Brief Encounters on the Western Cape

I took the train from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, a idyllic town in the center of the famous South African wine country . When I bought my ticket, the agent suggested I buy first class for 13 rand ($2). I was not expecting much for this price so when I  boarded the train and most of the seats were torn with graffiti  covering the walls ,I wondered what second class looked like. There were only two other passengers in my compartment so I had my choice of seats. The windows were pulled half way down but the only way to see the landscape was to stand, since the glass had not been cleaned for an unknown period of time. I had been in Cape Town for the past two days and was well aware that there was an unspoken racial divide still existing, it was obvious that the colored lived in the poorer towns on the outskirts of the city. Many of the blacks still lived in the so-called townships or slums.

At each station, almost all colored on the platform, one or two people would board the train.. A heavy set scruffy Latino looking man started removing bags full of candy bars from his pack back and disappearing for awhile into other compartments. When he started mumbling out loud and finally approached me, I found out he was Indian from New Delhi and his family had immigrated to South Ãfrica fifteen years ago. He confirmed he loved living here even though it appeared as if he had not made a great success of the opportunity.

I noticed a worn out looking colored couple, both with wool caps pulled down over their ears, seated across from me. They had been in a heated conversation for a while when suddenly the man got up and sat down in front of me.   Guessing he was about fifty, missing most of his front teeth and probably had been drinking, as he told me his story, I realized that was his wife.  He had been unfairly accused of assaulting a white woman who had offered him a job and while he was in jail, his wife had taken up with another man. He claimed he forgave her and she didn’t believe him…. This was the moment when he asked me if he was right to forgive her and as I agreed, the train stopped and they grabbed their packs, wished me well and ran off the train.

The landscape had finally changed to vineyards and lush green hills as we rolled into Stellenbosch. A few people got off the train and disappeared – The station was deserted, not a taxi anywhere to be found, so I crossed the highway and began dragging my bags toward a group of houses.  I needed some direction so I stopped three young girls who were coming toward me. They decided to take me into town and find the guesthouse where I was going to stay. All three girls were colored and went to the same private girls school. It was obvious that the whites who lived in Stellenbosch had cars and rarely took the train.

As we walked 3 km into town from the station, I found out that none of their parents had been well educated. One father was a handyman, the other a construction worker and the third unable to find work. Two of the girls wanted to go to university and study accounting and law. They said there was more opportunity for them than for their parent’s generation as coloreds. But the thirty one year old boy who was the part time desk clerk at the guesthouse e, told me he was unable to find a full time job and had a baby and fiancée. The entire area where the bed and breakfast was located, was originally the houses of slaves. They were bought by the colored in the 30’s to 50’s and confiscated by the Afrikaans government in the seventies and sold to the white population. The coloreds at the time had no recourse. They were relocated out of town and given a small compensation. Today there are claims being made to reclaim the homes taken from them by the Afrikaans government.

Curious to hear from the English and Afrikaans community, I chose one of the guests who was  at breakfast the next morning. He was late fifties or more, admittedly Afrikaans and replied when I asked about Apartheid,” we don’t talk about that anymore”. He picked up his breakfast and walked out of the room to the terrace, those being the last words he ever spoke to me. The other guests, an English Afrikaans woman with her elderly mother-in-law, blamed South Africa’s bad reputation on the Afrikaans, the original Dutch Calvinist settlers. I was able to get another point of view from a teenager whose family was strict Calvinists. He was the second oldest of four children, and the only one who had escaped the strict religious leanings in the family. He said he found music and that had saved him. He was studying to be a concert pianist in a private college and had friends from all racial backgrounds. Extremely bright and precocious at seventeen, he conceded that the attitude of the younger generation depended on the attitude of the parents, and only because he had chosen music, had he been exposed to a different world. He admitted he was the only one in the family that had escaped the extreme racism in his family.  I asked if he wanted to study music abroad and again he enlightened me with the information that it was impossible for Afrikaans to get scholarships, being hated and blamed for most of the horrors of Apartheid.

The second day in Stellenbosch I moved to another guesthouse Bonne Esperance, in the university district, streets full of elegant houses from the 1900’s, surrounded by huge gardens. I was allowed to walk out at night without fear of being mugged whereas the previous evening, the neighborhood was still less secure as it was in the process of gentrifying..

Traveling alone is an adventure, sometimes amazing sometimes frustrating. And sometimes we meet people who we have an immediate connection with.  The second day in Stellenbosch I moved to the Bonne Esperance guest house and  I met Oliver. Our conversation began and didn’t stop until we had to say goodbye. He was 18 or 19 years old, a excellent photographer, a university art student, thoughtful and mature beyond his years. His parents were English and his father an eccentric human rights lawyer in South Africa.  We covered as many topics as we could in the few hours he worked at the guest  house and ended with afternoon tea in the garden.

You can see his photos on …………………

I had a few hours before dark to explore so I hired a man who owned a taxi company to drive me to the black township, the colored township and then up into the wine country 15 km beyond Stellenbosch. John Dekoker , a soft spoken good hearted colored man, knew many people in the black township. He ran a taxi bus in the morning and at night to take the black workers to and from the expensive restaurants where they worked back to their shacks in Kayamandi.  Strangely enough the township was built on a hill overlooking a beautiful green valley with a wine vineyards on the north side. This was definitely prime real estate from my point of view but the town of Stellenbosch obviously didn’t see it that way.  Stellenbosch was founded by the Dutch Calvinists three centuries ago along with English settlers. Besides becoming the most famous wine region in South Africa, the university of Stellenbosch, originally a theological seminary founded in 1859,and in 1918 becoming a university, was one of the most well respected in Africa.

The wine country was as beautiful as most wine countries around the world. The estates with their grand houses and beautiful settings are breathtaking.  We stopped at the Delaire  Graff  estate with a boutique hotel and spa. When I was told the room prices started at $1200 a night and climbed as high as $3500 for a suite I bristled  At this moment the black township appeared in my mind and I responded that I could find much better ways of spending that amount of money.

My last evening in Stellenbosch  I was in a safe neighborhood so I wandered into town and dined at a trendy café restaurant. After spending  two days in this pristine, surreal place, I felt as if Africa was light years away. The Victorian houses were shiny white set against tree lined streets, the center of town had more restaurants per block than any other business. This evening I felt as if I was an observer watching a Great Gatsby movie live. The next day I flew to Johannesburg to continue on to Mozambique.


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