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March 30, 2005

Cable Cars, Lentil Soup and Bart Simpson

Cape Town, South Africa

Wednesday, March 30, 2005:

I snuck out of the hotel at 7:30 AM, relieved to successfully avoid running into rambling psychotic Robert in the dining room. I took a cab back to the lower cable car station at Table Mountain ( where about 50 people were lined up ahead of me at 8:00 for the first car up to the top at 8:30. It was sunny and clear outside and I was among the first 65 or so passengers to ascend the side of the mountain in a shiny blue cable car with a spinning circular floor that rotated around the inside as we went, providing us with views all over the city, Table Mountain Bay and the mountains nearby, including Devil's Peak and Lion's Head. Vertigo sufferers take note: This ride is definitely not for you.

A large modern building at the top featured various tourist shops and restaurants. A sign pointed visitors out onto the flat, rocky surface of the mountain, featuring winding stone paths though a bleak landscape of rock and spiky green and yellow flora. I stopped to peer over the ledge as I walked catching incredible views for miles around. As I walked I noticed a few smally, furry rodent-like creatures perched on top of a rock, regarding an approaching five year-old child with expressions of aprehension, fear and possibly anger. The child's father barely caught the tike before, I suspect, he wandered too far into their territory for the animals' comfort. As it turns out, these little guinea-pig/rabbit-like specimens were hyraxes or "dassies" --- the closest living relative to the elephant(

I enjoyed some incredible views over the city and, from the other side of Table Mountain, the western False Bay side (starting to stretch south down the Cape Peninsula toward Cape Point). But this only last for 10 minutes or so. Then, with startling rapidity, a series of clouds covered the top of the mountain in a thick smoky fog. I could see it begin to happen --- wisps of vapor seemed to suddenly come shooting up the sides of the mountain like steam escaping from some gigantic tea kettle below. Then a mist blanketed the surface. This was the infamous "Tablecloth," as they call it, and when it is in full force, or when the fierce Cape Peninsula winds pick up, the park shuts down. An alarm is sounded from the upper cable station building signaling visitors to return, at which point they are shuttled quickly back down to the bottom. The alarm didn't sound while I was there, but the Tablecloth didn't relent and the few views I could catch of the landscape below, while still impressive, were heavily obscured. I waited for a while, sipping a coffee in the lodge, but eventually called it quits and took the next car down. The nearly instantaneous change in the conditions at the top reminded me of what I had read about the Cape Peninsula: The weather is notoriously unpredictable and that is why so many old ships lie wrecked at the bottom of the ocean all along the coast. In fact, the Cape of Good Hope (Cabo do Boa Esperanca) was originally named the Cape of Storms (Cabo do Tormentosos) by Portugese sailors until, in an early example of public relations spinning, the king of Portugal decided that any location so vitally important to the trade of the empire (it being the route to India and the Orient) should have a more upbeat, uplifting name. "Good Hope" sounds so much more warm and fuzzy, I'm sure you'll all agree.

As bad as it seemed at the top, it was still sunny and clear at the bottom. In fact, the clouds above just crested the surface of the mountain, almost seeming to rest on top of it. I took a taxi to the foot of the hills and walked around the suburb known as the Gardens for a while.

I checked my map and realized that I was in the vicinity of a number of museums. As I had heard very good things about it and was close by, I decided to visit the city's South African Jewish Museum ( first. While I thought it would be interesting on its own, I had also seen several advertisements on posters and in newspapers for a temporary display on Japanese miniature carvings (Netsuke) the museum was exhibiting.

At the gate onto a campus consisting of the museum, a synogague and a separate holocaust memorial, among others, the security officer searched my bag thoroughly, checking just about every object and the inside of my camera bag. I then entered the museum, payed an $8.25 entrance fee, and found myself among a crazed host of 70-something year-old women in a temporary exhibition room filled with informational panels detailing the life of Helen Suzman, a one-time opposition member of the South African parliament who was, during portions of her career, the only vocal opponent of apartheid. I read quickly and somewhat fearfully of being overrun by the mob. I then hurried off to try to see the museum a step ahead of the 40 or so ladies behind me.

The museum focuses on the origins of South Africa's not insignificant Jewish population, most of which came from Lithuania and other eastern European nations between the 1890s and early 1930s, before restrictive laws were put in place to preclude further immigration by those fleeing Nazi Germany. One exhibit goes so far as to recreate and furnish several shacks typical of a 19th century "shtetl." Other exhibits discuss political and other roles played by the Jewish community in the history of South Africa. For the most part, the museum focuses on secular, cultural aspects of Judaism rather than religious ones. It is more a museum of the immigrant experience than anything else, though another strong theme is the relationship between the struggles against anti-semitism and apartheid.

The Netsuke (pronounced "net-skay") exhibit was stunning. Over one hundred minitature carvings, predominantly in wood and ivory and dating from the 17th to 19th century, were displayed behind a series of glass-covered shelfs running the length of one long wall. The miniatures were originally worn on the kimonos of the Japanese as a form of decorative jewelry, but the practice eventually died as Japan entered the modern world following the arrival of Commodore Perry. For a look at examples of Netsuke (though these are generally not as impressive as the master works in the collection are) see the following link: .

I stopped for some lentil soup in the museum's cafe before seeing a short film on Nelson Mandela in the museum's ampitheatre. I then went to the Holocaust Memorial (in a separate building nearby, admission free) where I spent nearly two hours (much longer than I intended to spend) reading the panels on the history of the Holocaust, Hitler's rise to power and World War II. A video at the end of the exhibit gives narrative accounts by five survivors who now live in South Africa. The display is well done but not the sort of thing to be described in detail.

When I left the museum it was pouring down rain. I caught lunch at a sandwich place named Mr. Pickwick's, where most of the sandwiches are named after Charles Dicken's characters. I then decided to head to a travel/tour company to see what options there were for the next few days in the city. I went to "Adventure World," down the street from my hotel, where the agent handed me a pamphlet filled with a ridiculous number of options. Aside from tours of the city, its suburbs and surrounding winelands, one could (1) canoe, (2) ride horses, (3) golf, (4) whale watch, (5) fly fish, (6) deep sea fish, (7) hike, (8) go on a safari, (9) sky dive, (10) dive in a cage with sharks, (11) bungy jump, (12) abseil, (13) rock climb, (14) paraglide, (15) hang glide, (16) mountain bike, (17) kite surf, (18) sandboard, (19) surf, (20) waterski, (21) scuba dive, (22) sail, (23) go on a helicopter ride. There was more, too. A lot more. It almost made me dizzy.

"Umm," I said. "Umm." In the end I decided to take it easy with some relaxed tours of the area. I could work my way up for something a little more exciting later on. I signed up for a tour of the townships around the city on Thursday, then a trip down the Cape Peninsula to Cape Point on Friday.

When the rain had let up a little, I walked down to St George's Mall (not an actual indoor American-style mall but a street lined with shops) and saw the infamous Brett Murray statue, Africa, which had been placed there in 2000. I won't bother trying to interpret it here, but the thing is just weird. The black sculpted figure of a semi-naked man stands stoically in the style of more traditional African tribal works while numerous yellow heads bearing eerie likenesses to Bart Simpson's sprout up out randomly from its legs, arms, shoulders, back, stomach, etc...

All of this is just to show that Cape Town is a diverse, eclectic place. I had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant, Cara Lazuli, that resembled the Manhattan restaurant Chez Es Saada. The food was better and cheaper, however, and thankfully there weren't any tacky belly dancer shows to keep me from my seafood tagine.

Posted by Joshua on March 30, 2005 06:25 AM
Category: South Africa
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