Weekend to Weekend

October 17, 2008

Cricket, soccer and rugby are South Africa’s three biggest sports.  The national soccer team is just mediocre, but there is a bit of soccer craze and excitement because South Africa will be holding the Soccer World Cup in 2010.  Whether this will be good for the country won’t really be understood until after the games and there are too many unknowns to really guess… if all goes well, the games will provide an opportunity for people all over the world to see South Africa as a sunny, lovely tourist destination with world class infrastructure, grand stadiums, friendly locals and top-notch facilities.  The fear is that one major crime, accident or security mishap could take all of that and turn it back into “Africa”, the one that everyone stereotypes and expects.

In the meantime, the best national sport is rugby.  We went to watch a Western Province game in Cape Town.  I don’t totally understand the game, but what I deduced and learned from the locals sitting behind us, it’s a combination of American football and soccer… the soccer part for the lack of pads and kicking and the football for the brutality and the passing.

The food was interesting. They had the standard pop and french fries, but they also sold biltong (SA specialty, meat jerky) and donuts in the stands…. most excitingly hot chocolate.  The drink is not the exciting part, it’s how it is sold.  Out of a backpack!  Super neat, we were fascinated.

Western Province won the game 30 – 18.

Later that week, Desmond Tutu came to Stellenbosch as part of a lecture series on campus.  It was pretty neat to see him in real life.  He’s actually pretty small and very frail looking, and a few times during his speech he got a bit off track or seemed to lose his words, but he was still pretty clever and occasionally funny.  The following Friday, we went to Cape Town for an early morning mass.

Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.  He was the first black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and served from 1986-1996.  He gained international attention as an outspoken opponent of apartheid, and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  We watched quite a bit of footage from the TRC in one of my classes, and you can tell that he is sincerely and deeply affected by each of the testimonies, and openly wept on more than one occasion.  He’s retired, but he’s still very active publicly and speaks out against current government corruption and issues such as black poverty and the failure of the post-apartheid government to make any real strides in alleviating the problem.  Nelson Mandela adequately described him as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humor, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless”.  It really was an amazing opportunity to meet one of those major world figures, a world leader and inspiration to many individuals, communities and philosophies.

On Saturday, we ventured with AIFS to the Hermanus Whale Festival.  Hermanus is touted as the “Best Whale Watching Spot in the World”, and the festival is held on a weekend when the most whales are in the harbor for mating season.  On Saturday, there were a reported 8 couples in the relatively small harbor.  I didn’t get great pictures… whales jump and roll really quickly… but I saw tons of activity.  The pictures won’t be very exciting, it’s just a black spot in the water- I’m not quick enough.  The festival food was also pretty interesting, and there were tents and tents full of crafts and vendors.  I bought a sweater made out of bamboo and found some fun, noisy toys for the kids. (Love you, Casey… ha!)

After checking out all of the stands, we had a really amazing lunch at a restaurant that gets most of their ingredients from local farms.  It was super delicious, maybe the best I’ve had in South Africa.  And they had a little gift shop, and I found some of the coolest gifts thus far.  On the drive home, my van took a little detour into another small town for a bathroom and a snack, and they had this huge bookstore.  I didn’t have nearly enough time to look through all of it, but the same driver might take us back!

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It’s been a lengthy absence, yes… but I’ve actually had school work. I don’t expect anyone to understand, seeing as my very own mother would rather have me writing a blog than my essays. =)  In the awesome news: I’ve finished my papers!  5/5 finished!  Now I am studying for two exams, one tomorrow and one Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, we drove from Jeffrey’s Bay to Addo National Park.  It’s a 360,000 hectare park and is one of the densest populations of elephants in the world.  It was really nice and we were lucky to see tons of elephants and lots of babies!

That evening we drove to Buffalo Bay where we stayed in a hostel on the Indian Ocean.


That evening, we had a surprise at the backpackers.  A band from the local township, Judah Square, played in the living room.  They actually stayed for about four hours, I heard them repeating some song when I went to bed.

The next day, we went to Judah Square.  It is the largest Rastafarian community in South Africa.  Rastafarianism is a religion based on Christianity, but they believe that Haile Selassie, the emporer of Ethiopia from 1930-1974 is the messiah.  Thought to be a direct decendant of King Solomon, he ruled an independent Ethiopia while the rest of Africa was being colonized.  Interestingly, Rastafarianism was exported to Jamaca, where the largest number of believers live.  Rastafarianism isn’t very popular in Ethiopia or in Africa in general, but there are small pockets of followers.  Judah Square operates within a larger township and has its own culture and community.  They run a community garden and lead tours like ours as a way to spread awareness and earn an income. 

