Tag Archives: South Africa

One year later

It’s been a whole year since I wrote my first post on this blog, in which I fretted about moving to South Africa while recovering from a bout of typhoid fever and an über-traumatic last week at the law firm. In the intervening year, as with most years, a lot has happened. We’ve moved from the US to South Africa to the UK. We’ve traveled to a bunch of new countries. I’ve launched a fledgling writing career. We’ve made new friends. I’ve discovered sewing and rediscovered knitting. Overall, my life is a lot better than it used to be, and I wake up most days looking forward to the day to come.

But when I stop and think about it, it actually doesn’t feel like a whole year has passed. Perhaps this is because all of the big life changes over the past year — quitting my job, moving abroad, starting a new career — happened in rapid succession, and I’ve just spent the rest of the year adjusting to a new routine. The year marker also feels a bit arbitrary, because we’re still in the midst of our big International Adventure, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to do any real retrospective thinking until I’m back in the US and can look at my time abroad with some remove.

A year in, though, here are a few things I can say that I have learned so far:

  1. I like routine. And I like feeling like I have a home. I wrote about this here and my feelings on the matter have only become more acute, because Al and I have had to pick up and move within London several times since then. We’ve been in our current apartment for less than a week and we’re moving again tomorrow. It’s a giant pain. When you move so frequently, and with such short notice, it’s not even worth unpacking your suitcases. I hate that. As much as I love seeing different parts of London, I long for a settled place in the city, somewhere I can use the drawers and closets and get into a comfortable routine. I guess there’s nothing like living like a (reasonably well-to-do) vagabond for an extended period of time that makes one appreciate the comforts of home. Also, it teaches you flexibility. And flexibility is good, right?
  2. South Africa was a mix of good and bad, and that’s okay. Just the other night, I was telling Al that there are certain things I miss about South Africa. The weather, for one. The intense, clear blue of the sky. The vivid sunsets. That wintry wood-smoke smell. Our big, roomy apartment with the little balcony and barbecue. Our car, as unreliable and beat-up as it was. The cost of living. The steak. The wine. But, I realized, it’s possible for me to miss all of that and still never want to live in Joburg again. It’s also possible to say that I disliked Joburg as a city but liked our life there. Life is tricky like that.
  3. Rejections are tough. Enough said.
  4. Having a support network is important. Duh.
  5. I miss the US, but I’m not desperate to go back. I think maybe in the spring, or even after New Year’s, I’ll feel really ready to go back to the States. But right now, I’m content to stay in London a bit longer; I really like it here. (It would just help if we could nail down the housing situation.)
  6. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but Al. The thing that no one tells you about having an international adventure is that it’s full of annoyances. Living abroad, it turns out, requires juggling an immense amount of logistics. And logistics are a pain in the ass. It helps to have a partner who you like when you’re trying to figure out how to not go bat-poop insane when you have to move for the fourth time in a month, or when your power goes out, or when you get not one but two flat tires in a foreign country, or what have you. Living abroad, even in a cushy, convenient place like London, is always a challenge. If you and your partner come out  of it still liking each other and wanting to travel together, so much the better. Being here with Al has reinforced what I already knew about him: he’s patient, adventurous, and flexible. He also listens to me when I whine about having to pack up my knitting stuff. He gets it. Getting it is important.  IMG_4334
  7. Being abroad makes me more aware of my Americanness. There are two sides to this coin, of course. Occasionally, I’ll see something that will make me feel smug and superior because I know my country has its s**t figured out on that issue. Walking on one side of the sidewalk, for instance. America has that DOWN. England? Not so much. Another example: Chinese food. England, please take notes on this. And don’t even get me started on Mexican food. But then, there are other things that make me realize how a**-backwards certain things are in my beloved country. There are the obvious examples (healthcare! education! Miley Cyrus!) but there are also subtle things. Like, in London, MOST movie theaters that I’ve been to serve booze. In DC, I can only think of one movie theater off the top of my head (The E Street Cinema) that does that. What gives, America? Also, London’s public transportation system is great, the post office is quick and efficient (which, as an American, is mind-blowing), and they have double-decker buses. Makes me think America needs to get on the ball, and fast. But then I’ll watch an episode of Hens Behaving Badly or see a drunk girl peeing in the street at ten o’clock at night and I’ll go right back to feeling smug and superior. So, it’s a mixed bag.
  8. I am officially too old to stay in hostels with shared bathrooms. There, I said it.

