‘Second palm tree on the left please’… that’s what we tell taxi–drivers. I love ‘living’ in the quaint Waterkant, a.k.a. ‘the village’, a Disneyfied version of the Bo-kaap. It’s quiet, genteel, an ex–pat enclave, and supposedly Cape Town’s gay quarter, but you’d hardly know it. It’s rainbow-shaded eighteenth century cottages are a kaleidoscope of colour; they are also gated, barred and patrolled by security guards. Scarlet bougainvillea straddles candy–coloured walls and pink hibiscus flowers fall on cars and cobbled, tree–lined streets. Residents walk dogs in a handkerchief-size park with glorious views of Table Mountain. The swings and roundabouts are always still. I’ve never seen a child in there, but dogs bark and chase, sniff and roll. Not stately Olga, the standard schnauzer. She stands still and waits for dogs to come to her. ‘She’s too old, she’s too hot’, her Danish owner tells me. Olga manages a blink. The Waterkant suits my lazy mood on Cape Town’s hot and hazy sunny days. I pootle. Eat salads in Yumcious and carrot cake in La Petite Tarte. That’s as exciting as the Waterkant gets – and it’s lovely.
The Bo-kaap – over the Strand and around the corner – is in some ways more raw, more real, even though it’s one of the ‘must-do’s’ on the city tourist trail. Sightseers and tour buses swamp the little houses on the slopes of Signal Hill to get shots of their hot neon coloured walls, clashing balustrades, garish doors and pretty plants. Lion’s Head dwarfs the houses on Chiappini and Table Mountain embraces those on Wale. Film and photo shoots take place regularly. Locals complain about gentrification and unaffordable rates but in the midst of all this they go about their day-to-day lives maintaining their culture and heritage.
Preserved as an ethnic enclave during the apartheid era, the Bo Kaap quarter survived in an otherwise white city. Most of it’s residents are still Muslim South Africans, descendants of slaves from India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Muezzins call people to prayer from the mosques, the smell of spice wafts through the air, thobe-clad men, and headscarf-clad women stroll the streets. When the day becomes cooler, families gather on their stoep, and children play on the steep cobbles. The sense of community is still strong. ‘Asalamualaikum’. I watch neighbours greet each other. They hug, slap each other on the back and shoulder and their eyes smile. Amongst boutiques, design companies and one tattoo parlour there are still some family-run businesses. Atlas Spices has been a Wale Street institution for seventy years. Founded by the Ahmed brothers in 1946 it’s now managed by Wahab Ahmed, his brother and two cousins. The ladies behind the counter are known as the spice girls! Biesmiellah restaurant offering Cape Malay food to tourists and locals alike was started in 1997 by a couple to support their six children, and is thriving.
Social control is strong. Ken told me that he spent many hours in the Bo-kaap with his boyhood best friend. When they were caught ringing on doorbells and running away, they were slapped once by the old lady who caught them, and again by Izmir’s mum when the old lady complained to her. ‘Children are everybody’s business, not just their parents’, he told me. I often see washing hanging on Chiappini, right out in the road. No one touches it. Yet in the Waterkant, our bed linen was stolen from the back yard. In the Waterkant neighbours acknowledge, but don’t really know each other.
Two very different hoods, cheek by jowl, two great experiences.
The Bo Kaap.