Miss a post, or want to read from the beginning? Click here.
Day 4 in South Africa brought our first true disappointment. The weather was still rainy and overcast, but had deteriorated enough that the ferries to Robben Island were canceled for the day. Robben Island is the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, and I was really looking forward to seeing what it was like. Bummer.
Instead, we drove around the city and saw more of Cape Town’s residential architecture and government buildings before driving out towards the wine country. On the highway we passed so many townships that we lost count — it’s just acres and acres of dilapidated housing, some decent enough but some nothing more than stacks of corrugated iron paneling. At a break in the drizzling rain we even saw a rainbow … which provided an interesting juxtaposition above the township slum.
South Africa’s wine region is still burgeoning, and the oldest vines are only 60 years old. They make wine in the German and French tradition, and the Shiraz vines came from Iran (neat). We stopped first in the charming town of Stellenbosch, which I see on a lot of wine labels. The University of Stellenbosch holds classes only in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages and the dialect of the original white, Dutch settlers. You can even get a degree in viticulture (winemaking) there (also neat).
We shopped and had coffee in a cute cafe called Apprentice, which is run by the culinary school. At the Red Teapot Gallery, we stumbled on the most unique art and jewelry. I could have stayed there for hours. I saw a style of art that I’d never seen before — sayings and pictures carved into plaster on canvas. It may sound simple, but I thought it was really unique and interesting. I bought a small canvas that says “Faith, Hope and Love” in Afrikaans as a nice souvenir.
As we boarded the bus, someone had clearly learned lessons about late lunches and low blood sugars from the day before so we got a “snack,” which was really a full lunch box with a sandwich, fruit, chocolate and even a bag of dried meat, like jerky. We saw that kind of jerky several more times on the trip, but I wasn’t ever brave or hungry enough to try it. We also had a fairly extensive debate about whether it was safe to eat the grapes. (Hey, I lived.) Karen, our leader, passed out some cookies that one of her local contacts had given us. And they pretty much changed our lives. Called “apple kisses,” they are crunchy cinnamon-sugar cookies with an apple pie-like filling inside. Incredible. We looked for them for the rest of the trip but couldn’t find any more to bring home. Epic fail.
On the ride to lunch, our guide Mark filled us in on some of the social history and current situations in South Africa, and I finally learned what the Boer War was all about! After a brief stop in Franschhoek (“French corner”) for more shopping and sightseeing, we arrived at the Solms-Delta Winery.
Because this was a school trip, our itinerary included meetings with several business leaders in both Cape Town and Johannesburg to learn more about what it’s like to operate in South Africa today. Mark Solms, the proprietor of Solms-Delta Winery, left South Africa during apartheid and went to England. When he returned in 2002 to take over the land his family has farmed for generations, he told us that he felt the “great weight of history” and a responsibility both for the black people who lived on his family’s land and for their years of suffering. As he converted the farm to a winery, he could have dictated new terms to the tenants who lived there or even let them go, but he chose a more communal approach. Instead of ignoring the long, sordid history between the races there, he initiated archaeological digs on the property to uncover the past as a way of understanding the present. In respect for the resilience and defiance of slave culture and its manifestation in music, he has encouraged a music project on the farm. He has also established a trust for the education of his tenants’ children and a land reform project to help them buy their own land. His mission is one of community and empowerment for the formerly disenfranchised, not of provision for welfare. It is a very different way of doing business compared to other South African farms, but it is becoming a model for success. To read more about Mark Solms and his work, click here.
After talking to Mark, we enjoyed a fantastic, multi-course lunch of mussels, braised lamb neck and vegetables and, of course, wine. The food may have been traditionally African, but I could see the connection to our Southern American cuisine and its strong African influence. The stewed meats and vegetables with tomatoes felt comfortingly familiar yet excitingly different.
At lunch we met Melanie, a business consultant who joined us at our table. She shared valuable insight about her life and experiences, which was the most interesting conversation of our trip. In South Africa, people are classified by race into three groups: white, black or colored (mixed, Asian or everything else). Melanie is colored and grew up under apartheid, when skin color was of vital importance. She told us about the indignity of the pencil test, which measured “how black” you were by whether a pencil would stay in your hair or fall out. Melanie’s sister looked white, she told us, but since she didn’t, she became “smart” to offset how society would respond to her.
Melanie described the end of apartheid as the collapse of a patriarchal system, tied not only to race but also to gender, which was a perspective I had never considered. Women in South Africa are now educated and make more money than men, so there is less need to be married. Men understandably feel emasculated, which often manifests in domestic violence and/or sexual assault. We told Melanie that we were impressed by South Africans’ directness in addressing their racial issues and the past, which she said is due to the African storytelling tradition, its “culture of narrative” and strong sense of history.
We didn’t discuss heavy topics for the entire conversation — Melanie told us she’s an enthusiastic watcher of American television. I was surprised to learn that South Africa is airing really recent episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Good Wife” and “Brothers & Sisters.” It just goes to prove that in many ways people all over the world aren’t that different and that we have more in common than we believe. Melanie was incredibly open and candid about her life and her friends’ experiences, which was a window into the South African experience that we didn’t hear on any other corporate visits.
After the meal we had a full tasting of the winery’s selections, which were all ah-maz-ing. By that time, twilight was approaching and we loaded on the bus for another nap on the way back to the hotel.
Because we nearly ate the penguins the day before due to the very delayed lunch, we had packed an emergency stash of pastries that morning. With our snack box and winery lunch, we luckily didn’t have to use them so back at the hotel we ordered a tea service and enjoyed our daily chocolate croissants as a nightcap. It was another stellar, educational, delicious, jam-packed day.
Day 5 to come…