I’ve probably learned other things along the way but those are the big ones. So, I’m just going to continue enjoying my time abroad and figuring things out. Maybe I’ll check back in a year from now and tell you what else I’ve learned.

Goodbye, Johannesburg

I can’t believe I am leaving South Africa tomorrow. I got here at the end of October 2012, which is somewhere between yesterday and a long time ago, and tomorrow I’m departing for London. Weird. I thought, after spending over seven months on the ground in South Africa, it would be fitting to write a piece about what I liked about my experience here, what I didn’t like, and what I learned. So — here goes nothin’.

IMG_1886

It’s no secret that I wasn’t a huge fan of Joburg. From the beginning, I wasn’t psyched to move to this particular city (even though I was excited about the adventure Al and I were embarking upon together), but  I was determined to keep an open mind about this place and give it a chance. I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that I did give Joburg a chance. I was prepared to let it win me over. It just — didn’t. I don’t want this to devolve into a long list of things that I hate about Joburg, because no one needs to read that, but suffice it to say that this city and I were not meant to get along.

Bread at Vovo Telo - one of the best parts of Joburg

Bread at Vovo Telo – one of the best parts of Joburg!

For one thing, you need a car to do anything here. Al and I shared a car, our trusty 2008 Toyota Yaris, but he took it most days for work, since he had to go to clients’ offices and meetings and such, whereas I worked from home. Fair enough. But that ended up meaning that on days I didn’t have the car, I was functionally housebound. You can’t walk anywhere here (no sidewalks, dangerous, etc.), and there’s no viable public transportation. So I spent a lot of time by myself. Inside. And until a few months ago, that was okay. I embraced my inner introvert, I got to know the afternoon TLC schedule (Say Yes to the Dress, Rich Bride Poor Bride, Jon & Kate Plus 8), I cooked dishes that required obscene amounts of prep time (including this one, which I highly recommend if you have an afternoon to spend grinding spices), I knit (oh, did I knit), I wrote (duh), I got hooked on several TV shows on Netflix (Being Human UK: life changing), and things were pretty good, overall.

I got REALLY into knitting.

I got REALLY into knitting.

Then, a few months ago, I hit a wall. I just got sick of not having much of a life outside of my house. Part of this frustration was compounded by the fact that Al and I had not invested heavily in our social network here. We made wonderful friends, of course, but most of them worked crazy hours during the week and traveled on the weekends, which meant that during the weekdays and early evenings, I was pretty much left high and dry if I needed social contact with other human beings. The thing is, I’m not someone who needs a ton of time with other people to be happy. But I do need options. I’d like to have the option of setting up drinks with someone, for instance, or the option to just leave the house and go do something by myself. When I lived in Sao Paulo by myself and my friends were traveling or otherwise not around, I used to take myself to the movies, and I could walk to the theater. But here in Joburg, I couldn’t do that. And after a while, I got pretty sick of it.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

Now, the flip-side of all of this, of course, is that while we were here, we invested heavily in travel, and I am very glad we did. In nine short months (more or less), we traveled to Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Namibia, as well as pretty extensively within South Africa (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Kruger, the Drakensberg Mountains, Durban, and more). Plus we squeezed in a trip to Italy, and I went to North America twice (first by myself to San Francisco, and then with Al to Ottawa, DC, and Mexico City). So, not too shabby, if you ask me. I am so, so grateful for the experience of living here and being able to travel so widely in Southern Africa and within South Africa, in particular. Joburg, while not awesome itself (in my opinion), is a great jumping off point for seeing all sorts of amazing stuff in this region.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to live in a country — and a part of the world — that I knew pretty much nothing about before I came here. To be honest, I still kinda don’t get it. South Africa is confusing and complex and confounding, but I’ve enjoyed being here and trying to figure out what’s going on around me day to day (that is, when I step foot outside of the house). It’s a country that has a lot of problems (inequality, corruption, wastefulness, racial issues), but it’s also a place with incredible potential and some of the most stunning natural beauty (flora and fauna) that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a special place.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

I probably won’t miss the experience of living in Joburg, per se, but there are definitely some things I will miss about being here. A short list would include the low cost of living (and especially the cheap, high-quality steaks, nom), the incredible (and cheap) wine, my adorable local knitting store, and the great weather.

