Books · Hong Kong

Ten Cities That Made an Empire- book review

At its peak, the British Empire covered territories around the whole world on almost every continent from Africa to Asia to Australia. I’m sure most of us know and have been to countries that made up this empire. However, at its core were illustrious cities like Bombay, Hong Kong, Cape Town and New Delhi, which provided the industry, commerce, and wealth that enriched the mother country of Britain greatly and allowed the empire to be sustained. Ten Cities That Made an Empire is a fascinating look into 10 of these cities that tell the story of the empire’s development.

In addition to those mentioned above, Boston, Calcutta, Melbourne, Dublin, Bridgetown, and Liverpool (the lone British city on the list) also feature. Boston, of course, stopped being part of the empire once the United States won its independence. An argument could be made for Singapore, Sydney or Kingston to be included, but otherwise the list is very sound. Bridgetown, as the capital of tiny Barbados in the Caribbean, might raise eyebrows, but having been colonized since the 17th century, it played a great role in the sugar industry in the British Caribbean, acting as a lively and prosperous shipping hub.

With three cities, India features prominently which is appropriate given its nickname as the “Jewel of the Empire.” While Bombay, now Mumbai, and Calcutta (Kolkatta) were built by the British, Delhi was a historic city that had been the capital of the Mughal Empire. The British built a new section adjacent to Delhi, aptly naming it New Delhi as its grand seat of power, a role which it still fulfills today. Cape Town in South Africa was taken from the Dutch and not surprisingly, soon became an important refuelling station for British ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope heading to the East. Hong Kong was seized as a prize of war from China’s ruling Qing Dynasty after victory in the Opium War, and hence saw its fortunes transformed from a mere fishing village to a free market business hub that it still is now.

The author, who has written several books and was a former Labour MP who is now the head of the Victoria and Albert museum, does very well bringing each city to life, showcasing fascinating historical facts and developments concerning architecture, politics, and economics. I admit I am very biased because I do enjoy cities very much, whether visiting or reading about them. Of course, there is always controversy and debate about the empire, regarding how much harm it inflicted on colonial subjects and the actual benefits that were derived from the British rule. Hunt does not vilify the empire or glorify it, though he shows how imperial officials often thought they were doing great work.

The chapters proceed in loose chronological order, and in so doing, illustrate the changing fortunes and status of the British Empire. We see how the empire develops and expands from an Atlantic slave-based power to an eastward-looking empire centered on its prized possession of India. The irony is that by starting off with Boston, the author begins with the British loss of America in the late 18th century, but instead of wilting, they went on to greater things by conquering the world. And in ending with Liverpool and its decay and slight resurgence in the 20th century, we see the empire and its power finally ending as Britain comes to term with a new era and world.

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Africa · Books · South Africa

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

Africa · South Africa · Travel

Random links – Cambodia, Cape Town, Game of Thrones

I’m in the midst of a three-day “weekend”, given due to today’s holiday which is dedicated to workers – Labor Day. However, I’m not in a very celebratory mood because right after the “weekend” ends, I get to look forward to a 6-day work week. It’s not too bad, though I’d prefer it if the order was reversed. It’s also an example of the wacky work rescheduling in China (and Taiwan) for holidays, that happens due to the need to make up days. For instance, we only worked three days this past week, but in return we have to work one more day next week, which actually meant we got one extra holiday.

Anyways, another reason I’m not in a festive mood is because on Tuesday I got hit by a car (my first time ever). I got struck by a taxi making a right turn while I was at the side of a road. It wasn’t too serious so I didn’t make a big deal out of it but the aftermath concerning the taxi driver and one of his colleagues left a bad impression on me, which I’ll probably describe in a future post soon.

For now, let me just introduce a few links.

My last travel post was about Cambodia, so it’s fitting I’m turning back to that country. Cambodia has its own version of kickboxing, Kun Khmer, just like how Thailand has its Muay Thai, but sadly this legacy was almost destroyed during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. This VICE Fightland story takes a look at a new Cambodian mixed martial arts (MMA) outfit that is already competing in Asia after having outgrown the local scene.