Our guide was actually kind of terrible.  He was difficult to understand and didn’t make a whole ton of sense.  He did have epic dreads, though, or one epic dread.  Pretty crazy.

First we went to their little chaple, then visited their preschool, which seemed of very high quality for a township, kudos.  After, we walked through a little nature reserve the community started and found government grants to help maintain.  They also have a community garden where they grow vegetables.  Believe it or not, I find a problem with that.   When we were walking, I was right behind the guide along with my program director, Mike.  I thought I heard the guide say something like:  “We grow vegetables here to prevent HIV.”  Through my naivete, I understood that as “We’re giving people something else to do, something else to work for, a greater community, ect.”  Nope.  Literally.  African potatoes, beetroots and garlic prevent HIV.  The former minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, made a fool of herself and will be forever remembered as “Dr. Beetroot” because she promoted eating more vegetables to combat HIV.  Now, good nutrition is excellent and helpful when you are taking retro-virals for HIV, and a healthy immune system HAS been shown to prevent HIV infection, however, she did not present the information in a clear and understandable way.  In addition, she really fell short in creating and implementing an HIV/AIDS program in South Africa, and for a few years she was of the same opinion of former President Mbeki, who wasn’t quite convinced that HIV causes AIDS.  Thus, she did an absolutely terrible job of addressing the HIV/AIDS problem in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS density in the world.  Her poor explaination of the vegetable comment led many South Africans to truly believe that eating potatoes and garlic would PREVENT HIV, therefore excusing them from using protection.  It’s a pity, and it has really hurt the effort to prevent the spread of HIV.  It was very interesting to see the consequences of Tshabalala-Msimang’s policies in the real world.  She has since recinded her statements and the Department of Health officially adopted the stance that HIV causes AIDS, but the damage is done.

After the tour, we had a few hours to walk around Knysna.  I actually found my most favorite gifts there, but I can’t describe them here, I don’t want to give anything away.  =)  We went back to Buffalo Bay in the early evening and then out to dinner on the waterfront.  They had a store called Jessica’s but it was closed.  It looked like they sold craft stuff and random clothing.

The next morning we got up early and headed back to Stellenbosch.  It was lovely to be back and have a warm shower (the accomodations all had ice cold showers… not worth it!).

Back to studying!  I have a few more trips to update on and will do so next week when I have written my exams (you write exams here, not take them!):  Hermanus Whale Festival, Desmond Tutu, Parliament, wine tours and Franshoek!

Installment two from the Garden Route!

On Wednesday morning we had breakfast at Ingwe and then a small group headed into Tsitsikamma Forest for a canopy tour of the indigenous forest. The company is called, unsurprisingly, Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours.  They are a leader in eco tourism and put a strong focus on developing the community in which they operate.  (Making them a “Fair Trade in Tourism” member.) Most of their employees are local, and more than 50% are women, up to the top tiers of management.  They organize a variety of activities other than the canopy tours, and host team building activities for local youth.

To be honest, it wasn’t THAT great.  It was cool and the long zip-lines were really fun, but the forest was pretty standard.  The age of the trees is impressive, and the rarity of many of the species, but… meh.  I was actually most fascinated by the fact that the platforms and zip lines are designed not to hurt the trees.  There are no nails, screws, ect.  Everything is designed around tension.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of what I’m trying to describe.

The next stop was much more exciting!  We drove to Bloukrans Bridge, the site of the “World’s Highest Bungy Bridge”!

We bought our tickets, got into our harnesses, and spent a lot of time waiting.  I was really, really excited.  Almost everyone was nervous and a little hesitant, but I could not wait to get out there.  The bridge had a little restaurant right on the edge of the cliff, set up with a big screen TV hooked up to the cameras on the bridge so you could watch everyone jump.  That was certainly entertaining.

Finally, the group that was on the bridge finished up and my group got to go.  You got to the center of the bridge by way of a catwalk type of bridge, an activity you can pay for separately if that’s all the excitement you’re into. 

Some people actually thought this was worse than the jumping itself.  Strangely, heights don’t scare me much at all and I enjoyed the walk.   The view  was absolutely beautiful.  The river runs between two huge cliffs and empties into a picturesque Indian Ocean. 

