As a Young Woman Should I Travel Alone to Cape Town, South Africa?
Parents warn you, Don’t do it, it’s not safe. Friends who you don’t want to be friends with anymore insist, Don’t do it, you’ll get AIDS. No one ever tells you, Don’t do it, you’ll fall in love. But that’s what this guide is here to do.
Cape Town: Geography
Yes, the ocean and the mountain and the nature preserves. The pictures on the guided tours look beautiful. These diversions are always around you, but it costs money to a) get on safe transportation (usually private transport can get you somewhere quicker, but there isn’t one option that would be considered “safe”) b) get an entrance ticket c) get safely back.
Wealthier Americans can afford all this—and every European you’ll meet certainly can. You can’t. So banish them from your mind. Your mind should focus on city life in Cape Town Proper.
Apartheid divided up Cape Town and its suburbs, physically, by racial classification. And of course, access to resources and income were divided along these lines as well.
It is true, and significant, that these boundaries are not legal anymore. Yet they are still very much in place. They are socially and economically enforced. Very rarely do people from different groups—even different economic classes from within the same “racial” group—get to interact. You will see these dividers every day, without truly fitting into the system. It will be uncanny to you at best. It will be dangerous for you more often.
Cape Town: Transportation and Safety
If you are an average-sized white American woman, you should never walk or travel alone. But you will. You’ll have class or an exam or a crippling hunger and need groceries.
You will be a tablespoon of honey next to a steaming garbage bin. Men will approach you like flies.
They’ll follow you around campus trying to figure out where you’re from—Germany, they insist for some reason. Please marry them and give them money and take them to Germany, please.
Wild-eyed children will grab you by the hand and insist that someone is calling out to you across the street, he knows you, just get into his van.
Leather-skinned men will pan-handle you by pushing you, screaming in your ear, or grabbing at your ankles on a busy commercial street.
Men with knives will jump you repeatedly on your way to class. They’ll take petty things—pens, tampons, course work—and threaten your life to get them.
You may try to dress like a boy to avoid violence at every turn. Sometimes you pass. Sometimes men with knives mess you up all the same.
Cape Town: Weather
Your home is a studio-efficiency with your boyfriend. You met in class, fell in love, things moved fast. But here your small living space is called “A Bachelor Flat.” The names makes you giggle but also makes you realize that the idea of a woman on her own in this city is simply unheard of.
Oh but lucky you: Greenpoint is all seabreeze and white mist. It must be pretty along the strand but you’re too terrified now, you never go anywhere. One day you spot dots of black mold on the walls and ceiling. The fuzzy tendrils grow and spread.
You ask that boyfriend to accompany you on your walks. He insists you’re needy and take up too much of his time (though he is happy to light you up a joint as soon as you’re back home.)
You will get to know the acronym PTSD in and out. You’ll never sleep again. You’ll sleep too much. You’ll sleep through your exams you’re too scared to walk to. You’ll sleep through meals you can’t afford to cook.
You’ll fixate on the open windows in your flat. Someone could break the hinges, you see now, and climb right in. The windows stay locked day and night. The water from the electric kettle will make steam. You feel tired and heavy and yet you will still breathe in and out. You hate him now but your Cape Coloured boyfriend will keep breathing in and out.
Moisture sticks to the walls and condenses on the windows. You will never air the place out—too dangerous. The moisture clings and cloys. The walls are green and black now, alive. More alive than you.
Cape Town: History
The specter haunting each of these categories is a 500-year history of slavery, deprivation, and social engineering along ethnic lines. These boundaries were formed in the most arbitrary of ways (you’ve seen pictures of the pencil-in-the-hair-test in several museums) but had real and devastating consequences.
All this of course leads to trauma. It infects every South African you will meet, in one way or another.
The trauma will mug you at gunpoint for things like a cigarette lighter, a 5-rand coin. It will follow you down the street and pull on your arms and rifle through your pockets in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, because it is strung out and desperate and willing to get violent.
The trauma will drive you in a car with no seatbelts, smoking weed out the window, speeding down the N2. The trauma will not care if anyone in the car lives for another hour. The trauma will threaten to leave you at the carnival if you don’t get back in the car after it has had nine beers in an hour. The trauma means it.
The trauma seeps out of your intimate partner. It wrestles you to the ground to take your debit card, because it knows there are a few dollars there yet, and it NEEDS to go out for a drink, NEEDS it.
Withhold Judgement, Become Immersed in New Cultures
Your boyfriend will bring you to relatives’ houses and disappear with the men. They have whiskey, they have rugby and satellite TV. You are left in the kitchen, with the other women. On a merciful day they will ignore you, gossiping in Afrikaans. You dread the days when they notice you, because that’s when the claws come out.
Your hair grows straight, which they envy, which they tell you they pay for, so how dare you enter this house with it tied up or back. You owe it to them to brush it out and leave it for them to tug on. Your skin is blotchy—make it clear up. Be pretty. Be honey. Be a woman who never leaves the house and enjoys it.
You’ll have to be a guest but you’ll also have to play host. You learn that you must maintain a tea set on a tray. The tray seems to grow heavier each day. It is replete with tea bags, instant coffee powder, a sugar bowl, a creamer, a carafe for hot water, and an array of spoons. Every Cape Coloured girl knows this, and you’re taking an eligible (unemployed) (alcoholic) (depressive) bachelor away from them, so for God’s sake, don’t be an embarrassment on top of that. Serve his relatives. Serve well.
You’ll break down and sob that South African society has the most sexism you’ve ever even heard of. You’ll be told Shut up, your first-world second-wave feminism is destroying indigenous cultures, and you need to slice more lemon wedges anyway, and make sure you offer black tea as well as rooibus, as long as you SHUT UP.
You’re the only one bringing any money in—through student loan refunds and credit card debt. You obsessively budget for each meal. Bread for two; coffee for two; rice for the week.
Are you joking? Mothers on this street make feasts every night of the week. You’re pathetic, it’s not enough.
You’ll put on the kettle to make tea, though releasing more steam makes the black mold worse. Set up the tray to offer to guests. You’ll suffocate, or you’ll leave.
Either way, why not have some tea first?
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she's been writing creatively ever since. She's the blog editor at Newfound Journal. Her full publications list lives here: http://lolionthekaap.blogspot.com/p/creative-writing.html
Follow her on Twitter @lola_epp
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