I have always been proud of my ability to fit in anywhere in the world.
And this ability to blend in was recently tested during my two- week stay in Cape Town, South Africa. It was my first time in the land of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Hugh Masekela, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and other big names.
How would it go? Truth is, I did not know what to expect. So, I went in with an open mind and a plan to make the most of my stay, and make the most of it I did.
Not even the early morning setoff with Ethiopian Airlines and that three-hour transit at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport could dampen my mood. At around 2pm the following day, we touched down in Cape Town.
I was there for the Cape Town International Jazz festival. The immigration officer started to crack a few jokes about "the land of Museveni", but I quickly assured him I was an arts journalist; so, politics and poli-tricks were not my thing.
Soon I was out of the airport, breathing the fresh air of the Mother City, as Cape Town is fondly known. First things first, I needed to get to my hotel. While hustling with a last-minute application, I had landed on a cheap Airbnb place and it was not until I talked to a cab driver at the airport that it dawned on me that Western Cape was a province, and not some nearby suburb of Cape Town.
A quick call confirmed my fears. I was going to stay approximately 50km from the airport. The cabbie said the minimum he could charge me was R500, equivalent to approximately Shs 130,000!
Traveling on a tight backpacker budget made me disregard advice to find another place within the central business district - I had already deposited on the Airbnb - and that decision laid foundation for my entire trip.
My plan was to arrive at my booked place of aboard and plan the next step from there. We set off for Kommetjie, a predominantly white neighbourhood overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Yes, words such as white, black and coloured are still used in South Africa. I think it is their way of facing their rainbow reality. I found it shocking in the beginning but I came around eventually.
The village is a perfect blend of beach, mountains, sea and nature, ideal for vacation but not for someone like me who had to commute to the CBD everyday, for two weeks.
On arrival, my host and his Zimbabwean helper welcomed me. Staying at Maxi's place taught me to appreciate life as it is.
See, Maxi is paralysed from the neck down. He fell off a tree and broke his spine. He has been bedridden for 10 years. At 28, when he would be enjoying life, he cannot even move his fingers.
His laptop sits on some kind of rig close to his face so he can use his chin and a specialized device to type and play games. He seemed to have made peace with his situation and my chats with him as he sipped his beer through a straw from a glass held by Jimmy the helper, left me laughing hysterically.
Maxi's great sense of humour and knowledge of current affairs are thanks to his spending 16 or so hours online everyday. I soon discovered that connecting to Cape Town was going to be tricky.
Jimmy was supposed to drop me at Ocean View from where I could board a taxi for R8 to Fish Hoek train station, where I would then take a one-hour train ride to Cape Town for R9.
The return trip was the same: by train to Fish Hoek, taxi to Ocean View and then pickup by Jimmy back to Kommitjie three kilometres away. It was such a village that in my Cape Town photojournalism class, even those that had come from Johannesburg had never heard of it; the Capetonians had never set foot there.
The commute provided challenges like having to be up early to catch the 8am train and making Jimmy pick and drop me off daily. But the biggest challenge came from people who kept assuring me of how Ocean View was dangerous.
"That's a coloured people's neighbourhood. It is very unsafe. Keep your phone away at all times," I was told severally.
But my backpack had my camera and laptop totaling about $2,000 (Shs 7m). How would hiding my $300 Samsung help?
I disregarded the warning as mere stereotype and resorted to my trick of always walking like I belonged here and knew where I was going. At the end of my stay, I confirmed we are all good people; maybe circumstances and stereotypes paint us in a different way.
Then the train stories of how passengers get mugged and why some prefer the first-class carriage, started. My budget could not allow me first-class luxury.
After doing the daily trip for a couple of days, I became a pro. What I did not attempt was sitting close to the taxi driver. Most taxis had no conductor; so, the passengers in the front seats bore the burden of making sure all the other 15 passengers paid and got their change.
In case you are thinking 16 passengers is on the high side for a normal-size kamunye like our 14-seaters, in Cape Town they pay for the ride, not the seat.
Whether that ride is made with you on kameeme or a proper seat, you pay the full fare. And remember to say "thank you, driver" as you close the door upon alighting.
SIPIWE IS BORN
The transport system in Cape Town is like no other city's that I have been to. I walked, used the train, matatus, metered taxis, MyCiti bus, and the mobile-based Uber and Taxify. Getting around is easy.
That transport experience was amazing as opposed to being bussed around by the host; I got to meet and live with people, and hear real people stories.
I decided not to plug my ears with earphones in order to hear the click of Xhosa or the odd Kiswahili from Congolese immigrants. I even got a name - Sipiwe Makeleni!
All this would not have happened if I had stayed in an uptown hotel and allowed to be chauffeured to Artscape theatre daily. The days leading up to the jazz festival, I booked into another Airbnb place in Sea Point, because I had to leave the city late.
Sea Point is a beautiful area on the beach. There, I met a Ugandan woman and we used to chat till the wee hours of the morning. She taught me the importance of family with tears in her eyes. Something happened to her and she ended up overstaying her visa. But she is in the final process of rectifying her papers and after 11 years, she may finally come back home.
While I spent a lot of time in class and at festival gigs, I also got to do some touristy stuff. Top on my bucket list was Table Mountain and as luck would have it, I met Evelyn Mahlaba at Cape Sun.
Evy, as many call her, is the regional director, Africa, at South African Tourism. I knew I was sorted. The following day I was on my way to Table Mountain with the NBS TV crew.
They had a prior arrangement with Wahida Parker, the managing director of Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, and that is how we managed to beat the queues of hundreds of tourists to ascend one of the 'new world seven wonders of nature'.
If you are afraid of heights, there is an option of hiking; otherwise, it is not easy to know you are hanging on a man-made car hanging by cable 3,563 feet above sea level.
The cable rotates as you ascend, giving those inside a 360-degree view. Once at the top, I could not wait to jump out and explore. It is a whole different world up there.
Not even the biting cold could stop me from soaking it all in. There are shops selling souvenirs, a restaurant and a live band playing!
As a family man, I could not help thinking about those I had left back home and wishing they were with me to enjoy God's creation from this point. Tourists teetered on cliff edges to take selfies. One couple requested me to take a picture of them and I agreed on condition that they stepped away from the cliff.
I did not want to be the one to record their final moments on earth. As we descended from Table Mountain, I reflected on the awesome time I had had in Cape Town.
The wonderful people always ready to give directions, the amazing food at the Eastern Food Bazaar, the Cape Town International Jazz festival and to crown it all, Ethiopian Airlines upgraded me to their business class called Cloud 9 on my return leg. Thank you, guys!
Mzansi, I will be back someday with my family for another Cloud 9 experience. And this time I will have saved and not be on a backpacker's budget.