passing. The reaction was touching, immediate, and sustained. In all corners of life there were memorials, remembrances, and commentaries. Even at the trance festival there was a florescent finger paint cloth memorial sponsored by Greenpeace which anyone was free to add to. The memorials were a good mix of mourning and celebratory remembrances. The Onion put it well when they said that he became the “first politician to be missed.”
At one point my dad asked if I would visit the exhibition of the body and pay my respects as I had a car at the time. I had to explain that I was not going because it would be at best 6 hours out of the way. To which he responded, “Six hours? Six hours! The man was in prison for 26 years and you can’t drive six hours!” Thanks dad…
As a US citizen, I found it quite surprising how much press President Obama and his visit was getting. It often seemed as though radio broadcasts would favor President Obama speeches over President Zuma ones. Several South Africans mentioned to me the novelty of being in the same country at the same time as Obama. As Obama’s former neighbor on the south side of Chicago I thought this was pretty funny since I spent most of my time wishing Obama wouldn’t come home. It was always a huge traffic and security headache when he did.
All in all, I was very happy with my trip. Ask me more about it sometime. Cape Town is undeniably special.