Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wine, cheetahs, and such

On Thursday a group of about 12 people went on a bike and wine tour in Stellenbosch, where a lot of South Africa’s vineyards are. It was led by two really awesome guys, one from Namibia and one from Denmark. We had to take an hour long train ride out to Stellenbosch, and when we got there we were assigned bikes (mine was way way too small) and ridiculous helmets. We looked absolutely absurd. The first vineyard we stopped at was called Spier, and even though I know nothing about wine, I really enjoyed some of their red wines. I wasn’t expecting to get drunk, but after five or so glasses I was definitely feeling it. This place was really awesome because it had a sort of Cheetah sanctuary, so we got to see cheetahs. They are really beautiful creatures, especially up close.

We left this place feeling pretty tipsy, making the ride to the next vineyard much more fun. South Africa has no laws against riding a bike while intoxicated, which is a little strange. The next place was called Stellenbosch Gardens. We got to see giant vats where the wine is made, and we tasted more wine in a cool looking room that was formerly a wine cellar. Here I bought a bottle of Cabernet for my mom, which actually turned out to be a bad idea because I had to carry it around the rest of the day. The ride got pretty strenuous after that. A lot of it was uphill, so we were virtually burning away the drunkenness by riding through the heat. The scenery out there is truly beautiful.. There are rolling green hills dotted by lakes and rows and rows of grapes. In the distance you can see South Africa’s incredible mountain ranges. We rode past a couple small villages on the way to the third vineyard where a lot of the African workers lived. It was bizarre to see such poverty directly next to these beautiful wine estates. I have been discovering gradually how much contradiction exists in this country, how much inequality there still is. There is the gorgeous wine region, and then there is the disgusting shacks where the workers live. There is the bustling, modern city of Cape Town, and then there are the townships where people don’t even dare to visit. There is legal equality, but the country is still segregated, and poverty often correlates with race. One of the guides was talking about how workers used to be offered two bottles of wine instead of half of their salary (it still happens in some places). This essentially ripped the workers off, saving the companies money while simultaneously destroying families. He also made a good point: that people seem to be content with current situation, and aren’t really making any serious efforts to change the way things are.

The third vineyard was at the top of a dirt hill where rows and rows of grapes were growing. They seemed to go on and on forever into the distance. We ate lunch at the top at an Afrikaans restaurant, and I had a delicious salami, ham, and cheese crepe thing. We left this place full and really really buzzed (at least some of us did) and riding downhill, swerving through the rows of grapes with the scenery in the background was just incredible. We passed ostrich farms, and during these times I couldn’t help but wonder how anybody could ever choose not to study abroad. It was that kind of experience.

We had to rush to make the last wine stop to catch the train, and most of us passed out on the way back. It was such an awesome experience, and it only cost about 30 U.S dollars. Just ridiculous.

Yesterday a group of us decided to explore Cape Town a bit more. I am getting used to (and even starting to enjoy) the minibus system. We ate lunch at Royale’s (known as the best burger place in Cape Town). Here, again, came a moment of profound contradiction, a blatant reminder that this is Africa. We were sitting there enjoying an amazing meal, and all of a sudden a guy from the street wandered in. He walked up to me and showed me a little note (which I couldn’t read) and when he was shooed away by the waitress, he grabbed a steak knife and started waving it at her. He then started screaming and kicking the door and walls as he ran out of the restaurant. This happened so quickly that we didn’t even know how to respond, and the waitresses didn’t even seem phased. I guess this guy has some mental issues, and luckily he was picked up by the police later. It was just crazy… one moment we are eating and drinking and having a great time, and the next moment this happens.

After walking around the city a bit more, we walked to the waterfront. It definitely is a beautiful area along the harbor; there are shops and restaurants and a mall. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was excessive. That feeling of contradiction came back again. Here is a modern and wealthy area (with a mall that beats more in the U.S) and yet miles away there is terrible poverty. I mean it is definitely a good thing to have tourism because it brings in money and creates jobs. But still, I didn’t have any desire to hang out there. It just felt kind of wrong.

Last night we went to an album release show fro Gaselle, a white Africa “scene redefining” rapper. It was pretty bizarre and seemed slightly racist (or maybe ironic) because he literally wears a white suit and cheetah skin and carries a shaft while Africans dance around him. It was a good time though, and I was very impressed by the opening acts too. The first was a drum/accordion duo, and the second was a sort of African tribal dance/step group. It was such a fun night, and it was good to have some sort of actual cultural experience.

So tomorrow we are taking a trip along the Peninsula and to Boulder’s Beach to see the penguin colony. Our UCT orientation starts tomorrow, so I am going to be super busy. But then we have another week off before classes start!

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