South Africa’s Cape Town is a cool city and it’s this year’s “World Design Capital.” I visited in 2010 and it is the most beautiful city I’ve been to, with Table Mountain looming right above and its attractive colonial buildings and harborfront. Unfortunately it’s also possibly the most divided city I’ve been too, and the inequality is still there and strong. Basically, the more well-off and white residents live within the city, while the poor live in huge township slums on the outskirts, which are a completely different world. Khayelitsha, one of the more well-known townships, has over 400,000. Conditions in the townships are rough and dangerous, and attempts to improve local infrastructure often doesn’t help and instead exacerbates the poverty and alienation of the people from the city. Back in 2010, I went on a township tour and the guide, a black South African, said some harsh things about Cape Town, such as that it is a pretty city, but it is not for black people, a blunt remark about how few blacks lived inside Cape Town. My airport driver, a white local, pointed out new homes in the townships while driving past them on the highway, and said how those were attempts by the ANC, the ruling party, to move more blacks into the region. I wrote a piece about slum tourism that year that covers a lot of what I saw in Cape Town, including that township tour.

Game of Thrones is one of the baddest TV shows out now, and along with many other people, I watch it regularly. Among its strong points are its impressive sets and beautiful landscapes, which are shot on location in Morocco, Malta, Croatia and Iceland. Yet it’s Northern Ireland that provides the backdrop for much of the show, and I confess I was ignorant about how attractive it is. A lot of those ancient cities and formidable castles and fantastic scenery in the show really do exist. I’d never thought of visiting those countries, except Morocco, but if I ever do, I’d definitely like to visit the places where the GoT scenes are shot.

China · Travel

Dental disappointment and random links

I’m still aggravated from spending over 1,100RMB (US$185) this afternoon to try and get a filling done on my tooth at a nearby international clinic, but at least I was able to enjoy the snowfall, Beijing’s first for the year and season, and a few online links.

First, the reason I had to get a filling is because my previous filling just flat out came out. It got dislodged on Wednesday in the Nanjing South train station as I was eating a salty duck jianbing (pancake) which was particularly chewy. The reason why I said I tried to get a filling done is because the dentist failed to do so, having spent over 10 minutes prodding into my mouth with a needle to apply the anesthesia without any success. She even used a second needle, as at one point she asked her assistant to change it. Admittedly the tooth is the furthest back in my mouth, but it is disappointing that a supposedly qualified and highly paid professional can’t carry out such an ordinary task.
The only good thing is because the filling wasn’t actually done, I didn’t need to pay a further 1,000 RMB. I will visit Taiwan in a few weeks so hopefully my former dentist there can help me. I’m not wealthy but the reason I went to this clinic is because I wanted to deal with an English-speaking dentist. Back in Taipei, I saw my dentist for years, having first gone with my mother, so I trusted him.

I was doing some random blog browsing earlier in the day, and I came upon a surprising bit of news about Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, who was also PM in 2006 but only for less than a year. The blogger claimed Abe resigned the first time around, because of a seriously upset stomach. Basically, he suffered from chronic diarrhea due to ulceratis colitis, a bowel disease caused by ulcers and which results in frequent and bloody bowel movements. At first, I thought the blogger was just saying nonsense to be mean, but it turns out he was saying the truth – Abe did step down as PM because of chronic diarrhea. Now I’m no fan of Abe, his policies or Japan in general, but when I read the piece, I can’t help feel some sympathy. As someone who has longterm bowel issues myself, the thought of someone suffering from a serious bowel disorder and still becoming prime minister is kind of admirable. Coincidentally, ulcerative colitis is also what forced Manchester United player Darren Fletcher to be out of football for some time. Fletcher, a Scotsman, has come back as his condition has improved.

The NY Times has a list of 52 places around the world to visit, and number one is … Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a great choice – the city is scenic, boasting the impressive Table Mountain which looms right over it, historic, and has a fair bit of culture and of course, glamor. For me, it is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to. Of course, I’m sure many of the other places listed are pretty good to visit too.

Meanwhile, here’s something about Scandinavia, specifically some negative stuff about countries that we often only hear good things about. A British writer wrote in the Guardian about problems with Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, half tongue-in-cheek and half serious, and not surprisingly, he got spirited responses from people from those countries, with a bit of banter thrown in. Here’s what they said, as well as the British guy’s defense. The Brit actually wrote an entire book about those Scandinavian/Nordic countries as well as Iceland that was recently released.