IMG_2547

I will miss you, knitting store.

So, all in all, these last nine months have been a rewarding adventure. Even for all of my complaints about Joburg, I wouldn’t ever take back the time we spent here, because it afforded us such incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to explore this region. And I will always remember my kitchen table in Joburg fondly, because this is where I launched my fledgling writing career. Me and this table, we have history now.

And now, off to London, our next adventure. Onwards and upwards. Seacrest out.

Cape Town, for the last time

No Book Review Monday today; I’m in the middle of two very long books and hope to be done with at least one of them by next week. Until then, please enjoy some pretty pictures of Cape Town, Constantia, and Stellenbosch. Also, check out last week’s double-header Book Review Monday if you’re jonesing for some book talk.

Vineyard Hotel and Spa, Cape Town

Vineyard Hotel and Spa, Cape Town

I spent this past weekend in Cape Town with my friend Ali. The visit was packed with food, wine, and beautiful scenery and I tried to soak up as much as I could. This might well be the last time I ever step foot in Cape Town, since Al and I are moving to London for three months starting very soon (I know!).

Constantia

Constantia

Vines

Vines

On Friday night, after a lovely day of wine-tasting in Constantia (a beautiful suburb full of wineries just outside Cape Town), Ali and I met two of her friends, Victoria and Tim, for a winter tasting menu at La Colombe, one of the most well-regarded restaurants in the area. I had been looking forward to eating there for a while and it didn’t disappoint. We all opted for the five-course dinner with wine pairings, and it was pretty spectacular.

Fish course - kingklip and mussel

Fish course – kingklip and mussel

This involved corn and chicken

This was a delicious combo of chicken and sweet corn. Nom.

Cheese plate

Cheese plate

The next day, the four of us, plus Ryan, another friend of Ali’s, embarked on a wine-tasting adventure in Stellenbosch, and it was glorious. We tasted wine at DeMorgenzon, and then had lunch (and wine) at the fabulous Restaurant Jordan, and then went on to do one more wine tasting at the stunning Delaire Graff. (Photos in reverse chronological order.)

Mountain, view from Delaire Graff

View from Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff

Delaire Graff – view from tasting room

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Hand-picked cheese selection at Jordan

Hand-picked cheese selection at Jordan – awesome.

Springbok tartare at Jordan

Springbok tartare at Jordan – that poached egg was perfection.

DeMorgenzon

DeMorgenzon

Stellenbosch

DeMorgenzon

View from tasting room at DeMorgenzon

View from tasting room at DeMorgenzon

At the end of the day, Ali and I were too tired and full of wine to do much more than order in some pizza and watch TV, which felt like a fitting end to an indulgent day. The next day, we went for breakfast at The Gardener’s Cottage in Cape Town and then I hopped on a plane back to Joburg.

Omelette at The Gardener's Cottage, Cape Town

Omelette at The Gardener’s Cottage, Cape Town

Sigh. I’m going to miss Cape Town. There’s nowhere else quite like it, is there? At least I can console myself with Joburg’s many delights, which include…my TV. And my knitting bag. Ah, well.

Stay tuned for updates on our next international relocation, coming soon.

Lesotho

This past weekend, we went to Lesotho, which is a tiny kingdom entirely surrounded by South Africa (unlike Swaziland, which is just almost surrounded by South Africa).

map-of-lesotho

 

The initial impetus of the trip was to help our friend Elli deliver some school uniforms to the Maseru office of Kick 4 Life, an NGO that does HIV/AIDS prevention and other types of community outreach, including social enterprise, with vulnerable youths and women in the community. So, we set out from Joburg bright and early with bold intentions to get to Maseru by two PM, which seemed reasonable, since it’s only a five hour drive. You’d think, after seven months in Africa, that we would have figured out by this point that road trips NEVER go as planned, ever, but I guess we’re just indefatigable optimists-slash-actual crazy people who do the same thing over and over and expect different results each time. Anyway, long story short, we arrived in Maseru at eight PM, i.e., it took us SIX hours longer than we anticipated to get across the border. Siiiiigh.