When we got to the bridge, they announced that I got to go first.  I was SO excited.  I’d wanted to go first, but in a group of 30, who would have thought?  Well, my excitement only lasted about 5 minutes, because some guy walked up to me and told me I’d be going sixth.  BOO!
This is pretty much how it went:

I LOVED it.  I wished after I was finished that I had purchased two jumps.  I loved the feeling of the freefall and when you were hanging at the bottom waiting to be brought back up, it was just complete and total silence, you were completely alone, hanging in the middle of the world.

For those afriad of heights, who wants the job of the guy who goes down to get the jumpers back up?  There are two of them, and they alternative turns, but I asked on the way up and he said they work normal days, so 9 hours shifts with time for lunch.  I can’t imagine hanging underneath a bridge, 216 meters (about 718 feet) above the ground… all day.

That night, we drove to Jeffrey’s Bay, the surf capital of South Africa.  We stayed in a hostel called Island Vibe, which was like a little world unto itself.

It was right on the beach and treated visitors to beautiful views of sunrises and sunsets.

On Tuesday I started off with a sandboarding “lesson”.  In reality, the guy told us what to do and then went and played by himself.  It was tons of fun though!  Think snow boarding, but with sand.

I wasn’t AS bad as I thought I’d be, considering it was my first try… but I did fall a lot.

I’d like to try it again, and it definitely gave me the confidence to try skiing or snowboarding.  It was tons of fun and the beach near the dunes was perfect!


The rest of the day was spent at the beach!  We got up really early the next morning and left for the long drive to Addo National Park… which means lots of elephants in the next addition!

Last Saturday began the Garden Route tour with AIFS.

We left at 5:30 AM and drove to our first stop in Oudtshoorn.  I started out at the Cango Ostrich Farm.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the concept or the tour.  We got some information about ostrich farming, basically that it was very lucrative in the early 1900s because feathers were in style in Europe.  But WWI pretty much stopped that trade and ostrich farmers went out of business or diversified.  Today, they make about 40% from feathers and leather and 60% from the meat.  Mostly, they breed ostriches and then take the eggs, incubate, and give chicks who make it to foster parents.

By taking the eggs, a mating pair will produce more eggs each season.

After the info, a couple members of our group rode an ostrich.  It didn’t even resemble something fun, ha.  They had to put a bag over their heads to catch them (because they’re so dumb that if they can’t see you they don’t know you’re there, apparently) and they did not seem happy with the process.  A couple of us were actually a little concerned that many aspects of the tour bordered on animal abuse.

After the ostriches, we went to Cango Caves.  I did the “adventure tour” but it wasn’t even half as cool as the caving in Budapest last summer.  The caves themselves were more active, though. 

Beautiful, eh?  The second picture looks like it’s under the sea, I think.  Very cool.  These caves started forming 20 million years ago but the stalactites and stalagmites were made 3 million years ago when the water in the caves drained.  Bushmen lived in the front of the caves 80,000 years ago but never traveled inside, due to “superstitions”, according to our guide. In this case I think superstitions is a misnomer- I’d call it “a desire to survive”. The caves were completely and totally dark, wet and cold, and impassable due to huge boulders and strange, dripping arrow shapes hanging from the ceiling. I don’t really blame them for staying in the warm, dry, well lit part. The inner caves were discovered in the 1780s by Dutch colonists.

That night we went to our first accommodation, Ingwe Forest Adventures in The Crags.

They do team building things with young people on a regular basis.  I really liked their philosophy and the way they run their camp.  They cut down the invasive tree species and used that wood to build the cabins.  He later noted that the camp was built in an American summer camp style.  That explained why my first thought was, “Girl Scout Camp!!!”.  They also collect rainwater to run the kitchen.  Although not an official national park, they have a couple hundred acres of fenced in indigenous forest with some wildlife, including wild boars, springbok and leopards.

The following morning I had planned on going whale watching, but it’s been storming a lot recently so they didn’t go out.  Instead I stayed at Ingwe and read for a little while.  It was so peaceful, I sat on the porch watching these beautiful bright orange bugs “play”, breated fresh air, and kept hearing horses neigh (there were horses in the next lot over).  After lunch we headed into Plettenburg.  We wanted to do a bit of shopping but we forgot it was Sunday, so instead we had some ice cream (which is not very good here, by the way…) and walked down to the beach.

(My new friend Sam.)

After the beach, we went to Monkeyland.

It’s a primate sanctuary aimed at rehabilitating monkeys, apes and lemurs that spent part of life as a pet, caged as a performance animal, or in an irresponsible zoo.  It’s free roaming, and all of the species live together fairly peacefully.  When a new monkey is introduced, it stays in a cage for a little while to adapt and then is let free.  Only a super tiny species, the Cottontop Tamarin, stay in cages because birds of prey could pick them off.  The look like gremlins, super creepy, but this one has two little babies.

