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The day I got to Cape Town, the New York Times ran a huge story about how the city is running out of water, and a friend who lives there posted a photo on her Facebook page of empty grocery store shelves that had been quickly stripped of their bottled water. The South African city is indeed about to go dry. So what is it like for a tourist like me to go there? How does a visit to a city facing a dire environmental emergency work?
I had booked the trip to the second-most populous urban area in South Africa back in July, when I saw a crazy deal on Ethiopian Airlines. At the time, I had no idea that I’d be encountering an environmental crisis. As the date approached, I became more mindful of the situation there. Months of drought coupled with poor management put Cape Town in the position of declaring April 12 to be Day Zero — the day the pipes would shut down and all water would be rationed, doled out in limited quantities at distribution points throughout the city. Long lines would be expected and violent chaos was feared.
I just wanted to see some penguins.
It didn’t take long after landing at Cape Town International Airport (CPT) to get the message that saving water is a priority. In fact, I didn’t even make it to the terminal before seeing a sign: on the jetway, I was encouraged to help save water.
Messaging was consistent in the terminal. First, I couldn’t miss the point at the immigration checkpoint.
There was more signage at baggage claim and even an artsy display approaching the exit. 1L, in case you’re wondering, is not a gate number, but one liter — South Africa uses the metric system.
The hotel got the message too. Checking in to Protea Hotel Cape Town Sea Point (booked with only 10,000 Marriott Rewards points per night) I was greeted with a sign in the lobby and a slip of paper with my key.
In the room, there were even more reminders.
And of course, the pool was among the first casualties.
Almost every restaurant acknowledged the crisis, usually in the bathrooms.
In fact, almost every bathroom, no matter how remote, encouraged limiting water.
I never found it difficult to find bottled water and there didn’t seem to be any price gouging. Sometimes signs were posted limiting the amount per purchase, but that was never for quantities of 1 liter or less.
Still, some stores were running low.
Fun Fact: I lost one of the water bottles I bought to a baboon!
But the headlines were serious. Day Zero was all over the local papers.
Even the SCUBA dive shop was doing its part. When I returned to the shop, no showers were allowed at all.
With all of this happening all around me, I was glad to do my part. I did not take a shower until a quick on-off on my last day. My travel friend and I implemented an “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” protocol for the toilet and used hand sanitizer as a substitute for soap-and-water when appropriate.
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