South Africa

Cape Town- beautiful but unequal

Last year, I visited Cape Town for a few days and I found it a splendid city and the most beautiful one I’ve ever been to. However the Guardian had a bleak article about Cape Town, using Desmond Tutu’s celebration of his 80th birthday last week in Cape Town to lament the extreme inequality of that city. It seems a bit harsh, but for sure there is a lot of poverty right outside the city in the vast low-income and shanty neighborhoods that include townships like Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, said to be the biggest township in South Africa with over 1 million people. The city itself is really nice and has a European or San Francisco feel to it, with good museums and scenic places like Table Mountain and the V & A Waterfront. Yet as my tour guide mentioned (and which the article also describes), Cape Town is great for tourists but not for many locals, alluding to the poor, most of whom are blacks or colored. It’s a striking example of the vivid issues and problems that afflict South Africa, and make it such a fascinating country.

Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town- the end in pictures

These are a few pictures showing Cape Town in all its splendor. This should be my last post on Cape Town regarding my stay there, but you never know.

Table Mountain viewed from the V&A Waterfront.

These signs showed testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation hearings that were chaired by Desmond Tutu during the 90s to promote reconciliation. This was part of an exhibit inside the Mandela Robben Island ferry pier.

The words on the wall at left  read: “While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.” Wise words indeed. At right is the sleek catamaran that was our ferry.

At left is the limestone quarry or “Robben Island University” where Mandela and many other prisoners taught and learnt from each other. According to the guide, the limestone posed health risks especially to prisoners’ lungs. Mandela got off lightly, because the main health problem he got was damage to his eyes and tear ducts, preventing him from shedding tears when crying. At right is a sign near the entrance to the maximum security prison.

At left is the outside of the maximum security prison. Meanwhile once we got inside, “Sparks” started off the tour by giving us a talk in a cell where 60 prisoners were kept at a time. The charts showed the specific dietary allocations for prisoners of different races. Needless to say, blacks got less than the others.

At left is Nelson Mandela’s cell, small, nondescript and toilet-less. At right is a guard tower seen from outside the compound.

It’s impossible to leave out Table Mountain when talking about Cape Town, but I almost didn’t get to go there. It rained on the day I had scheduled a hike up there and it got canceled. However, on the morning of my last day, the weather cleared up and I hastily (without any reservation whatsoever) decided to go up there. I only spent less than an hour on top and I had to rush back to meet my airport pickup (who ended up waiting 10 minutes) but it was worth it.

This is how Table Mountain looks on a good day from the area I stayed at, left, while the right-side picture shows Table Mountain from the cable car station.

People abseil (scale down a cliffside) on the side of Table Mountain facing the Atlantic. The city centre is on the other of Lion Rock, the peak in the middle.

The city centre, with Lion Rock and Signal Hill on the left, and the city’s World Cup stadium, Green Point, the bowl structure in the background middle. There is too much glare otherwise the photo would have been much better but it couldn’t be helped.

South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town- Robben Island, ubuntu, a farsical near-mugging and last thoughts

Alright, so after several posts, this is set to be my last one on my travels in Cape Town. Or maybe not because I still got some photos to put up.

Robben Island is one of the most famous of Cape Town’s myriad attractions, being where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years. It’s a tiny dot of an island just half an hour from Cape Town by ferry, but it has history stretching back over 350 years when it was used to imprison African chiefs and other high-ranking rebellious figures. It’s also a World Heritage Site.

I went to Robben Island in the afternoon after visiting townships earlier in the day, and it seemed like a good fit, in terms of the somber attributes of the places. It turned out well as I got to enjoy a spirited narrative by our Robben bus guide, slightly marred by some jackass/ rascally Argentines who probably weren’t sure why they were there, a great boat ride from and to Cape Town, and two great acts of kindness from English and South African folks I had met that day.

Going to Robben Island entails first booking online or buying a ticket that covers the ferry ride to and from the island, a bus tour and a walking tour of the maximum security prison and the very cell where Mandela was jailed. The ferry pier is at the V&A Waterfront from where you get a great view of Table Mountain. The scene of the mountain framing the yachts and elegant waterfront buildings seems so Mediterranean, though I’ve never been to that region.

After disembarking at Robben Island, we get called onto the tour buses which take us past the lepers’ graveyard, an Anglican church, the limestone quarry or “University of Robben Island” where Mandela and so many prisoners exchanged a lot of ideas, and the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in isolation away from the other political prisoners. Sobukwe was a staunch opponent of apartheid and the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a party that broke away from the ANC, so he wasn’t exactly chums with Mandela.
We stopped for a while at a place directly overlooking Cape Town, a magnificent view of the city with Table Mountain and Lion Rock forming the backdrop, while the sky took on a nice hue as the day came closer to evening. What a torment for the prisoners on this little piece of rock, to be able to gaze at such a fine scene every day and be so close. Some daring, or rather desperate, souls have tried to swim and escape, but only a handful ever made it across to land; the rest having fallen victim to sharks or the cold waters.

