25 April 2009

Palm Tree Hurdling: A Cape Town New Year's Tradition

This entry is long overdue - internet access robust enough to load the video simply doesn't exist in Angola, so I had to wait until a recent trip to Germany to load it. Let's take a trip back in time...
Cape Town is a city you come back to. Like Rio de Janeiro or San Francisco, the geography commands your attention and won’t let go. I was there first with my dad and then with a friend from Seattle stopping through in the middle of his grand African adventure. In ten days we (respectively) covered a lot of touristy stuff, and that was all great. On a personal sidenote, I particularly appreciated the showers that involved the luxurious notions of pressure and hot water.

The one event that stood out this time was one I enjoyed alone, however. My visiting friend decided to stay at the hotel and prepare for his flight later that evening and I ventured out with the goal of discovering the Minstrel Parade, a local new year tradition in a similar vein to Philadelphia’s Mummers. Or something like that. My travel literature mentioned how the surrounding communities form “minstrel” groups, make their own costumes, and practice dance moves to the year’s theme song, and then parade through downtown Cape Town singing and dancing to welcome in the new year (now it was starting to sound more like Carnaval in Rio, so my curiosity only grew). If my literature is correct, the tradition dates back to the abolition of slavery and was a way for the colored and black population to celebrate their freedom. I also read something about the groups being encouraged by American sailors that had been in town during some long-ago new year, which is why some of the groups are still named after American battleships (I saw the Pennsylvanians, but apparently the Alabamians are in there too somewhere).

Who wouldn’t want to check this out? Apparently nobody I was talking to. The receptionist at the hotel desk rolled his eyes when I asked where the parade route was, and my Capetownian friend had no interest in joining me (and my traveling companion was busy folding clothes). So off alone I went.

Things didn’t start well. I found the end of the parade route in a neighborhood called Bo-Kaap and watched one marching group finish up and load into the buses that were waiting to take them back to the townships. Some drunk dude asked me to take his photo, which I did, and then when I showed him he tried to steal my camera. I was sort of expecting this and was holding firmly, then yelling at him to take his hands off. His nearby friends pryed him off of me and told him to cut it out, then apologized to me. I shrugged the incident off and decided to get some breakfast. I was also starting to understand why some locals didn’t get excited about the prospect of attending this event.

After some coffee and eggs benedict (hold the hollandaise) I was ready to try again. My waiter was enthusiastic about my attempt to watch the festivities (finally somebody with a pulse) and directed me to a better vantage point. That’s how I found the main avenue for the parade route – a wide street with proper crowd control procedures and police supervision. So I found an opening next to the fence blocking access to the street and waited. People around me had tents propped up so they could take naps between performances, others were smoking hookahs. After awhile I realized that I wasn’t hearing much English – Afrikaans was ruling the day on this parade route, the language of most of the coloured population that had come to watch the festivities.

Sidenote #1:
Race-related vocabulary in South Africa is a specialized field – somebody please correct me but my understanding is that “coloured” in SA primarily refers to descendants of East Indian slaves brought by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. I think it can also mean people of mixed race. By that definition our new president would be “coloured” by SA terms.
More details on racial vocabulary: http://www.southafrica.info/about/people/population.htm

Sidenote #2
While English is the lingua franca in South Africa and a compulsory subject in school, it is the mother tongue for less than 10% of the country’s population, ranking 6th after Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, and Setswana. Thus, conversations with strangers can be a little more labored than you’d expect and I kept having to strip idiomatic expressions from my dialogue to be well understood. That said, the English accent from SA is one of the best in my book.
Awesome website with more detail on the linguistic fabric of the nation: http://www.southafrica.info/about/people/language.htm

The video below pretty much says it all – I was about to stop recording when the palm-tree jumper showed up. You have to admire his confidence in thinking he could clear the second tree, and his recovery from the failed attempt could be described as, well, “festive”.

The parade lasted all day. And all night, until about 11pm. Traffic was a mess and getting across town was impossible. I experienced the latter trying to get to the trailhead to Lion’s Head so I could summit in time to watch the sunset (now I really understood why some didn’t want anything to do with this parade). I made it in the nick of time (both to the trailhead and to catch the sunset), and on the way up the trail (and on the way down), the music from the streets made for a nice backdrop. Happy New Year, Cape Town!

Making friends along the parade route:

The Shoprite "Pennsylvanians" Rock the Parade:

This lil' guy looks like he needs a break:

1 comment:

Panda!!!! said...

The term "coloured" really confused me, but I think you have the right definition, as far as I can tell!