Monday, November 26, 2007

How beautiful is Cape Town?

I don't think people outside of the immediate area have any idea how beautiful Cape Town is. Like South Africa, Cape Town is a wonderfully diverse place and the architecture here is absolutely amazing. I am presently on a mission to record examples of the beauty and diversity of what has become my new home.

To the right is a shot of Lion's Head (a peak to the side of Table Mountain) taken from a major intersection in the CBD (Central Business District).

This gorgeous old Cape Dutch building on Strand Street is the gold museum.

A view of Signal Hill from the corner of Strand Str. and Buitengracht. Every day at noon, a cannon is loudly discharged from the top of the hill. It is rather a surprise, the first time you hear the "noon gun," especially if you are seated in a lovely outdoor restaurant and have a forkfull of food halfway to your mouth...

More pics to follow

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Some pictures of Durban

Some pics taken in Durban...

...into the fire

11 November 2007
So, we decided to avoid Harrismith on our return journey. We sat down with a map and Hubby, Mr. Precise Engineer, mapped us out a route that would take us around Lesotho on its west side, meeting up with the N1 in Colesberg. We know the road and the scenery and the landmarks from Durban to Colesberg (via Harrismith) already, we reasoned, so why not kill two birds with one stone…see some new countryside and avoid that nightmare of road destruction in Harrismith?

I have to admit I was a bit reluctant. I’m not ordinarily inclined favourably towards long stretches of road that don’t have regular rest stops or petrol stations with ultra-clean bathrooms. Like most women, if I am to drop my drawers and expose my delicate bits to strange porcelain, I have a very strong preference for that porcelain…and its surroundings…to be immaculately clean. But Hubby was keen on taking a new route and after seeing the myriad of little towns…most of them no more than 50 to 75 km apart…I agreed to his plan.

So, we had our breakfast and hit the road. After filling Bertha and making sure our padkos and cool drink keepers were full up, we got out onto the N2 headed towards Port Shepstone. At Sheppy, we turned north towards Kokstad, a town I have never seen and Hubby hasn’t been to in 25 years. The adventure was on.

I must say, it was a learning experience.

The first thing I learned is that making the assumption that all those little towns would have petrol stations was a grievous error. The second thing I learned is that it was also a mistake to assume that a major brand petrol station…like Shell or CalTex…would have clean restrooms. My third lesson was that pay toilets actually exist in South Africa…I have never seen one before in this country and today I saw three! And finally, I learned that, as bad as the road conditions at Harrismith were (and they were really, really bad), those conditions were not as bad as they could have been.

I quickly discovered that on a road trip, I get very thirsty. Probably the drying effects of the air conditioning in the car (it also gives my hair static electricity, to Hubby’s never-ending amusement and my everlasting annoyance). So, we keep a cooler box of iced drinks in the back seat where I can easily reach it. We pack it full of Sprite Zero and Coke Lite and guzzle our way across country.

En route to Durbs we stopped at Ultra Cities and Star Stops and whatever Engen calls their mega petrol stations whenever Bertha started looking thirsty, when it was meal time (diabetics have to eat regular meals, even on the road), or when one of us needed to find a loo. On the N1, N5, and N3, that was just not difficult. On the R56 and R58, it was virtually impossible!

Because we were unsure of petrol availability along the way, we stopped for fuel when the gauge hit the halfway mark or lower (depending on where we could find a station). At Kokstad we filled up the car and emptied both of us out and got on the road to parts unknown…at least to us…confident that we would encounter multiple petrol stations along the way…doesn’t every rural town have at least a one pumper? Those farmers have to fuel up their cars and trucks, too, after all. Every thing was fine until all that Coke Lite I drank decided it needed an exit. Unlike Hubby, who can pull off to the side of the road and make an acquaintance with a local bush or tree, I require technology for such an event, so I said “Pull in at the next station you see, I need a loo.” He nodded while I consulted the map…maybe 20 km to the next town, so not to worry.

Yeah, right. The next town consisted of several hillsides full of rondawels, a bottle store and a tavern. As did the next…and the next…and the next! A hundred kilometres down the road and there’s no petrol, no loo…and no bush big enough to hide my glowing white moons! We did wend our way through one scabrous town…Mt. Fletcher, I think…but the Engen station (the only one in town) was so filthy and dilapidated I was unwilling to risk it. Dirty is one thing…dirty toilets are something else again.

