What is this? This is my personal homepage. Yes, I know that sounds a bit like 1998, and with good reason: back in 1998, it was common practice for individuals to build their own (crude) websites (geocities anybody?) and share their deepest thoughts and most garish color schemes. When social media giants like Facebook and […]
At a time when millions are losing trust in the the web’s biggest sites, it’s worth revisiting the idea that the web was supposed to be…
Here’s how the story goes. You identify a potential funder that looks like a good fit. Then you reach out and get a meeting. The meeting goes really well. The funder is enthusiastic about your organization and your program. You reach consensus a proposal that they indicate would be fundable. A few days later you submit a great proposal, and then
You send a follow-up email to confirm the funder received your proposal and ask if they have any questions for feedback.
And you wait some more.
You email again.
You go old school and call, leaving a voicemail.
Finally you give up and make a mental note to shade the funder when you run into them at the next nonprofit conference or happy hour.
I find these funders who ghost to be incredibly unprofessional, and all too common. Even more so in Kansas City where people are too polite, when actually ignoring a colleague like this is very impolite.
Maybe the funder is too busy to reply, too busy to say no, or too busy to give feedback. So? We are all too busy to do some of the basic parts of our jobs, but we make the time anyway. If didn’t, we would gain a reputation as unprofessional and unreliable.
Ginning up the courage to say no or to disappoint someone is a sign up professionalism and personal integrity. Wasting a colleague’s time shows a lack of both qualities.Also on:
The nonprofit world is full of ups, downs, and sideways – often in the same day. The past week has been a great example.
It started out with a rejection letter 😠 from a national funder for a grant application we are confident was very competitive. And would have brought much-needed geographically diversity to the funder. The rejection letter was followed very quickly a shitty brush-off 💩 to our request for feedback on the application. We recruited several partners join us in a coalition for this project. Not only will it suck to tell them our effort was rejected, it will be embarrassing to share with them the shitty response from the funder we tried to bring to the table.
Next up was an unexpected award letter 💰for a grant that we thought was a long shot. We applied so long ago that we forgot all about it and had to dig up the application to remember what we applied for.
Then we spent the last few days working overtime to write our biggest ever grant request to one of our biggest funders. It’s a bold ask for an ambitious project that would dramatically advance a large portion of our mission and organization. 🤞
During all off this I am negotiating a lease for a new and larger office. We outgrew the current place soon after we moved in, so more space is desperately needed for our rapidly growing programs. However, it’s a big financial commitment that goes beyond the term of our current stable funding. I have champagne 🍾 ready for the staff to celebrate signing the lease, and I have restocked the secret CEO Scotch 🥃 for when I actually wield the pen.
Finally, as we were preparing some hard-earned office beers 🍺 at the end of the grant writing day, an email came in from one of the very first small family foundations to invest in our organization. This foundation’s first grant to us was a big deal because family foundations in Kansas City are incredibly conservative and risk-averse. They are very reluctant to support new nonprofits or programs outside the traditional arts and social services ares.
A member of the family is presenting examples of good and bad grant applications at an upcoming conference. She was asking if it would be OK to use our grant as an example of a PERFECT grant application! 🍸🍸🍸🍸
In October 2017 I visited the site of the most infamous nuclear power disaster in world history, the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union). This included the famous ghost city of Pripyat and other sites within a 30 kilometer exclusion zone that is permanently off-limits for most people.
Over the last decade Chernobyl has emerged as a disaster tourism destination, with around 20,000 people visiting per year. It is a very doable visit, but there aren’t many good resources for planning a trip. This post is about the logistics you need to plan and what you can expect to experience if you visit. At the end there are more resources for you to learn about the history of Chernobyl and tourism there.
How to do it
Chernobyl tours depart from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv (or Kiev), a two hour drive away. It will be at least 10-12 hours for a day trip, so plan to spend the night in Kyiv before and after your tour. It is a beautiful and relatively undiscovered city that is worth a few days itself.
Tour group required
Visiting the exclusion zone is regulated by the government and can only be done with a licensed tour group. Be sure to book at least 30 days in advance so the agency has time to file the required paperwork for you. There are several companies to choose from. I used SoloEast, one of the oldest Chernobyl tour companies, and was very happy with the entire experience.
