Dis danksy oorle’ Mammie

Stinnie, Annie en Berrie Uys, die dogters van oorle’Mammie.

Vir ʼn jaar nou al verknies ek my elke nou en dan oor die laaste blog wat ek in Maart verlede jaar uit Dubai geskryf het. Nie net het ek ligweg vertel hoe ons met net ʼn lekseltjie saniteerder aan die hande op propvol treine rondry nie, ek het ook bietjie gespot met die mense wat maskers dra en so benoud is vir hierdie sogenaamde virus. Was dit in dieselfde heelal waar ʼn mens grappies van hierdie aard kon maak?

 ʼn Week na die begin van die inperking verlede jaar, droom ek een nag dat ons opstaan en die virus is net weg – weg soos ʼn dief in die nag, net so suutjies gegaan soos wat hy gekom het. Toe ek wakker word en besef dis net ʼn droom het die trane oor my wange tot in my ore ingeloop. Meer as ʼn jaar later het die virus sy intrek in ons lewens geneem asof dit nog altyd by ons was en huil ons oor vriende en kennisse wat nie meer by ons is nie.

Die feit dat ek hier kan sit en skryf oor die pandemie is alles danksy oorle’ Mammie. Van kleins af het my ouma Kitty, ma en tantes dikwels oor haar gepraat – die mooi vrou met die donker oë wat in die Groot Griep van 1918 dood is. Hierdie uittreksel kom uit die geskiedenis van die Vosse (my ouma Kitty se nooiensvan) wat my ma voor haar dood in 2009 geskryf het:

“Op Van Wyksvlei is daar net na die oorlog deur die Departement van Lande ‘n nuwe Superintendent aangestel. Op die klein nedersetting was dit ‘n posisie van aansien en Majoor Uys, met sy klein hartjie en deernis vir arm mense, was ‘n gewilde figuur. Sy swartkop vrou, Christine, was ‘n pragtige mens, statig, rustig en saggeaard. Sy het drie dogters gehad: Annie, ‘n lewenslustige, laggende tiener met haar los rooi-bruin hare en wipneusie wat alreeds die jongkêrels se harte begin breek het, Stinnie, ‘n mooi agtjarige dogtertjie met twee groot blou oë en dik kastaiingbruin vlegsels en Berrie, ses jaar oud met haar gitswart hare en twee vlammende groen oë, haar mamma se “muiltjie”, soos sy die kwaai dogtertjie genoem het. En toe verwag sy weer, net toe die gerugte van die gevreesde griep uit die Kaap oral in die distrik begin uitslaan.

“Met ‘n swaar beklemming om haar hart, miskien ‘n voorgevoel, het sy voorbereidings getref vir die koms van die baba, en met ‘n vreemde sekerheid dat dit dié keer die seuntjie sou wees, die naamdraer wat sy so vurig begeer het vir haar man. Haar geheime vrees, die vae onrus, kon sy nie eens vir haarself uitspel nie. En toe is die baba gebore, uiteindelik die langverwagte seun, Hendrik Schalk Oostewald Uys. Haar man, die sussies, die hele klein gemeenskappie was gaande oor die ou seuntjie. Maar te midde van die opwinding en blydskap het die vrees weer aan haar kom vreet: orals om hulle het die mense gesterf, byna geen huis was onaangeraak deur die vreeslike siekte nie. Buitendien het haar man vreesloos rondgegaan en die arme ontredderde mense bygestaan. Wie was sy dat sy só gelukkig moes wees? Nie een van hulle gesinnetjie is siek nie en nou nog die vreugde oor die seuntjie. Dit was te goed om waar te wees, dit kon nie hou nie.

“Toe sy nie meer saam met haar onrus en vrees kon leef nie, het sy op ‘n dag haar hart uitgepak teenoor haar boesemvriendin. Meraai Vos, die vierde dogter van  Smouskolk se Vosse, het gereeld by haar kom kuier by Lakeside, die groot huis naby die dam waar die Superintendent gewoon het. Sy was die mooiste van die Vos-dogters met haar swart hare en laggende bruin oë, borrelend van pret en lewensvreugde.

