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Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town is hot. And not talking about the weather, which is coastal temperate. Michael Jackson might be buying a house here. Madonna, too! Rumor has it that Cher just bought a place. Rich Germans are snatching up property like it's discounted schnitzel. And people aren't just moving here, they are also visiting in droves. South Africa is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations. Why all the fuss? It's a beautiful city, the exchange rate is good, and the apartheid has come to an endor has it?

At the Cape Town tourist bureau I found agencies offering tours of the nearby black townships. The once-oppressed blacks have become one of South Africa's hot, new tourist attractions. Cape Town has just woken up to the fact that it is sitting on an untapped wealth of poverty: several impoverished townships arranged back to back with a cumulative population of about one million.

When I got back to my youth hostel, I spoke with the receptionist about this. As a "well-to-do" white, she had lived in Cape Town her entire life and never ventured into a township. She agreed that "poverty tourism" sounded twisted but told me about Cinga, a man from the townships who offers guided visits of his own neighborhood. She said some travelers had gone with him and highly recommended the unorthodox tour.

I rang Cinga and he picked me up an hour later in his reasonably new Toyota Camry. He was a young-looking forty-year-old with a bright tie, knitted sweater vest, and a warm smile. Cinga had gone to college after graduating from a high school that only had enough places for one out of every fifty kids.

We drove to the neighborhood in Langa township where he grew up. In the middle of the day everyone seemed to be walking around on the street. I asked if it was some kind of parade. "No, just unemployment," Cinga explained. "Nearly 60 percent don't have jobs."

Most of the buildings were one- and two-room concrete structures, many looking as though they had been recently looted. We entered one. I shook hands with all the adults sitting around the entrance. They had seen tourists before, but they hadn't been jaded by the experienceyet. Cinga asked permission, then showed me one of the rooms. It was about the size of a health-club sauna, with three single beds crammed into it.

"Three people can live in this little room?" I asked.

"No," Cinga told me, "three entire families."

On the way out, I saw a tourist minibus stopped on the road. White heads peered out of the windows, half-hidden behind their telephoto lenses. They began snapping photos of some of the children playing a pickup game of cricket in the street. After the cameras stopped clicking, the van drove off.

I believe many of the tourists come to the townships to help ease their apprehensions about visiting a country still divided by color. By acknowledging the poverty with their presence, they want to distinguish themselves from the while South Africans who simply ignore it. The problem is, with mass tourism, the visits end up looking like a big safari outing.

"Some of these tours," Cinga explained, "spend the whole morning wine tasting at the nearby vineyards and then come and looks at the poor people when they're drunk..

"Feel like playing cricket?" he asked me, changing the subject and motioning toward the kids in the street.

I nodded although I hadn't the slightest idea how to play. Cinga spoke with the kids and the next thing I knew I was holding a board and standing in front of a wooden crate. The kids were laughing because I was using a baseball-style stance, which was probably as funny looking to a cricket player as it was to my entire second-grade T-ball team.

The eight-year-old "bowler" took a running start and then, with a straight-armed round-house release that looked like it made his shoulder pop right out of its socket, he flung a ball towards me at roughly the speed of sound. I took a swing and missed as the ball hit a small stone in the road and ricocheted into my shin. Would I get to walk to first, wherever that was? No. apparently, I was out. The kids high-fived the "bowler" and Cinga came over ad explained in a consoling fatherly way that I had an "LBW." What? "A Leg Before Wicket," he said. I had no idea what a "wicket" was, but there was general agreement that I had put my leg before one, and God only knows what other cricket rules I may have violated. It was time to move on.

We went to a neighborhood township and stopped in an area that had squatter shacks as far as the eye could see. Rusty beer cans, sheet metal, and cardboard were held together with staples, chewing gum, and some dirt mixed with spit. In many countries, these shacks would pass for modern art. Here, they pass for housing.

The strangest thing about the squatter-shack community, at least in the part we stopped in, were the beautiful asphalt and concrete roads, much nicer than most of the residential roads in the States. Cinga explained that the roads and electricity was partially funded by foreign aid. The aid agency didn't know how to distribute the money, so they built a road and installed electricity. Never mind the cruel irony that the people couldn't afford cars or a single electrical appliance.

We went to a bar in the neighborhood to have a drink. There, I met Jose, a repairman. How did he feel about the tourism? First, he clarified-even though I didn't ask-he was "colored," or racially mixed. And although he works in the township, he comes from a slightly more affluent "colored" neighborhood that doesn't get tourists because it isn't poor enough.

"I don't mind if the people get of the bus and learn about our way of life," Jose told me. "If they want to spend some of their tourist dollars here, even better. But to drive by and take pictures makes us feel like animals."

We drove back to Cinga's neighborhood, and this time we stopped at Cinga's house, which was a few blocks from where we had been at the beginning. This was the wealthy part of Langa. The houses looked fundamentally the same as the other concrete structures, but these had nicer curtains and Mercedeses and BMWs parked in the driveways. Despite the in-your-face poverty, many of the black professionals who grew up here have no desire to move to the wealthy suburbs, which are generally white. There's a sense a community here, and, as Cinga said, there's no place like home.

I didn't make any sociological discoveries on this tour. I just saw a different side of Cape Town and a different way of life. This "poverty tourism" should not come as a surprise-America has the same thing. A bus tour of Harlem has been popular among visitors to New York for years. Funny how tourism can get people to do things they would never do at home.

-Doug Lansky was born on the third-world island of Manhattan, grew up in Minnesota, graduated from Colorado College with a B.A. in a subject he can no longer recall, and has since been living out of his backpack for seven years. His humorous adventures are featured in his syndicated column, "Vagabond," which reaches over 10 million readers in newspapers throughout North America. He is also a regular contributor to NPR's "Savvy Traveler" and editor of the travel-humor anthology There's No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled.

Reprinted with permission. 2/3/00
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