Thursday, March 19, 2009

South Africa (part 2 of 2)

       On the fourth day, we arranged to do a tour of the winelands and go wine tasting, which South Africa is renowned for. It was by far the best day in South Africa. We woke up early and took a taxi to Stellenbosch, one of three valleys that form the Cape Winelands, the larger of the two main wine-growing regions in South Africa. This region is a very old European settlement that was used to grow food for merchants on ships that were rounding the Cape of Good Hope. In those days, the Suez Canal hadn’t been constructed and the journey was so long that ships needed to stop and replenish their food supplies or their food would rot and spoil. So that morning, we set out in a large group from a backpacker’s lodge called “Stumble Inn”. We had two vans and in our van, there were 13 of us Americans and a lone Brazilian guy. His name was Mauricesu, but no one could pronounce it so we just called him “Brazil”. It was an awkward start, but after a few drinks, we had a lot of fun with him. We went to 4 wineries that day, the first called Simonsig. When we arrived, we could tell that our driver was annoyed that he had 13 loud, obnoxious Americans in his van. When we got out, he was trying to give us instructions and my friend Laura was talking so he told her to shut up. It was just so perfect because out of our group, Laura is the loud one. I couldn’t stop laughing. At Simonsig, we did a tour of the winery and got to see how the wine is made. From the gathering and separating process to the crushing and fermentation process, we got to see the whole production, which, depending on the wine, usually takes about 7-10 days from the grape to the bottle. While we were looking at some red wine ferment in these giant cylinders, a woman from Toronto dropped her camera case in the wine. Luckily her camera wasn’t in there and she was able to pick her case out of the cylinder, but it was pretty funny. Her camera case smelled rather good afterwards. After our tour, we got to the wine tasting, but before we actually tasted the wine, our guide taught us the proper technique to taste wine. First, you have to swirl the wine a little in the glass to let it breathe. Next, you must tilt the glass on its side, stick your nose inside the glass, and take a big whiff. Then, you must sip the wine, keep it in your mouth, and suck in oxygen to release the taste. Finally, you must swish the wine around your mouth so that it reaches all of your taste buds before swallowing it. Also, note a few guidelines: 1) White wines before red wines before dessert wines; 2) It is perfectly acceptable to spit out a wine you don’t like into a provided bucket; 3) It’s best to wash your glass out with a bit of water in between wines in order to preserve the authenticity of each wine. Likewise in your mouth with bread and water. With that under my belt, I tried Chardonnay (a dry white wine), Gewurztraminer (an off-dry/semi-sweet white wine), Shiraz Mr. Borio (a red wine), Redhill Pinotage Veritas Double Gold (a red wine), and Vin de Liza (a dessert wine). The Gewurztraminer was my favorite wine from the entire day. I really wanted to ship a case home, but my impulses just didn’t pull through for me. Following Simonsig, we took a 20-minute drive to another winery called Fairview.

       Fairview was cool because we were given a menu and we chose the 6 wines we wanted to taste. They also had a delicious assortment of cheeses to try. They were situated around a semicircle-shaped table from lightest to heaviest. I went through the line 3 times with my Belgian buddies who were also on our trip but in the other van. It was delicious. My favorite cheese was the Havarti. On my third and final go around, I told the man behind me that I was coming up on my favorite and so he purposefully slowed down. I ended up eating 10 pieces right there. It was bad news. After we left Fairview, we headed to a restaurant for lunch. There must’ve been a biker convocation because the outside driveway was lined with Harleys and the placed was packed with leather jackets, chaps, and bandanas. I stopped to talk to a few of them because they were interested in what we were all doing, so I told them about Semester at Sea and they were all really impressed with it. At lunch, I decided to order chicken schnitzel. When in South Africa, why not order an Israeli dish, right? It was like I was subconsciously mourning the loss of not going to Egypt anymore. The food looked good until I cut into it and half of it was still raw, but at least the fries were really good, so that made up for it. After lunch, we continued our winery tour and headed to Dieu Donne. Dieu Donne had the most spectacular view of the valley. It was the only winery we visited that was situated up on a mountain, so we had a beautiful view of the hills, the mountains, the valley, and the winelands. Plus, there wasn’t a single wine at Dieu Donne that I didn’t like. My friend Jeff and I shared our glasses, so instead of getting to try only 4, we both tried all 8. Last, we made our way to Boschendal. Our last stop had a really pretty green grass field that was surrounded by little white buildings, almost like a courtyard. We were able to walk into the winelands and get a close-up view of the grapes harvesting. They had each row separated and denoted by grape – Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Shiraz, etc. When we sat for the wine tasting, they already had 6 wines laid out at each seat. My second favorite wine of the day was at Boschendal, and that was Le Bouquet 2008. By the end of the day, some people were just done with the wine tasting, so Jeff and I just went around the each table drinking all of the Le Bouquets. We finally headed back to the “Stumble Inn” where I met some random kids from Michigan who were living in South Africa doing service work for their last semester since they had already graduated. Small world, huh? After the winelands tour, we headed back to the ship in Cape Town and had dinner around the waterfront before calling it a night.