After dropping off the uniforms with Kick 4 Life, we drove on 40 minutes to Morija, where we stayed at the Morija Guesthouse, which has gorgeous views of the surrounding hills.

Colorful rocks and sky

Colorful rocks and sky

 

View from the back of the Guesthouse

View from the back of the Guesthouse

The first night, we sat in front of the fire, drank red wine, ate chicken, and then went to bed. The next morning, refreshed, we hired a local guy, Kefue, to take us horseback riding around Morija. Kefue was an interesting character. He was missing some teeth, but he spoke perfect English and told us about his second career as a freelance journalist. He also got into a lively debate with one of our traveling companions, Jed, about Robert Mugabe. Kefue offered a spirited defense of Mugabe’s leadership, which kinda baffled everyone (and pissed off Jed). Anyway. We went on a pony trek and then did some hiking, and then settled in again for a night of wine, chicken, and sitting around.

Here are some photos that Al and I took during the hike and pony trek:

Cow

Cow

View from our hike

View from our hike

Al on top of a rock with dinosaur prints

Al on top of a rock with dinosaur prints

Lesotho is a very beautiful place. I see why the Basotho people are proud of their country, its geography, and its history. Unfortunately, Lesotho has some serious problems with HIV/AIDS, with a staggering 23% of the population HIV positive, as of 2011, which is the third highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. The countries with the two highest prevalence rates, Botswana and Swaziland, are also in Southern Africa, and South Africa has the fourth highest prevalence rate. I spent time this weekend thinking about these statistics and wondering why this part of the world is so susceptible to the spread of HIV/AIDS, and what the best way to tackle it might be. Almost makes me wish I had a degree in public health, instead of that dumb law degree.

But let’s not end on a depressing note! Here are a few more photos of the beautiful Lesotho.

IMG_5633 IMG_5598

IMG_5668

Jozi Craft Beer Fest

Yesterday, Al and I and some friends went to the Jozi Craft Beer Fest. The event was set up in a field, and consisted of a bunch of tents selling beer and food, plus a lot of watered-down, South African hipsters. Lots of brand-name beanies and skinny jeans and “fun” glasses. Bless their hearts; they’re trying.

Hipster alert

Hipster alert

South African craft beer, in my humble opinion, is okay, not great, but the event was still fun. (Now I can’t even remember the names of the beers that I tried and liked, but I think Devil’s Peak might have been one of them? Sorry, South African beer fans. Nothing made a huge impression.) It was just fun to sit in the sun and drink some beer.

Yay beer

Yay beer

It got a little cold

It got a little cold in the afternoon

So, that was our Saturday. Today, we’re off to the Winter Sculpture Garden at the Cradle of Humankind, where we’ll be sampling food and wine (and sculptures, I guess).

Hope everyone’s having a great weekend!

Cape Town and Durban

I’m back from a lovely, week-long vacation with my cousin Amanda (and, for the last two days, Al). I met Amanda at the Joburg airport on Monday — she had flown in from San Francisco, via London — and we went straight to Cape Town for four days. While there, we got up to the usual Cape Town things: Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope, wineries, penguins, seafood, shopping. It was glorious, as expected.

Here are a few photos of our visit:

View from Table Mountain

View from road to Table Mountain

Camps Bay

Camps Bay

Beachside playground

Beachside playground

Amanda and me at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Amanda and me (and a dog) at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Stark Conde

Stark Conde

Great views along the Cape

Great views along the Cape

Baby ostrich being petted

Baby ostrich being petted

Beach ostrich

Wild ostrich

Penguins

Penguins

The ostrich farm we visited was a total kick. Ostriches are weird looking to begin with, but baby ostriches are both extremely weird AND cute. They look like baby dinosaurs. I took a short video of some of the babies:

Hilarious!

Amanda and I had a great time in Cape Town, but on Friday morning, we left and flew two hours northeast to Durban, the third largest city in South Africa, known for its beaches, sub-tropical climate, Indian food, and adventure sports. We stayed at the truly lovely Rosetta House, where Al met us later that evening.