But I’m experienced and I’m stoic. I know if I adjust my posture just right I’ll put a minimum of pressure on my bladder and I can wait it out. “Just take it easy on the bumps,” I told Hubby. “There’s got to be a place ahead with a relatively clean loo.” And Hubby, bless his empathetic little heart, tried to avoid the potholes and go gently over the unintended speed bumps, and on the map I saw another town just a few kilometres away. Hope was born anew.

We came around a bend in the road and saw a flagman waving us off to the left, off the road. Ahead, on the right, stretched a beautiful ribbon of newly tarred highway, inaccessible. Instead, we bumped off onto an unpaved track reminiscent of Harrismith…and it went on forever! The next time some smart-mouth bunny hugger superciliously finds fault with my choice of an SUV for my personal vehicle, I’m going to whip out the pictures of this abomination that passes for a road and ask if she would like to drive a Prius or some other trendy little pseudo-car over it. It damn near killed Bertha, an SUV built on an honest-to-god truck chassis by none other than Mercedes Benz. I’m sorry, but if my ML, sturdy road warrior that she is, can be brought to a shuddering, beeping, squealing halt by this piece of road, exactly what kind of namby-pamby town car would do better?

The ruts and bumps and rocks and holes were so bad that at times we were literally airborne. On one of those leaps, when we came down, Hubby’s left foot (which had also been airborne) came down on the parking brake pedal. This car is engineered such that, when you try to set the parking brake while your foot is on the accelerator and the car is moving forward, it will emits a series of shrieking beeps and, if the offence is sufficiently egregious, it will simply shut itself off. Which is exactly what happened. Except that we didn’t know what happened at the time. All we knew was that the car was dead, we were somewhere in the middle of the Transkei on a road that would have done a 4x4 challenge proud, and I had to pee so bad my eyes were turning yellow. I started scanning for a likely bush, but there was nothing but rocks…too big to drive over easily, but far too small to conceal anything like my overly-generous backside.

Hubby quickly figured out what was causing the lack of forward motion, restarted the car, and put us back on the trail. Fortunately, we were nearly back on the tarred road…I am sure my bladder would not have taken much more abuse, and within a few minutes we were in a small town that actually had two petrol stations! We pulled in to the first station, only to be told they didn’t have a loo, but the gents at the CalTex cheerfully pointed us around the corner.

They neglected to tell us it was a pay toilet…and why was only the women’s toilet fitted with a coin operated lock?? It took Hubby a full two minutes to get the stupid thing to accept the damn R1 coin (I couldn’t figure it out…I’ve never seen a coin op box like it in my life!) and let me in.

OK…it was clean. But there were three stalls, two of which lacked paper, and the third lacked a functioning lock. By this time, I did not care. I grabbed a wad of tissue and took it with me to a stall I could lock and found heavenly relief.

After stopping to get lunch at the hot food counter at the local Spar (not a restaurant, fast food joint or takeaway in town), we hit the road again, headed inexorably towards Colesberg where I sit typing this.

Looking back on today’s experience, I have come to the conclusion that, between Port Shepstone and Colesburg there are a total of three clean public restrooms: one in Kokstad, one in Maclear, and another in Lady Grey. That’s it. So, unless you have an iron bladder, I strongly suggest that if you are driving from Durban to Bloemfontein or points west, brave the construction debacle at Harrismith…the alternate route not only had worse roads, it had no toilets!

Durban Holiday: Rain and ramblings

6 November 2007

It’s raining.

We’ve been in Durbs for three days now and haven’t seen the sun yet. And today it is actually raining. Having spent many years in a seaside suburb of San Diego, I am very aware of the implications of an all-day overcast. The cloud cover acts like a lid on a pot, and keeps everything in…heat, humidity, pollutants. One of the lovely things about Cape Town is the Cape Doctor, that stiff breeze that blows all your troubles…and the heat, humidity and air borne pollutants…away. Here in Durban, sans wind or sunshine, we are just stewing in it.

That, of course, drives us indoors. Right now we are in our room, Hubby in the shower, and I’ve mapped out a day of shopping in the indoor malls. Maybe tomorrow the sun will come out and I can take my camera to the Botanical Gardens.