“Daar was nie veel geselskap in die omgewing vir die jong meisietjie nie en toe die mooi verfynde vrou haar intrek kom neem op Lakeside, was Meraai vol bewondering vir haar en het graag daar gaan kuier. Gaandeweg het daar ‘n hegte vriendskap ontstaan tussen die twee. Saam het hulle kleertjies gemaak vir die baba, saam opgewonde duim vasgehou dat dit ‘n seun moes wees, dikwels gesels oor die tragiese verloop van die Griep. En toe het Christine op ‘n dag haar geheime vrees met Meraai gedeel: geen mens kon só gelukkig wees soos sy nie – ‘n wonderlike man, drie pragtige dogtertjies en nou die seuntjie. Sy het geweet dit kan nie hou nie, dit was nie vir haar beskore nie.

“Sy het vir Meraai laat belowe dat as sy iets sou oorkom, sy haar babatjie sou versorg. Die jong meisie het vir haar gelag, vir haar verseker dat niks met haar sal gebeur nie, maar tóg op aandrang van die ouer vrou belowe, net om haar gerus te stel. En toe die seuntjie vier maande oud was, het dit gebeur; die mooi vrou met die sagte bruin-groen oë het siek geword en binne ‘n paar dae was sy dood. Toe die nuus Smouskolk bereik: “Mev Uys is dood”, het ‘n geskokte Meraai vir haar ouers vertel wat sy beloof het.

“Sonder om te aarsel het die kwaai ou Willie Vos die kar laat inspan, vir ouma Hannie gesê om alles gereed te kry en met Meraai, eintlik nog ‘n pure kind, Van Wyksvlei toe gery om die baba te gaan haal. Vir die radelose, bedroefde vader was dit ‘n uitkoms en ‘n verhoor van sy beangste gebede om hulp. Hulle is terug Smouskolk toe, Oupa en Ouma en Meraai op die agterste bank van die ou groot kapkar, met die bondeltjie in haar arms. Na ‘n ruk het Hendrik die dogters Transvaal toe geneem na sy broer Koos op Lichtenburg, waar hy hulle sou versorg totdat hulle pa vir hulle voorsiening kon maak op Van Wyksvlei. Hy het vir hom ‘n huishoudster gekry, Anna Jacobs, ‘n liewe mens wat ook bereid was om die dogters te versorg en na ‘n rukkie het hy hulle gaan haal.

“Intussen het Meraai die seuntjie versorg en vertroetel soos ‘n groot pop, met ouma Hannie om by te staan en raad te gee, en almal op Smouskolk was gaande oor die babatjie. Selfs die ongenaakbare, harde oupa Willie het opgegaan in die kleintjie. Sy pa het gereeld vir sy seuntjie kom kuier – dit was die enigste ligstraal in sy droewe bestaan, sy band met sy geliefde Christine. En die tonge het begin losraak. Die jong wewenaar was die skyf vir menige ongetroude maar hoopvolle jong meisie. Nie alleen was hy ‘n aantreklike man nie, maar ‘n man van aansien in die omgewing en die sielige situasie van die moederlose kinders het menige edel jong vrou se hart laat klop.

“Maar eintlik het almal, insluitende die jong bruin-oog Meraai, aanvaar dat hy met haar sou trou en sodoende die onuitgesproke wens van Christine sou vervul. Hy het dan ook heel dikwels op Smouskolk kom kuier.

“So stap hy een oggend by die woonhuis in en daar staan ‘n skraal jong meisie met ‘n dik goue vlegsel om haar kop by die tafel, besig om ‘n rok uit te sny. Hy het dikwels vertel dat hy net daar besluit het: dit is my vrou, sy sal die ma van my kinders word. Hy het sekerlik ook nie gras onder sy voete laat groei om sy oortuiging aan haar oor te dra nie. Dit moes ‘n redelike mate van drama op Smouskolk veroorsaak het: Meraai wat so duidelik die keuse moes gewees het, alreeds verknog aan die seuntjie en sekerlik reeds verlief op die pa, en Kitty met haar verloofde wat vir haar wag in Caledon.