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

Durban was awesome. It’s a very relaxed, pretty city, with beautiful homes, lots of lush green plant life, warm beaches, and cute outdoor cafes and bars. One of the things that struck me most about Durban is how ethnically integrated it is, as compared to Cape Town or Joburg or, really, any other South African city or town I’ve ever visited. I was pleasantly surprised to see people of different races eating at the same restaurants, drinking at the same bars, hanging out on the same beaches. I know that sounds sort of sad, that this is something I’d be surprised by, but South Africa, despite its claims of being a rainbow nation, can often feel very segregated. Durban was a refreshing change. Al and I kept remarking on it (“Oh, wow, there are actually white people AND black people AND Indian people at this [bar/restaurant/beach/garden]!”) which tells you a little something about what we’re used to in Joburg.

We went to the beach on Saturday, which was beautiful and relaxing. The waters of the Indian Ocean in Durban aren’t as warm as they were in Mozambique, but they weren’t freezing, either (unlike the water in Cape Town). I went for a dip and came out feeling refreshed (and salty).

IMG_2967

On Saturday night, we ate at 9th Avenue Bistro, which offers a six-course wine pairing tasting menu, and it was fantastic. The food and service were outstanding; however, the ambience was a bit dampened by the fact that the restaurant looks out over a parking lot. Oh, well. Still highly recommended!

On Sunday, our last day in Durban, we spent a few hours wandering around the gorgeous Durban Botanical Gardens, which were heavenly. The Gardens are Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens and they are very well maintained. I took a ton of pictures because everything was so beautiful.

Giant tree (and Al)

Giant tree (and Al)

Bamboo copse

Bamboo copse

Gingko seed?

Gingko seed?

Bees on dahlia

Bees on dahlia

IMG_2998

One of my favorite parts of the Gardens was a little pond that was filled with all sorts of interesting birds, including an African Spoonbill, a giant pelican (which I think might be a pink backed pelican?), a big red-beaked goose, and several kinds of ducks and ducklings.

Pelican

Pelican (Pink Backed, I think)

Paddle beaked bird

African Spoonbill

So, this was a trip of many odd bird sightings: pelicans, spoonbills, ostriches, penguins, and, while we were in Cape Town, a flock of wild flamingos flying overhead. Pretty cool.

Now I am back in Joburg and beginning to acclimate to the chilly weather and the fact that I have to, you know, start working again. Amanda is on safari now and will be back in Joburg on Thursday, so I have a little more cousin time to look forward to. In the meantime, it’s back to the grind: blogging and writing. Luckily, I happen to really enjoy the grind. Vacation is great, but the grind is good, too.

First(ish) World problems

On our recent trip to Mozambique, we met a lot of expats who live in other countries in southern Africa, including Mozambique and Malawi, and it made us realize, again, how (relatively) easy we have it living in Joburg. When it comes down to it, living here is a pretty cushy developing world experience. Most things work. We have electricity and hot water and fancy shopping malls. There are gyms and knitting stores and nice restaurants. And although Joburg can be irritating and slow and backwards, the annoyances we face are nothing compared to those faced by people living in less developed countries or in more rustic areas. For example, we met a Canadian woman on Ilha who lives in Pemba, in northern Mozambique, and she was telling us how the only fresh produce she can find in the entire city are beat up tomatoes, onions, and an assortment of mixed greens that look like weeds.

I would die.

Well, no, I wouldn’t, because I have lived in places like that before (see, e.g., Cuba, 2004), and it was actually fine, because you can get used to anything, and I ate a lot of ice cream, but man, I devoured vegetables like they were going out of style for weeks after I got back to the US.

Map courtesy of coha.org

We’re in the orange, hooray! (Map courtesy of coha.org)

I have thought and written about this before. A couple years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I wrote this post about all of the annoying little things that conspire to make daily life in Sao Paulo difficult. Joburg is similar; actually, I’d say Joburg is more developed than Sao Paulo in a lot of key ways. Mostly, life here is easy. We have a car so we don’t have to take the crappy (and dangerous) public transport, we eat at good restaurants, there’s plenty of fresh produce, the grocery store stocks fancy products like soy milk and pre-made curry paste, our power only goes out occasionally, and we even have cable and wireless internet.

But life here is not perfect. Things go wrong more frequently than they do back home in the States. For example, yesterday I spent my entire day – literally, from 8 am to almost 5 pm – doing errands that in the US would have taken me half the time to accomplish — except This is Africa.