My tour was a small group of about ten people in a comfortable mini-bus. It was good size for maintaining an intimate feeling, getting in out and of sites easily, and having some flexibility to follow people’s interests. There are also large motor-coach tours with 30-plus people, but those looked to be much less enjoyable. Do your research, and read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.
Consider an overnight tour
I took a two-day tour staying overnight in the exclusion zone, and was very glad I did it. We saw more sights, were able to go at a leisurely pace, and had the flexibility to cater the itinerary to the group’s taste. This included three separate visits to Pripyat and lunch at the actual Chernobyl Power Plant canteen serving the workers who monitoring and dismantling the complex.
More on staying overnight in the exclusion zone below. Be sure to confirm your tour booking a week or so in advance. Longer tours are available for research and educational trips. Smaller groups can book private tours. The tour companies can talk to you about specific needs and interests. Most companies are responsive via email.
Don’t forget your passport
Government and military authorities will check your passport and the tour company’s paperwork very carefully. Be sure to triple check your passport number when booking your tour, and keep your passport on you at all times. If your passport number doesn’t match or you forget it, you will not be permitted inside the exclusion zone. And you will be left waiting at the checkpoint for 8-10 hours until your group finishes its tour.
When to go
Spring and autumn are the high seasons for visiting Chernobyl spending several hours hiking around outside. Ukraine has hot, humid summers and cold winters. I was there in late October, and the autumn foliage was beautiful. Temperatures were about 50F during the day, which made for a nice, cool hike. Since this is the normal shoulder season for travel, you’ll get better deals on flights and hotels. However, on the weekends the main sites and the cafe can get quite busy.
A two-day tour will likely be Friday-Saturday or Sunday-Monday, giving you a less-busy weekday to explore the more popular sites. On a Saturday in October I saw at least 5-6 other small groups and 3-4 large groups on big buses.
What you will see
All tours will likely stop at the top 3 destinations in the exclusion zone:
1. Pripyat: The famous ghost city with the apartment blocks, amusement park, schools, etc. Most of the photos you see online come from Pripyat. You will likely see the spots of the most famous photos like the hospital, gas masks in the school, and amusement park. Many of these scenes have been staged, but there are still opportunities to find spots that are relatively undisturbed.
2. Chernobyl Town: The small town that is still inhabited by a couple thousand people working in the exclusion zone doing cleanup and research. Radiation safety rules require two-week rotations inside and outside the zone. Chernobyl town has a cafe and small hotel, a couple of hostels, and a small convenience store. Your tour will stop here for lunch and any other meals included on the trip.
3. Chernobyl Power Plant: All tours let you stand outside the plant’s walls for a brief visit to the New Safe Confinement building that was constructed in 2016 to cover the destroyed reactor, and eventually allow for its dismantling. Depending on your tour, you might have lunch in the canteen serving the plant’s workers, especially on a two-day tour. It’s a traditional Ukrainian meal with pork and borscht.
Depending the length of your tour, the interests of the group, etc. – you might get to see a few additional sites. These sites seem to be less visited and closer to the state it was left when area was evacuated.
Duga-3 radar array: A giant, horizon-dominating metal structure that was a long-distance radar receiver for detecting nuclear missiles coming from the US. Depending on your guide, you can climb the array and explore the adjoining control room and other Soviet military facilities.
Cooling Towers: Two of the large, distinctive nuclear towers were under construction at the time of the disaster. Your tour might visit the larger one, especially on a longer tour.
Jupiter Factory: The former electronics factory on the edge of Pripyat is relatively less disturbed and looted than most of the city. In addition to many post-apocalyptic industrial buildings, there are also many military and industrial vehicles.
Going inside the buildings
It is officially illegal to go inside the buildings in Pripyat or any of the other abandoned sites. However, it seems to be widely done. If this is important to you, correspond with your tour company before booking. Also try to book with a small group of 10-12 people. The giant motor coaches with 30 people have less flexibility for getting off the beaten path (yes, there is a beaten path, even in Chernobyl!).
After more than 30 years of being reclaimed by nature, many buildings are starting to collapse and/or become too unstable to enter. An experienced guide will know where to go and where to avoid. However, always be careful where you step and test any precarious-looking floor boards before putting your full weight on them. There is some speculation that in another 5-10 years most of the buildings will be too dangerous to go inside.
