Wine Tasting: a classy concept that seems to inspire smarter ensembles, a listening ear, a more discernible palate than one actually has. I've gone wine tasting three times in my life. The first time was in Napa Valley after Semester at Sea. I was in culture shock and missing my new friends, so I got drunk about three times per day on quality reds from the California hills. The second time was in Indiana, believe it or not, at a vineyard that has rumors of using Welch's grape juice instead of that which falls from the grapevine. This third time, in Stellenbosch outside of Cape Town, was the most successful and most enjoyable of them all.
As I've illustrated, wine tasting isn't something you can't do elsewhere. And during our planning sessions for South Africa, we almost vetoed this idea because of that fact. But that would have been a mistake, as everyone, travelers and residents, that we asked for suggestions on SA activities mentioned we needed to spend a day trying the grape products of the Western Cape. Not only is there delicious alcohol involved in the equation but beautiful landscapes, a little bit of learning, and no doubt fun people in it as well.
We were in.
We set up our tour at the hostel's travel desk, which was so incredibly handy I didn't mind the commission they probably got from each activity booked. Our guide, Merinda, picked us up in the morning along with five young, spry others that all possessed that wine sparkle in their eye. Our schedule was to hit four or five vineyards that all had something special to offer: unlimited goat cheese tasting, sparkling wines, stunning views, and the best, most varied selection of Pinotage around.
And it was here we found the one thing that made wine tasting in South Africa unique: a combination of Pinot and Hermitage (so I was told...can't remember exactly for some reason...hic!). The king of Pinotage had white, blush, and red versions of this South African speciality, and we tried every single one of them. I tried to differentiate the tastes between an oaken barrel and steel tank fermentation and decided wood trumps steel any day.
The drive back was dramatically different than the drive there. Everyone had a plastic glass sloshing recent purchases and chocolate fingers. Red teeth dressed up every photograph captured. And a massive sing-along of Aussie national songs and American classics like "American Pie" commenced that probably rocked our driver's ear drums. The day ended at 5pm, and for some of us, that was pretty much all we could handle.
I didn't know where Table Mountain was (nor that it existed) until I pulled up to Cape Town harbor and saw her silhouette. That first sight of her was the kind that solidifies a mystical attachment and constant amazement that becomes evident in random dreams days and years later. And since that first sighting I've wanted to climb her extreme slopes and see her supposedly divine views. Many of my friends were granted the pleasure, but I never had the time while there. I was glad to hear Carly's enthusiasm for the hike this time around because it meant quenching an overdue thirst. So Table Mountain is 1000 some odd meters and only about a third of its original size. It used to stand along with its neighboring peaks as the only land while Cape Town was still underwater. People have found fossils and seashells on her slopes, but we weren't so lucky...or observant. We decided not to go with a guide, whom would have filled us in on more than just this information we got from some driver. But we weren't looking forward to an educational walk with nature.
The three of us began walking up the road towards the path turnoff and entertained ourselves while trotting higher in altitude. Virtually every step on the path was a rock stairstep, making the climb easier for more age groups and killer on the glutes. And one of my favorite parts about scaling nature is the constantly improving views, so just about ever chance we took, we shot some footage of Cape Town, the looming tower of rock before us, and ourselves in this picturesque scene.
Summiting Table Mountain isn't the most difficult thing in the mountaineering world. It's a moderate, 3 hour climb for anyone who can ably scale a long staircase. And if you're like us, you'll want to stagger your ascents between dancing sessions, photo shoots, travel games, and waterfall basking. There is a cable car that can bring you up to the summit in minutes, but as with anything you earn, the top is much more fulfilling if you intimately know every step it took to get there.
And since we were winded upon reaching the Table "top", we treated ourselves to some beers...and candy...and more beers...and a little debauchery. It was a perfect way to spend a perfect weather day in Cape Town. It's something that cannot be done anywhere else, because obviously there's only one flat-top mountain overlooking a harbor called Table. Even before doing this, I would have recommended the activity to anyone traveling to Cape Town, but now that I've finally got some first-hand experience under my belt, I can scream it.
CLIMB THAT TABLE!
Have you been keeping up with our WTI journey? Yes or No. If the answer is yes, you've aced today's coolness test. It's based on hundreds of factors developed by brilliant scientists in order to accurately determine someone's personal awesomeness level. If you answered no, you can't possibly have less internet access than we have, so there's no excuse. Catch up now!...then come back and finish this blog :)
The reason I ask this hard-hitting inquiry is that if your answer was yes, then you know we've been boarding tour bus after tour bus thus far with strangers-turned-friends around the world. You'd also know that Chris and I weren't really tour people to begin with but have had experiences thus far that would need "best time ever", "once in a lifetime", "hooray for life" phrases attached to them.
