At first glance, The Zebra Crossing was just your regular hostel. Fifty beds, small lounge, small kitchen, little courtyard for the smokers. But like all good hostels, it was operated with love. And like all hostels operated with love, it became home.
It was Doniel who checked me in. The cheeriest of smiles, caramel skin, short shoulder length hair, a pair of warm eyes behind black rimmed glasses. As she showed me the bathrooms, she reminded me Cape Town was in a drought, and not to shower longer than two minutes. Then she showed me the kitchen, and reminded me to wash the dishes with the tap off, and use as little water as possible. And I knew she loved working in hospitality. I knew that, because when she showed me to my room she said, “I really love working in hospitality!”
That’s how I met Doniel.
My room had eight beds but was empty, except for one other guest, presumably female, who looked like she’d been there a while. She had those Arabian looking blankets hung around her bunk like curtains, and all her clothes folded neatly on the bed above. It’s an oddity to find someone who actually unpacks in a hostel dorm. When you see it you already know; that person is either very strange, or a first time traveller, or is living here.
That night I learned the owner of that bed was a black South African woman, tall, skinny, an artist, maybe in her forties, very upbeat, chatty, vibrant, and I was right, she was living here in the hostel, and working here too, and had been for some time. Out in the courtyard late that evening, I sat on one end of the couch, wrestling with the wifi, and she sat on the other, puffing on a cigarette. And in between wifi signals and puffs of smoke, we started talking. An hour, and then two, and maybe three.
That’s how I met Stephanie.
A few mornings later, I was, as usual, on my laptop in the lounge. I’d been in Cape Town three or four days now, and spent the mornings sitting against the back wall, at the large wooden dining table, with full view of the room, and anyone in the room with a full view of me. When Doniel arrived for work that day she walked through the lounge to reception, and we exchanged good mornings. Then just after her followed a young woman, strikingly pretty, with pale skin and a sharp nose, dark straight hair that fell to her shoulders. And I wasn’t sure if I should also say good morning to her, so I just smiled, and she smiled, and then she was gone.
A few minutes later, she was back. And Doniel was teaching her how to fold the big stack of sheets sitting on the couch, and how to make the beds.
“Are you working, Brendan?” Doniel finally asked, in between folds.
I nodded, and she smiled, saying, “Whenever people need to work, that’s always the spot they sit in.” Which led to a conversation about what I do, and all the questions that always follow.
“That’s so interesting. I’d love to learn something like that, I have so much time these days.”
“I can sit down with you some time, and show you a few things, if you want.”
“I would love that.”
And she turned to the pretty girl and said, like a big sister, “See! You should talk to people more often. You never know what you might learn.”
Not long after that, Doniel left to attend to something else. And the pretty girl suddenly became chatty, asking me all sorts of things.
“So what’s your name, by the way?”
“No Erin, with an R.”
So we chatted for the morning, while she folded sheets, and wandered in and out of the rooms, making up beds for the guests who were to arrive that day.
That’s how I met Erin.
It was later that same day a gentleman came into the lounge to lay on the couches. I was still on my laptop, sitting in the same spot, against the back wall, at the big wooden dining table. I’d seen him wandering in and out of the hostel in the previous days, but we’d never crossed paths in a way that required me to introduce myself. But now here he was, sitting right in front of me.
“I’m a driver,” he told me. “I drive people around for the same rates as Uber, so if you ever need to go somewhere, call me.” At first I had no intention of calling him, since using Uber was already so easy, but as we talked I learned more about him, and he explained “I tried to apply for Uber, but they rejected me because my car is too old, only people with new cars can apply. So I started my own thing with the hostels and I find my own customers. Because we need to hustle, right? We can’t let this capitalistic world keep us down.”
And I thought to myself, “This is a man with his mind right, and the right kind of energy to be around.” And I decided right then I would surely call him for a ride any time I got the chance.
That’s how I met Craig.
It was probably after a week, at the incessant pleading of Doniel, that I finally got off my laptop. I hadn’t been further than the supermarket down the road, and Doniel convinced me to at least do the free walking tour.
