There are times as a traveler that you just find yourself in the most unplanned, unexpected situations. As I sat on the cold metal bleachers, looking out over the rugby field, I realized this was one of those situations. I’m not a sports fan in anyway. I don’t follow sports at home in the US and I couldn’t begin to explain the rules of something like baseball. Any yet, here I was on the other side of the world, cheering on the college rugby team of a town I had just stumbled into… and you know, it turned out to be one of my top travel highlights.
First, let me back up to my actual, planned out trip though. This was quite a few years ago when I was basically a travel “newbie.” My passport had like four or five stamps in it but lucky for me, one of those was for South Africa. If I had to move to the African continent, I’d choose the coastal South African city of Cape Town in a heartbeat. Never have I found a city that just feels so right – with a vibrant soul but a relaxed, fun atmosphere.
I was staying in Cape Town for a week and even a few days in, I had seen so much of the city, from the views at the top of Table Mountain to the markets downtown. While I had plenty more to see in the city, when a travel friend asked if I’d like to tag along to a smaller city nearby, I jumped at the chance. That is my best travel advice – always take up any offer to explore, especially if you’d have never thought to head in that direction yourself.
She had heard from someone that a university outside of Cape Town was having a rugby match that day. I’d never even seen a rugby game on TV but I did know that it was a very important, national sport here in South Africa. The game was in Stellenbosch, a small city just 30 or so miles from Cape Town so we found a cab, negotiated the out of town price, and jumped in.
Planning ahead is always a good idea but you will quickly realize as a traveler that not planning ahead can sometimes lead to the best situations. With only an overnight bag and a scrap of paper with the name of the stadium scribbled on it, we ended up in Stellenbosch. Home to Stellenbosch University, one of the best sport’s schools in South Africa, Stellenbosch definitely has a university town feel. And when it comes to the university’s sports teams, the Maties Rugby Club is the school’s shining glory.
So there we were, sitting in a stadium half a world away from home and yet, it felt like being back in school, cheering for the local football team. University students around us were decked out in their school colors, cheering for their favorite players and between plays, chatting with friends. It was odd to feel so at home and yet also feel like we didn’t belong. We had snuck our way in and were pretty good at following the game, but wasn’t it obvious we weren’t from here?
Turns out, no, college students in the US and college students in Stellenbosch look about the same. After sitting off to the side the whole game we finally got up the nerve to approach a group of students to see if they could explain the game to us. They seems a bit taken back when we opened our mouths and spoke English instead of Afrikaans but were happy to chat after that. Besides explaining some of the rules of rugby, they also gave us some tips on exploring Stellenbosch, and even offered us a ride back from the stadium to the town center. Which was a very good thing, considering we had no real idea where we were or how to get back to town, now that your cab had disappeared.
While the rugby game was what we came for, it was just the beginning of your adventures in Stellenbosch. Back in town, we found the cutest little historic center, filled with great restaurants, lots of little boutiques and handicraft shops, and a city that definitely earns its nickname Oak City, with beautiful oak tree lines streets. While Stellenbosch is pretty large and definitely a city, the old center of town is small and a great place to just wander around. Which is exactly what we did… looking for a hostel, since you know, we hadn’t exactly planning ahead that far.
Lucky for us, we found a nice hostel, dropped off our bags, and went back out to explore. Stellenbosch was founded by the Dutch and as you walk around, you will notice all the old Dutch architecture. The town apparently even organizes walking tours but we missed that and just created our own walking/wanding tour. The Stellenbosch Museum is worth visiting and shows how the city has changed over the centuries. We also stumbled upon great little shops like the African Silk shop, where they had a live silkworms display, and a small boutique craft shop, with two owners eager to discuss US politics with two American gals. Everywhere we went people were so friendly and welcoming.
That being said, Stellenbosch also had a much different vibe that the modern city of Cape Town, especially when it came to discussions of race. My friend and I are both quite light skinned and on multiple occasions we were warned of not wandering too far into the “black neighborhoods.” Also, that shop keeper who wanted to chat about US politics? His main questions had to do with the upcoming 2008 Presidential elections – the one “dominated by the black guy.” He was nice and respectful but also was quite clear that what “works in the US, doesn’t work here.” Had I only spent time in Cape Town, were due to the urban settling, things are a bit more mixed, I might not have realized how much racial tensions are still as part of South African life.
As my friend and I reflected over everything the next day during breakfast, we decided that seeing the world at a local level, not as a sheltered tourist, is the best way to travel. We didn’t come halfway around the world to watch a rugby game; we came to see college students just like ourselves, cheering on their team, just as we would. We came to not just see the historic city at the heart of South Africa’s wine region but to meet the people who called it home. Travel is about connections, about understanding how other people see the world. Those interactions make us all more aware of our ultimate similarity no matter where we are from or what color our skin might be.