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 entrĂ©e 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

South Africa (part 1 of 2)

       Let me preface this post by saying that Cape Town is absolutely GORGEOUS. Thus far, it is the most beautiful city we’ve visited and everyone was so sad to leave. Cape Town is nicknamed “the Mother City” and trust me, it’s a whole lotta woman.

        When we docked, we were privileged to welcome the Consul-General on the ship for our diplomatic briefing. This was a big honor because typically some no-name diplomat boards and talks about the country, but the Consul-General is one of the highest-ranking diplomats after the Ambassador. She was filled with joy and enthusiasm and welcomed us to Cape Town with open arms. It was really interesting to listen to her because the US Embassy had just recently received its objectives from the State Department in conjunction with the Obama Administration. The United States has many organizations working in South Africa, and the continent in general, including the Peace Corps and USAID (US Agency for International Development). International organizations include the Red Cross, World Health Organization, World Food Program, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS. These organizations initiate a wide variety of programs to help the vast array of social, economic, and political problems that affect South Africa. The Obama Administration has taken a fresh approach regarding international aid and aid organizations. Instead of working for Africa, he’s really focused on working with Africa to solve the problems that plague the continent. The Obama Administration’s objectives (aka your tax dollars) for South Africa specifically are free and democratic elections that are devoid of political violence, combating HIV/AIDS through anti-retroviral drugs and, more importantly, education (especially of women), and economic development to raise incomes and create economic sustainability.

       These objectives, especially those related to HIV/AIDS, have recently received a huge boost with the resignation of former president Thabo Mbeki in September of 2008. Mbeki announced his resignation after being recalled by the African National Congress’s National Executive Committee due to political interference in the trial against Jacob Zuma, the ANC (political party) president. Mbeki was the second democratically elected president of South Africa, serving almost two full terms beginning in 1999. Many feel his presidency was ultimately a big disappointment for reasons including his lack of pressure put on Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to relinquish power, his dissident stance (or what some call denial) towards HIV/AIDS, and his inability to effectively combat the high level of violent crime. Mbeki’s successor, Kgalema Motlanthe, was appointed president of South Africa by the South African National Assembly and he will hold the position until the 2009 general election on April 22, when (assuming the ANC wins) Jacob Zuma is expected to become president. Motlanthe has been most widely noted for his desire to address AIDS using conventional scientific approaches, a stark contrast to his predecessor, whose health minister denounced anti-retroviral drugs as poisons and advised the use of olive oil, garlic, and beetroot by HIV-positive persons. Organizations and governments all over the world have welcomed this shift in policy. South Africa is a political and economic leader in Africa and it has the ability to focus and drive the continent in a positive direction for the future.

        My planning for South Africa was a little subpar compared to most of the other countries we’ve visited. I didn’t come in with a set plan like I usually do, so the first day I ended up doing a walking tour of the city with my friend, Ian. We walked around the V&A Waterfront, which is where our ship docked, for a while. It was very pleasant because we finally docked at a nice port. All of the ports prior to Cape Town have been industrial, smelly, and sketchy (they don’t usually attract the greatest crowd), so it was relieving to get off the ship and be surrounded by nice shops, restaurants, and other tourists. After exploring the waterfront, we walked towards the downtown area on a whim and then ventured to the other side of town where the football (soccer) stadium is being built. As you probably know, South Africa is hosting the 2010 World Cup, and it is the first African country to do so. It was odd, though, because I couldn’t tell the country was hosting one of the world’s largest events next year; it was completely bereft of posters, flags, paraphernalia, and lamppost banners, and few people even talked about it. When I went to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, it was present everywhere. Skyscrapers were plastered with posters of skiers, figure skaters, and bobsledders. Every lamppost had a flag attached representing the games. Cape Town was pretty bare. It was only the second-to-last day that we were able to find 2010 South Africa World Cup t-shirts and hats because all of the stores had just gotten shipments the day before. Anyways, we spent a few hours walking around. The waterfront is beautiful, especially with Table Mountain looming in the background. For dinner, we ate at a steak house on the waterfront. While we were deciding where to eat, we had people bidding on us to eat in their restaurant. We got two restaurants in a bidding war where one would offer everyone a free glass of champagne and then the other would and then we’d go back to the first and see if they’d up the offer. It was fun until everyone started to get annoyed because they were starving, so we just picked steak, and boy was I happy with that decision. I ordered an Old Man Steak, and it was seriously one of the top five meals I’ve eaten in my life. I’m usually a fast eater, but I savored every last bite and was the last person to finish my meal. Couple that with chips (fries) and some red wine… I was in heaven. We could not have capped off the night any better.

