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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Visiting Blogger: A Weekend in Cape Town

View of Table Mountain from my hotel room in Cape Town
As I checked into the luxury boutique “15 on Orange” hotel, the desk clerk handed me a lengthy legal statement to sign. It pointed out that the hotel bore no responsibility for anything that might happen to me, whether perpetrated by their staff or anyone else.  I joked that they were making me feel right at home; but it really disturbed me to think that the hotel would need to go to such lengths. I had just arrived from Johannesburg, where everyone warned me I could not go out jogging, and I spent all my time in secured business or tourist areas. Would Cape Town be just as confining?

Thankfully, no. The next morning I was able to walk without concern a few blocks to a bakery to eat breakfast. It was run by this older Afrikaner who spoke English like Colonel Klink of Hogan’s Heroes. He was just as comical as the Colonel, because even though he ordered his staff around, most of the time they couldn’t understand what he was saying.

In fact, everyone was having a hard time understanding one another. When I asked for a latte, at first the counter staff thought I was asking for a lighter.  Meanwhile, another customer had to ask the short order cook three times before he could get across that he wanted four croissants with eggs and cheese. But the strangest conversation was between a third customer and the owner. They both spoke English and Afrikaans, but they still couldn’t agree on what type of chocolate pastry he was looking for.

The situation was the most poignant example of a phenomenon that I’ve witnessed as I’ve traveled to places like Dubai and Brussels, where there are people from everywhere and multiple official languages. Everyone – even the locals – ultimately becomes a foreigner. The experience made me feel more at ease here. I really wasn’t struggling any more than anyone else.

Wine with a View
After breakfast, I took off towards the Winelands, the source for most of South Africa’s wines. I had read that some of the tasting centers closed at 12:30 on Saturdays, and weren’t open on Sundays, so I had to get moving. I had really liked one Syrah that I had been served at a restaurant in Johannesburg a few nights earlier, so I decided to visit that vineyard first.

On the way out I pass miles of shantytowns, which seem like huge scrap piles that have been wired with electricity. Occasionally someone has painted their galvanized panels some bright color, or strung up colorful washing, but mostly it’s a collision of rusty metal forms and plastic tarps.

Further on, near Stellenbosch (where, ironically, Apartheid was invented), the scenery turns bucolic. The long driveway up to Rustenberg winery is lined with mature trees, with pastures and vineyards on either side, The tasting room is in a compound that has a large garden and a sloping lawn that provides a view to the green valley below. The server tells me that the winery bottled its first vintage in 1711, 299 years ago.

Rustenberg no longer made the Syrah I had had at the restaurant. But they were happy to let me try some other wines. Since it was still morning, I made use of the spittoons that they had at the ready. Tragic, but essential! In the end, I bought a half bottle of white and a bottle of red.
South African Winelands near Franschhoek
I then headed further up the valley towards Franschhoek, a place originally settled by French people. At the ridgeline, I spotted a sign for the Delicatessen at Tokara, and decided to get lunch there. This was like no other delicatessen I’ve seen; perched on the ridge top, it had commanding views over the valley’s vineyards and olive groves. To make the most of it, the dining area was enclosed by floor to ceiling glass panels.

I was expecting sandwiches, but it turns out that this deli served a buffet lunch; there wasn’t a sandwich in sight. The food was fine, but it couldn’t compete with the view. Soon I was on my way again.

Soon I spotted a modest-looking dirt driveway to Thelema Mountain Vineyards. I thought I might find a less touristy experience at this place, but it, too had a flashy tasting room with a nice view. Here I found an astonishing Merlot (yes, Merlot) with an unheard-of 15% alcohol. When I told the vintner that in France, this would not be considered possible, he just shrugged and said “the grapes get riper here.” I bought a bottle and headed south.

Whales and Waves

Southern Coast
Eventually I made it to the coast. I headed for Hermanus, known as a place where you can stand on the shore and watch the whales. And sure enough, I saw some: a few black forms peaking above the swells a couple hundred yards away, occasional spouting, and once or twice, a tail fin. Apparently, a month earlier, there are up to 150 whales in this place, with some just below the promontory.

I took the scenic route back to Cape Town, along the southern coast of Africa. Big crashing waves, white sand beaches littered with boulders, steep, barren mountains rising straight out of the water, with clouds clinging to their tops. Every once in a while a rainbow appeared to top the whole view off.

I ended the day at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront, which turned out to be a touristy mall with big outdoor areas full of street performers. After a day of natural beauty, I wasn’t in the mood for it, and I soon turned in.

Cape of Good Hope
On Sunday, I headed south along the Western coast of the Cape of Good Hope. I was determined to hike in the National Park after a week with no exercise. Hoards of people were heading to the beach on this warm day, so I was soon inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I worked my way up to the famous Chapman’s Peak Drive, an ancient road that winds its way along the steep hills that surround Hout’s Bay. The scenery was spectacular, and the wind was howling. I had to check my footing as I stood on the overlook and aimed my camera over the bay.
Hout Bay from Chapman's Peak Drive
The tip of the Cape of Good Hope is a protected area. Nothing grows higher than about 8 feet tall; some areas look like tundra, with small wildflowers peaking through the low greenery. The Cape has dramatic cliffs and views back up the coast; no wonder people think of it being the tip of Africa. The real southernmost point is 300 kilometers east, but it couldn’t possibly feel more like the end of the earth.
The Cape of Good Hope
Table Mountain
Aerial Tramway up Table Mountain
My final visit was to the top of Table Mountain. I was lucky enough to pick a clear, calm afternoon, and missed the crowds on the gondola ride by going during the week. From 3500 feet above the city, I could see all of the places I had visited in the previous two days. It’s easy to love this city, which has the skyscrapers of San Francisco, the shipyards of Oakland, and the funky, slightly run-down-looking clubs and shops of Seattle set in more stunning scenery than any of them. However, like a shadow on the scene, Robben Island stands in the middle of the bay, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. South Africa has done remarkably well, but it is still recovering  from the scars of that time.
View of Cape Town from Table Mountain - Robben Island in the Distance
A Sense of Optimism
On my flight back to Johannesburg, I happened to sit next to South Africa’s policy head for relations with other African countries. We spent two hours talking about the progress and promise of Africa. He was encouraged by the development of a middle class in Angola, and the example of Brazil lifting 40 million people out of poverty.

I admired the sense of optimism I’d felt in South Africa. Everyone I met seemed to be looking forward to future developments. I noted how I had seen the shantytowns electrified. “You seem to be working forward from the basics: clean water, power, education and health,” I said. “Yes,” he replied, “We have the right programs, and plenty of money for them, but sadly, not the right people to deliver them.” “Every year we have to roll over funds because we can’t find qualified staff for our initiatives.”

I also wondered aloud about the ongoing inequality; probably 85% of the people at the conference I attended were white. "Some people must be resentful and impatient." I suggested. "Yes," he agreed, "But our path is working. We do know, of course, that things could change at any time."

I did not catch the name of my seatmate, but many people on the plane seemed to know him. I can't capture all of the nuances of our conversation here, but it was one of the highlights of my visit. I ended my trip with a sense of "good hope" for South Africa and Africa more generally.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write about this, Matt. You are having quite the adventure! I would have loved to hear the whole conversation, I'm sure.