7,835 miles, or to be politically correct, 12,609 kilometers. That is the distance from Philadelphia to Cape Town. Sometimes these numbers feel exaggerated. Sometimes, no measurable distance seems large enough.
Take a virtual plane flight with me. Don’t worry, there is no need to remove your shoes or undergo a full body scan. We board British Airways somewhere on the east coast. Let’s just choose Philly for convenience. It is 35 Fahrenheit outside, and the season’s 13th snowstorm bolsters Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. Skip ahead 20 some hours, a stopover in London, and the continuous stream of neck straining movie watching aboard your 737; welkom in Kaapstad (Afrikaans courtesy of Google translate).
When I got off the plane in Cape Town, the first thing I did was visit the WC. You can always tell if an airport is nice by the quality of its bathrooms. Let me tell you, Cape Town already felt like a nice city. I couldn’t imagine that my friend studying in Tanzania would say the same upon arrival. That glistening portrayal of the city continued straight through immigrations, and into the back seat of my airport pick up.
I came to Cape Town about a week prior to the start of the CIEE program, and spent my first night at the Portswood Hotel, adjacent to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. I could just have easily been staying at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Perhaps it is the American style dinner, boasting 50’s styles milkshakes that hint of globalization. Don’t get me wrong. It is an amazing waterfront. But it didn’t feel like Cape Town, or offer any expected welcome to the African continent.
Maybe the flocking tourists and their Nikkon DSLR cameras had something to do with that feeling. So at this point, I’m thinking that my read of the airport bathroom was pretty spot on, and that Cape Town is a rocking city enjoying a first world life at the tip of a mostly second and third world continent.
I did not travel to Cape Town to relax with fellow tourists. I wanted to go exploring, to see what the city had to offer, hidden behind the veil of posh stores lining the cruise-docked bay. Just a few miles away from the Portswood, I no longer felt at home. My Nikon speaking louder than my American accent, I immediately became the target of Cape Town’s poor. Beggars lined on city streets asking for a loaf of bread, offering pictures of their children, hoping empathy might spark donation. I am not the type to give money to a stranger on the street, but I often try to provide food. At home, when I offer food, many of those who scream of hunger refuse to eat, as desires fade with the dimming prospects of booze money or a pack of Malboro. Not here. There is something sincere about the desire for a muffin, or a bottle of water. You can tell in an individuals face when they are desperate, and sometimes, it is hard to resist.
I bought a muffin for one woman from a market vendor. I have no doubt that she was grateful. I was, however, unprepared for the onslaught of requests that would come from those who witnessed by donation. Maybe 10 or 15 people rose from the evening shadows, hoping to turn a tourist into a soup kitchen for the night. If I were to give to all, I would be broke. If I were to give to all, who is to say more would not follow in line. At some point, you realize that you are a long ways away from the 15 dollar appetizers of the waterfront. Uncomfortable, and with a lot on my mind, I thought I should return to my hotel. Little did I know my walk would feature an unwelcomed escort, who for 15 minutes, continued to beg me for food, letting me casually know that he did not want to resort to crime.
Cape Town is a city of dissonance. While there is a contrast between the haves and have-nots in the States, rarely do they merge onto the same block. I cannot walk to the supermarket without being asked for food. And when you come back from an upscale dinner, it often pains to feel full while seeing others hungry. You can’t stop your life because others suffer. What I have realized is that sometimes, the way in which I live my life is purely wasteful. Why do I need that extra slice of pizza? Why is my trashcan filled with partially uneaten portions? To what extent do I live beyond my satisfaction level, wasting what others yearn for?
My dissonance is living that first world Cape Town life with second world neighbors, and knowing I don’t or even can’t always do enough to help.