* * *

It rained all day, but from within the confines of The Pavilion and Musgrave Centre, we barely noticed. Our wallets lightened and shopping bags filled, we made our way back to Mum’s for dinner, and I was touched and delighted to see that she had made one of my favourite curries, cauliflower and potato. Hubby bought a new digital camera, which I will try out tomorrow, this one a pocket-sized powerhouse, my Sony being a rather large and unwieldy thing, although it takes spectacular pics with absolutely stunning clarity. Tomorrow we shall see.

Living in Cape Town, a city in which the Indian…especially Hindu…population is rather small, I have grown accustomed to people giving me second glances because of the red bindi (dot) I customarily wear out in public. It is my nod of respect to my husband’s culture and customs, just as he wears a wedding ring as a mark of respect for mine. In the years I have been here, I have grown accustomed to the double-takes, most of them just innocuous confirming glances…“Was that really a white woman with a dot on her forehead I saw?”… although there have been a few looks that were unmistakeably hostile.

In all honesty, I did not expect this kind of surprise on the part of Durban residents. Certainly everyone here knows what the red dot means and surely, after 13 years of freedom, couples of mixed-race cannot still be fodder either for shock or hostility. But, based on this afternoon, apparently I am wrong. Stepping out of a shop at The Pavilion and glancing to my left, I did not see it, but I did hear Hubby’s surprised reaction. He said that a man walked past us and gave me such a hostile look…his eyes fixed on my forehead, then sweeping me up and down, then back to the dot…that were it possible, I would have been fried to a crisp by his glance alone. Pure hostility, Hubby told me, disbelief in his voice. I am sorry I missed the opportunity to stare challengingly back in the man’s face. Not ten minutes later I walked past a man who gave me the almost identical treatment! This time I did see him and this time I did stare straight into his eyes until he turned them away. Not that I think he was in any way chastened by my challenge, but at least he didn’t get away unscathed. What is wrong with these people, anyway??

My nephew, a precocious lad of 13, is becoming more and more socially aware. It seems that one of his teachers is a white lady of a very strong christian persuasion who apparently hasn’t a clue about respecting the belief systems of others. She obeys the absolute letter of the law without even acknowledging its spirit. For example, my Hindu nephew is expected to sing christian hymns in class, hymns that have had the word “God” substituted for “Jesus” so that the hymn can be for any religion or deity. Now, none of the other words are changed, so specifically christian references remain, as well as male gender references. My nephew feels marginalized, disrespected, and slighted by the whole thing.

Now I am the first to admit that the boy can be a bit on the cheeky side, but I think he has a point. The teacher seems to have an agenda, and not just one of recruiting children from his religion to hers. Apparently in giving lessons regarding the history of this country and continent, she takes the view that the European missionaries brought wonderful things to the local savages. My nephew, in his customarily confrontational manner, pointed out to her that the local people might take issue with such a statement, particularly since their lands were taken, their people enslaved, murdered, or put to rout, and what had been prosperous…if primitive…cultures decimated. His teacher, of course, insists that the European incursion into Africa was a good thing, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

I have a problem with people who are so convinced of their own superiority that they cannot give even the merest nod to another point of view. And when they ignore or discount incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, then I have to wonder what their real agenda is. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist…or even a Margaret Mead…to see the rude shacks and grinding poverty that is the subsistence of so many South Africans today. To say that they have “chosen” to live in such a way is to beg the question: do black South Africans today have better lives than they had before van Reebieck landed? I suppose the answer to that lies in what you consider to be the definition of “better,” but as we drove through the Transkei my husband asked me “Do you think these people would consider themselves poor if they had never been told they were, and looked down upon for it?” There was a time, after all, before the arrival of the Europeans, that the indigenous people of this country judged their prosperity by different standards and what is perceived as poverty and want in the rural areas today would have been wealth and contentment in a society untainted by alien paradigms.

Nephew’s teacher makes me wonder, then, what her real agenda might be. She gives the barest cooperation to the literal letter of the law without acknowledging its spirit…what kind of example does that set for her students? Is it acceptable to subordinate the law and its intent to her allegiance to her faith…or her political beliefs? The strategy by which she has inveigled students of non-christian faiths to sing hymns of her faith in class…can anyone truly accept the sophistry by which she has rationalized it? What is it about some people that they simply cannot accept that there are other paradigms that are entitled to the same level of respect they demand for their own?