“En so het dit gebeur dat die 26-jarige meisie [my ouma Kitty] haar intrek geneem het op Lakeside, met ‘n diep oortuiging dat sy die taak in opdrag van die Here moes uitvoer. Vir die drie dogters was sy feitlik ‘n vreemdeling en ook vir hulle was dit ‘n moeilike aanpassing. Annie, die tienerjarige was gekrenk en hartseer dat haar ma se plek so gou gevul is. Berrie, die ou “muiltjie”, was rebels en kwaai, in redelose verset teen die vreemdeling. Stinnie, altyd die gemoedelike, vrolike een, vol liefde en gretig om aanvaar te word, was van die begin af die maklike een. Mammie het altyd vertel hoe ‘n pragtige kind sy was met haar bruin krullebol en mollige lyfie en hoe sy geniet het om haar te bad en mooi aan te trek. … Met verloop van tyd het Kitty haar stryd gewen en is sy onvoorwaardelik aanvaar deur die kinders, veral toe daar twee nuwe sussies bygekom het, Janie en Corrie.”

En so terug na vandag toe. My ma, Corrie, was die jongste dogter uit die huwelik tussen Hendrik en Kitty en dis deur hierdie verbintenis dat ek vandag hier sit en skryf – dis alles danksy oorle’ Mammie wat nie die Groot Griep van 1918 oorleef het nie.

When from Africa, cold pumpkin won’t scare us

ZamBuk

One of the benefits of being an African is that we don’t scare easily. Or, translated directly from Afrikaans, cold pumpkin won’t make us jittery. This much loved Afrikaans saying has a rather strange ring to it in English, though.

Before getting to the dreaded virus thing, first a few less deadly examples. I’ve found that we have an aptitude for jaywalking. My online Macmillan dictionary defines jaywalking as “a dangerous or illegal way of crossing a street at a place where cars do not usually stop. Someone who does this is called a jaywalker. In my lexicon a jaywalker would also be someone who ignores the little red man when there’s no traffic in sight. The first time I did this in Sydney, Australia a few years back there were gasps all around me as I hopped across the pedestrian crossing. I almost panicked, thinking I had missed spotting an approaching car, just to realise that they were gasping at my disobedience. I knew that it wouldn’t help pointing out that there really wasn’t a vehicle even close by. They would just not get it. That’s when I decided that I might not come from a very law-abiding nation.

Here in Dubai jaywalking is equally frowned upon. The problem is that traffic lights (or robots as we love to call them) take ages to turn green in your favour. The one thing you need to look out for, though, is the weird way that vehicles are allowed to make a legal U-turn if they want to go in the other direction on these gigantic highways. My jaywalking advice would be to have a quick squiz over your shoulder before leaping off the curb.

Another thing I’m not scared of is eating at places where local workers hang out – especially when there are spicy curry and mounds of rice on banana leaves involved. I’ve also seen people jumping out of the way of street cats sidling up to them for affection. I want to say to these felines to bring it on – where we come from our cats are much larger and a tad more dangerous than a regular Dubai street tabby.

I’ve also lost my fear of haute couture shops. With my friend Christine at my side we go into Dior, MaxMara, Prada and Fendi just to see what they have on offer. I’m sure the shop assistants handling the Gucci bags with their little white gloves know that we won’t be buying anything today, but I’ve found them courteous and sweet if we say we’re just looking for gifts for our daughters. Sorry girls, next time …

But now to the dreaded corona virus. The variety of face masks spotted on the Dubai Metro is astounding. You get the garden variety blue papery ones that don’t seem to keep even bad breath at bay. Then there are sturdier ones covering more of the face with a metal bit over the nose. Upscale to impressive numbers with breathing ducts on the side and then there are the Rolls Royces of virus protection gear that look like gas masks issued to British civilians in World War II.

We don’t wear masks, but I must admit to certain safety precautions to keep the virus at bay. Number one is to your wash hands, often and with lots of soap – arriving at the office, leaving the office, arriving at the mall, leaving the mall, arriving home … on and on. Then there is the little bottle of hand sanitiser when no soap and water are available, and o yes, remember not to apply hand cream before using public transport. Little germs love to cling to creamed-up hands.