The tallest apartment blocks in Pripyat are about 16 stories tall. It’s worth the climb to the top for the views of the reactor’s New Safe Confinement building, the Duga-3 radar array, and the surrounding forests. Keep in mind that these abandoned buildings do not have safety railings around the roofs. There are many dangerous things like open elevator shafts, holes in the floors, and collapsing stairs.
The Radioactive Puppies
As nature reclaims the exclusion zone, wildlife is flourishing. Deer, foxes, bears, etc. Are all thriving in the zone. Recently the Internet freaked out about the radioactive puppies of Chernobyl, a semi-wild population of dogs that have at least some level of radiation. They likely pick it up in their fur by rolling in contaminated soil.
The dogs hang out around Chernobyl Town, the hotel/cafe, and most of the military checkpoints. Many have ID tags in their ears, so I assume researchers are monitoring them. The soldiers and locals didn’t hesitate to pet the dogs, and neither did I!
Gear and safety
Prepare like you are doing on an all-day hike. Long sleeve shirt and long pants are required by government regulations. Layers are helpful in cooler weather – even if the temperatures are low you will do a lot of climbing and get hot. Wear shoes suitable for climbing over broken glass, uneven terrain, etc. I did it in a pair of Clark’s desert boots that were not proper hiking boots, but still performed quite well. Use sunscreen and bug spray in warm weather.
Bring a day pack with water, snacks, extra camera batteries, and a backup phone battery. A small first aid kit for cuts and scrapes is a good idea, as is making sure your tetanus vaccination is current. Lunch could be anywhere between 11am and 2pm, as the itinerary and availability of cafe seating varies greatly. Your guides will drive you between sites, and you’ll be out of the bus anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours at a time.
Your tour will probably stop at a convenience store on the way out of Kyiv for one last chance at modern toilets and snacks.
All of the places you will visit have been cleaned and re-mediated to the point where radiation is relatively low. The ambient background radiation level is actually lower than the main square in Kyiv’s city center. Stay with your guide on the main paths, avoid sitting or leaning on anything (including the ground), and you will be fine. There are many “hot spots” with higher levels of radiation that are well marked with warning signs.
You will pass through a radiation detector when leaving the 10km and 30km checkpoints. If you’ve followed instructions you will have no problem passing the check. At worst you might need to clean dust/debris off your clothes if a higher level is detected. In rare cases an article of clothing may have to be left behind. Your guide will carry a Geiger counter, and you can rent your own for around $20.
Your total radiation exposure is estimated to be equivalent to one or town trans-Atlantic plane flights. Do you let fear of radiation keep you from flying?
Internet, with patience
Yes, you can Tweet from inside a radioactive wasteland, but photos will take a very long time to upload, if at all. Much of the exclusion zone has mobile coverage in the areas you will be visiting, though there are many gaps. Ukraine on the whole is still on 3G speeds as of 2017. WiFi speeds are also generally slow.
There is WiFi at the cafe in Chernobyl town where most visitors stop for lunch. Your tour van or bus might have WiFi when it’s in an area with decent mobile coverage. If you stay overnight there’s a good chance your lodging will have WiFi, though it will be slow.
There are limitless opportunities for amazing shots. This was one of the few times in recent years when I wished I still carried something other than a phone camera. With the limited internet situation, you will not be able to mass upload photos to the cloud or Internet until you are back in Kyiv. Bring back-up media if are concerned about losing data on your camera.
Be prepared to be without modern toilets for several hours. Modest toilets are available at the checkpoints, at the cafe in Chernobyl town, and at your lodging if you stay overnight. The abandoned city of Pripyat has two very primitive outhouses available near the entrance. Bring your own paper. Be OK with going in the woods.
Chernobyl town has a modest hotel with a cafe, plus a couple of hostels. Your tour company should make all of the arrangements and payments. I visited during the high season, so a hostel was the only available option. Most lodging is double, so you will likely have a roommate if traveling solo. If staying in a hostel, come prepared with your own soap, travel towel, toilet paper, etc. – just in case.
Bring a small bag or day pack suitable for a couple hours away from the tour van. When staying overnight, a medium-sized backpack should also be OK. Pack super light. Suitcases will be cumbersome in a small group tour, and may not be allowed by your tour company. Leave them with your hotel in Kyiv.