First, I had to go to the post office to pick up a package. When I got to the window and presented my package notification slip, the woman asked for ID. I showed her my driver’s license and she said she needed my passport, or at least my passport number. I had neither, so I tried to call Al to get my passport number, but my phone was out of credit AND out of data, so I couldn’t email him either. The post office employee and I argued back and forth about whether or not my passport was necessary to pick up a package in my name, given that I had other forms of ID and my passport number was not in their system anyway, and the discussion ended with her avoiding eye contact and telling me to come back with my passport. The end. Next I went to the Vodacom shop to buy more credit on my phone – which, by the way, you can only purchase based on monetary value rather than on the number of minutes purchased, which makes NO SENSE, Vodacom – but the shop was closed. Then I went to the grocery store to buy some cleaning stuff, and the woman charged me for a bag, which I didn’t need since I had brought my own bag, and in order to void the approximately $.04 charge, she needed to call a manager, but the manager didn’t come, so after five minutes of the cashier trying to flag down a manager, I said forget it, just charge me for the bag, and then she tried to give me the bag but she had already loaded my stuff into the bag I brought and UGH I JUST WANTED TO SLAP EVERYONE IN THE FACE. Then I went to the doctor’s office, and the doctor was running half an hour late, because, of course. Then I came home to do the piles of laundry we had accumulated over vacation, and the washer started spewing water and soap all over the kitchen floor, so I called the plumber. The plumber came and could not fix the washer. Then, I went back to the post office with my passport and waited in a half-hour line. When I finally reached the window, not one but TWO separate people decided to walk up to the window and argue with the employee about various things. By this time it was 4:30 PM, and I still had to go to the pharmacy. When I got home at five, exhausted and annoyed and with a wet kitchen floor, I felt annoyed at how wasteful and inefficient my day had been, despite my best efforts to get things done quickly. I had barely had time to write a blog post, let alone work on other writing projects, and for what? (And our washer’s still broken, by the way.)

But this is what you sign on for when you come to live in a developing country, and the annoyances in my day are so minor compared to what people living in, say, the bush in Mpumalanga put up with day to day, it seems silly to complain. Sure, in general, life in a developing country can be more difficult, annoying, challenging, and slow than life in the cushy developed world – but that doesn’t mean it’s worse, necessarily. There are drawbacks and benefits to living in a place like South Africa. Drawbacks include things not working, power outages, slow bureaucracies, inefficiencies, and the lack of certain creature comforts. Benefits include a much lower cost of living, simplicity, experiencing a different culture, and learning patience.

I am still working on that last one.

An adventure in the Free State

Yesterday, Al and I and two of his work friends, Ash and Sarah, spent the day in the Free State, one of the provinces bordering Gauteng, where we live. Free State is a province that’s known in South Africa for being pretty boring and solidly Afrikaans, even though white Afrikaans people make up only 10% of the population there. However, I had read online about the Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Center right in the heart of Free State and only an hour and a half drive from Joburg: how could we resist?

The Vredefort Dome is actually the remains of huge crater caused by a meteor. According to the Vredefort Dome website, “The Vredefort Structure can be considered to be a gigantic scar that was left behind when a huge meteor (estimated size 10 km diameter) collided with the earth about 2023 million years ago.” Whoa. Apparently this ginormous meteor caused a crater that was “in the order of 100 km and some odd tens of kilometers deep,” but the crater was eroded away over millions of years. Bummer. But now there are cool hiking trails with waterfalls and birdwatching, so we decided to go and check it out.

Ash picked us up at 9 am and we all bundled excitedly into his car wearing our hiking gear. I brought my spiffy new hiking hydration backpack, which I am so obsessed with, I want to wear it ALL THE TIME, even to sleep, and we chowed down on biltong as we drove to the Free State, anticipating hours of challenging climbs and stunning vistas. Ninety minutes later, we arrived at the gate to the Vredefort Dome UNESCO World Heritage Site Interpretive Center (huh?) and – you guessed it! – it was closed. Cuz this is Africa. We considered jumping the fence but, this being Free State, decided that the risk of being shot with a rifle for trespassing was a tad higher than we were comfortable with, so we decided to keep driving and see if we could find another entrance to the park or a trailhead for one of the many hikes we had read about. Two hours later, we hadn’t found anything, so we took a break, parked in the little town of Parys and ate at one of Parys’s “best” restaurants, O’s Restaurant.