The next virus prevention tactic is to do a spot of train surfing on the Metro. You do this as not to touch the places you usually hang on to when standing in the train – which is just about all the time on the busy Dubai public transport network.

It works like this: Stand upright, feet little bit apart and knees relaxed. Engage you core just before the train starts moving. Move in motion with the train and don’t lose concentration, or you’ll come crashing into other commuters the moment the train takes a turn or slows down to pull into a station.  I bet that this exercise will eventually have some benefits for the figure if you do it twice a day for at least 20 minutes at a time.

The final virus prevention tip is on long-haul flights back home. Nothing beats a baby tin of Zam-Buk – the Real Makoya. Once you’ve managed to open the tin (somewhat of an art), liberally smear some of the green ointment around your nose, working it nicely into your nostrils. Not only will you smell deliciously camphory, it also seems to keep chatty fellow flyers from engaging with you. I don’t quite know how this works, but believe me, it does.

So, coming from Africa might mean that we sometimes seem fearless but some common sense always prevails. And it does help to have that familiar green and white tin safely stashed away in your pocket.

As if by magic, I spoke Arabic

Balcony view

View from our balcony. Mercure Hotel, Dubai.

I never realised how much I depended on the Latin alphabet to access a foreign language. When I first arrived in Dubai, I was totally lost. Not only could I not figure out the letters – you also have to contend with the fact that the words run from right to left.

The other problem is the sounds. To my Western ear it sounds as if someone is praying every time I hear Arabic. My only reference point of the language up to now has been the cry of the Muezzin calling people to prayer in Cape Town and again in Istanbul. Here in Dubai you hear the call to prayer five times a day, the first just before sunrise and the last call at about nine at night. It’s also piped over the loudspeakers in shopping centres; Mall of the Emirates or Dubai Mall which I frequent. At first I found it very curious that people would ignore the call and continue shopping – in and out of Chanel or Dior – while someone was urging them to pray.

I should have tried a bit harder to say a few basic words in Arabic before I arrived in Dubai. The only word I memorised beforehand was shukraan; thanks. But after almost two months I haven’t used it once. It’s not as if I haven’t found anyone to thank – I say thanks dozens of times a day. The issue is that the people I thank are very seldom Arabic speakers. This is the most diverse place I’ve ever encountered. At any given time there are more than about ten different nationalities in the train carriage around me – and that’s only those I can identify by looks. I read yesterday that, on average, there are 50 different nationalities represented on a single Emirates flight.

To be able to say shukraan one needs to identify an Arabic speaker. This you can do by looking at the clothes. The Emirati men wear white robes with head scarves, secured by a black band. The women wear black abayas (what a burkah is called in this neck of the woods). They only represent 20% of the people in Dubai. The other 80% are foreigners. I haven’t said thank you to one Emirati man. They always walk into a lift first and never give way to a woman – so no thanks for that! Neither have I encountered any Emiratis working in the services industry. The people behind tills are mostly Asian, those cleaning the hotel rooms are often Indian or Pakistani, the taxi driver could be from Iran, the swimming pool attendant comes from Ghana and the girl who works in the gym is most probably Russian.

I know I should have tried harder with Arabic beforehand, but did not quite get around to it; in the same way I didn’t learn basic Spanish before I walked the Camino four years ago. At the time I regretted not being able to say more than a few Spanish words. The only ones I knew I learnt from my parents’ vinyl records with titles such as Archie’s Party – words like adios amigo, or cuando, cuando, cuando.

So, I’ve been trying to utter a few Arabic words, but my tongue just won’t do it. I also try to remember Arabic words I come across, but it seems as if my memory fails me every time.