During the whole tour, our guide Craig gave us a superb, running commentary on all the sights. At the end, we were treated to a speech about the island, and “Mr. Mandela” and the
hopes for his country which still faces numerous problems in this day, including the effects of apartheid. The only thing that was problematic was the presence of a group of Argentine football fans who kept interrupting with their loud talking while Craig was doing his thing.

The last part of the tour was the maximum security prison, where we got off the bus, said our goodbyes to Craig, and walked inside, passing the empty guard towers and signs showing happy pictures of joyful ex-prisoners, leaving the prison for good, and then coming back to the jail for a reunion. Inside, our new guide was there and ushered us into a long cell room which was quite roomy. Of course, it had to be because it held 60 prisoners. Sparks was the name of our ex-prisoner guide, having served 7 years in Robben for being involved in the ANC militant wing. Ex-inmates always lead this part of the tour. It seems weird that they’d want to work in the very place they were locked up. I’m sure for some leading these tours serves as a form of pride or solace, to help turn their former prison into a place to educate tourists and visitors. Or maybe it was because they had been conditioned or worn down too much by their prison experience to want to go back into the outside world, said M, a black Englishwoman who I had actually met earlier on the township tour and who had strong views on much of what she saw.
I can’t deny that the touristy aspect of the tour didn’t take away from fully appreciating the historical significance of the prison. The Argentine football clowns were a big reason initially, but by the time we got to the maximum security prison, things seemed maybe a little too ordinary. We finally saw the cell Mandela was kept, which was nondescript, small (about 2.5 metres wide), and had no toilet. Bleak it was, but not really too harsh, I think.

After the ferry took us back onto shore, I was invited by M along with a young black couple from Johannesburg and their little daughter to dinner. After M’s friend joined us, we went into Spur, a local BBQ chain that has an American Wild West theme, which is really strange given we’re in Africa. To highlight this theme, every 20 minutes or so, the waiters and waitresses performed line dances to the same corny Western song. I also couldn’t help noticing that most of the patrons were white and the waiters were all black. (It’s not always a good thing to mention race but in SA it’s really relevant.) Suffice it to say that the people I was with didn’t seem too amused. I was actually the only person who wasn’t black or Africa at the table and to some of the patrons and staff it must have seemed weird, but it was all cool. M’s friend, who herself was from Zambia, came with a friend who was from the Rep. of Congo (as opposed to the Democratic Republic of Congo which is much larger and well-known, though more for its immense humanitarian tragedy) but had been living in SA for a while. This Congolese guy was friendly but didn’t have the best English plus he had a strong accent. He asked me a bunch of questions about Taiwan and China, hoping that I would have some expertise in doing business in China and could shed some light, but he was asking the wrong guy.
After dinner ended, I was planning to take a taxi home, but the guy from Johannesburg offered me
a ride. We were at the waterfront and their hotel was very close but they chose to drive me to my hotel half an hour across town in the opposite direction. African hospitality at its best, as I was experiencing ubuntu, the spirit of unity and helping others out, as the guy himself said when I asked him if he was sure it was no trouble. Ubuntu is a much-bandied about word in Africa used by black Africans to explain their sense of values, and sometimes it is mocked such as when bad things happen and non-blacks say “where’s the ubuntu?” In this case, I experienced a genuine case of ubuntu. We had an interesting conversation in the car when the guy talked about his experience working with Chinese (he’s an engineer) and how he was a little fazed and bewildered by differences. I wasn’t too surprised as it’s true Chinese and Africans/blacks have a lot of  cultural differences and I tried to tell him this but not in an overbearing way. The weirdest example he gave was about going to a restaurant in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where he was on a business trip, with a Chinese colleague when he met another Chinese person. After talking to this second Chinese, he found out the guy was from the same hometown as his colleague so he introduced them to each other, but apparently they didn’t say much. “You’re halfway around the world deep in Africa and you meet somebody from your hometown and you don’t even talk?” said my benefactor. I couldn’t explain it but maybe there was some business rivalry or something to keep your privacy, even from somebody from your hometown?