Nephew, at 13, is a precocious kid who thinks about things that most of us don’t address until adulthood…if ever. He is an observant Hindu…not especially devout and certainly not fanatical…but he prays and participates in the religious observations. And while he is given to arguing for the sake of argument (or making another person wrong so he can be right) I get vibes that his sense of outrage is genuine.

The separation between church and state is not as clear here as it is in the States, nor as contentiously disputed. Aggressive proselytizing and conversion has turned numerous native people into semi-Christians, people who have failed to give up their belief in the magic of muti despite their Christian affiliation. The Christian right here even has its own political party, and while one’s freedom of religion is codified, the concept of respecting other faiths doesn’t seem to have taken a firm foothold.

I find this rather sad, and just one more indication that a large part of the white population still “doesn’t get it.” And while one might think that a faction that makes up no more than 15% of the population is without significant influence, that isn’t how it is in South Africa. The majority of the wealth of this country remains in white hands and the white lifestyle is the one sought after by virtually all South Africans. No one, after all, aspires to live in a rondawel, sans electricity or running water, on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere. It is the affluence sufficient to own a BMW, a modern house filled with luxury furnishings in an upmarket neighbourhood, and a bucket full of bling…these are the aspirations of South Africans of all colours and cultures. To live white.

And so a minority culture dominates South Africa, and with it comes a sense of being right in all things. The idea that people might want to live like you…but not think or worship like you…can be too fine a distinction for people who are not given to respecting the beliefs and values of other cultures….or prone to periods of deep thought. I think it’s remarkable that, at 13, Nephew “gets it.” And that his teacher does not.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Durban, Diwali, and South African spring weather

5 November 2007

One of the reasons we chose to holiday in Durban this year is that our wedding anniversary and Diwali fell at the same time. Since we always make a getaway out of our anniversary, we thought this would be a good way to celebrate both at the same time.

We spent most of Sunday with Hubby’s family. Sadly, the bulk of the Diwali public celebration took place Saturday night, while we were hurtling down the Escarpment in driving rain and blinding fog, and our sojourn to the beachfront found us wandering through a tent city of half-empty booths, the tens of thousands of revellers of the night before doubtless still sleeping off the painful, lingering results of their earlier revels. After a delicious dinner of lamb chop curry, courtesy my dear mother-in-law, we set off back to the air conditioned comfort of our B&B to sleep away the lingering fatigue from our journey.

This morning dawned overcast and humid.typical for Durban at this time of the year. We had breakfast on the verandah, Hubby seated to have a view of the sea, my vista the dense, jungly foliage of the garden. Our morning consisted of a few minor errands then lunch at Govender’s House of Curries, a takeaway place notable for having won a competition for the best bunny chow in Durban. Hubby ordered a mutton bunny and I asked for a boneless chicken roti roll. (For the uninitiated, a "bunny" is a part of a loaf of unsliced bread, the center white scooped out and then filled with curry. The center piece of bread is then placed on top. A bunny in finger food. A roti roll is like a burrito, a filling of curry wrapped up in a roti, which is similar to a tortilla.) Now, I am not a person who quails at the prospect of hot chilli crossing my tongue. In fact, I regularly enjoy hotter curries than my husband; he grew up eating curry, but I grew up eating Mexican food, which is noted for its heat. What I don’t like is when the heat overwhelms the flavour…when that happens, why not just eat a bucket of chillies and be done with it?

Hubby concurs that his bunny was the best one he had ever eaten. I wish I could say the same for my roti roll. First of all, we paid extra for boneless and I picked at least half a dozen chicken vertebra out of the meat. Second, the chicken was so hot that it had no flavour. It wasn’t hot enough to make my nose run or make me break a sweat, but there was no taste other than the chilli powder. A gross waste of money.

After a bit of shopping in the antique shops of Windermere Road, we went back to the room where, still stuffed with his mutton curry, Hubby took his customary afternoon nap. When it was time for dinner we headed out for Florida Road, determined to drop in on one of the trendy eateries. Hubby was hungry for steak so we selected the Butcher Boys and, as luck would have it, were able to get a table after only about half an hour’s wait.