A few days ago I was sitting on the balcony of our hotel apartment, having my morning coffee with Duan, my husband. We sit there every morning in complete companionable silence, each contemplating the day ahead without sharing a word. The reason for our silence is not because we’ve finally run out of things to say to each other after 35 years together. We gave up talking after the first morning because there’s no way the other person would hear a word, even if we tried. Our balcony overlooks the 12 lanes of the very busy Sheikh Zayed Highway and added to that, the metro rail runs alongside it. Even at 6:30 in the morning the din of traffic makes any conversation impossible.

So, there I was sitting, rolling around some Arabic words in my mouth like a smooth little pebble. Round and round, until I opened my mouth and, as if by magic, I spoke Arabic. Transcribed into the Latin alphabet, it sounded about like this:

El alboa butu glat. El mahagma cordimahea, el ghalizoe pisjharea. So, what did I say? Sadly, not anything too profound. “Doors closing. The next station is Business Bay.”

Remind me not to pickle in a hotel apartment

Pickle

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.

 

A Boeing stops whining once it gets to OR Tambo

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There was this joke going around in eighties: What is the difference between a Boeing and an ex-Rhodesian? A Boeing stops whining once it gets to Jo’burg airport.  This sad and sour little story came to mind recently after arriving at OR Tambo late at night from a day flight via Amsterdam.

The one thing I’ve realised after travelling to a few places in the past year is that things do go wrong at airports. We were stuck at the airport in El Calafate in Patagonia for 13 hours due to an airline strike. We sat in a plane on the tarmac for two hours in Buenos Aires because an electric storm stopped the plane from leaving. This led to us missing our connecting flight and having to stay over for a night in Brazil, eventually flying home via Luanda the next day. Yet another example: We were standing in line to drop our bags at Dublin airport just after Christmas when the conveyor belt moving the luggage along jolted to a stop. The queue got longer and longer, people looked at their watches with worried expressions, ground staff scurried about. Eventually the belt started moving again just shy of 30 minutes later, leading to mass hysteria and mini-stampedes among those who thought they might miss their flight. So, yes, things go wrong at airports and that’s part of the game. I suppose if you want to avoid that kind of aggravation, you should try to avoid airports all together.

But back to the whining at OR Tambo.  So we wait in the queue to go through customs and a customs official tries to get things moving along quicker. He’s not very nice about it. “Move along, move along– don’t stop at the gate, queue at the cubicles,” he thunders. And now the whingeing starts. “Welcome to South Africa,” says the woman with the floral top and the bedazzled fitflops. “Just so,” adds the guy with the two-toned khaki shirt. “They couldn’t be friendlier. One would swear they don’t want us here,” he adds bitterly. “Dream on,” says floral top, giving a high five to her friend in front of her. Friend’s zebra-striped highlights quiver with moral indignation. Next they turn to us. “No wonder no one wants to invest in South Africa, if that’s how they treat us here.” I am stuck here. Should I disagree or act dumb? My stony-faced silence adds fuel to her fire. “And we’re paying their salaries, nogal. Wonder if they realise that!” Luckily the queue moves along. I am not your friend. Don’t think because we look alike, that we think alike.

Now it’s on to the carousel to collect our luggage. The flight from Amsterdam: Carousel number 7. A friendly guy comes along and says, sorry, the luggage will arrive at carousel number 8. “Just turn around,” he jokes. Now the whingeing starts again: “They can’t even get the basics right,” says the woman in the stylish Trenery’s travel ensemble. “Just hope that we get our stuff,” adds her husband with the snazzy red specs frames. Strangers suddenly become friends, sharing a common gripe. “My cousin’s cologne was stolen out of his suitcase,” says the young man with the soft shoulders and the milky goatee. He presses his panama hat firmly on his head. “That’s how it is, they just take what they want,” says red specs. “That’s how we do it here in South Africa,” sniggers his stylish wife.

For some reason no one notices that most of the officials greet you with a broad smile. They don’t seem to see that the queues are actually moving along, and that ground staff are ready to crack a little joke, even though it’s 12 at night and they must have had a long day. No one sees the joy of people coming home, meeting their loved ones. Will they appreciate the smooth flowing highway once they are on their way home in their luxury 4x4s? One would like to think that traveling gives you some perspective that what we have here is not all bad, but the whining at OR Tambo belies this fact.