Food and booze. All food and beverages are brought in from outside the exclusion zone, and you are not allowed to eat any berries or produce growing there. The cafe at the hotel has a small bar. If you are staying at a hostel, the town’s one convenience store has a small selection of snacks, bottled water, beer, and vodka. Bring cash Hryvnia, as neither place is likely to take credit cards. There is a curfew of about 8:00 pm, and tourists are never allowed to walk around the town without their guide. Make sure you buy provisions before curfew.
“Dark tourism” or “disaster tourism” comes with some ethical questions that you should consider. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/is-dark-tourism-ok-chernobyl-pripyat-disaster-sites/. In the case of Chernobyl, many people died in the disaster and years after. Tens of thousands were displaced. The long-term health effects continue to impact the people of the surrounding area, including the capital of Kyiv. Do not take the trip lightly.
My personal experience was that many of large abandoned sites had a reverent or almost sacred feeling. The zone is generally very silent, adding to the somber, spiritual vibe.
A few hundred people have returned to their villages and farms in the exclusion zone. They are primarily elderly people who did not adjust well to being resettled in cities and want to live out their days in their family homes. They are referred to as self-settlers or re-settlers. The government tolerates this, and provides them some basic services like a pension and a weekly mobile market to buy supplies and groceries. However, they live very isolated lives far from their families. Most re-settlers are doing some farming or gardening to supplement what their pensions and family members in Kyiv can provide.
My tour visited an elderly woman living alone in a remote area of the exclusion zone. While the situation seems ripe for exploitation, our guide knew the woman personally. We all chipped in a few dollars to purchase some staples like sugar and flour to bring to her. She was delighted to see us and brought out a bottles of homemade pickles and her own homemade, honey-infused vodka. It was delicious! (But keep in mind it is technically against the rules to eat or drink anything produced inside the one) She was pleased to have visitors since her family wasn’t due to visit again for several weeks.
Resources and Information
McClatchy DC: Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years (4/24/2016)
By former KC Star journalist Matt Schofield.
Movies and documentaries
The Babushkas of Chernobyl, documentary about the women who have moved back into the exclusion zone to live out their days in their old villages and farms.
Chernobyl’s Cafe, documentary about the small cafe and hotel that recently opened to serve the military, cleanup workers, scientists, and tourists in the zone.
The Chernobyl Diaries, an awesomely bad horror movie about tourists stranded overnight in the exclusion zone.
I made this playlist of YouTube videos with info about visiting, about the nuclear accident, etc.
I visited Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine in October 2017 as part of a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone. I had little prior knowledge about it, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautiful city that I hope to someday return to for a proper exploration.
Kyiv is a beautiful city. It’s very walkable. The people are warm and welcoming. Ukraine is still a developing democracy, and the people seemed to determined to persist despite some big challenges. Here are the highlights of my experience in the city. Some of the better city guides are linked below.
The square or maidan is the main center of the city, and the site of two important series of protests where Ukrainians successfully acted to assert their desire for democracy and anti-corruption in the post-Soviet era. The first was the Orange Revolution in 2004. The second was the Euromaidan movement in 2014-15. The most recent one brought down the corrupt government, but resulted in 100-plus civilian deaths. Be sure to take some time understand the importance of Euromaidan and the people’s desire for closer ties to Europe. Check out the series of small memorials along Heroyiv Nebesnoyi Sotni Alley, where the Heavenly Hundred where shot from the bridge above.
Murals and street art.
Street art and large-scale murals are very popular in Kyiv. This app tracks the pieces and provides information about the artwork and the artist. The largest murals are on the left bank, across the Dnipro River from the city center, on the sides of the old Communist high rise apartment blocks. Several are wishing walking distance of 2-3 Metro red line stations.
Underground pedestrian passages and shopping
Many major street intersections have underground pedestrian passages for crossing the street. These underground areas have small shops, coffee stands, and even food courts. They seem very popular for locals running errands on their daily commutes. In can be disorienting and confusing to figure out which exit to use to emerge on the correct side of the street, but after some trial and error it becomes easier.
The Left Bank
Across the Dnipro River from the city center the Left Bank doesn’t have any traditional tourist sites or destinations. However, it is a good opportunity to see how many residents live the old Communist “micro-districts” of high rise apartment blocks, as well as an increasing number of new luxury high rises. Take the Metro red line out a few stops past the river and walk around. You’ll get a preview on the taxi ride in from the airport.