But with South Africa came a whole new experience...an unplanned one! Though we had our hostels and Baz Bus reservations all set, we had open-ended days in spectacular cities along the southernmost coast of Africa in need of filling. So when STA Travel's marketing manager, Carly, joined us in Johannesburg for a lil' SA getaway, we started rambling off all the things that had to get done.
Great White Shark Cage Diving Hiking Table Mountain Stellenbosch Winelands Adventure Sports Long Street and the Waterfront
...and a healthy slew of others. With only one or two days in Cape Town to do it up right, we talked to fellow travelers (lots of the volunteers from i-to-i) and travel agents to find out the scoop, which was that adventure sports could wait until the Garden Route. What's unique to this area? The best ways to spend a few days in CT? Hiking tall, flat mountains and savoring fine wines, of course. And so we did, making sure to sample some staple and some understated restaurants around. We actually extended our time in Cape Town in order to allow for more enjoyment of this city that is idolized by her visitors and especially her residents.
What's great about the Garden Route are the landscapes, the relaxed wintertime environment, and the heaps of activities available. I see Cape Town as one of those cities that makes everything in it better because it's existing and happening in that city. Just like New York, Chicago, Florence, Paris, London, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Sydney...these places live. And when something happens there, regardless of how fun or cool it actually was, it's immediately on a higher level, solely based on the real estate mantra of location [cubed]! Therefore, we had to see the nightlife, had to shop, had to go wine tasting, had to walk up big slopes, had to take tons of pictures and wander around...not because these are things we never get to do, but because they are occurring in this booming and blooming city.
And that's how we decided on our itinerary for South Africa. Hike. Drink Wine. Shark Dive. Bungy. Sky Dive. Whale watch. View animals. And the trip was perfect...
There's nothing louder and simultaneously as comforting as rain on a tin roof, even during monsoons. This must be what makes the Cape Town area look so clear, clean, and lush. And surely, when we emerged from our rooms that second day in False Bay, the world was dripping and new. Into Masi again, we went into a few creches where children from the township can receive child care and an education while their parents work, in hopes that they will someday be at the same academic level as their peers. The first one was hooked up, resources stacking the shelves in an organized, well-labeled fashion. At our arrival, one volunteer was reading a book in English, and a teacher next to her translated the story in Xhosa, chocked full of clicks and tongue smacks. Activity time commenced with drawing and painting, and we tried getting our hands and minds in there with the kids. I ended up stacking toys with young 5 and 6 year olds, trying to teach them colors and shapes. One teacher came over, asking me if I've been "teaching her children". When the kids nodded their heads, she looked really touched, and I was filled with...dare I say...glee.
The second creche wasn't nearly as organized, discipline-oriented, or effective in making a difference for the kids. These 2 and 3 year olds, as well as babies, pretty much danced around a building erected by previous volunteers and entertained themselves. Part of the process, though, of programs coming in to help various establishments is waiting for an invitation and a genuine intention to progress towards something sustainable. Though this creche had made great leaps towards improving the conditions for the kids, moving them from a flooded and moldy room in the back of the house to a clean, dry, well-lit structure, they didn't have daily routines or enough activities to calm their busy minds and bodies. Luckily the ones at this creche move on to the previous creche and receive the skills that will get them somewhere.
And the women that run these places often don't receive enough donations to function but must work themselves on the weekends and evenings for funds to run their creche. That's some noble, admirable dedication right there.
Our volunteer coordinators, Ally and Isabelle, treated us to a much appreciated meal and took us to our final destination of an orphanage in a colored community. Something Ally informed us of early on is the use of racial terms in accepted speech. In South Africa, people describe others as white, black, or colored. Simply using these words does not imply anything derogatory. The term "colored" differentiates those who have dark skin and other influences of Arabic, Asian, and so on. Anywho, the orphanage is better than many that exist in America today and had been visited by Melinda Gates. They had resources, though an odd stance on nutrition (the meals of custard answered questions about the quite round babies). We played for a bit after a tour of the facilities and returned to our hostel, feeling pretty content from the incredible treatment we received for two days straight.
Thomas Jefferson was a fan of travel: "Travel makes you wiser, but less happy." In a sense, I think he was on target, but global and social awareness can also bring a feeling of hope and enlightenment that can empower and please. I didn't feel happy seeing children and adults living hard lives that I observed as a cushy tourist. But I loved being witness to their strong characters and seeing the moments of success that emerge from the hardships. You can hear about the problems in South Africa and easily forget about them. You can see the problems in South Africa and remember them well. You can do something for the struggles, learn about the solutions, and interact with South Africans and understand viscerally until the end of your days. For this reason, I volunteer, because I don't ever want these hard realities to be easy to forget.
