I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, from January through June of 2016.
While studying at the University of Cape Town, I spent time building a life for myself in the city.
From hiking to day trips and street food to art, there is so much I miss about my home there.
I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016, and I haven't been able to stay away since. When it's been too long, there are so many things I miss and daydream about.
While working toward my undergraduate degree, I spent six months living and studying in South Africa's Western Cape region enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
While I lived with other American exchange students, I took classes with peers who were at UCT to complete their full undergraduate and graduate education.
Because of that, I became friends with local students and, at times, got to experience South Africa as they did. My American peers and I made an effort to really make Cape Town our home, spending weekends enjoying the city we lived in rather than traveling around the continent, and even doing a weekend home-stay in a local community. We took surfing lessons, became regulars at shops, and took a few trips over to the wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
For me, being in Cape Town as well as other parts of the country felt like being in a home I had known my whole life. So I put aside money every year saving for what I hoped would be an annual trip back.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to visit since COVID-19 hit. And the time apart from my first love has left my heart aching for the things I miss most.
The local markets are a great place to spend a morning, and I always make time to visit one on my return trips.
At home in New York, farmers markets are usually made up of stalls with meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit, herbs, nuts, and maybe someone selling craft beer, natural wine, fresh juice, or coffee. While I do love getting to markets while stateside, the experience leaves much to be desired once you've spent a day at some of the ones in Cape Town.
A farmers market in the mother city (or at least the ones I've seen) is an experience that fills more than just your reusable shopping tote. There's often music (sometimes live), vendors making food you can eat while shopping around, and craftspeople who are eager to chat you up about what they do.
Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of great conversations with my local New York cheesemonger, but this one talk I had with a beekeeper/honey-maker at Cape Town's Neighbourgoods Market was momentous for me.
Weekly trips to the local markets made my time in Cape Town feel like time spent building a life somewhere. So returning to them, even if just for a morning coffee and bite to eat, makes me feel grounded and like I'm home.
I ate well while in South Africa, but I especially miss the braai culture and street-food options.
The activities and sentiments are similar — getting people together to cook food and have fun — but there's something heightened about the celebratory aspect of a braai, in my experience. It's more community-based than the holiday barbecues I've been to, and they can be way more spur of the moment. But, they can also be regularly scheduled (like the weekly braai at Mzoli's in Gugulethu, Cape Town).
And then there's the street food.
There's nothing like stopping off on your walk through center city or on a night out at the bars for boerewors on a roll. Maybe some grilled onions make their way on top, definitely some sauce, and don't forget about the soft bread.
I'm much more excited to get boerewors from a street-food vendor in South Africa than I am to get a hot dog from a cart in NYC. If I want a walking snack while in New York, I'll typically pop into a pizza shop and grab a slice to go, or if I'm near a deli like Katz's or Ben's, I'll treat myself to a hot dog. But when in Cape Town, it's sausage on a roll for me.
I love hot dogs, but they're not always great. With boerewors, there's always been a snap, always char marks from the grill, and the flavor has always been there for me. I've had too many hot dogs in my lifetime that taste like salty boiled water.
The restaurants in Cape Town are wonderful, but while in America, I miss these culinary gems most.
I also miss the option for easily accessible daily hikes.
Now, would I actually hike every day? Probably not. But it's nice to have the option of scurrying up the mountain for sunrise or before a day of work and then head over to a local cafe for morning coffee. Or to wrap up a day of writing and head up to the peak with friends to watch the sun set with a cold beer or wine in hand.
Something I miss but found a way to incorporate into my life in the US is the culture around watching the sunset.
In my experience, watching the sun disappear behind the horizon line is something people get together for regularly in Cape Town. For some people, that's every day. For others, it's a few times a week or once a month special occasion.
Sundowners is a practice that left a mark on me — seeing so many people come together in prime spots like along the Lion's Head hiking trail, down at the beach, or even in neighborhoods gave me a warming sense of community that I hadn't really experienced to the same extent before.
On one return trip, I sat with a friend on the side of a bike path to watch the sun go down. As it moved, some of the bikers, skateboarders, and runners stopped their workouts to take a seat, watch the glowing sphere descend, and then got right back up to continue on with their exercise. Watching it was like witnessing a massively-shared innate habit.
Sometimes I sit in my apartment or walk the streets and miss how easily I was able to change my scenery throughout the day while living in Cape Town.
Because of the layout of this city, you can be in the mountains, on the beach, walking through the busy center city streets, and on a wildlife preserve all in one day.
Each space is so unique that I still can't wrap my head around the beauty of it all.
I know that New York has so much to offer as well, but it's not even close to being the same. I love my city and the fact that I can be among the skyscrapers and by the water at the same time, but the variety of activities and adventure offered is just different — not less awesome, just different.
New York has no shortage of social events on offer, but First Thursdays was something I looked forward to each month in Cape Town.
On the first Thursday of every month, art galleries, restaurants, and bars all around the city open up for people to hop from place to place. (You can read more about First Thursdays on the website.)
My friends and I would often start with a fun dinner in the City Bowl area and walk around from one gallery to another, enjoying the art (and the drinks). It was always a fun night where so many people would come together for the sake of creativity and good times.
I had never seen as much live music as I did while living in Cape Town. I miss the many outdoor concerts available.
From DJs performing at beach clubs to concerts hosted at the city's botanic gardens, there was a seemingly endless amount of outdoor concert opportunities on offer.
Music is a huge cultural part of South Africa in many different ways, and being able to take part in that piece, even if just for a night or an afternoon, was magical.
I do think that seeing your favorite performer at Madison Square Garden is a whole other type of magic. But personally, there's just something I love about sitting outside on a picnic blanket that strikes a special chord. I've attended a couple of the summer concerts in NYC's Central Park, and that has allowed me to scratch the itch of wanting outdoor entertainment while I'm in New York.
Above all else, I miss the people I met and the ones I've yet to be introduced to.
Between the classmates who became friends, the employees at shops and cafes, and the artists, musicians, and explorers who just want to show off their home, Cape Town — and South Africa at large — is filled with people who embody an ethos of community.
Before I even went for the first time, people kept telling me about the beautifully kind people who live there. And now that I've spent time in the city of Cape Town and bits of time traveling around the country, I can confirm that's been my experience as well.
Because of the decades of the apartheid regime that worked to separate the people of South Africa, there are divisions among its people still today that you simply can't ignore. But regardless of location, socioeconomic status, race, or employment, I experienced kindness as being universal.
Each time I'm in South Africa, I meet new people. I can't wait to find out who I'll meet next.
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