I stayed in this old Soviet hotel with great Communist-era architecture. While the interior is a bit dated, it’s well-appointed and the service is good. Most rooms have balconies. Ask for an upper floor with view of the river. The restaurant doubles as a nightclub, and can be loud if your room is on a lower floor. There is a good continental breakfast. Expect to pay around $50/night. It’s about a 35 minute walk from Independence Square.
Other places to walk
An old bridge over the Dnipro has been re-purposed as a pedestrian bridge, which is a good place for views of the river and city. There are many trails to walk on the hillside between the city and the river.
Food and Drink
English menus seem to be fairly common. Restaurant service is very European – severs will leave you alone. You’ll need to wave them over if you need something, especially the check.
Syndicate Brewery has excellent beer and an excellent burnt end burger that rivals KC BBQ. Patrick Pub has a big range of traditional and modern food, including good seafood.
Silpo is a local supermarket chain that is totally modern and has good options prepared sandwiches and other things to go.
The metro is fast, safe, and convenient. It has classic soviet subway cars, and some stations are impressive works of art and architecture. It still uses old plastic subways tokens for €5 per trip. It’s easiest to buy them from the ticket counter, but self-service machines are available and somewhat usable. The new contactless card requires purchasing from a ticket booth where no English is spoken. Signage includes the Roman spelling of stations, and the on-board announcements are in both Ukrainian and English.
Taxi drivers can be aggressive, especially exiting the airport. Uber works really well, especially since you and the driver unlikely to speak the same language. UberX tends to be a little rough around the edges. It’s worth spending a little bit more on UberSelect, especially since the exchange is so favorable.
The airport is 30-45 minute Uber rider for under €10. There are three mobile networks selling SIM cards at arrivals. Turn left after leaving baggage claim and look along the back wall. ATM machine is opposite. Uber pickup – exit the terminal, turn right, and way a few hundred feet to the entrance/exit for terminal-side surface parking lot.
English is generally not spoken. As a former part of the Soviet Union, Russian is widely spoken. However, the government is now trying to promote Ukrainian. So language is a bit of a touchy subject. The culturally appropriate thing seems to be to start out with Ukrainian and let the local choose which language to continue.
Both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Roman alphabet of English and most European languages. Some signs have Roman transliterations, but it helps to spend time in advance learning the basics of Cyrillic alphabet so you can decode street signs and such. Use Google Translate to look up some basic phrases like “hello, thank you, toilet”, etc. and save them as favorites. You can also download the Russian and Ukrainian languages for offline translation.
Mobile data is still 3G across the whole country. Hotel and other public WiFi can be very spotty. Be sure to download an offline map of the city.
Crime seems very low. Many people, including families, were hanging out in dimly lit parks well into the night.
Ukraine is involved in an ongoing conflict with Russia in the eastern part fo the country, but the danger is far from Kyiv. There is a very visible presence of police and military around the city, but they are generally low-key about it. Military recruitment posters were common throughout the city. There were some peaceful anti-corruption demonstrations happening while I was there, but the only worry they caused was traffic congestion due to police cordon around the area.
Mission, Membership, Marketing, Money
The 4 M’s framework is a useful way to evaluate programs, events, and other opportunities and to inform your decisions about where to invest time, energy, and resources. It is useful for considering new opportunities, as well as re-examining existing programs and events to ensure they remain relevant and worthwhile.
Use the 4 M’s to think about things like:
- The special event that brings in a lot of money but is really just a party with no clear connection to the mission
- A program that serves the mission perfectly but has zero revenue or other funding towards offsetting its costs
- That co-branding opportunity with a local business that gets great exposure but direct, tangible benefit
Whether you are a startup deciding where to invest precious resources and energy or a big organization drowning in opportunities and requests, the 4 M’s can help clarify your decision-making process.
How well is it aligned with your mission, core values, and the reason you organization exists?
Things are highly aligned with the mission are of course important, but they must be balanced with efforts that bring benefits of the other M’s. If everything you did was mission-aligned you could still go out of business if there wasn’t enough cash coming in the door. Or it could be ineffective if clients don’t know about your great services.
Membership (or donors)
How much does it grow your base of individual supporters?