The barking from TEARS reverberates across the entirety of Masiphumalele daily, but what's represented by those sounds make the annoyance of constant dog yelping kinda comforting. The Emma Animal Rescue Society takes stray animals as well as domestic pets from the local communities for vaccinations, fixing, and disease treatment at a price that no one can argue with: free. Instead of putting down pups with horrifying skin diseases, they do what they can to ensure that every animal gets a chance at survival and adoption. And when they wander across a pet cat that hasn't been neutered yet, they create a positive relationship and rapport between TEARS and the owner, gaining respect and trust among people who don't often have the money to do the right thing for their beloved pets. We took a tour of the facilities to observe feral cats hanging out, sweet and healthy kitties propped on columns ready to be loved, and dogs dancing around their cages eager for chow time. One frisky barker had moves like Spiderman and bounded from the ceiling of his shared cage down to the ground, really darn excited for his Kibble. We gave treats to those that were being especially friendly and then moseyed to the wrestling puppies. There was a whole lotta cuteness going on at TEARS, and I think Chris and I could have entertained ourselves for hours playing with the animals.
The rescue squad, or mobile clinic, or whatever it was called invited us to join a ride through Masi to observe how they find the needy animals and connect with the communities. There was one man living on the very edge of the wetlands who absolutely adored his large, golden canines but couldn't feed them and treat them they way they deserved. TEARS built him a kennel out of the rain water and helped him out with dog food. The man was so grateful, he put his palms together and dipped his head in a sign of extreme and humble thanks.
When we turned a corner and saw a small cat staring at some snacking birds, we paused to laugh, and then the mobile crew took a gander to make sure she was fixed. Nay! TEARS squad members unite! One man spoke in the local language of Xhosa to tell her they could take care of everything and bring back her cat in a few days at no cost to her. One less animal out and about with procreating abilities or susceptibility to bad diseases.
In the next township of Mountain View, we came across a man who adored his massive pitbull, a canine who was quite obviously not fixed. The dog's homemade sweater was connected to the chain around his neck and had felt letters sewn on spelling "I'm so hood". It was just too perfect an ensemble. The owner reeked of booze and had an odd smear of white surrounding his mouth. He insisted that he'd never taken his dog to a fight, but he's killed 13 dogs before. And he took impeccable care to pair his fella with only the most worthy pitbull ladies, spreading the good bloodlines he called it. In this community, it's common that the men keep incredibly virile and dangerous dogs to solidify their own manly image. This was a case that would take weeks for TEARS to work, and they began by talking about dog fight victims to get on this guy's sappy side. We watched from afar at their wicked skills of coercion.
We left them to their jobs of keeping the animal peace and went for a volunteer bbq at the i-to-i house. It involved the kind of good food that puts hair on your chest: beef, sausage, potaters. The volunteers were all young, chatty, and very sweet, and their perspectives on travel, their volunteer projects, and South Africa were refreshing. It looks like more guys need to be made aware of this volunteer program, as they were scarcely represented. Fellas, South Africa + a bunch of ladies and you living under one roof...think about it.
I looked at i-to-i a while back when I was weighing my post-graduation opportunities. My trouble with volunteer projects though is always that I'm not sure whether my presence will be accepted, appreciated, and utilized for the maximum amount of assistance I can provide. Sometimes you show up, and it's pretty obvious a project is just about getting people to donate money and get out. Other times, you've got a very devoted group of people ready to work, but there aren't any resources or guidance to make the developments occur. i-to-i had all these issues figured out, and we could see and feel there was a need for volunteers to be there. We drove from Cape Town around the mountains to False Bay during the brilliance of a harbor sunrise. The first stop was a no frills walk around a township called Masiphumalele (which stands for "we will succeed"). Townships areas were set aside during the apartheid era as a place to "put" the colored and black communities that weren't wanted in the residential white zones. Masi, for short, is the only informal community in the Cape Town area that's centered in a "white" zone and is also the township with the highest percentage of people with HIV and AIDS...42%.
Charlotte, a local resident who can only be described as delightful, showed us around the community centers, libraries, relief centers, and even her own home, which is a privilege for visitors. We inquired about the expenses of living in this township and discovered a shack, built with a corrugated tin roof and roughly assembled panels, would go for about $500. Day care for a young child is $10 per month, but since these facilities wouldn't send a child away if the parents failed to pay, often that fee never gets collected. The township also bordered a wetland area, which floods with each heavy rain, and unfortunately it had been pouring the week prior to our arrival. Many children couldn't go to school or day care because they didn't have dry clothes to wear, and parents flocked to the relief centers for blankets to get through the chilly weather.