As I was sitting on the couches tying my laces and getting ready to leave, Craig went rushing out the front door, and yelled out “Sharp!” as he ran through the lounge. Then he popped his head back in and said, “You learned that yet, B?”
“In South Africa, when we say bye, we say sharp sharp! It means like, everything’s cool.“
So I repeated after him, “Sharp sharp” and the cleaning ladies on the couch opposite me cackled with laughter, before Craig also joined in with a giggle.
“You got it,” he laughed. “Alright, I’ll see you guys later. Sharp.“
Cape Town is an odd kind of city; it feels big, and modern, but is built in patches of nice and not-so-nice. As I walked down to the centre I found myself on streets with cafes and juice bars thinking, “What a nice street”, but would continue onto the street right next to it and think, “Maybe I shouldn’t be here.” Luckily it didn’t take long to get to the centre, where I quickly found the cafe with the big umbrella, the words “Free Walking Tour” plastered across it, and the walking tour manager standing under it with her walking tour clipboard.
“Is it your first time doing a tour with us?”
She was maybe 5’1 or 5’2, plump, buxom, big round cheeks and small eyes, a little afro dyed blonde with the cheekiest smile on the street.
“Okay just sign up here,” she said, handing me the clipboard, “And we’ll be starting in about ten minutes.”
I overheard her say something in another language while I scribbled my name on the sheet.
“What language is that?”
“Yeah it is!” she laughed.
“And your haircut is cool. Like Chris Brown’s, but cooler.”
And she put the clipboard down and hooted with laughter.
That’s how I met Florina.
I did the Apartheid Tour that afternoon; we walked past the court where various Mandela trials took place, the site of apartheid founder Verwoerd’s assassination, the now demolished counter-culture hotspot of District 6. It was my first look at downtown Cape Town, and again, something struck me about its streets I couldn’t quite put my finger on; a fine city, well built, just a little neglected perhaps, like a really nice apartment that hadn’t been cleaned in a while. You’d walk past a street with a really nice hotel, and the whole street was colourful and polished, with fancy coffee shops and park benches and big tall trees, and then you’d turn the corner and it was back to the colour of old concrete.
When we got back to the cafe, Florina was still standing there with her clipboard. It was as if she were a permanent fixture on that street, like a lamp post or a statue, always in the same spot, under the same umbrella, with the same smile on her face. It was now nearing 4pm, and she told me the Bo Kaap tour was just about to start. I thought, “How proud Doniel will be, that I did not one, but two walking tours today,” and signed up for that tour as well.
The Bo Kaap is the Muslim quarter of Cape Town, where the Indonesian and Malaysian slaves were housed 300 years ago, the streets still lined today with the world famous colourful buildings, the old mosques, and an endless stream of tourists selfying their lives away. That tour took us right until sundown, and when the day was over and I was back at the dining room table, nursing tired legs and flicking through my photos, I thought, “Doniel was right. What a great idea that was, to finally go out into the city today.”
The next day I was in the city again, this time to finally start my shopping for AfrikaBurn. This was why I had come to Cape Town; to attend this week-long cultural gathering in the nearby Karoo desert. I still had a few weeks to prepare, but also had an entire shopping list of supplies I hadn’t touched yet. Doniel suggested I head to the Grand Parade, where the second hand market came alive twice a week. We had walked by there during the tour the day before; it was the site of Mandela’s famous speech the day he was released from 27 years in prison.
I got there and wandered through the square and surrounding streets, surveying the street stalls and prices, the jewellery, jackets, bags, all things I needed in abundance. I didn’t buy anything that day, but the following day I returned, a greater idea of what I was dealing with. One thing I needed was gifts, to give to the many people I would meet in the desert, so just off the Grand Parade I stopped by an old jewellery stand that had given me the cheapest prices the day before.
I asked again, “How much for these?” and he said “Twenty rand” like he had the previous day. They were bracelets with lettered beads, that spelled out names, hometowns, quotes.
