Remind me not to pickle in a hotel apartment


There, I got it again. That whiff as I walk down the passage of our hotel apartment in downtown Dubai. A faintly sour smell, like the inside of a well-worn gym sock. Looking around me, I check if there’s someone behind me who would smell it too. Luckily not. This would be my solitary walk of shame until I reach apartment 1118.

Living away from home for a while definitely has huge pluses. You quickly learn to live and shop like a local. You see stuff in other people’s supermarket trolleys that you’ve never tried before and then go and source some for yourself. Some of these supermarket adventures have turned out to be real finds.

So it happened that I saw this huge pile (more like a mini mountain) of baby cucumbers in the Safest Way supermarket. Women (mostly clad top-to-toe in black, with just their beautifully made-up eyes showing) were piling them in their trolleys. Not only did these fat little green fingers look delicious, they also came really cheap. So I packed a giant bag full to take home.
These locally grown cucumberlings are crisp and delicious in salads, or sliced up and wrapped in Arabian bread with some soft white cheese (labneh) for a lunch box. But you can only have so many of them. Getting carried away in the supermarket is not always ideal.

What would I do back home if I had fresh stuff reaching their use-by date? Pickle them, I suppose. I’ve never made my own gherkins, but could that be so difficult? I had two glass jars that I saved after finishing the plump stuffed olives that came in them. I had garlic, small onions, a bottle of vinegar and some sugar. The spice I would use we bought at the Spice Souk (market) in our first week in Dubai. It was beautifully stacked in layers in a small Iranian shop – much like the little bottles of layered dessert sand you buy at curio shops in Namibia. Red saffron, yellow turmeric, black pepper – all the different layers of loveliness.

Everything neatly sliced and the two jars boiled for a while in our only large pot, the pickling process starts. I switch on the extractor fan over the stove to get rid of the fumes. But, o my, this extractor fan was obviously designed with the business traveller in mind who would only fry himself an egg from time to time. The vinegar and spice fumes create a haze in our matchbox kitchen. I rush to open the doors to the balcony. But there is no cross breeze because the only other door opens into the hotel passage. I dump the cucumbers into the bubbling vinegar and switch off the gas. They can now hang there until next week, for all I care. I just need to get rid of this smell.

I try to wave away the pungent pong of vinegar, garlic and spice with a towel, but it clings. I furtively open the door to the passage until I hear the ping of the lift. I don’t want an audience here. After a while I decide that all will be fine. The lid is on the pot and the gherkins are cooling in the pickling liquid.

Perhaps a swim would be the best way to get me out of my hot and bothered state. The swimming pool on floor 8 of our 50-floor hotel has been a joy and a solace right from the start. Getting back after an hour in the pool I get out on floor 11 and that’s when I smell it. Pure, unadulterated sour gym sock. And so it continues for the next few days. Every time I get out of the lift, I smell it.

The story has a happy ending, though. On the shelf there are two glass jars of pickled cucumbers that we eat with cheese and crackers or stuff into our lunchbox wraps. But, please, remind me to never ever again pickle in a hotel apartment.

When the Boks brought the Web Ellis Cup to the Barasti Beach Bar

Wold Cup 2019Nameless friends at the Barasti Beach Bar

It already started in the train on our way to the Barasti Beach Bar in Dubai. Hanging on in front of me in the aisle was a typical hipster, beautifully groomed goatee, covered in artful tattoos, but sporting a Springbok supporter jersey. My eyes fell on the word Jo’burg tattooed on his right ankle and I knew: today this man’s blood was pumping green and gold.

Not one of the avid rugby supporters in the office expected the Springboks playing in the final of Rugby World Cup 2019. When this became a fact, plans had to be made on where to watch the game. One suggested that we pool all our gin stashes (a very scarce commodity in a country where you cannot buy alcohol without applying for a licence), and watching in the hotel apartment, live streaming from South Africa. I suggested the hotel’s sport bar on the ground floor but this was vetoed outright because the cost of beers there would bankrupt us all.

The vote finally fell on the Barasti Beach Bar, close to Dubai’s famous Palm Jumeirah – the manmade palm tree development that reaches into the Arabian Gulf and that rumour has it, can be seen from outer space.

Getting to Barasti Beach was quite an effort. First you take the train, then the light rail and finally you walk (albeit not too far) in the blazing heat. But boy, once we got there the trek was more than worthwhile. Packed in front of the huge outdoor screen were Bok supporters of all colours and creeds – a family with a huge South African flag, all sporting dreadlocks, the group of rowdy gym bunnies and their boys, sounding as if they were all originally from Benoni, the pale office workers with their green and gold supporters’ t-shirts.

To be fair, the English supporters were also well represented. White golf shirts with a rose logo on the chest, red peeling noses from too much sun, thin white feet stuffed into sensible sandals. Heineken drafts firmly in hand, we were ready for the challenge.

God Save the Queen came first. Somewhere in my cell memory sensations of Boer War travesties made me quake. But then it was our turn. Barasti Beach Bar’s palm covered roof structure quavered as those in green and gold sang Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika as one man. As the behemoths battled it out on the field, friends were made in front of the big screen. We took a selfie with the couple with the flag, we joked with the bunnies from Benoni and boy, o boy, did we hug and kiss when the final whistle blew! There were quite a few damp cheeks as Siya Kolisi and Cyril Ramaphosa exchanged fist pumps and waves at the end of the game. And I’m sure the tears were not only the Heinekens talking.

As we left Barasti Beach Bar and walked towards the station, small pockets of supporters were singing Shosholoza. In a strange country in the desert it became clear to me: In the end, everything will be all right in South Africa. There are too many people around the world who love our country and who are willing to stand together when the fight is on.