CAPE TOWN If New York is the Big Apple, and poor old New Orleans is the Big Easy, then Cape Town must surely be the Big Hustle, in the very best sense of the word.
That s because everyone here is an entrepreneur of sorts, a micro-businessman trying to make a buck, or, in this case, a rand, whether it s the cab driver who picks you up at the hotel, the jazz players in front of the open-air cafes, the persistent merchants in the mighty squares at Green Market and Green Point, or even Andy, our old South African friend of 40 years who s never met a deal he didn t like.
The effect of this good-natured hustle is that one rarely walks alone in this exotic and multicolored city that hangs out on the edge of the Atlantic. Take, for example, the half-hour taxi ride from Cape Town International Airport to our hotel.
No sooner had we left the airport perimeter and settled down for a much-needed snooze than our articulate and enthusiastic driver already was quizzing us about our plans for the coming days, and handing out his business cards.
Did we need a city tour next morning? Or a ride to the waterfront? Would we like to go out to Table Mountain? See some whales? Experience a magnificent meal and a sunset, or take a day trip to Cape Point?
You ve got a small group? No problem. He has a small bus. His cousin, Sadik, has one, too.
And so it went. Everything, but everything, is possible. No deal is too large or too minute.
The whole time we were in South Africa, there was never a shortage of taxis, shuttle buses, drivers, or individuals willing to show us around with efficiency, honesty, and a very big smile. And all for just a rand or two.
Of course, as in any city of 3 million inhabitants, with vast areas of abject poverty and far too many have-nots, there s always some bad hustle mixed in with the good. And while, as far as visiting tourists are concerned, this is mostly confined to street crime such as car break-ins and pocket-picking, it s still not advisable to stroll the city streets at night or to use money machines without caution. Travelers we met frequently complained about being hassled at unprotected ATM outlets. And one couple we know inadvertently and under pressure divulged their PIN number and were taken for more than $5,000 before the card was cancelled.
Once we were deposited at our hotel and checked in, it was time to discover more about Cape Town, and about parts of the city we had missed on our first trip here a year ago.
For this we turned to city insiders, such as our friend Ursula Stevens, who not only leads daily guided tours from the Tourist Office, but also literally wrote the book on this thrilling city Cape Town On Foot. (www.wanderlust.co.za)
She guided us once again through the busy streets for a fascinating refresher on the local history and architecture. Then it was up into the predominantly Muslim enclave called the Bo-Kaap (High Cape), an area of cheerfully colored terraced houses, exotic spice shops, gold-spired mosques, long-robed men waiting for the call to prayer, and superb vistas across to the ocean. It was a part of the city that we probably wouldn t have ventured into on our own.
Later, at the District Six Museum, resident curator Joe Schaffers was telling a class of suburban students about another part of the city, and about the forced removal and resettlement of some 70,000 multiethnic residents including his own family in the 1960s and 70s. We were invited to listen in and learn.
Joe s own tale, told alongside the moving life stories and memorabilia of former District Six residents that are housed in this small museum, brought tears to our eyes. A few days later, our visit to a bleak Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 26 years, had exactly the same effect.
Together, these experiences gave us a much better understanding of the far-reaching consequences of apartheid, that terrible tragedy which all of South Africa through tenacity, determination and a remarkable can-do spirit is working hard to relegate to the distant past.