We saw tons of Ringtailed Lemurs (don’t you want to get the belly?!  Except for the one on the right since there’s a baby there.)

And Black and White Ruffed Lemurs

The monkeys we saw most often were squirrel monkeys…

(This one is named Mrs. Bean.)

… and brown capuchins…

Because they are easy to train and are commonly the monkeys used in street performances.  Many come in severely malnourished because people feed them the wrong types of foods.  People abandon pet monkeys because they become too much of a hassle.  They’re also really smart, so you teach them to bring you a beer and open it for you and you think it’s adorable.  But then you come home and the contents of your fridge are scattered all over the house and it’s not so cute anymore.

There are also lots of tortoises, most with broken shells or missing limbs.

After Monkeyland was Tenikwa.  Sounds ambiguous, yes… but it is a wildcat sanctuary.

In case that doesn’t make it clear…

CHEETAHS LIVE THERE!

Among other cute wild kitties.

They had some servals, endangered because people hunt them for sport and native people want them for medicinal purposes.  I think they look like bunny-cats, which is super cute.

There were also two breeds of little cats that are the most immediate relatives of domesticated house cats.

The black footed cat is very shy and nocturnal.  They are extremely endangered due to habitat loss and secondary poisoning from jackals and small rodents they hunt.  The farmers poison the animals who eat their crops or animals, then the kitties hunt the poisoned animals.  They just looked like a regular house kitty.

The other isan African Wild Cat, which was also like a house cat.  It has pretty great camouflage and just reminded me of Cali Bean.

My favorite new kitty was the caracal.  They’re actually doing pretty well in the wild.  Their main problem is habitat loss, which leads them to hunt livestock and therefore farmers to hunt them.

That’s obviously not my picture but look at that pretty face!

Ginja, a caracal teenager.

We went to see the cheetahs next, but it was close to sundown and they were in play mode.  So… I didn’t get the pet them.  I almost cried, I really did, I had to walk away. Their names are Chester and Zimbali.

Chester

Zimbali

The good news is, there were two cheetah cubs, Zulu and Duma

Zulu

Duma

Thus, my life is now complete.

After Tenikwa we went to dinner at a really fancy pizza place and acted like proper adults.

=)

So that’s the first two days, I’ll continue writing shortly.

Mountains and baboons and penguins, oh my!

This past weekend was full to the brim with new sights!  On Friday, I hiked Stellenbosch Mountain with a few friends and a new South African acquaintance.

The trail was pretty mild and it ended up being more of a relaxing walk than a hike, but it was a great view of Stellenbosch and the surrounding wineries and farm land.  Also, if you look closely, you can see a faint rainbow!  Rainbows are everywhere here, you see them on a regular basis and sometimes it looks like you really could go to the end of it quite easily!

After our walk we went home and made ourselves pretty and then went out to a very nice restaurant in town, then had coffee and dessert at a little place that opened up just a few weeks ago.  Lovely evening!

Sunday was the AIFS trip to the Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach.  On the way, we drove past False Bay.  It is so named because early sailors often confused False Bay and Cape Point, where they could stop to replenish supplies.

The Cape of Good Hope is part of the Table Mountain National Park.  It contains Cape Point, Dias Beach, Cape of Good Hope and a bunch of other bays, points and beaches.  Also, and unexpectedly, the area is home to eland (a type of antelope), dassie, lizards and baboons! Whales, sharks, dolphins and seals are sometimes  spotted off the coast, but it’s not prime time for viewing just yet.  A group of us decided to hike along the western side of the park and it was a great decision.

Dias Beach was really beautiful.  It was very small, but completely surrounded by massive cliffs.  It’s the kind of place “private beach” brings to mind if you have a lofty imagination.

We continued on up and down a small mountain to reach the actual Cape of Good Hope, the most south-westerly point of the African continent.

We only had about 20 minutes to make it back to the vans, so we had to run up the mountain and around the trail, which was a little less than fun.  But!  There were lizards everywhere for the duration of the hike, and on the way back we saw eland and dassies.

Dassies, also known as rock hyrax, are believed to be the closest relatives of elephants, believe it or not!  They look like groundhogs, kind of.  Also, when we were hiking in Cederburg one of the South African guys pointed out this substance that looked like tar and smelled disgusting.  Well!  All of the dassies use the same place as a litter box, apparently, over long periods of time.