As we start a new year, my wish for the country and its people is that we can see the good that’s around us and lighten up a bit. Think what it will be like if people arriving at OR Tambo feel joy, rather than aggravation, if they can smile at their fellow countrymen and know that what they have is so much more than they deserve.

Ode to a red raincoat

 

My love affair with my red Altus raincoat started more than three years ago in the small town of St Jean-Pied-de-Port close to the border of France and Spain. The next morning I would start the 800 km journey on foot to Santiago de Compostela along the way of St James.

I saw her in a tourist shop and bought her for €60 – hoping that a good raincoat would better equip me for this journey for which I was so thoroughly ill-prepared. Like most love affairs I didn’t fathom the depth of commitment, dedication and total reliance it would take to make this relationship last. I am so thankful that my red raincoat took the plunge and made me love her unconditionally.

The one thing you should understand about my red raincoat is that wearing her is not a fashion statement. She reaches to an unflattering mid-calf and her hoodie can obscure the brightest smile or twinkle in the eye. But in her greatest virtue lies her most unstylish feature. A pouch on the back makes ample space for a backpack to be covered completely. Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame becomes a reality once the first drop of rain starts to fall.

On the Camino the red raincoat taught me a few lessons. One being not to overreact. A few drops of rain does not maketh a storm. No need to put on the raincoat at the drop of a … uhm drop. She will soon make you sweat without reason. I also learnt little tricks to get her to fit over my backpack without the help of others. Just turn towards the wind, hold her up in the air and a gust will help the coat over the backpack. You can do it on your own, baby.

My red raincoat has gone on more journeys than I have. She has done the Camino again in my daughter Corneli’s backpack – this time completing the 800 km in a mere four weeks. She also hiked the Tsitsikamma trail with my son Wiiliam when he joined his godmother and my dearest friend Liesbeth on an unforgettable journey earlier this year.

But my total devotion to my red raicoat was sealed in the very recent past. She was with me every step of the way when we hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu a week ago. While climbing more than 4000 stone stairs to the ominous-sounding Dead Woman’s Pass, she kept the rain from my face and body while I gasped for air, prayed to every god I have ever known, taking each step knowing that there was just one way to go – and that was forward. Reaching the highest point of the trail at 4300 m above sea level, my red raicoat was draped over my shoulders like Superwoman’s cape. I made it and lived to tell the tale.

Today we hiked around the glaciers near El Calafate in Patagonia – most probably the furthest south I will ever be on this good planet. Again my red raincoat was there, sharing my exhiliration and humility at the greatness of what was before me.

I hope there will be a few more trips for me and my red raincoat and that we will walk along, in our our very unstylish way, to see the wonders of this beautiful world.

Four miles to Birdlip

 

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On the Cotswold Way

My love for maps goes back to road trips growing up. Four kids in the back seat of the sky blue Citroen that heaved and swayed its way to the Transkei, then in the avocado and cream coloured kombi with the 8-track tape deck playing Bob Dylan or Frank Sinatra, depending on whose turn it was to choose the music.

We had one of those map books that provided hours of idle entertainment on our way to who-knows-where. How far is it from Pretoria to Upington? The distance chart would show you. Now, how far is it from Kakamas to Pretoria? Go to page 26, track down Kakamas, see how far Kakamas is from Upington, do the maths and loudly share this little pearl of wisdom with the rest of the family – whether they wanted to know it or not.

Paper maps also have a downside. Those huge fold-outs could only really work when spread out on the dining room table. They would invariably deteriorate on the folds, leaving the whole country in tatters.

Later, when I started traveling as an adult, the joys of a map would often be found in a guidebook. The thrill of pulling the Rough Guide to Rome from the shelf in Exclusive Books and poring over the layout of the Vatican Museum while sitting in a coffee shop in Pretoria knows no bounds. That’s why, when we planned to walk the Cotswold Way in the UK, two years ago, I couldn’t wait to get hold of Walking in the Cotswolds or some other such title.

