I live in a suburb called Observatory. Suburbs are less about Nancys with lemonade and lawnmowers and more about the distinct sections of living situations that surround the city. Cape Town and all its suburbs are built in a circle around the big and beautiful Table Mountain, and inside the curve of the mountain lies the city bowl. Further on the outskirts are townships, designated black areas to which people were forced to relocate during apartheid, which ended less than 30 years ago. Apartheid is “over” but the economic and social disparities are very much alive and kicking, largely because of the city’s purposeful spatial planning that keeps white real estate climbing and black communities hidden. Langa, for example, is a square mile surrounded by road and rail. Population is between 50,000 and 80,000, which qualifies as a town in the U.S. As the population continues to grow, the area gets more dense with nowhere to go.
The areas bordering the ocean are all inhabited by wealthy white people. Sea Point is where the rich Jews live, Green Point is for the gays, Observatory is for the Muslims and the pot smokers, a quirky Venn diagram with no middle pocket. What I love most about Obz is that it feels like a cozy town. I know Paul and Ross that run their vegan cafe, Cliff who makes tarts, and Johno who explained 5 different kids of fabric blend to me on a slow afternoon. In the mornings, I walk past the homeless couple whose dogs remember me. The liquor store owner has a parrot name Jody that likes to bite people.
I started off sharing a home with a roommate, then halfway through decided it was time for me to experience living alone. I asked Paul if he knew any places available in the area, and he reached into his pocket, handed me some house keys, and told me to let myself into a house his friend was renting. It was such a gesture of trust and care that I have never experienced from someone at my local Starbucks. I also feel I’m surrounded by real people making an honest attempt at starting their own businesses, their own art galleries, their own recipes for their restaurants. It’s an engaging and interactive place to live.
I live far from the gym, and unfortunately close to the world’s best Ferrero Rocher milkshakes. I and 7 minutes from Langa and 10 from town. There’s beer pong on Thursdays, pressed juices for two dollars, and a cafe that has bout a million books for sale crammed into the walls top to bottom.
The issue of homelessness is very jarring and heartbreaking in Cape Town, and largely in Observatory. The city issues PSAs to not give to homeless people, since there is guaranteed food, water, and showers for any and all that are in need.
On a daily basis, it can be desensitizing as it isn’t uncommon to be approached half a dozen times in a day. But in the bigger picture, living in Cape Town will never ever let a person forget about their privilege. The history of ZA segregation is bare faced in the present, with evidence in every street, restaurant, or house you point to. Minibuses can take you anywhere, and my friends who’ve spent their entire lives in Langa will say they’ve been to the beach once. Older white South Africans I met at the Waterfront will have spent 60 years in the city without having been in a township once.
I will be honest in my struggle between the balance of being empathetic and maintaining my own level of comfort and sanity. My home got broken into while I was gone. They stole $600 worth of Isaac’s music equipment, which he was using to help teach youth in Langa songwriting and music engineering (more on that later). More heinously, they stole a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t get to start yet. While feeling shaken at the lack of security and the huge financial loss (to Ikes), I also couldn’t help but understand the desperation that poorer people feel here. I attended with my Langa friends a lecture on intergenerational trauma, where the lecturer spoke about how an incident like apartheid or even domestic abuse continues to pass down trauma from parent (or lack/neglect of) to child, creating a vicious cycle of violence, need, and crime. It is impossible to distinguish the criminal actions of a person from the South African context from which it comes from. The political system spent decades disenfranchising the majority of the South African population, and its replacement has done little to help in reconciliation or access to wealth and health. People aren’t stealing puzzles to ruin my day; I live in a community where someone needs to take a puzzle to survive. It doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t cheer me up, but I believe the understanding of the “why’s” behind crime, at least in this environment, is something that I will take home with me.
On a separate and lighter note, living alone is awesome. Two days ago I baked 30 biscuits inspired by the Red Lobster appetizers at midnight and ate 10 of them. I spend my afternoons painting or reading. My smaller living space makes much harder for me to decide not to cross the room and get a glass of water. I’m more hydrated than I’ve been in years. I listen to Kelly Clarkson (2004) without headphones. And I get to use the whole entire table for the new puzzle I bought. Sometimes I dream about living here for ten more years. I try to ignore that I have three and a half months left.