It was pity I only spent 4 days in Cape Town but I experienced a lot. The city was spectacular but it’s not immune from problems. For instance, the previous day while walking back from the waterfront to the city centre, I was accosted by a guy (not black) who introduced himself to me politely, then proceeded to ask me to give him a few rand …. or else. I walked off and he followed me, escalating his threats and pulling on my jacket. It was almost surreal as the guy and I traded comments – “just give me a few rand, sir” “I don’t have” “don’t f*cking lie” “don’t curse me, leave me along” “you better give me a few rand or I’ll stab you and take all your money” “I don’t have any money, why do you think I’m walking in this rain” (it really was raining though I did have some money) – while walking, looking like we were two guys  having a normal conversation though it was like an attempted mugging by intimidation. We went on like this over a walkover, then crossed one street while passing some people until we reached a point where seemingly there was nobody. I panicked internally, then looked to the side, saw a car dealership in an office building, and walked into it. The jackass, by now it really had descended into a farce though at that exact moment as events were unfolding it seemed much, much worse, threatened to walk in with me but as soon as I opened the door, he pulled on my jacket and said something like “don’t leave me, please!” That was the last I saw or heard him because I walked up to the receptionist in the lobby, told her what happened and basically pleaded for her to call a taxi. She told me there was one just up the road and I basically went nuts because after all, I just came in from that same road to get away from a potential mugger. “It’s only right up the road” she said. “I was just being harassed on that road and you’re telling me to go outside again” was what I said. In the end, the taxi was literally right up the road and I took it to my hotel. Writing about it now, it seems kind of ludicrous but when it was happening it was quite scary. I couldn’t help thinking, is this really happening to me, and any minute I expected him to pull out a knife or something.

Nothing else bad really happened, other than passing a crime scene downtown where I saw a body lying on the ground surrounded by police (the guy was part of a gang who robbed a store and fired on the cops who fired back) and on my first evening, walking back from a nearby restaurant to my hotel and passing several guys standing in the middle of the road begging. This is a relatively upscale area and it shocked me because during the day it seemed really safe (it was). It was unnerving to see it take on a much different “ambience” in the evening (about 7 which is not late at all) with the beggars standing around.

Ironically, it’d seem like I had so many negative experiences in Cape Town whereas I didn’t have a single similar problem in Durban or Johannesburg, but this is only because in Cape Town, I did a lot of walking around by myself. If I had done the same in those other 2 cities, who knows what bad things might have happened to me. Don’t take this to mean South Africa is fearfully dangerous. It’s not. It does have high levels of crime so you do have to be alert at all times. But it’s not as terrible as some media reports may make it out to be and once you get past the apparent and high levels of security measures and worries, and take necessary precautions, you’ll be ok.

South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

The other side of Cape Town

I wrote about this back in June, but I’ve decided to put up a more detailed post. As I said before, Cape Town was really spectacular and it’s my favorite city, hands down. Its beauty is tempered by the fact that, just like other cities in South Africa, it has a significant amount of poor and working-class people who live in townships outside its city center. One of these townships, Khayelitsha, is even believed to have a million residents and is considered the largest township in the country (Soweto is a collection of townships so it doesn’t count). The townships are literally an entirely different world from the city proper that’s just 15 minutes’ drive away. And yes, I know that’s probably become such a cliche when talking about SA but it is true.

I did a township tour that started with a visit to the District 6 Musuem, that’s profiled in an earlier post. After getting a sense of how insidious apartheid was during its time, we were taken to the physical manifestation of the apartheid policies in the present- the townships. Driving into Langa, the oldest in Cape Town, it didn’t seem that bad at first. There were a lot of modest one-story brick and concrete houses on decent paved streets. The more we saw and the longer we spent there, the less “idyllic” things seemed. There were a lot of small shops and stalls selling things like vegetables, snacks and drinks, call centers (for people who don’t have phones) and even barber stalls. There weren’t any formal businesses such as supermarkets or restaurants. Eventually we saw a lot of shacks, made of wood or galvanize, as well and wooden outhouses.

At some parts, there were wooden shacks built in the backyards of regular brick and concrete homes, suggesting either more people coming in from elsewhere or a problem with the homes. It wasn’t that the townships were giant slums with overflowing gutters and garbage everywhere, like what you’d see in parts of Nairobi or Mumbai or along the Beetham (Trinidad),  but there was a sense of sterility that accentuated the people’s poverty. Originally residents had been forced into these areas in the past and I’d think that for the previous government, these areas warranted not much beyond basic infrastructure. You also need to remember that people didn’t come here by their own free will originally, they were forced to come here.

