Sunday, November 05, 2006

Downtown Cape Town: The Freedom to Take a Long Walk Around
Walking around downtown DC and my neighborhood in the days since I've been back, I realized one of many things I appreciate and love about my current home is its relative safety. Even after midnight, even dressed up, I can usually stroll a few blocks from Metro to home without fear, just a common-sense level of caution.

Not everywhere in the world can one do this. The photo above is of a flower market in Cape Town a few blocks from my downtown hotel. Like all my city photos, it's taken in the daytime. The flower market packs up at dusk, as do most pedestrians.

Before I left, I was corresponding with some locals and a DC friend who'd traveled in South Africa about my plans to take the Cape Town City Metro train, rather than an organized day tour, to Simon's Town to see the penguins. Lonely Planet had said it was safe.

"You CANNOT take the train."

WHAT? I thought. It's a metro train. The penguins are going to mug me?

My local friends expounded: On the train, commuters are often held up by random and robbed. Occasionally one is thrown from the train. Even the walk to and from the station can be sketchy - the city recently announced a program in which one can be escorted these few blocks.

I thought the crime rumors might be overstated. International visitors often think the U.S. is dangerous because we're all allowed to carry guns, and the news always goes nuts during the freak occasions when we shoot each other up. "No, really - this DOESN'T happen every day" I'd assure them.

But crime was definitely an every day issue in South Africa. Every house and business was distinguished by a big ADT sign and barbed wire atop a tall fence. Sometimes you could peep through the iron bars and wire to see a ferocious wolf-dog guarding the driveway. And every tour guide who drove by the metro station and its tourist-tempting flea market gave a stern warning: "Don't go there!"

"Arghhhh," I eloquently reflected one night at the hotel bar. I thought of the great neighborhoods with art galleries and cafes our minivan passed earlier. If this were the U.S. or Europe, I'd be on foot, enjoying the great weather, taking a stroll around this beautiful city, dropping into a coffee house or jazz club.

But I figured out the taxi system and adapted. In the end, I remained safe and merely inconvenienced for several days, unlike the folks who live there and deal with an issue every day that makes it difficult to run a business, make a living, protect their homes and families and go about life as usual.

Here's a horrific crime story that was all over the news the night I arrived in the country.

Nelson Mandela wants you to click here.

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