        The last morning we woke up at 4:30am and were off the ship by 5am to go hike Table Mountain. There were so many people just getting back from the bars on Long Street. When we told them what we were doing, they all thought we were crazy. At the time, so did I. Table Mountain is a flat-topped mountain that overlooks Cape Town. The level plateau is about 2 miles from side to side with steep cliffs on either side. Table Mountain is flanked on the east (left) by Devil’s Peak, which derives its name from the intensely difficult climb to the top, and on the west (right) by Lion’s Head, which looks like a lion’s head with its body extending towards the shore. During our taxi ride to the bottom of the mountain, our taxi driver was asking us about the economic recession and how we’ve been affected. We told him that as students, we’ve been somewhat insulated from it but that it’s been affecting students get loans and whatnot to go to school. Also, since we’re traveling around the world, it’s actually kind of helped us because the US dollar has appreciated in value. The conversation was interesting because our driver went on to comment that, “Regardless of the economic crisis, America is still the greatest country there is by a long shot and no one even comes close to matching its standing and importance in the world.” I think this was the first time that thought really started to sink in – how revered and idolized America is. It just made me think and reflect on what it meant to be an American. This theme continued in following countries, which I’ll discuss in later posts.

        When we got to the bottom of the mountain, it was still pitch dark outside. Our driver had to shine his headlights on the steps just so we could see where to start climbing. There were 8 of us total with Laura being the token girl, so we just kept yelling “L-DAWG!” in reference to a couple that boarded the ship for a few ports and showed a video from their climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. As we ascended the mountain, it was apparent it was going to be a difficult climb. After a few big steps, my quads were burning, my heart was pumping, and I was gasping for air. At least I wasn’t the only one to realize how out of shape I was at this very moment. We zigzagged across the mountain, periodically taking breaks to look back at the city as daylight slowly appeared from behind Devil’s Peak. We were still climbing at the break of dawn and all we could see were rays of yellow light emerge from behind the peak below the dark, imminent clouds. But further up, our climb still seemed daunting. The crevasse we were climbing towards was dark, foggy, and eerie. It looked like that scene from “Lord of the Rings” where Samwise Gamgee rescues Frodo Baggins from the big spider and carries him through that misty, beaten path to escape from the approaching orcs. But on we pushed. We noticed a fellow climber down below towards the beginning of the path. He seemed to be catching up to us really fast. Within 10 minutes, he passed us; rather, he blew by us. We were stopped to catch our breath and with a friendly hello, he chugged right by. He was an old man who looked unfit for any physical activity. But ten minutes later, sure enough, he came flying back down the trail. I remarked to him, “Dude, you’re awesome!” and he asked, “Pardon me?” and so I shouted, “DUDE, YOU’RE AWESOME!! How old are you?” and he replied, “I’m 72, going on 73 next month. I do this climb every Sunday morning.” I shit you not. Talk about exercise. He was a rockstar. The 72-year old man kicking our asses was good motivation to get moving, but the higher up we got, the colder it became, largely due to the increasing winds. We finally made it to the top, which all in all took about an hour and a half. I felt like I was on top of the world, but we were all FREEZING cold. The wind was gusting, judged by how quickly the fog was blowing over us. We walked around the plateau, admiring the views of the other mountaintops, the ocean, and eventually the city when the sun burned off the fog. I could see everything – the ship, the stadium, Robben Island. It was beautiful. But let me reiterate how cold it was. We had to take cover to protect ourselves from the blistering wind. The cable car was supposed to come at 8am, but we got up there at 7am, and because the wind was so bad, we had no idea if the cable car would be running. And because the cable car didn’t come until later, the restaurant wasn’t open, so we couldn’t eat breakfast. Cold and starving, we made our way into the men’s bathroom for refuge. There, we met another couple who spent the night on top of the mountain because they missed the last cable car the previous night and it was too dark for them to climb down the path. Talk about brutal. Each of us huddled underneath the automatic hand dryer for warmth as we tried to figure out our next move. We decided to check the cable car one last time before climbing down the mountain and luckily, we saw another group who had hiked up that was waiting for it also. So we were able to cable car it down. The cool thing about the cable car is that it rotates as it moves so you get a 360-degree view. When we got to the bottom, we saw another group of our friends waiting for the car to go up. They didn’t dare try to climb it. Weaklings.

        After Table Mountain, we went to breakfast. We literally just kept ordering food. They’d bring one entrée and then we’d order another. Eating legit eggs and bacon for the first time on the trip was incredible. It was another meal to savor. The rest of the day was spent doing last minute shopping and fooling around on the Internet. The whole waterfront was wireless and this was the first time I was able to use free Internet and communicate with the world. I got a lot of Facebook and summer internship stuff out of the way, which was very necessary. I hope everyone enjoyed the pictures I posted. Afterwards, I hopped back on the ship, but because the winds were so bad that night, we couldn’t leave the port until the next morning. Once we left, rounding the Cape wasn’t too bad. The area is regarded as having the second worst waters in the world following the tip of South America, so luckily we were spared this time.

        I can’t wait to come back to South Africa. I apologize for this taking so long, but we’re at the point in the voyage where our ports aren’t separated by many days at sea. And believe it or not, school goes on. Then throw in the Sea Olympics and exams and it’s just hectic. Thanks for all of your responses, e-mails, and messages. Check out the newly posted pictures. Enjoy! Until next time…

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” – St. Augustine

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