We walked amongst the kids singing in the street, the dogs roaming and barking hysterically, and the wandering people making their ways to local shops or passing taxis. This is definitely the way to do a township tour. Go with someone from the township, and walk, don't ride. It's also important to make sure your photography isn't about exploiting the people who live there, so this is one of those events that calls for intense sensitivity with clicking the shutter.
We then hit up our lunch stop, which also happened to be an educare center for children of pretty abysmal living situations and histories. Carrying in bags of rolls and deli ham, Chris and I began slathering mayo and folding ham for the kids' lunches. When we walked in, there was earth-rumbling screaming. When we passed out sandwiches, a mouse could have passed gas, and all would have turned their heads to look. And once the children consumed the food before them, it was back to unstoppable energy. The volunteers were personal jungle gyms for some kids, while others found joy in just being held. I attracted some gigglers with the always-reliable crowd pleaser, the tickle monster. Wherever you looked, there was a runny nose and a smile. It was a good scene.
Our expert sandwich assembling abilities came in handy once more when about 20 loaves of bread and flats of peanut butter came into the kitchen. We found ourselves in an efficient assembly line partaking in the relief efforts from recent rains. All those families whose homes hadn't a dry board received PB&Js to curb the devastation just a smidge. It felt good to spend even part of this trip doing something as useful as making cold and hungry families food.
Outside, volunteers stood propped up by rakes and shovels, smoking and chatting, waiting for the top soil and manure to show up for the care center's new garden. This project led by the volunteer program proposes to provide the children with fresh vegetables for stews and make better nutrition possible for very little money. And considering the owner of the establishment spends all her free time working for the funds to run the joint, anything to ease the heavy financial load is ecstatically appreciated. We got our backs into it for a bit and then had to move on to another social improvement project...this time all about the canines and felines.
Are you aware of the seven natural wonders of the world? No? Perfect, because I'm about to list them off: Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe Mt. Everest in Nepal/China The Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA The Great Barrier Reef off Australia The Northern Lights Paricutin Volcano in Mexico The Harbor of Rio de Janiero
Do you know what is missing from this list? I propose to include an eighth natural wonder of the world based on the fact that its just as spectacular as the landscape of Rio.
Cape Town. It's beyond words.
Beyond words, indeed, but I'll attempt anyway. Not only is this stunning coastal city hugging beautiful chilly waters of both the Atlantic and maybe a smidge of the Southern Ocean, but it's topped by a plateau that throws the clouds over its summit like a table cloth as well as the twelve jutting crags that line the western face of the mountain range. To look up any street in the city and see in the crisp sky this massive formation just makes the heart melt. The best is when this view comes at you from your hostel WC. Talk about a loo with a view!
Not only is it gorgeous to look at, but it has a scene that bustles. I think I'd have a hard time fitting in all I wanted to do in Cape Town if I had a semester...or even a lifetime. And the exchange rate, which sucks for the SAs but rocks for 'Mericans, makes tasting every morsel of Cape Town life possible.
What is there to do in Cape Town, you ask? If you like to spend money, look at things, eat things, climb up things, free fall, ride around, drink things, or dance around, you'll enjoy yourself in Cape Town. I was certainly overwhelmed upon getting into town, trying to figure out what to do in such a short amount of days. Luckily the Garden Route on our future itinerary gave us some relief as far as adventure sports went, so we could steer more towards those things which are specific to the Table Harbor zone.
What cannot be overlooked, though, is the history that barely dates back more than a decade. In our lifetimes, there was complete havoc between racial and socio-economic lines, travesties committed against people by people. And now this place waits for you at the bottom of Africa, tempting you with sports, wine, and awesome views. It doesn't seem like the dust could have settled by now, and in many ways it hasn't, since racism will continue to flourish probably for decades to come (sadly). So in the mix of traveling throughout this great city, it pays to visit the townships and orphanages that resulted from the human cruelty of apartheid. It's not quite "dark tourism", but it gives you an awareness that could easily be avoided (to your disadvantage) and could definitely enhance the trip.
My best friend wrote on her twitter "Cape Town = Heaven", and I think she's onto something. It's a 15+ hour flight from the States, and yet it feels like our back yard. It's comforting and loaded with things that make a young heart flutter. The African aspect of Cape Town isn't hidden, it's salient and exciting to experience first hand. And with the World Cup hitting the scene in 2010, that city will probably be Heaven on Earth for a couple cool months. If I had a good chunk of change to my name, I'd be signing up for game tickets instead of writing this blog.
In short, I guess you could say, Cape Town is just darn cool. At least...I'm a fan.