        The next day I did a Semester at Sea trip called “Cape Town, Apartheid, and Robben Island”. We started off by going to the District Six Museum and then driving through District Six itself. District Six is the name of a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town that is best known for the forced removal of over 60,000 people in the 1970s by the apartheid government. In 1966, the government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act and started removals in 1968. District Six is a tale of two cities. On the one hand, District Six was a lively, bustling city filled with culture, music, and entertainment. On the other hand, it was the epitome of racism and oppression. Old houses were bulldozed, and blacks were forced into townships kilometers away. If they didn’t leave, the military came in and forced them out. The museum did a great job of evoking this vast disparity. It was disappointingly easy to forget about the struggle blacks went through when learning about the glorious lifestyle the whites led in the district. It reminds me of the rise of white suburban America in the 1960s and the various regulations that were instituted to keep blacks out. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, though, the African National Congress has recognized older claims of former residents to the area and pledged to support rebuilding, but development and reconstruction to date have been very slow.

       Next, we went to Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town where many blacks moved to after they were barred from living in the cities by the apartheid government. As we drove out of the city, the freeway was lined with miles and miles of shacks and shanties. In the townships, the government provides running water and electricity, and the housing is highly subsidized so the poorest can live there. When we made it into the township, we walked around a little, admired some vendors’ artwork, then made our way to “Vicky’s Bed & Breakfast”, the self-proclaimed smallest hotel in South Africa. Vicky’s is a two-story hotel that offers the full township experience. It was really interesting listening to Vicky because she talked about the pride and joy people in the townships feel despite their poverty. All over I saw African’s taking charge and shouldering the burden to improve their conditions. People were tearing down shacks and replacing them with cement houses. Children were going to school and getting an education. Banners and graffiti encouraged education regarding HIV/AIDS. It was remarkable. The children we interacted with were adorable. I kicked around a soccer ball with a little boy who was really shy and quiet at first, but he opened up as we played. When we walked by the school, all of the kids were giving us high-fives. We took pictures of the kids and they got really excited when we showed them their pictures on our digital cameras. I think they just wanted their faces seen and their stories heard by someone because they’re just stuck in the township without much connection to the outside world. I also think that because there are definitely still problems in terms of race relations, it means a lot that we are white people who were taking time to learn about the struggles of the black people in the townships. Later, we ate lunch in the township at a restaurant called Lelaha. Our hostess welcomed us with joy and cooked a gigantic meal. We tried a variety of traditional dishes and were also entertained by drummers and marimba players.

