Why I left the most beautiful place on earth

The appeal of living off the grid, in a small, hippy bubble on the tip of Africa is what drew the author to Scarborough in Cape Town but the reality - especially the casual racism - drives him away.

Image: Adam Warwinsky

I moved to South Africa to help open a hostel in the small, coastal, conservation village of Scarborough, just a few miles from the Cape of Good Hope. Scarborough sweeps elegantly from mountain to white sand beach, the curling waves of which have kept many a local boys from venturing off to consider life elsewhere.

No matter what happens in the rest of the world, Scarborough is always peaceful and beautiful. It reminds me of R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, with its inhabitants living in ignorant bliss, or perhaps apathy, and relishing in their freedom to “live off the grid”—a freedom that many take for granted and don’t recognize as a privilege, but I’ll get to that.

In Scarborough, there is no sense of urgency. Stepping into that village is akin to entering a parallel universe where life moves abnormally slow. People, conversations, and moments all seem to move at a weaker pace, providing time to check each one out with leisure. To add to this dreamlike state, my morning runs were peppered with sightings of ostriches, springbok, bontebok, baboons, and on one occasion, an elephant seal. And baboons are such a problem in Scarborough that men are hired to patrol the streets with paintball guns and shoot them when they try to break into homes for food.

Much like in the Shire, people in Scarborough are often barefoot and can acquire a majority of their needs from the homes of neighbors. If you want beer, you go see Franz, a local man with dirty painters pants, shaggy hair under a forward baseball hat, and a knowing, childlike smile. Franz brews and bottles several different kinds of craft beer. If you want bread, you go see Hein, who is not only the baker but also directs the town choir and is an accomplished composer and musician from the Netherlands.

It is easy to romanticize a place like this. I had grand ideas of creating a hostel where travelers and artists could find inspiration amidst the ocean views and “lekker” vibes (lekker translates to “tasty” in Afrikaans). I thought we could engage with the nearby township—generating a positive influence on the stark socioeconomic inequality here. But those ideas were thwarted by casual racism and the realization that perhaps I’m not capable of living “off the grid.”

The appeal of living in a small, hippy bubble on the tip of Africa is what drew me to Scarborough, but the reality of it is what drove me away. It took living in the antonym of a city to realize that I thrive off of, and need, the pace and energy that cities offer. Additionally, I cannot live with people whose senses of morality and reality I find disturbing.

On the day I arrived to South Africa, the #FeesMustFall movement began. Students all over the country were uniting and mobilizing to fight unequal access to tertiary education. It was exciting and important and I wanted nothing more than to talk about it and ultimately be a part of it. Yet while I saw it as one of the most important movements to happen in my lifetime—addressing both economic inequality and unequal access to education—my hosts saw it as a nuisance.

When the topic came up at dinner, the mother said, “Now they want free university. Who do they expect is going to pay for that? The government has no money.”

“It’s actually not that crazy of a concept, several countries offer free higher education,” I replied.

“Like where?”

“Norway, Sweden and Germany,”

“Yeah but they don’t have black people.”

This was essentially the beginning of the end of my relationship with this family.

A few days earlier we had a campfire with their neighbor, a 45 year-old white South African man who explained to me that, “Black people like sleeping on top of each other in a room with their entire family, with their heads and feet on each other.”

I tried to reason with him, to say that perhaps black people in South Africa live like that because they have to, because they don’t have the means to live otherwise.

“Sure they do, but they like living like this man, they really do.”

It was possible to stomach these remarks from the mother and neighbor by reminding myself that we just have to wait for these people to die out. Hearing it from the son, on the other hand, rattled me.

You see, he really likes the coloured guys but thinks the black Africans are “kind of dumb.” He also told me once that if it weren’t for the “white man,” there would be no jobs for black Africans. Right now the unemployment rate is around 25% and the poverty rate is over 40%, so where exactly are these jobs? Over our time together, this same guy would ask me if the United States was funding ISIS, if I really believed we landed on the moon, and how soon until the U.S. became a militarized state. Needless to say, I couldn’t continue living in this environment.

These people are not a fair representation of Scarborough, but their apathy is. While I met plenty of kind-hearted, wonderful individuals during my stay in Scarborough, the majority of them don’t waste much energy worrying about or discussing what’s happening beyond the safe, little world they’ve created. It never occurred to those in the Shire that the wars of Middle Earth could reach them, but they did. It doesn’t occur to those in Scarborough that anything at all could reach them, from the wars of the Middle East to the riots in neighboring townships.

Part of growing up is learning to respect how other people choose to live their lives. I’m moving into Cape Town because I need to be in a fast paced environment where people will challenge me and share my sense of curiosity and urgency. People live in a place like Scarborough so that they don’t have to rush their lives and can thus fully appreciate things like nature, spirituality, or simply surfing. I cannot make Scarborough my home, and that’s okay, because I’ll always love it for what it taught me and for what it offers.

Further Reading

What’s happening in South Africa?

After unrest in July and municipal elections in November, it’s clear South Africa is in the midst of a serious social, economic and political crisis. What are the roots of it? Listen to this episode of AIAC Talk to find out.