So I asked, “Can I give you my own words to write?” and he said “Of course, I can make anything.”
So I said “If I buy twenty, how much?” and he thought about it for a second, and said, “Fifteen rand.”
And I nodded and said, “What about if I buy fifty. Will you do them for ten?”
And he looked at me again to make sure I was serious, and then said, “Okay” and told me to come back in four days.
That’s how I met Adam.
The next day I was tent shopping in the city, and Adam’s shop wasn’t far from where I was, so I went to see him again. He had already threaded a few bracelets and showed them to me, and as I was about to show him a mistake I overheard him speaking to his friend. It was Swahili, so I asked, “Are you from Kenya?” and he said “No,” with a smile. “We are from Tanzania”. Immediately my heart lit up, Tanzania being a second home of mine, and at once I could suddenly see it in his face and hear it in his accent, and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before. So I introduced myself, as an adopted child of Moshi, and an Mbongo, and a Chaaga, and him and his friend laughed, as it must always be a novelty to see someone with my face speak their language.
And from that point Adam and I were friends, and I would stop by in the afternoons almost every day, he would invite me to sit with him at the back of his stall, teach me how to thread bracelets, ask me about Moshi, and it seemed there were Tanzanians all around this street; they would stop by and say, “Hey, you’re the boy from Moshi?” and I would laugh and say “Ndio!” And they would giggle and say to their friends, “Aisee mchina anaongea Kiswahili” (Man this Chinese guy speaks Swahili!).
The following week, I finally ventured further out from the centre. There was a local suburb called Wynberg in the city’s south, with a couple of second hand stores I wanted to visit. I hoped they would have the extravagant coats and hats and boots I wanted for AfrikaBurn, the kind the city’s shops weren’t extravagant enough to sell. I went into reception that morning to ask Doniel if there was a bus, and how to catch it, in fact I’d already started shouting my sentence, “Hey, Doniel” before I even walked in the door. But to my surprise it wasn’t Doniel sitting behind the desk, it was Erin.
She looked up startled, then smiling, stopping my voice in its tracks.
“Oh. Good morning,” I said.
“Hey. You’re still here?”
She had a thick South African accent, the rolling of her R’s extra clean and extra sharp.
“I thought you’d left.”
And distracted by a pretty face, I ended up sitting there talking to Erin all morning. And I learned she was barely out of school, and didn’t actually have a job at the hostel, but was related to Doniel through a marriage, to a cousin, or something similar, and she had a daughter, and a boyfriend, or fiancé, I don’t quite remember. But what I noticed most was how she had seemed so painfully shy the first time I met her, and now, she literally talked non-stop, with great energy and gusto. And by the end of that morning I had become seemingly good friends with Erin.
“So can you tell me how to get to Wynberg?” I asked finally.
“I’ve never heard of it, where is it?”
“Uhh. In Cape Town.”
“Yeah but….say it again?”
She screwed her face up, and started typing something into Google.
“Erin you can’t be a hostel receptionist if you don’t know where Wynberg is. What if a guest, who’s not as nice as me, asks how to get to Wynberg and you can’t help them. That will be such a bad Tripadvisor review.”
I leaned over the desk as she pulled up the map, and I took the mouse from her, scrolled east, and then down, until it was bang in the middle of the screen.
“That’s W-I-N-E-berg!!!!” she screamed. It was loud enough that I pulled away, thinking she might attack me, or at least continue screaming for a few more sentences.
“But it’s spelt Winberg,” I laughed.
“Oh my god it’s Wineberg you can’t even read.”
“Winberg Wineberg. Same thing.”
And so we sat there arguing about how to say Wynberg for another half hour, before I finally left to the centre to catch the bus.
Getting around Cape Town isn’t difficult, but can get confusing for a newcomer. There’s a rapid transit system, but it’s confined to the central suburbs so most people use buses. But they use minibuses or vans as their buses, and they call these buses “taxis”. Which means they can’t call actual taxis “taxis”, so they call them “cabs”.