Gross, yes, but I give you these facts for a reason (and I guess I’ll have to post the picture now, too!).  It’s called hyraceum and after allowing it to harden and “purify” over hundreds of years into a kind of rock, it is “harvested” and used in traditional perfums and as medicine to treat epilepsy.   Usually, it’s served in a tea.  Delicious, no?!

More exciting than poop tea, though! Were the baboons!  We were on our way back to the vans when we heard this really strange noise and out pops a baboon family onto the trail!  We were told at the beginning that they’re actually pretty dangerous and will approach people for food if they see something in your hand.  Apparently one of our drivers saw a baboon jump out of the bushes and actually steal candy from a baby last year.  We sort of shuffled into the bushes and let the family, three adults and one baby, pass by.  They weren’t too interested in us, thankfully.  It was really cool, though!  I could have reached out and snatched the baby with zero effort.

After the Cape of Good Hope we went into Simon’s Town and had lunch.  Then it was penguin time!

Boulders Beach has a huge colony of African Penguins, also known as Jackass Penguins because the noises they make sound like a donkey (really- it’s a terrifying noise coming from a little penguin).   They have few land predators and are therefore rather calm in the presence of people.  They are colored as a form of camouflage, of course.  When they’re swimming, predators looking up see the white, which is harder to identify, and birds from the sky see the black, more difficult to spot in the ocean.

At this time of year, they have “babies” but they were actually more like pubescent teenagers, in my opinion.  They were in the process of shedding their gray baby feathers, so they were all splotchy and awkward.  I like to think that these two are bestest friends…

Apparently they were still learning how to hunt, though, because I saw one parent feeding a baby (it’s the eat then puke method employed by many birds, that noise was pretty alarming as well!).  As many are aware, penguins are monogamous and mate for life, so I saw lots of happy little penguin families!

On our way home we stopped at a winery that was more like a wine resort and then I came back and slept really well!  Next weekend promises more amazing days!  Can’t wait!  This whole “going to class” thing really gets in the way. =)

One of the great pleasures of living in the Western Cape is that while I am occassionally immersed in a reality suggestive of the very banal, platitudinous understanding most have of this diverse continent, I am often also treated to an alternate reality, one of affluence and delightful new realities the likes of which challenge any experience I’ve had in Europe or lovely United States.

=)

This weekend in particular offered some of the best of Stellenbosch, in the form of a world renounced wine festival!  Two huge halls full of local wines, brandys, juices and samples from local restaurants, and a big tent with stands from the local slow food movement market (every Saturday, hooray!).


My camera died about three pictures in, which is a bummer because the place was pretty fancy.

I believe at the end of the night I had tried wine from about 25 different wine estates.  A lot of red wine here is very smokey, wooded… meat-like.  That’s primarily because South Africa’s own wine variety is Pinotage, bred in the 1920s and characteristically deep and smoky.  I did find a couple types that were less harsh, though, and are likely candidates for the pretentious tastings when I get home. =)

There were also amazing truffles made by a German chocolatier, five varieties of amazing fresh pesto (Mom, the lady said it wouldn’t last for the flight home. Because of all of the perishable ingredients in pesto?  Psh.) the best veggie spring rolls I’ve ever had and homemade rusks.  Rusks are also traditionally South Africa.  They’re basically twice baked, really hard bars made out of some combination of wheat, oats, barley and bran and were designed to withstand the heat and weather.  Sounds disgusting, right?  They are so awesome.  The ones I got are “Bea’s All Bran Health Rusks”, locally made and super delicious with sunflower seeds and honey.  I can already tell I’m going to miss them when I’m gone so I’ve started looking up recipes. I will definitely share!  Also food related but not from the wine festival specifically: naartjies.  They’re kind of like oranges, but a little more wrinkly, way brighter in color, and about 10x as delicious.

Boring pictures are better than no pictures, right?

Cederburg Mountains

July 29, 2008

This past weekend, we went on a camping trip to the Cederburg Mountains.  The ride there was incredibly “scenic” =), meaning that most of it was on a dirt road climbing up and down mountains and navigating around cliffs.  It really was beautiful though.

On Saturday we climbed to the top of a mountain.  A big one!  I believe it was about 6.5 miles round trip and the way up was less fun than the way down.  I really enjoy the actual climbing, finding a way up and around huge boulders, but the 80% of basically running up stairs got pretty monotonous and tiring.
Sunday was a wine tasting at the Cederburg Cellars and then we saw some San Rock Art, estimated to be between 1,500-2,000 years old.

Now I shall illustrate with pictures, though I prep with the disclaimer that they don’t even come close to doing justice!