Cape Town – You need to experience it

I think I need to change the theme of this blog from astronomy and academics to astronomy, academics and travel.

I have to admit, somewhere in the past couple months I went from traveling a lot to traveling too much. I have acquired opinions about the wheels on luggage and the distribution of electrical outlets in different hotel rooms. I have visited cities spread across 4 continents and stumbled through eight times zones to the east and twelve timezones to the west. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve gone with friends and we’ve worked to communicate astronomy to the world while drinking local beers and devouring local foods. IYA brought me countless experiences, a now full passport, 1000s of photos, and 20 pounds. Other than the 20 pounds (And sadly I don’t mean Great British Pounds) I wouldn’t change a thing.

Not all my trips have been good. Rio left me saddened that such a great city could decay into such poverty and disarray. Shanghai I see hope for, but today its pollution and construction chaos made the city one I will wait a while before I visit again.

Coming to Cape Town, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I know this is a growing nation with excellent universities. I know that it also has a lot of social issues: huge disparity between the haves and the have nots, lack of consistent infrastructure, high AIDs rates, and is being isolated in geography, and in bandwidth. This is a country that is still recovering from apartheid, but it is recovering.

All my concerns were unneeded. I have to say, Cape Town and its surroundings have continuously impressed me.

Landing Monday, the airport felt somewhat like landing in small town America. It was small, with aggressively friendly taxi drivers, and my rush hour taxi ride across the city carried me past some urban slums (but not ones that terrified me like the post-armageddon like slums in Rio and Shanghai). These slums were houses made from found objects – scraps of aluminum and random wood – that sadly resembled the hovels seen on some native american indian reservations, and in homeless camps in and near some major US cities. But beside these slums were mostly were just stretches of urban housing, condos, factories, shopping districts and all the other signs of middle class and upper class populations.

The city is very modern looking, with impressive shipping yards, docked cruise ships, and a safe and tourist filled water front. The dollar is of value here, and food and hotels are very affordable (Internet is not! I have spent a fortune on internet, which is charged by the megabyte, after forgetting to turn off my remote backup). The people are friendly and tolerant of stupid tourists, and I have to admit, this particular trip I seem to be demonstrating the definition of stupid tourist. The first day I was here, I was so tired that somehow I managed to get from the conference room to my hotel room with my laptop and purse, but not my computer bag. When I realized this mistake after a later dinner – somewhere around 11pm – the hotel found someone to let me search the conference room. My search was to no avail. I restlessly slept, trying to come to terms with my lost beloved tumbuk2 bag. I decided it was 9X% odds I left the bag in the room, open and showing the money in its front pocket, and it had wondered, or X% that I had left it in the conference room and it had wondered. I got up the next day, accepting the fact that it was gone, and asked some locals I know how to handle the problem. Our conference organizer, the amazing Kevin Govender, disappeared, talked to his contact with the hotel staff, and reappeared with my bag. A friendly soul had seen it and locked it away safe. Having been reunited with my bag, I promptly forgot that I shouldn’t put my iPhone in the pockets of one specific pair of black trousers I own because it will fall out. My last iPhone explored both Hawaii and NY by taxi thanks to those pants, and it has landed in my sofa cushions more times than I care to think about. Nonetheless, in a moment of jet lagged exhaustion, the phone went in my pocket, we both went into a taxi, and only one of us got out. Since I just got in a taxi with a bunch of others at the curb, we have no idea what taxi company it was. The front desk of the hotel, however, has tried really hard to figure out who we should call, and has left all sorts of messages. I have to admit, I’ve lost hope on the phone. No matter – this happens – Nonetheless, I’m impressed at the honest effort the hotel has given this exhausted to the point of stupidity American. I’ve stayed in hotels more nights than I’ve stayed at home in recent months, and this level of service is rare and deeply appreciated.

Beyond the friendly humans and the overall city impressions, I have to say the geography is amazing. Hotels.com somehow managed to get me in a corner hotel room for the same price as a tiny single at the conference rate. Out my windows I have a view that spans from the ocean to the fabulous hills.It is amazing to wake each day to see cargo ships and cruise ships coming into the harbors.

Yesterday, the conference released the whole lot of us to go out and explore, and along with several new and old friends, I went on a wine vineyard (and chocolate and cheese) tour of the area. It was a fabulous day and of being in awe of geography, observing goats (a source of cheese), and drinking samples of over a dozen wines and champagnes. Our night wound down, watching the mountains fade away as the stars – Orion upside down – winked into sight behind the dramatic mountains. With the coming darkness, we went to a tourist trap for dinner, and enjoyed a buffet of African foods from across the continent and the performance of dancers doing local tribal songs and dances. (It was pointed out that the dances we were seeing shared a lot of elements with hula dance. I wonder if anthropologists can track native dance styles as a way of looking at cultural migrations). It was a good night. This weekend I’ll be going up to Sutherland to see SALT. My hope is too see an animal other than a bird that I’ve never seen before.

If you are looking for a fabulous place to visit and get offline, come to Cape Town. (And if you’re looking for a semester abroad, Cape Town Uni. is solid, so add it to your list of possibilities!)

9 Comments

  1. Otto March 19, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Get an Android phone to replace. More open platform. It’s the future.

  2. Clinton Armitage March 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    Welcome to SA. We are glad you like it. If you get up to Durban, you are welcome to look up any of our members from the Astronomical Society of SA, Durban Chapter – I, or any of our committee members would be happy to show you around.

    We went on a trip to SALT last year with Dr. Ian Glass – it was unforgettable, and i am sure you will see many of our stupendously cool fauna and flora whilst here.

    Stay safe and enjoy.

  3. Mark C March 26, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Welcome to Cape Town. Glad to know you are here and enjoying it. Enjoy SALT. I visited it 2008 with Prof Brian Warner and it was great. Can’t wait to get back there again. The night sky is fantastic there while here in the suburbs of Cape Town we miss seeing a lot of stars.

  4. Francois March 29, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    Hi

    Welcome to SA and Cape town. I hope you enjoyed SALT.

  5. John M. April 18, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Orion upside down. Wow, mindbending. Sounds like I have to add Cape Town to my list of desired destinations.

  6. Dale Botha May 21, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    A bit late but I’m glad you enjoyed it! I really is a theme I hear a lot from one-time Capetonians..that there is something intangibly magic about Cape Town and South Africa.

    I’ve been mercilessly ploughing through all the Astronomy Cast podcasts since September and furthering my education in other ways!

    Thanks!

    Dale

  7. Ed Murphy June 2, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    Just remember, we landed on the moon in 69 and didn’t put wheels on our luggage until 20 years later. Sometimes we are not as smart as we think we are.

  8. HoosierHoops June 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Hi Pam! It’s been about a year or so..
    I still lurk and I have been pushing some traffic to you….
    Hope today finds you well…
    *waves*

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