On the walk down to the city, I passed by the walking tour cafe, and of course Florina was standing there, with her clipboard, under the big walking tour umbrella.
“Hey Chris Brown.”
She laughed her big hearty laugh and hugged me.
“I’m heading to Wynberg,”
I pronounced it correctly this time, feeling like a proud local.
“Why the hell are you going to…Wynberg?”
“To go clothes shopping.”
“Yeah there’s a second hand shop there.”
She looked at me skeptically, and then finally nodded and said, “Okay, it’s easy, just go to Grand Parade and get a taxi.”
“But it’ll be way too expensive,”
“It’s only 20 rand for a taxi,” she frowned.
But after looking at me again for a split second she figured out what was happening and said, “No baby, not a cab, a taxi.”
It was only a flashback of a vague memory from Uganda, where I remembered having a similar confusing conversation – as in Uganda they also called their buses taxis – which made me click and I said, “Oh! A taxi is like a bus, right?”
And Florina laughed and said, “Yes, exactly.”
Adam’s shop was also on the way to the bus stop, so I stopped there quickly to say hello. He showed me more of my bracelets, which looked good, and as I left I said, “I’m off to catch a taxi to Wynberg” and he nodded, like there was nothing odd about that sentence. So as I left I said “Sharp!” and again he grunted like that was a perfectly normal thing for me to say. And I thought to myself, “Yes, I’m finally sounding like a real Capetonian.”
That bus/taxi ride was like a mini tour of outer Cape Town; the streets outside the city were much rougher, much emptier, more run down, a little less welcoming on every front. A far cry from the boutique malls and cafes of upper Kloof Street where the hostel was, and what had become home. Wynberg turned out to be rather busy, and didn’t feel dangerous, though didn’t feel completely safe either. Although nobody really looked at me too funny, and I figured it was all in my mind, that I would be just fine, and I was just fine.
When I got back to the hostel that afternoon with my bag full of steampunk clothes – furs, plaid shirts, vests, boots – Doniel, Stephanie and Erin wasted no time diving into my costume planning. I had merely gone to ask Erin for a pair of scissors, but then Doniel came in and started looking through everything, and then Stephanie joined in, and suddenly all three of them were onto those clothes like it was crack, and they couldn’t stop, and there was now nothing more important to them than dressing me up and making me look fabulous.
“No, no, you can’t sex that one up. This one, put this one on.”
“Yeah that one.”
“You can definitely sex that one up.”
“Maybe cut the sleeves off.”
“And wear this around your wrists.”
Snip snip snip.
“Open the chest a bit.”
“Oh yeah, that’s hot.”
“Now I want to go to Afrikaburn too!”
“What if you put that one on top?”
“And then the vest.”
“I don’t think he needs the vest.”
“Okay there. Like that.”
“Gotta show his arms, definitely.”
“There we go.”
“I love it.”
And I thought to myself, “This is what it must be like to have sisters. Wouldn’t it have been nice, to have a sister or three.”
From then on I found myself walking into central Cape Town almost every day. It was a fifteen minute walk from the hostel, and now that it was familiar it always felt safe, the police on each block making it feel doubly so. However, I always made sure to avoid the infamous Long Street, tourists conjugated there, and locals knew it, always roaming that street to ask people for spare change or food. The walk downtown always took me along the same route, where I would stop and have a hot chocolate with Florina, and then stop and chat for an hour with Adam, say hi to some of the other shopkeepers in the market I’d befriended – the sock lady from Cameroon with whom I practiced my French, Banks from Nigeria who sold me my jeans, the Kenyan guy on the far end of Grand Parade – then I’d do some costume hunting through a few stores before finally heading to the supermarket to buy dinner and head back home.
