Sometimes I look back on my past experiences and think: Wow, I was wise beyond my years. What foresight! What maturity! My semester abroad in Cape Town was not one of those experiences.
Cape Town is arguably the least fucked-up place in Africa, but is still completely backward in most ways. The government is corrupt, racial tension is high, the economy is unstable. Although Cape Town is a beautiful, modern, civilized city, it retains an undeniable lawlessness. That’s exactly why I chose it.
My study program provided housing in the shadow of Table Mountain on Upper Liesbeek road in a neighborhood called Rosebank. “Upper Leez” was right on the border of Rosebank and Mowbray, a noticeably more dangerous neighborhood. Walking to the main road from Upper Liesbeek, it was best to always head left (South) toward the University of Cape Town and student-studded neighborhood of Rondebosch. If you took a right you found a crackhead with Hepititis C, black wife-beater, and eight-inch kitchen knife in a snakeskin sheath.
My neighbors named the crackhead Jeremy and nicknamed him Cyclops. He lurked outside the 7-Eleven around the corner from our apartment with his slimy fiend apprentice, Nightcrawler. We quickly became accustomed to run-ins with this muscly, yellow-eyed horror show. Some days he’d politely ask us for change. Some days he’d be passed out on the ground. Other days he’d be foaming at the mouth and threatening to rape us. We never knew what we were in for.
Although we spent most of our time fearing stabbings, technically we were students at UCT. I stopped taking school seriously on the first day, when I learned the grading policy. 70% and up was an A, and it tapered down from there. So you could work your ass off on an English essay and some stuck-up professor who begged to differ with your analysis of his favorite J.M. Coetzee novel might subjectively give you a C+. Or you could take “Critical Thinking,” an introductory logic course with two simple multiple choice exams, miss 30 questions and walk away Valedictorian. I still regret not joining my roommate Josh in his African Drumming workshop. Suffice it to say we didn’t learn much in school.
Our rat and roach-infested apartment was on the street level by the train station. My room was on the corner; the gamut of shady characters I saw prowling through Upper Liesbeek Road was discomforting to say the least. Cyclops threw us a block party every night and invited his entire extended family of druggies and convicts. I was frequently awoken by midnight threats shouted in drunken, clicking Xhosa. I don’t think they were directed at me, but I never drew my curtains to find out for sure. Sometimes I grabbed the bars on my windows and prayed. After a handful of student apartments were raided, construction began on a new burglar gate. We were all thrilled about this addition. Unfortunately the gate was completed only two weeks before my departure from Africa, and even then did about as much to stop a burglar as Britney Spears can do to stop the paparazzi from snapping pics when she’s flashing her snatch in the middle of Times Square.
Josh and I managed to find ways to entertain ourselves, grilling kudu steaks nightly in the cement ruin that was our back yard, renting mediocre movies from Mr. Video (between the 7-Eleven and KFC, across the street from the cell phone and leather jacket store), and, in instances of extreme boredom, throwing glass dishes nonchalantly at the living room wall. We fueled our BBQ with Namibian coals and our restlessness with five dollar fifths of Black Horse vodka.
One night every week, at an unreasonably inconvenient hour, the power went out. We lit candles and crushed cans of Castle Lager, feasted on pre-cooked Bratwursts and smoked bad hashish. We purchased all our combustibles over the counter from Brother Isaac. He’d buzz us into his Rasta dispensory, treat us like old friends, then charge exorbitant prices for quarter ounces of his latest inventory. Cyclops always knew when American exchange students were heading to Isaac’s. On those days he was incredibly well behaved.
Mini-van taxis cruise up and down the main road. We called them “Wynbergs,” which is what the money-collector sitting shotgun would scream out the window, indicating the last Southbound stop. We’d cram into the vans with two-liter homemade rum and cola concoctions, heading, for all we knew, into the Heart of Darkness. We always ended up on Long Street, where we wasted no time pounding Car Bombs in the Irish pub and devouring spicy street-vendor shawarma. I recall having an entire conversation with a young African boy in complete silence. He stared at me imploringly, then sprinted away. I chased him, weaving through crowds and drawing the attention of police, who immediately assumed I had been robbed. No, Officer. We were just playing some friendly tag.