None of the starters appealed to me and, knowing the upcoming meal would be heavy with meat and potato, I ordered a salad for my starter…a Greek salad, to be exact, one that, according to the menu, consisted of greens, onion, tomato, cucumber, black olives, and dressing. ‘Yum!’ I thought to myself. ‘Black olives, not kalamatas!” I tend to shy away from green salads I have not already seen served up due to an unfortunate propensity of many restaurants for chopping up green peppers into little invisible chunks and scattering them generously over the salad as if they were rose petals for a bride to tread upon. But green peppers were not on the list of ingredients, so I ordered with confidence.

I do not understand why people who prepare food for others so often do not recognize that the quantity of a particularly strongly-flavoured ingredient must be balanced against the quantity of milder ingredients. If you were to make a single-serving salad that included a full teaspoon of chopped garlic, the other ingredients would be rather superfluous, wouldn’t they? After all, what would you be able to taste, other than the garlic? Well, for me, green peppers are like that. I can be happily munching along on a wad of sumptuously dressed lettuce and the moment my teeth crush that little fragment of green pepper, that’s all I can taste.

So, my Greek salad came and the olives were kalamata, which instantly found their way to Hubby’s plate, and the top of the salad was strewn with long strips of red and yellow peppers, kissing cousins to the offensive green. Fortunately they were brightly coloured and did not blend in with the lettuce, so I was able to spot them and get them out of the salad before they contaminated the remaining ingredients with their pungent oils. But pepper strips on a Greek salad?? Since when?

I wasn’t so lucky with dinner. If you were to ask me to list my least favourite vegetables in the world, at the top of the list would be boiled, steamed or creamed spinach and any kind of yellow squash prepared in any manner except as a pumpkin custard pie. I loathe and detest creamed vegetables of any kind, preferring my veg steamed until barely done, then served plain or with just a hint of sweet butter. And the smell of cooked yellow squash makes my stomach…well, let’s just say that the smell has so much power to turn my tummy inside out, I couldn’t even stand the smell of it in the little jars of baby food…none of my kids ever had that nasty yellow stuff shoved in their unwilling little rosebud mouths!

Unfortunately, creamed spinach and puréed butternut squash seem to be the national veg dishes of South Africa, so when we go out to eat, I never leave the veg to chance…whenever possible I order an alternative, even if it is just a salad. So I was pleased to note on the menu that roasted fresh vegetables were available and placed an order, figuring that if roasted chunks of butternut showed up in the mix, I’d just shove them to the side…it’s nigh unto impossible to roast creamed spinach!

And so dinner finally arrived. I found myself again a bit disappointed: I should have ordered the baked potato, as the chips were not fresh (made from frozen potatoes and mealy-grainy textured inside), and my ribs, while tasty, had to be cut apart with a knife and then gnawed roughly off the bone…none of that delicious, decadent, falling-off-the-bone tenderness that I associate with really good ribs. But the jewel in the crown of disappointment was the roasted veg I ordered: carrots, broccoli, slices of courgettes, and pieces of onion shared a bowl with huge chunks of roasted red and yellow pepper! Hubby quickly scooped the offending peppers out of the bowl and onto his plate, but the damage was done. Everything in the bowl tasted like peppers, even the broccoli, a strongly-flavoured vegetable in its own right.

The baked blueberry cheesecake was tasty, although the portions were no more than half the size as those served by Dulcé in Cape Town. But it did make a lovely end to the meal and our stroll back to Bertha is the balmy night air was pleasant.

So now we are back at the B&B, comfortably ensconced in the bed, Hubby reading while I sit here clickety clicking away on the keyboard. Tomorrow, if the sun comes out (we are having extended periods of overcast here), we’ll take the camera and go to the Botanical Gardens, a place I’ve wanted to visit since before my first trip to SA. If it stays overcast, we’ll head for the Victoria Street market for some spice shopping. Mum tells me that Jayshrees is having a sale, and I’d love to make a run at the shoe shops in The Pavilion. We’ll just have to see what tomorrow’s weather brings…

Friday, November 23, 2007

Update blues

For as sophisticated as Blogger is, their method of installing (or changing) your profile photo is about as klugey as it gets. Hence the need for this blog entry, which contains little entertainment and nothing of substance.