One night, after cooking dinner, I went to sit in the lounge with a tea and a bag of rusks. The rusk is a South African snack, like a hard, dry, slow baked cookie. It was something I did almost every night, and this night Craig was in the lounge too, chilling with his iPad on the couch. At the time around ten exchange students from America were also staying in the hostel, and one of them was sitting on the opposite couch, chatting with him. It was dark, as we never turned the lights on in the lounge for some reason, and I couldn’t see her well, but she was tall-ish, and slender, and dark skinned, and pretty, with a young face, and sat abnormally upright, and had large bountiful hair tied in a bun atop her head. As we introduced ourselves she asked, “What are those?” and I told her they were rusks, and she should try one. She hesitated for a long time, maybe five, ten minutes, then she came over to look at the bag, but didn’t take one, and then went to sit back down. How odd, I thought to myself.
That’s how I met Zawadi.
The next night, while I was cooking dinner in the kitchen, I got to know Zawadi a lot better. It was somewhat serendipitous as I had found myself thinking about her that day. I was cooking steaks and avocado, and while I stood in the kitchen eating she came in and stood with me. It turned out she wasn’t so American after all, but Kenyan Ethiopian, which gave us much to talk about, and after finishing half my plate I realised I was being rude and asked if she wanted some. She smiled and she nodded, so I cut her a piece of steak and handed her my fork, and she ate it happily.
So I cut her another piece of steak, this time with avocado, and I should’ve known as a Kenyan she would love avocado, I handed her my fork, and again she ate it happily. And we talked a lot that night, and I felt my mood lift whenever she entered the room, and sadden when she left. And I found myself thinking that night, “There’s something quite special about that Zawadi.”
The following day I asked Craig to take me into Observatory. Observatory was an up and coming bohemian neighbourhood in Cape Town, a short drive out of the city centre. The main street was filled with chic bars with semi overpriced cocktails, cafes that served vegan burritos and turmeric lattes, op shops with funny names, but the wider area was filled with lower priced flats and apartments, so a lot of people seemed to live in Observatory too. I was heading over there for none of those things, though. My mission that day was to get a haircut, and Observatory was home to the only Korean hairdresser in town.
Craig was already at the hostel waiting for me when I woke up. That was the thing about Craig – he took his job seriously. Never forgot an appointment, never showed up late. The other great thing about having Craig as a driver; every ride was a tour of Cape Town.
“See that hospital, the world’s first heart transplant was done there, right here in Africa.”
“That restaurant there, they do a huge ostrich burger for 100 rand, with fries and everything!”
“Look up there, our three mountains, you hiked any of them yet? Lion’s Head, that’s the best one.”
Craig was a gentle soul. Forty-ish, probably, and skinny, with cleanly cropped hair and a boyish smile. He wore glasses with large lenses, and was always dressed casual – sneakers, chinos – but always clean and crisp. But the most notable thing about him was his zen – always peaceful, always smiling, always polite – he let off such a zenful energy it made you feel zen as well.
As we pulled up to a traffic light, he took half a chocolate bar sitting under his dashboard and held it out the window.
“Hey, come, have some sweet,” he shouted.
A young woman begging on the footpath jumped to her feet and ran over to take it.
“It’s funny you know, we eat chocolate all the time, but for them it’s like such a special thing.”
Craig was what old South Africans would describe as “coloured”; someone of mixed white and black ancestries. During the apartheid era, every person had to carry a ‘passbook’, which said which group you belonged to – coloured, white or black – and that determined whether you could enter the white areas of town, whether you could vote, and so on.
“What about me, would I be coloured too?”
“For you man, I think they had a separate one, like Chinese or Asian or something. But they would have treated you like a coloured.”
“But you know what,” he continued. “Sometimes when they ask that question now on forms and stuff, I just scribble out all those boxes and write over the top in big letters, SOUTH AFRICAN.”
That night, I had plans with Stephanie. A platonic affair, at least I’d guessed so at the time. I had been sitting in the lounge one morning, probably eating rusks and doing nothing, and Stephanie had come in looking for me.
“Do you want to go to this with me?” she asked.
She showed me a poster on her phone. It was for a singer named Ernestine, performing at an arts weekend that Friday.
“She’s a friend of mine. Something South African for you to see. I think you’ll love it.”