I was fascinated by the race relations in South Africa. I really wanted to understand the complicated post-Apartheid dynamic of whites and blacks in Cape Town. One night Josh and I heard about a house party in our neighborhood. It was St. Patrick’s Day, which meant nothing to anyone but us Americans, who jumped on any excuse for belligerence. I was dressed in a green polo shirt and silly Seattle Supersonics headband. We arrived at the party and were the only white people in sight. So what? We came all the way there and it looked like fun. When the bouncer refused to let us in, I suggested quite boldly that he was being racist. “Is it because we’re white?” I persisted. “No, Dave,” Josh interrupted, “it’s because of your stupid fucking headband.” The bouncer laughed in agreement and permitted us to enter. Inside, Josh found some girls from his drumming class with whom we drank flasked Havana Club rum and danced in joyous unity.
I lifted weights at The Zone in Rondebosch. It was a small gym usually packed with behemoth African warrior-types hurling insane weight with egregious form. I got strong with them. We blew out our backs together. Upper Liesbeek was where I ate and got robbed and slept; The Zone was my real home. I’ll never forget the grunts and groans I heard in that gym. It sounded like a battlefield. I debated about MegaGrow protein shake flavors and asked to work in on the pulldown machine. I refused spotters and flexed aggressively. I had no choice; I was in The Zone.
The gym motto was “Eat or be Eaten.” I followed it. After every workout I went home to grill disgusting quantities of ground beef and chicken breasts. The Braai (Afrikaans for “barbecue”) became a ritual. Everyone had their own braai technique. I went for variety, Josh went for size. He invented what he called the “Big Papi Burger,” which was essentially an entire packet of ground beef artfully molded into a single plate-sized mound. In an impressive display of prudence, Josh grilled himself a Big Papi Burger and put it in the refrigerator so that when he got home, drunk and hungry from a night on Long Street, he would have himself a feast. When he stumbled in to find that his Big Papi was missing, he was enraged, and naturally blamed me, his only roommate. When I arrived in a separate taxi, he attacked me in the street, yelling “DID YOU EAT MY BIG PAPI BURGER?! DID YOU?! TELL ME!” I squeaked out a “no” and tried to remind him we were friends as he choked me on the pavement. The next morning I found Big Papi in the microwave. Josh apologized. We cracked a couple Castles and laughed it off.
As the semester was winding down and we were running out of activities, Josh and I decided to go all the way to Wynberg in a Wynberg. It was an ugly neighborhood offering few attractions. Josh spotted a manikin in a pile of rubbish and decided he needed it. This discovery justified the whole journey. The problem then became, how would we transport the manikin back home? It had to come with us in the taxi. We paid for three and laid “Jacob Zuma” across all four rows of seats until we reached Upper Leez once more. When we exited the vehicle, Cyclops spotted us, and, for the first time ever, looked positively delighted. A few days later we threw a farewell party in our apartment and stood President Zuma up in the bathtub because, you know, This Is Africa.
Am I proud of this debauchery? I am not. Am I ashamed of this debauchery? I am not. There is nothing wrong with being drunk and immature as long you pass your classes and don’t get stabbed by a crackhead. Add a stroke to my score for Africa. I’ll take a mulligan. It was worth it: I gained eleven pounds. I saw Akon perform live on his native continent. I swam with whale sharks and jumped off a 700-foot bridge. I got my laptop stolen and my apartment fumigated. I bribed policemen to avoid arrest. I taught English to some kids who didn’t know it. I developed color blindness and ate animals until I became one. I lived in Africa, made a fool of myself, and loved every second of it. Now I mount my Black Horse and ride on.