For membership organizations, does it bring new members? For other types of organizations, does it bring you new individual donors or new contacts who become reliable supporters? Members/donors are more than just a source of money. They are a source of volunteers, energy, excitement, and much more. An activity that grows your base without making a lot of money could still be valuable in other ways.
How does it grow awareness of your organization and its mission?
Does it bring you exposure, visibility, media coverage, etc. ? Clients, partners, and funders can’t find you if they don’t know about you. Sometimes it’s important to just build your brand, market position, and overall awareness.
Does it bring in real cash money?
That means it makes a net profit after expenses, including staff time. Don’t forget to factor in staff time to the budget! For special events, many experts suggest an 80% profit desireable to make it worthwhile versus other revenue sources you could pursue. Your nonprofit is a corporation, and all corporations need the resources to offer useful services delivered by competent and happy employees.
How many M’s does the opportunity satisfy?
The more the better! Something that hits all for 4 M’s is probably a no-brainer. It’s easy to make the case for pursuing the opportunity or keeping the program or event. but most things in life involve some trade-offs.
If it only aligns with one or two M’s, it should align completely. For example, an event that raises a six figure gross revenue with an 80% profit margin might be worth it, even if it does nothing to serve the mission, market the organization, or get more members. Conversely, we often do things that are mission-aligned but lose money or don’t contribute to marketing or membership. Those can be OK, too – if they are significantly in service to the mission.
Make more M’s
Sometimes those Single-M opportunities can be tweaked to add another M. That lucrative event can better include the mission or clients.
The key to using this framework is balance. It’s OK to have a few things that only hit one or two M’s, as long you limit that number and are intentional about when you allow those things to pass through the filter. Strive towards most things you do hitting three or four M’s.Also on:
I visited Cape Town for two weeks in May of 2016 and really enjoyed the city. The cityscape and vibe both have elements of Europe and San Francisco.
Where to Stay
The exchange rate means it’s very possible for Americans to find a nice hotel for $50-$75/night. Airbnb is common, though it is starting to displace lower income residents from previously affordable apartments.
There are several compact neighborhoods in the city center that are safe, walkable, and convenient to many attractions. I stayed in the Der Waterkant neighborhood, which had lots of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and a small shopping center with an excellent Spar supermarket for basic supplies.
The coastal neighborhoods of Clifton, Camps Bay, and Hought Bay get you easy access to the beach, plus lots of food and drink options. The first two are a quick bus or Uber from the city, while the third is a bit further out.
Things to do
Do this on the first clear day of your trip. The mountain is often covered in fog that rolls in unexpectedly, so you might not have many opportunities for this must see place. You hike up in a couple hours, or take the quick cable car. There is a cafe at the top, plus many walking trails and look-out points. Get some food and drink from the supermarket for a sunset picnic. Just be mindful of the last cable car off the mountain, or you will be hiking down in the dark.
Seaside neighborhood with a nice beach, shops, and restaurants. Nice place to spend an afternoon, find some good seafood, etc. The boulders are especially fun for playing around.
Sea Point Promenade
Very nice coastal boardwalk for walking and biking.
See below why you should do this, and how you can do it responsibly and ethically.
The traditional safaris are all in the national parks on the eastern side of South Africa, and require a domestic flight and several days to visit. However, there are a few game reserves that give you a taste of the safari experience and get you up close to the big game like elephants, lions, giraffes, etc. I visited the Aquila preserve, about two hours outside Cape Town. In addition to the normal driving safari, they offer a very fund guided four wheeler safari that I highly recommend. They also offer options to stay overnight in the preserve, including a few places inside the wildlife fence!
Another of big hills in the middle of the city. Drive to the top for easy hiking, great views, and parasailing over the Atlantic Ocean.
Emerging hipster neighborhood with the standard shops, restaurants, and breweries.
Victoria & Albert Waterfront
Besides a large shopping center, “the V&A” has the ferry terminal for visits to Robben Island (Nelson Mandela’s prison) plus cool things like catamaran tours of the harbor.
There is a good comedy club at the V&A Waterfront. While the accents and vocabulary where sometimes challenging to understand, comedy was still a great way to get a different insight into local culture.