“Sure,” I said.
But it was Craig that would tell me several weeks later, as he dropped me off at the airport, “You know, Stephanie had her eye on you…talked about you a lot, said she thought you would be the sweetest catch.”
Some weeks earlier, I had been down in the city chatting with Florina and her clipboard; she was with a friend that day, and the two of us ended up going for sushi while we waited for Florina to finish work. But we ended up staying there drinking tea and eating sushi rolls until after dark, so I had to call Craig to drop her home. The next day Craig said to me when I woke up, “Got your lady friend home safe” and Erin overheard, then tried to give Craig a little grilling.
“Craig is a proper taxi driver, and taxi drivers always keep secrets,” I said, and we both laughed, and Erin rolled her eyes and gave up. So I didn’t miss the irony, that on my final day there was Craig, the secret keeper, bending the code and divulging a little secret to me before I boarded a plane to leave.
Of course Craig knew it was all harmless, Stephanie nor I could hardly have cared, and I was glad Stephanie asked me out that night, because it was the kind of night I loved but would never find on my own. Craig dropped us off at the theatre around six. Stephanie was a perfect lady, bought the first drink, was a delight to talk with, and she was right about the music; Ernestine performed a lengthy set with a full band, with many stories, a joy to experience. I was starting to learn this about Cape Town – it was a city rich with experiences, and a true melting pot, it had everything you needed or wanted. It was all just a little hidden. You needed a little help to find it.
As my departure date to AfrikaBurn approached my packing list still had many things unticked. One afternoon while in the city shopping, again, I swung by the walking tour cafe to visit Florina and her clipboard.
“Just…nobody has what I’m looking for,” I told her, exhausted.
“Well what are you looking for?”
“I need a bag, but like…a cool bag. And a scarf, but a cool scarf. And just, lots of cool stuff.
She nodded and checked the time.
“Plus everything gets wrecked in the desert, so needs to be cheap. But still cool. You know?”
“C’mon, I’ll take you somewhere,” she said, putting down her clipboard.
“Aren’t you working?”
“There’s still two hours before the next tour starts. C’mon.”
We walked downtown, past the Grand Parade and into a busy street I’d never been to before. Into a big mall, then up a pair of escalators that led to what looked like an abandoned second floor. As we strolled through a maze of empty shops – and they looked like they’d been empty a while – we came to an overpass with a few people selling jewellery and trinkets laid out on sheets on the ground. The vibe suddenly went from neutral to uneasy, I could tell we were crossing some kind of invisible territorial line, but I followed Florina across, and talked to her casually, acting like this was nothing new, like I’d been here a hundred times. But I felt so out of place there, had I been alone I would’ve turned around and walked straight back from where I’d came.
Across the overpass, we turned a corner to what looked like an empty rooftop. It seemed like an abandoned building, but I could hear activity in the distance, and after turning behind a few walls we came to a concrete market. It was weathered but tidy, like rows of little boat sheds or storage units, all turned into market stalls and shops. And though there were many of them, seven or eight rows, maybe even ten, reasonably busy with foot traffic and chatter and laughter, they all sold mostly the same things – sunglasses, bags, denim clothes, jewellery. And hair shops. Lots and lots of hair shops.
“This is Top Deck,” Florina said as we walked the first alley.
“Yeah I know, I come here all the time.”
She laughed heartily and pushed me.
As we walked the stalls, every other person looked up and stared at me for a moment, not in a hostile way, just curiously, then looked at Florina, then went back to what they were doing.
“Don’t ever come here without me, okay?”
“Just don’t. Well, you can if you want, but don’t cry to me when…”
She looked at me and made a face, and then smiled.
I had been told several times that although apartheid had been abolished in South Africa for years, even though things were relatively peaceful, there were still ‘white’ areas, where black people never went, and ‘black’ areas, where white people never went. It had sounded like something problematic, something they were struggling to solve, but as I watched a group of ladies getting their hair braided, and laughing and gossiping in Xhosa, I thought, “Maybe that’s not a bad thing, or even a problem. People are different, maybe it’s good, to have our own spaces sometimes.”