Koi pond

Koi pond

O, what to say about O’s? Well, it was pretty. I’ll give it that. There was a cool koi pond and a river (which smelled only a little funky) and the place was positively bustling. The parking guard outside told us proudly that it was the “one of the best restaurants in Parys.” We had high hopes. The food, though, hovered somewhere between mediocre and crap, and the service was glacial. About thirty minutes after we finally paid and left, one of our party started to feel ill from the ill-advised calamari platter he had ordered and we had to make an emergency pit stop. Not awesome, O’s.

Eventually, 3:30 rolled around. We had been driving/being slowly poisoned at O’s for six and a half hours and we had not done one step of hiking. My hydration backpack was going to complete and utter waste. So we pulled off at a place called Suikerbos (Sugarbush), which promised hiking trails. While Suikerbos technically did have hiking trails, they were all approximately 300 meters long and ended abruptly in barbed wire fences, so we just sort of walked in a circle for an hour and then called it a day. We did see some cool flora and fauna, though. We think this thing is an actual sugarbush flower:

IMG_2623

And we saw this guy crossing the street/lying motionless in the street. He may or may not have been dead. Jury’s out.

IMG_2625

In any case, he was scary.

At a quarter to five, we packed it in and went back to Joburg. We might not have accomplished what we set out to do – e.g., hike Vredefort Dome, see an awesome crater scar, not get food poisoning – but we still had a good day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving here, it’s not to expect things to go as planned – ever. Rolling with the punches, cuz this is Africa.

Book review Tuesday: Philida, by Andre Brink

In my effort not to be a complete ignoramus about the country I’m living in, I’ve been trying to read some South African literature and journalistic non-fiction. Being me, I’m doing much better with the fiction than the non-fiction. Whereas I haven’t been able to pick up Country of My Skull – a harrowing account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – for weeks now, I finished Andre Brink’s novel Philida easily. Philida was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, but I actually decided to read it because an American friend of mine, Jon, told me he had just torn through one of Brink’s other books, A Dry White Season, and that I had to read it. I went to my local bookstore to look for it but they didn’t have it – but they did have Philida.

138.Andre Brink-Philida

Philida is the story of a slave woman living in the Cape in the 1830s. The book opens with Philida lodging a complaint with the Office of the Slave Protector against her owner, Cornelis Brink, and his son, Francois Brink. Francois, Philida explains, is the father of her four children, and he promised to set her free. Now, he has reneged on his promise and is selling Philida – and their children – upcountry so he can marry a rich white woman.

The novel traces Philida’s struggle to gain her freedom, and illuminates complex relationships between owners and slaves. Secrets about the Brink family come to light and one begins to understand, bit by bit, why the slave-owner dynamics are so very tricky in this particular family. Philida is set in the 1830s, just before slaves were emancipated in South Africa in 1834 (via the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery throughout the British empire). The knowledge, shared by owners and slaves alike, that the slaves will soon be set free, complicates matters even further.

The plot has a few twists and turns but, in general, is slow-paced. Much of Philida’s journey happens on foot, with meandering descriptions of the landscape and her thoughts. Even if long-winded, the story still manages to be gripping, and the diversions weren’t enough to make me lose interest. Plus, Brink’s writing is so unique, it was hard to get bored.

When reading Philida, it is difficult not to be impressed by the ability of Brink – a white South African man – to write from the perspective of Philida, a black (or perhaps coloured) South African female slave. Brink explained in an interview with NPR that the story was based on historical records and one of the main characters, Francois Brink, was an actual ancestor of his. Philida’s voice is absorbing; it is easy to forget that she was brought to life by a white man. Brink also tells parts of the story from the perspective of Francois and Cornelis, but it is Philida we are rooting for and whose voice dominates the narrative.

In the end, Philida gets a kind of deliverance, although this is not what one would call a “feel good” book. Still, if you’re looking to read well-crafted historical fiction about one piece of South Africa’s complicated past, Philida is a good place to start.