Some regular houses, left, and an apartment block by one of our stops. Both are in Langa, a black township.

The unemployment rate is high in the townships, above 40% for adults according to Thabani, our affable guide. But he also stressed that contrary to the perception that many of these unemployed people weren’t looking for jobs, a lot of these people couldn’t get jobs because of a lack of education. Under the Bantu education given to blacks during apartheid, subjects like maths and science weren’t really taught, in order to keep them uneducated and to train for manual work as opposed to the medical or engineering fields. Thabani wasn’t shy about telling us about apartheid and its effects such as his defense of jobless township residents above. Though he was a funny, talkative guy , this tour wasn’t about laughs and kicks as he gave a continuous, stirring commentary on apartheid, the townships and the nation that included an optimistic view of where the country and its government was heading.

Of course, the tour wasn’t just a running commentary on the nation’s ills, but consisted of several actual stops. In Langa, we visited an arts centre, a kindergarten, a “hostel” (but not for backpackers), and an apartment. Then Thabani drove to Gugulethu township, another black township, and stopped at two memorials of people killed by opposite sides of the race divide, the first was for 7 young ANC activists who were ambushed and killed by police, and the second paid tribute to an America grad student who was killed by black radicals.

While Langa, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha are black townships, we also drove through a colored township. This was another aspect of government policy during apartheid where blacks and coloreds not only had to live in townships, but were forced into separate ones. Nowadays, people can move around freely, but the majority of people in each township are still of the original ethnicity.

A “hostel,” left, and the van we came in, with a partial view of Table Mountain, in Langa.


Another of our stops was a kindergarten, which was surrounded by a wire fence topped with razor wire. Outside the kindergarten, a little guy ran up to me and made me take his picture. For some reason he didn’t attend the school.

Inside the kindergarten, a group of kids sang, then these two did some dancing whilst the others continued to sing. On the right, this was one of the better houses in the township.

The decent houses soon gave way to shanties and shacks like these. At right, a shack sells bags of oranges, one of many little stores.

It’s easy for some to see these kind of tours as a bit of poverty “porn,” making a spectacle of poverty and hardship. There is a little element of that, but I think a big part of these township visits is getting an indepth look and understanding of something that’s a major part of the society. Besides the fact that these tours contribute something financially to the communities, these tours let tourists and visitors pick up some social awareness as well. I’ve seen poverty close-up before, both in Trinidad and Toronto, but the visit to the Cape Town townships was unique and troubling.

Even in a sprawling collection of township houses and wooden shacks, Table Mountain looms splendidly.

Some more wooden shacks, left, and recently-built government-subsidized houses, right.

This is part of Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town and probably, all of South Africa. In the right-hand side photo, a line of portable toilets are clearly seen, for the use of residents of the shacks, I’d think.

South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town museums- part 1

The attractions of Cape Town are so numerous that it’s not surprising that it often warrants a whole section in many South Africa tourist books, even exceeding the entries for whole provinces. Table Mountain, Robben Island and Cape Point are the most famous places to visit, and Long Street and the V&A Waterfront (you take the ferry to Robben Island here) are other well-known places to check out.
Besides these, Cape Town also has a number of worthy museums and historical buildings to check out, which shouldn’t be surprising given its long history and status as South Africa’s first city hence its nickname. The following were the ones I managed to visit during my all-too-brief stay there.

South Africa Museum

I was very impressed by this museum, which features a strong range of natural science, archaeological and zoological exhibits in really modern and well-maintained surroundings.
Skulls, skeletons, fossils (real and replicas), and rocks are certainly aplenty.
The most eyecatching set is three complete whale skeletons (the largest being that of a 20.5m blue whale, the others being those of a sperm whale and a Southern Right whale) hung up in one part of the museum (see the first picture).
The Cape is an ancient area, so when it comes to dinosaur fossils, geology and anthropology,
it has a rich heritage and source of artifacts that the museum is able to showcase.