We wandered every single alley, and Florina was right, Top Deck was the spot I’d been looking for. In an hour I had the exact scarf I wanted, the exact bag I wanted, the exact sunglasses I wanted, and it had all cost less than a Kloof Street lunch. Plus, she had been exaggerating about it being a shady place, surely. We’d chatted with everyone, and everyone had been lovely.
That evening back at the hostel, I was on the picnic benches outside the kitchen. I was eating my usual steak and avocado dinner, tinkering on my laptop between bites. It was now late April, and the nights were starting to become cool in Cape Town; though with a few layers on it was pleasant enough to spend the evenings sitting outside. Zawadi joined me and stole some of my steak again, then sat across from me and worked on her paper. In fact, all of the exchange students were working on papers furiously that night, apparently with a big deadline looming the following day.
“Do you always travel with your laptop and your tablet?” I asked her.
“Actually, I won this,” she said, waving her iPad.
“A slam poetry contest.”
“You do slam poetry?”
“I wanna see. Is it on video?”
She hesitated for a moment, then grabbed her phone and pulled up an obscure video on Youtube. I didn’t recognise her at first, in that outfit, that different hairstyle, but I smiled when I saw her walk out onto the stage. She was modest in real life, gentle, harmless, but as I watched her performance unfold I knew I’d only seen a single side of her; she was fierce in front of the microphone, her words were bold, and intelligent, she drew applause from the crowd, again and again. And again I found myself thinking, “She’s really quite special, this Zawadi.”
That night, Zawadi texted me after we’d all gone to bed. She had told me earlier in the night she hadn’t seen much of Cape Town, and I’d told her I was heading to the market to see Adam the next day and she could join me. And to my delight she said yes, she would quite like to, and messaged me to say I should let her know before I leave.
I was awake earlier than usual the next morning. It was only a few days until I left for the desert, and I still had much to do.
“I’m leaving soon are you awake!”
Silence. Unfortunately, I had things to do and didn’t have a morning to waste. I headed down to see Adam without her.
Every time I visited Adam, I learned something new about him. One day, he had a little kid, maybe six or seven, sitting in his seat. He was in school uniform, and making himself a bracelet with Adam’s tools. A while later the mother came and took him away, and they waved at each other like old friends.
I asked, “Who’s that?” And he said, “Every day that boy was always standing around here waiting for his Mom after school, so I let him wait in here to be safe.”
Another day, he had to go buy some glue to finish a piece, and he asked me to watch his stall for him. “What if a customer comes?” I asked, and he said, “Just tell them a price.” And I sat there for almost thirty minutes by myself, looking like a Chinese guy with an African jewellery store in one of the busiest streets in Cape Town, secretly loving it, and laughing at how trusting he was, leaving literally his entire livelihood with someone he barely knew.
On this particular day he was showing me some photos on his phone, and he scrolled past a photo of a flashy music studio. I asked him about it.
“You should know, me, I am a really good rapper!” he proclaimed. “And I will have a studio like that one day.”
Immediately he scrolled through his phone to some of his songs, and proudly handed them to me to listen to. It was while I was bobbing my head to his tunes that Zawadi finally texted me.
“Noo I slept too long. Come backkk.”
“Hah. Just walk down and meet me.”
An hour later I walked up to Long Street to meet her, and spent the rest of the day showing Zawadi the Cape Town I had come to love over the previous weeks. I took her down to Grand Parade, introduced her to Adam and a few other stall owners, took her past the walking tour cafe – unfortunately Florina wasn’t there – but we went on to visit the clothes shops I’d frequented on my costume shopping, then to the Bo Kaap, where I recreated for her the walking tour I’d been on several weeks before. On that tour they’d recommended a little cooking school/cafe, so we went and tried their bobotie together – a traditional South African casserole – before walking around trying to find the perfect photo spot amongst the colourful buildings. We had been talking about ice cream all afternoon, so on the way home we went hunting for a scoop. The sun was setting then, the streets a little busier, and as we turned up onto Long Street we walked by a group of people drumming furiously out on the sidewalk.