       After the township, we headed back to the waterfront to catch a ferry to Robben Island, which is where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned. After our ferry ride, we accidentally got separated from our SAS group and ended up taking the tour of Robben Island with a huge group of Brits. We drove around the entire island looking at various small prisons, churches, houses, etc, and at one point, we had an impeccable view across the water towards Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background. After our bus tour, we were led through the prison precinct. It’s really interesting because all of the tour guides are past political prisoners, so not only are they an authority on the subject, but their stories are very personal and detailed. As we were led through the prison, we saw Nelson Mandela’s cell, which was the only cell occupied by a blanket, pillow, and desk. His cell was the 4th cell on the right side in section D, which is the section where they held political prisoners. What’s most remarkable to me is how after 27 years in captivity, Mandela was able to declare his commitment to peace and reconciliation with South Africa’s white minority and prevent the country from crumbling during his presidency. Though the aftermath of apartheid is still vivid, I think South Africa is a leader in showing the world how people can coexist peacefully and how democracy can thrive. That night, we headed down to Long Street for dinner and some drinks. This probably sounds dumb, but Long Street is REALLY long. I mean, you don’t usually dwell on the significance of a street’s name, but this one was a dead giveaway. Long Street has a lot of great restaurants, bars, and shops, and it’s a central social scene in Cape Town. I ate pizza that rivaled traditional New York thin-sliced pizza and drank a hearty milkshake. Afterwards, we went to a club, danced, and had a couple drinks before heading back to the ship.

        My third day turned out pretty similar to my first day. My friends Laura, Colleen, Conor, and I had trouble deciding what we wanted to do, so we ended up taking a taxi down the coast a little to Camps Bay, which is a beautiful beach area encompassed by the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range. It had a lot of shops and restaurants that we checked out as we cruised along the bay. We spent a little time on the beach, but we hesitated to go in the water because we were on the Atlantic Ocean side (rather than the Indian Ocean side) and it was freezing cold. Conor was the only one who wore his bathing suit and he was brave enough to venture into the water. While Laura, Colleen, and I played around the tidal pools, Conor went into the water, but while he was in there, a huge wave came crashing up onto the beach and completed drenched his t-shirt, socks, shoes, and wallet. Not only were they wet, but they were filled with sand. It was pitiful and hilarious all at the same time. Laura and I then shopped from vendors on the street who had some really neat crafts and artwork. I ended up buying this beautiful painting from an artist. It’s a painting of a little lagoon that opens up into the ocean as the sun sets. There are palm trees, huts, and people carrying baskets on the land as well as people in boats on the water. It’s bright red and yellow and absoutely stunning. It was nice supporting a local artist and I paid the same amount I would’ve for a one-hour speedboat ride through the harbor, which I didn’t end up doing. I’ll have this painting forever and it’ll mean a lot more to me. We eventually headed back to the ship to regroup before heading out to a rugby game that night.

       To get to the game, we took an 8-person taxi. Traffic was pretty bad on the freeway, so when we merged on the freeway, our driver cut across the section that separates freeway traffic from merging traffic. Just our luck, there was a cop right there that pulled us over. We were all really nervous because we had no idea what was going on and our driver got out and walked back to the police car instead of the police officer walking up to our car. Remember that story I told from Morocco about the setup where a taxi driver pulls into a gas station, offers someone marijuana, and then a fake cop demands a ransom to let them go? Well, we were all very aware of this so we had another one of those moments where everyone was just like, ‘Ok, if he offers drugs, get out and RUN!! though we were on the freeway so I’m not sure where we were going to go, but we didn’t think that far. Anyways, we made it safely to the game, which was between the Stormers (home) and the Reds (away). It wasn’t quite as intense as the soccer game in Barcelona, but it was a lot of fun seeing a rugby game. If you’ve never seen one, they are rough. I mean the guys are just getting pummeled from every side and we saw some pretty nasty shots. Unlike the NFL, they don’t wear pads so players were just dropping like flies with injuries. Conor plays rugby so he was able to explain to us what was happening, as did a nice couple sitting in front of us. For the majority of the time, though, we just naively watched, stood up and cheered when everyone else did, and chanted, “Heer weh goa Storm-mas, heer weh goa!” in the worst imitation of a South African accent when the other fans did. After the game, we went to meet our driver again, but we stopped for some street food. We were told to try Boerwurst roles, which are basically like hot dogs but SO much better. They put the hot dog to shame. They’re sausage in a bun with grilled onions and then you put ketchup and mustard on it. Delicious.