The Charles Darwin exhibit that describes his life and details his visit to the Cape in 1836, and had an enormous pair of horns from the now-extinct Cape buffalo, that lived until 12,000 years ago.
The dinosaur section had several fossils and replicas, but the thing that really struck me was a unique kind of pre-dinosaur creature that was the ugliest I’d ever seen. Looking like a mix between a pig and a dog, the dicynodont was a mammal-like reptile herbivore that wandered the vast Karoo plains (the expanse of land that extends across much of the Western Cape). According to the museum’s information, these creatures lived 50 million years before dinosaurs and eventually one group of these creatures evolved into mammals. As mammals include us humans, it means the dicynodonts are our ancestors! Some people already have enough trouble
with the possibility that we’re descended from apes, so it’d probably be even more disturbing if they heard about these creatures. Strange that I’ve never heard of them before.

Somehow I really  don’t find these  creatures appealing in any way.

The zoological exhibit has a room full of stuffed African animals ranging from a tiny hedgehog to antelopes and even lion and elephant. Pretty much every African mammal is represented. There are also animal skulls including one shelf lined up with skulls belonging to large antelopes that amply shows off their massive and impressive horns.

The museum is located right inside the Company Gardens, a large rectangular park which boasts many historical buildings and attractions, such as the National Gallery. Taking a walk straight down the Gardens takes you past the South African Parliament and into the city centre.

That’s the museum in the back center, with part of Table Mountain on the left and Lion Rock on the right. In the foreground is the Delville Wood Memorial, which honors the South Africans who died in a bloody World War I battle of that name.

Alas, these fine dinosaur skeleton frames are replicas.


Slave Lodge

Housed in a renovated complex built in 1679 that was used to hold human slaves, it came as no surprise that the first floor is mostly dedicated to the history of slavery in the Cape.
Besides displays and exhibits on slavery itself, there is also a room full of objects from other parts of Africa like Mozambique, India and SE Asia, mostly Indonesia. These were where the slaves came from, though most of them were from Asia. I never knew slaves were ever taken from India and SE Asia so this surprised me greatly. This slave trade was conducted by the Dutch East India Company, not the British, though they and the Arabs certainly indulged in a lot of large-scale slave trading. Later at Robben Island, itself a prison for unruly slaves, I saw a display listing global slavery sites in which Cape Town was included, along with Bahia (Brazil), Mombasa (Kenya), and places in Ghana, Senegal and Mozambique.

The Slave Lodge is the elegant but unassuming building with the black door.


Map showing where the slaves in Cape Town were bought from.

At that time, there was a special exhibition on Nelson Mandela, which I would later see again in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. This exhibit is a series of photos and informations that show Mandela’s life from his early tribal upbringing to his student and ANC militant days until his ultimate triumph as the president of South Africa and an international statesman runs until December. The displays really revealed Mandela as much more than just the gentle, elderly, always-smiling icon that most of us are probably most familiar with  (I didn’t know too much about his life). Some of the more striking parts concerned his ANC militant career, he was the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe their militant wing, and his time on Robben Island which was pivotal in changing him, especially in softening his character and making him more conciliatory and open-minded. Surprisingly in one of the last displays about his presidency, Mandela’s flaws are described including being slow to deal with the AIDS scourge, a tendency to be autocratic but on the other hand, also to be too trusting.

The 2nd floor has several extensive collections of European items such as musical instruments, watches and jewelry that hark to the Slave Lodge’s past as a cultural history museum.
They weren’t too interesting to me and made a peculiar contrast with the first floor’s exhibits, given the name of the museum and its purpose is to show the history of slavery in Cape Town.
It wasn’t until I asked a friendly museum staff that she told me the antiques were from when the Slave Lodge used to be the SA Cultural History museum. Before then, the lodge also used to be a government office and housed the Supreme Court, which I think is quite an illustrious history for a rather modest building. Some Egyptian antiques, weaponry from all over the world and even Chinese ceramic wares were also on exhibit.

The 2nd floor also had a gallery of newspaper cartoons about Nelson Mandela. Many of them are witty, but my favorites were one with China’s president giving Mandela a medal for “struggle against oppression” while a Chinese officer looking on whispers to a colleague “lucky he’s not Chinese” as a pair of hands belonging to a “dissident” are seen clasping onto the jail bars of a building at the side, and another showing Mandela looking down on a giant called Apartheid, who he has just vanquished a la David against Goliath, except that behind Mandela, an even larger giant looms, so huge and mencacing that only the legs are visible. The name of this new giant- crime. While the cartoons were all drawn by one artist, a Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), I’d think that South Africa must be a heaven for political cartoonists because they have so many famous and notable politicians.