Further up we found what might be the poshest ice cream parlour I’ve ever seen, and as we sat outside poking at our tubs, she suddenly pulled out her phone, pressed record and placed it on the table.
“Shhh,” she gestured to me, holding her finger over her lips. I held her gaze, wondering what she was doing, and when she finally put her phone away I raised my eyebrows at her, waiting for an explanation.
“The people talking, and the drums in the background, and the music,” she smiled. “I just wanted to remember it.”
The next day I left for AfrikaBurn. Zawadi was also scheduled to leave two days later, for Johannesburg. I wouldn’t see her again. My bus left at midnight, so Craig picked me up around 11:30 and helped me load my gear into the car.
“Can you just give me a minute?” I asked, before we left.
I went back into the hostel, but the lounge was empty. The kitchen was empty. The courtyard was empty. I couldn’t find her.
“You’re not here,” I messaged her. “I’ve gotta leave now. You’re a lovely soul, I’m glad I met you.” I poked my head in the front door one last time, looked around, perked my ears, before pulling it shut and running down to the car.
When we got to the bus stop in Greenpoint, I gave Craig a hug goodbye, told him I’ll see him in seven days. We had talked about AfrikaBurn a lot during our car rides.
“Just have the most amazing time, man.”
I dragged all my stuff to the only free spot left on the sidewalk, next to a girl with an enormous suitcase sitting on her own.
“Mind if I chill with you?” I asked.
“Yeah of course,” she said, as she moved a few of her bags and then huddled herself back in her jacket.
And as we sat there on the sidewalk shivering with hundreds of other strangers, waiting to be bussed into the desert, my phone beeped.
“Did you leave already?”
“Yeah. I’m at the bus now.”
“Sorry! I didn’t see this til now.”
“Don’t worry. See you in the next life maybe.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Or this life.”
I reached up and grabbed the necklace she’d given me a few days earlier, twirled the pendant between my fingers.
“We can hope.”
It was several weeks later, back at the Zebra Crossing, when I came across Stephanie cooking dinner in the kitchen. I had been back from AfrikaBurn for some days now, decompressing and readjusting to life back in the city. The hostel was emptier now, and it happened quite often that Stephanie and I ended up cooking at the same time, and talking way into the night.
“So did you fall in love, at AfrikaBurn?” she asked.
“No. Well…I don’t think so.”
That was Stephanie’s style, straight into the good stuff.
“Oh, why not! Love is the best!”
“Is it really? Some people might say, love is the worst,” I laughed.
“No no, it’s the best. Love is the best. Do you know the story of the Cape?”
I shook my head.
“There used to be nothing here. Nothing! And then some people started introducing different plants, and working the land. But still there was nothing, but they kept coming, and planting, and they literally built the Cape from empty desert into this. It started from nothing, and look at it today, it has more plants than anywhere, and it’s more beautiful than anywhere. Because a few people loved it enough to do that.”
“That’s love,” she continued, a glow in her eyes. “Cape Town is love.”
Rusks and tea at the dining room table:
Adam making bracelets:
At Ernestine’s concert with Stephanie:
Roaming the Bo Kaap with Zawadi:
The poshest ice cream parlour we ever saw:
If you’re backpacking through Cape Town, I can highly recommend The Zebra Crossing hostel. It’s a lovely spot 🙂
I also highly recommend Craig as a driver, no matter where you are staying. His business is called Beyond Expectations and you can reach him here. Tell him Brendan sent you. He is a great person to know in Cape Town, I promise!
Adam’s shop is on the corner of Grand Parade, not in the parade itself but on the street, city side. Go buy some necklaces from him, he has better prices than anyone.
Florina is still the walking tour manager at the time of writing. Tell her I said hi if you meet her!
Hope you also love Cape Town. I’m sure you will 🙂