But The Engineer, who I’ve been married to for 30-odd years, had other plans. “We have an iPad, we both have smart phones, why on earth would you put a guidebook that weighs 500 grams in your rucksack?” Well, I don’t know … I like to touch something real? Even I thought the reason rather lame, so I conceded to start a 100 km walk, spanning five days, with just electronics to rely on.

It started out quite well. Google maps can be trusted in towns and villages but things become rather tricky when you are deep in a magical forest and you ask Google to help you decide whether you should turn right at this tree, or continue on to the next one. Google somehow doesn’t want to commit on this score.

So it happened on day three or four that we set out early from the B&B, planning to breakfast in a little hamlet called Birdlip. Google sort of pointed us in the right direction, but luckily there was a sign post, covered in moss, that said: Birdlip 4 miles. We followed the track but soon got confused. Google was also rather vague at this point. We soldiered on, becoming hungrier by the minute. Two hours later we hoped to see Birdlip around the next corner but no such luck. I officially became a Google maps hater when we eventually saw a signpost in the middle distance that said: Birdlip 4 miles. I can’t say for sure, but using a trusty guidebook with a detailed map and a description where to turn would certainly have got us there. Sad to say, I never saw Birdlip, and most probably never will.

So, we started this year with a wonderful road trip of the Northern Cape. After just one day of relying on Google maps, I hopped into a convenience store in Nieuwoudtville and bought a map book of Southern Africa. Joy, utter joy as we drove off and I could track how far it is from Kakamas to Pretoria, using the distance chart, the map on page 26 and doing the maths using my iPhone’s calculator.

In pursuit of the perfect cheesecake

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I have never really liked cheesecake. It all started when I first heard of this confection as a small child. Always more of a savoury person than a sweet tooth, I reckoned that a cheesecake would be a lovely orange cheddar dome, perhaps with a little sausage standing up as a candle. It goes without saying that I was hugely disappointed when I tasted a white, dense, but grainy concoction that was definitely more sweet than savoury – certainly not love at first bite. Come to think of it, I was just as disappointed with a mince pie, when Christmas came around.

As I grew older I realised that there could be something said for a good cheesecake, either a baked one or the fridge variety. Visiting the USA many years ago, I was confronted with a mighty variety of cheesecake flavours at The Cheesecake Factory, with its menu spanning many pages. So overwhelmed was I by this lavishness that I chose to order only a filter coffee, and a black one to boot.

But now all is forgiven. Three attempts at using Verlorenkloof’s labneh, a soft yoghurt cheese, as a filling have at long last yielded the perfect baked cheesecake – let’s call it a labneh lime cheesecake with a salted caramel topping. The cheesecake is not too sweet, not too rich, with a smooth texture. The base, containing almonds, offers the necessary crunch and texture, while the very fashionable salted caramel topping adds a luxurious touch, contrasting with the lime and tart yoghurt cheese filling.

The word labneh is commonly used in the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant of old) and the Arabian Peninsula, but this rich, tart delicacy can be found in various guises throughout the world, from Iceland to India and from Mexico to northern Europe.  It is basically yogurt, strained to remove the whey. The result is a thick cream cheese, but with yogurt’s distinctive, sour taste.

The small team of artisanal yoghurt makers on Verlorenkloof Farm in Mpumalanga, on the eastern escarpment of southern Africa, uses the milk from a herd of Friesland purebreds to make thick, full cream yoghurt.  The labneh is made by straining the yoghurt (with the tagline ‘yoghurt as it should be’) into a thick cheese-like consistency. Quite yummy when spread on bread, but even more so when worked into the ultimate cheesecake.

Here’s the recipe for this unctuous beauty:

Labneh lime cheesecake with a salted caramel topping

For the filling:

750g Verlorenkloof labneh (three tubs)

1 cup castor sugar

1 large lime, zested

2 tablespoons lime juice

4 eggs

For the crust:

¾ cups whole almonds

1 packet tennis biscuits

75 g butter, melted

For the salted caramel topping:

1 cup sugar

90 g butter (cut into cubes)

120ml pouring cream

1 tsp salt flakes, or more, to taste

 

Method:

Preheat the oven to 140°C or 120°C (fan). This one is low and slow, my dear, low and slow. Grease a 23 cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Alternatively use mini flan pans (you will need about 8).