Poverty, race, and segregation
Even though the official segregation policy of Apartheid is long gone, it will take generations to overcome the segregation and spatial separation of the whites, blacks, and coloureds (a non-derogatory, socially acceptable term for Asian and mixed-race people). The city center and surrounding residential areas are mostly white or coloured, and are surrounded vast expanses of the former township areas for blacks.
The townships are slowing being improved with paved streets, formal housing, shopping centers and other services. However, there are still vast areas of informal settlements that are basically the shacks and slums you see on TV. Interestingly, in recent years young people and lower income whites are moving into the townships as high housing prices and gentrification pushes them out of the central neighborhoods.
Visiting the Townships
Do not miss the opportunity to see the other side the country’s vast wealth gap. Despite the poverty and lingering segregation, I was surprised how much commerce, culture, and entrepreneurship is happening in the townships. While you are completely free to go into the townships and they are safe to visit during the day, it’s best to join an organized group.
There a several township tours that are operated by residents and that bring revenue back to residents. Folks are incredibly nice, welcome visitors, and love to meet you. Just be sure to research these in advance to avoid a tour that exploits the residents or treats them like exhibits in a zoo. Seek out opportunities to meet residents. The townships do have shops, crafts, and some basic cafes. I visited Langa and Khayelitsha.
The city is generally safe, but does require a lot of common sense. Most areas are totally safe to walk around during the day. There is a lot of panhandling and people trying to sell you things, but most are not aggressive if you politely say no or keep walking. It might be intimidating, but it’s harmless.
Pick pocketing and muggings can happen if you are walking alone late at night. The most common scam is people offering to help you at the ATM, then observing your PIN and running off with your card – be careful using ATMs. It’s not unusual to have cell phones stolen if you leave it sitting on your table in a bar or restaurant – put them away when they aren’t in your hand.
If you rent a car, never leave anything in the car, even if it is not visible. Thieves will take cheap stuff that might not seem valuable to you. Leave the glove compartment open so people know there is nothing inside. Unofficial parking lot attendants will ask you to pay them to watch your car. It’s easier to give them a few rand than risk having them mess with your car.
Tap water is safe at hotels and restaurants. HIV is still an epidemic across Africa, so be safe if you mingle with the locals.
If you head out of town you will see many people walking or hanging out along the highways. They are looking for informal carpools into the city to get to work. It might seem weird or alarming, but it is not dangerous to you.
English is a second language for most people, though vocabulary and mannerisms are more British than American. Whites and Coloreds (mixed race) often speak Afrikaans as their first language, it’s an offshoot of Dutch. Most Blacks in Cape Town are Khosa people and speak Khosan as their first language.
- Braai – Barbecue. Grilling is a national pass time.
- Bru – Bro, Dude, Mate – authentic, not cheesy
- Robots – traffic lights
- Hooters – horns or sirens
Cape Point National Park, Simon’s Town, Boulders Beach, Hought Bay
These sites are a great day trip just south of the city. Do it in a circular route to see both sides of the peninsula. Plan to spend a few hours at Cape Point hiking, visiting the lighthouse, and exploring the point. There multiple hikes available. Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town is where you can get up close with penguins – a very unique opportunity.
I visited this small town a couple hours outside the city, which is centered around an old Christian missionary center. There is good hiking in the foothills about the town. Next door is the town of Greyton, and antique and shopping destination.
I did not get to experience any of the wineries, but the Western Cape province is famous wine, including the native pinotage. Constantia is located in the city limits, but most are a good day trip to the east of the city in towns like Franschoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch. There are many options for shuttles and tours to avoid getting a DUI or needed to rent a car.
The exchange for North American and European visitors is very favorable. A pint of beer in a good bar will be $1-2. An Uber ride within the city will be $4-5, and from the airport $10. Credit cards are widely accepted at stores and restaurants.
The City Bowl and close-in neighborhoods are very walkable. Uber is readily available and very cheap at current exchange rates. There is a new rapid bus system called MyCITI that links most of the central destinations. Commuter trains go further out, but can be very crowded. There is a lot mixed advise about whether or not the commuter trains are safe for visitors. The last few years they have been the target of protests, setting trains on fire, etc.
Pick & Pay is the local supermarket chain. The German chain Spar is a bit more posh. Most over the counter medicine is actually behind the counter. You have ask the pharmacist for things like sudafed, Benadryl, etc. On the plus side, Tylenol 3 (paracetamol with codeine) is available without a prescription.