Rustenburg

Al and I have embarked on a month-long detox from booze and in his case, candy, and in my case, cheese and dessert (which are often one and the same with me). This is necessary. Very necessary. I’ve spent the last month and a half flitting from place to place, eating rich food and drinking fine (and not so fine) wine, and it has been GLORIOUS, but I feel that my liver is about to give out and the buttons on my pants are about to pop, so it’s time to take a break. In this new spirit of healthy living, then, we decided to have an outdoorsy kind of weekend, so we drove two hours to Rustenburg, the “bustling” provincial capital of Northwest Province, to do some hiking and biking.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Rustenburg itself is pretty low-key – the owner of the lovely B&B we stayed in listed the many dining options at the local mall’s food court when we asked her if there were any nice restaurants nearby – but it’s home to a provincial park called Kgswane Mountain Reserve that has hiking trails and bike paths. On Saturday morning, we went to the mountain reserve with big plans to go biking. We had loaded up our road bikes – which have sat gathering cobwebs, literally, on our porch since we moved to South Africa – and a newly purchased bike pump and we were ready to go. Only problem was, the bike pump didn’t work. After a frustrating half hour of attempting to force the bike pump to work, we gave up and decided to go for a hike. We set off on a hiking trail called the “Vlei Ramble,” but we turned around after a few minutes when it became clear that a machete was necessary to effectively break through the underbrush. And the brambles. Oh, the brambles! Al joked, of course, that the trail should have been called the Vlei Bramble. We hiked a trail called the Peglerei Interpretative Trail (huh?) instead, and it was much better. Great views, plus the whole trail was littered with rose quartz. The weirdly rock-obsessed eight-year-old inside me was geeking out the whole time.

IMG_2545

That night, we decided to go to a “nice” dinner at a place we had read about in one of our guidebooks, the Kedar Country House, which is attached to a hotel and a museum devoted to Paul Kruger. There were several clues along the way that this restaurant was not going to be good: when the parking lot in front of the restaurant was dark and virtually empty, when the man in the hotel lobby seemed baffled that we wanted to eat at the restaurant, when we walked into the restaurant and it was empty except for a harried looking family with several screaming children. It wasn’t until we saw that the restaurant was buffet-style, with steam trays full of unidentifiable meat mash and a table of wilting salads preserved under saran wrap, that we decided to try to find somewhere else. We hastily made our exit. All of the employees seemed to understand.

We made the bold decision to drive another 20 kilometers to Sun City, the self-billed “kingdom of pleasure” of Africa. I guess the other kingdoms in Africa aren’t putting up much competition in the pleasure category (looking at you, Swaziland), so fair enough. Sun City is, in a word, ridiculous. It truly is a little city, containing a golf course, hotels, restaurants, casinos, a wave pool (the grandly named “Valley of Waves”), and even residential facilities. That’s right, people live at Sun City. We had heard that there were some good restaurants there, including something called the Famous Butcher’s Grill. After driving around and seeing no such grill, we asked a valet at the casino, who told us the restaurant was in the Cabanas Hotel. We parked and went into the hotel and asked the concierge about the restaurant. She told us the Famous Butcher’s Grill has been closed for “ten years. Maybe four years.” At this point, we had been driving for an hour, we were hungry, and we were nearing defeat, so we decided to give up and eat at the hotel’s new restaurant, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a name, other than “Hotel Restaurant.” It was truly the most generic of hotel restaurants: open plan seating in the middle of the hotel, kids running around and playing on a plastic play structure, and – you guessed it – a BUFFET. Resigned to our fate, we sat down and ate our buffet dinner, which was fine. Not great. But fine.

After dinner, being the old farts we are, we were too tired (from the hiking and the driving and the disappointment) to gamble, so we headed back to the B&B. Plus, we all know that gambling’s not fun unless you have a little liquor in your system to make your choices just bad enough to be interesting.

The next morning, we bought a new bike pump and headed back to the mountain reserve. We successfully pumped the bikes’ tires (huzzah!) and had a really nice bike ride. We did something called the Sable Loop (twice), all the time keeping our eyes peeled for sable antelope, which are very rare but apparently live in the park. We didn’t see any (although we did see zebra, kudu, and impala), but it was still a good ride, and we left Rustenburg feeling satisfied, like we had accomplished something. All in all, a good weekend. Who says you need booze and cheese to have fun?