The Slave Lodge is located near the South African Parliament on Adderley Street after you exit the Gardens (no need to cross the road).

South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town Museums- part 2

District 6 Museum


Filled with vivid color and imagery from floor to ceiling, the District 6 Museum pays tribute to an entire neighborhood where over 60,000 non-white residents were made to move away in the 70s. Under the Group Areas Act under apartheid, District 6 was declared a whites-only area so non-whites had to move out. The people of District 6 were dispersed towards the townships outside Cape Town.
As soon as you enter the museum, you’ll notice a 2-storey “tower” made up of street signs at the center across the room. You also won’t fail to be hit by an array of images, photos and banners all around you that convey the soul and vibrancy of the neighborhood that used to exist here.
There are several striking exhibits including a map laid out on the main room, 2-storey-high banners and photos, portraits and voice recordings of former residents describing their lives. It’s said that the district was a lively place and the displays project this really well, making the knowledge of their fate even more poignant.
The building, which is over 170 years old, used to be a church which the window at one end of the 2nd floor (and its surrounding images) somehow gave me a sense of.

As I mentioned before, this place is really colorful but it had an impact on me beyond pure aesthetics. It’s impossible to fully grasp how ghastly it is to force out people of an entire area until I was in the museum looking at their pictures and reading their stories.
Frankly, I wasn’t too interested in this museum when I was researching places to visit in Cape Town but the museum really impressed me so I was glad to have gone, albeit as part of my township tour.

Castle of Good Hope

Really a fortress than a castle, this nevertheless imposing star-shaped structure was a military base built in 1666 for the former Dutch VOC (Dutch East India Company) rulers of Cape Town. Now, the castle functions as a multipurpose museum, workshop and a base that is still used by the South African army.                                                                                  After crossing the green-water filled moat and entering the castle’s gates, you’ll see the interior is filled up by a courtyard while rooms line the surrounding walls. The courtyard is bisected by one section that runs from one end to the other end, and you can walk through this section to the other side of the courtyard.
It is also possible to get up and walk along the top ramparts, which are still decked out with ancient cannons. Unfortunately the weather was bad and I had to curtail my stay on top because of rain and get back down without completing the walk around.

The flags of South Africa, apartheid-era SA, Holland and the UK proudly flutter along this wall.

The exhibits on show include displays in the military museum, Cape Town’s New Year Carnival (until Jan. 2011), and the William Fehr collection of old paintings, furniture and other household items that belonged to and exemplify the luxury of Cape Town elites in the 19th century.
The military museum is small but informative, as it was here I learned how Cape Town became British.
There is an impressive display of British regimental regalia including weapons, uniforms, medals and even a full-size horse (stuffed or model, I’m not sure) with saddle and stirrups. Besides that, there are displays on the Khoi-Dutch, Anglo-Dutch battles and Anglo-Boer wars. The Anglo-Dutch battles led to the British taking Cape Town, while the Anglo-Boer war was when the British defeated the Boers/ Afrikaaners (descendants of the Dutch settlers) who had formed republics in the South African interior. The British defeated the Dutch in a battle (Muizenberg) in 1795 near Cape Town, took Cape Town which had been in Dutch hands for over 140 years, then returned it to the Dutch in 1803. Then again in 1806, the British fought the Dutch again (Blaauwberg) and took Cape Town for good, until South Africa’s independence. All this was due to political and military events in Europe and this would turn out to have a major influence on Southern Africa, as the British capture of Cape Town was the springboard for its expansion and colonization of the region.

The castle is near the City Hall and the train station. It took me about 20 minutes’ walk from the Slave Lodge as I had to turn into some side streets, which caused me a little trepidation even though this was Cape Town, and passed a magisterial court.

The interior of the front wall, left, and one part of the military museum.

Cape Town’s City Hall, seen from the street just outside the castle, left, and looking at the same city hall from on top of the castle wall.

So besides the museums that I visited, there are still several good ones that I didn’t have the time to go to.
There’s the Bo-Kaap Museum, located in the colorful Malay Muslim neighborhood of the same name that, not surprisingly, showcases the residents’ heritage, the Gold of Africa Museum that shows off gold artefacts from Western and Southern Africa, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, which is a memorial to the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust and a few others. To put it frankly, Cape Town just has too much places to check out.