Pulse the almonds in a food processor and add the biscuits. Process to form a fairly fine crumb. Add the melted butter and line the bottom of the cake tin with the crust. Refrigerate until needed.

Wisk the labneh and add the castor sugar in a slow stream. Add the lime zest and juice and then the eggs, one by one. Wisk until well combined. Scoop the mixture into the cake pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 45 minutes (the sides should be firm, but the centre should still have a slight wobble). Turn off the heat and leave the cake to cool in the oven completely. This should take about two hours. Don’t be tempted to rush this step – dinner can wait.

In the meantime, melt the sugar in a saucepan. Once it’s turned a deep honey colour, add the butter cubes and boil for about 2 minutes. Drizzle in the cream, give it a stir and boil for another minute. Finally, add the salt flakes. Leave the caramel to cool.

Once the cake is completely cooled, carefully remove it from the tin. Drizzle the top with the salted caramel and stand back to observe your masterpiece. So, cheesecake, all is forgiven. I will make you for dessert when good friends come to visit, I will make you for special occasions, like the christening of my first grandchild, I will make you whenever life looks bleak – and, thank heavens, this is not an orange cheddar dome, with a little sausage sticking out on top.

The wail of the chai wallah

The masala chai comes in a thick white porcelain cup with its distinctive orange colour and a thin brown skin of boiled milk on top. I have just had lunch at an Indian restaurant in suburban Pretoria. Under the heading ‘hot beverages’ on the menu I spot masala chai – a good way to end an Indian meal, I reckon.

I take a sip of the scalding tea and it all comes back to me – a wisp of a boy, walking down the aisle on the train between Jaipur and Udaipur, swinging his tea caddy and offering masala chai in paper cups. “Chai, chai, chai,” the chai wallah wails.

It was wedding season, just weeks before the monsoon, when I fell in love with India. The month of May in India is not for the faint-hearted Westerner. Every day the temperature edged up to the 50 degrees Celsius mark; weather for swooning and laying back against the pillows in a limp cotton frock. But not for me this lethargy brought about by the heat. All I felt was energy, awe and wonder as we travelled from Chennai in the south to the north where the holy river Ganga flows from the foothills of the Himalayas.

The reason for my first trip to India was to celebrate the arranged marriage of Ragu, son of a tobacco farmer from Ongole in central India (now living in South Africa), with Spoorti, the daughter of a tobacco merchant from the same town. We were treated lavishly by the father of the bride who had never set eyes on this group of 13 South Africans, paying for our hotel accommodation for three days and opening his home to us for a spectacular pre-wedding party.

India is all about the senses. Getting off the plane it hits you: Smells of dry heat, dust, putrid sewerage, a spiciness that holds the promise of food you have never tasted. On the roads your ears ring with drivers hooting constantly. But this is not a rude kind of hooting, the get-out-of-my face kind. The hooting says here I am, see me, let’s not connect by accident. People chatter and trade, and the sights and colours you see – turmeric yellow, electric greens, pinks and blues – dizzying but spectacular.

And then there is the food; southern Indian favourites like masala dosa, a paper-thin pancake standing up like a pointy hat amongst small pots of chutney; another southern breakfast staple called idli, steaming discs of sour white loveliness (almost like ‘suurpap’ we know in Africa) again served with spicy sambar in small stainless steel pots. To quench a never-ending thirst there is lemon-lime-and-soda, either sweet or salty and tea, of course, masala chai, hot and spicy.

Travelling north to Delhi the vegetarian staples of the south change to succulent meaty curries, sometimes cooked in tandoor ovens and always served with bread – chapatis, parathas, poori, naan.

I returned from India and have never stopped looking for real food from India. I have found my favourites here and there; dosa at a small eatery in Laudium outside Pretoria that prides itself on south Indian tiffin, idli in a food court in Sydney, and now, the perfect masala chai in suburban Pretoria. I will not stop looking, until I can return again to this country that has bewitched me on so many different levels.