What it does contain, however, is the new photo I wish to use in my profile, because Blogger can't upload from my computer directly to the requires me to post the photo here so it can get an URL and only then can my new photo be displayed. Herewith, my new photo.

Durban Holiday: Out of the frying pan...

In early November, Hubby and I took a holiday to Durban. This is the second in a series of blog entries written on the road.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

I have never liked the town of Harrismith. The first time I was there it struck me as a dirty, dreary, disorganized little hamlet and nothing I have seen since has done anything to disabuse me of that notion. There is just one thing that makes me look forward to entering Harrismith, and that is the certain knowledge that, once we have wended our way through the inexplicable maze of dirty little unkempt streets and placed our tyres firmly on the N3, our journey is near to its end. As a harbinger of better things to come, it is incomparable, but as a destination in its own right, Harrismith is just a boil on the butt of South Africa.

Now, I am not easily intimidated, but Harrismith scares me. When we first entered the town from the northwest, there was a rather confusing confluence of poorly marked streets that gave us pause. Ordinarily when you make a change from one national road to another, you take a turnoff from one highway to the next, an effort generally involving off-ramps and clear signage. Typically the road is in reasonably decent condition and you just follow the sign boards to determine where to exit, which way to turn, and where to enter. It could not be simpler…unless you are attempting to exit the N5 and enter the N3 in Harrismith.

Under the best of circumstances, making that short little trek is fraught with difficulty. On our first attempt, several years ago, we immediately got lost due to signage that ranged from poor to non-existent. We ended up going the wrong way through a rather dodgy part of town…in the dark…and ultimately had to find a petrol station to get directions. I was desperate for a loo, and while Hubby got directions from the station attendant, I approached the loo with great trepidation, loathe to thread my way through the motley collection of loiterers…many of them quite obviously intoxicated…who were hanging about in front of the door. The condition of the place did nothing to inspire confidence in its sanitation, but beggars can’t be choosers, so I accomplished my mission and got out of there double quick.

I jumped into the car and we sped off, only find the directions questionable. We arrived at the spot where we were supposed to find the entrance to the N3 only to find a battered, barely paved track leading off to the left and under a cement freeway bridge…no lights, no signage. Cautiously we approached…it looked like we were driving into a dark alleyway where thugs could be waiting to swarm over us as soon as we were out of sight of the main body of traffic on the road in front of the Spur, but as we made the curve we found, to our great surprise, a familiar green and white signboard indicating we were on the right path to the N3 and Durban.

Our second slog through Harrismith was little different. There was still no clear signage indicating the direction to the N3 and this time the road had been re-routed so that we had to cross a dismal little watercourse over a narrow bridge. But, once we got to the proper end of town, we recognized the on ramp and merrily headed down towards our destination.

Our most recent experience, however, was the absolute worst. First, we got to Harrismith at twilight. Second, on exiting N5 there was a detour sign directing us left and when we followed it, it took us to a Y intersection devoid of directional signage. Knowing that, as the crow flies, the N3 entrance was to our right, we made the counter-intuitive choice, this being Harrismith after all, and took the left fork. We followed the road under an ancient railroad bridge and soon found ourselves in a queue to cross Harrismith’s dismal little joke of a river…on a one lane bridge! It was nearly dark and the only illumination was the glaring headlights of the cars and trucks on the other side of the bridge, awaiting their turn to cross.

Hubby shook his head, clearly annoyed, and muttered a few imprecations about this being an inexcusable way to connect from one national highway to another…no signs, no lights, no lane! Curbing my own tongue, I thought about those highway interchanges I had seen off in the middle of nowhere between Beaufort West and the road to KwaKwa and thought to myself, these people should be ashamed of this mess! Even if they wanted the traffic to wend its way through their town in a bid to collect a few traveller’s rands, they should have taken a lesson from neighbouring Bethlehem, which routes traffic through a clean, well-kept town, using huge signboards and on clean, wide, well-paved streets. As it is, Harrismith is a place you want to get out of as fast as you can, not a place that encourages you to linger a while and leave a little money behind in the bargain.

Finally, we got over the bridge and, taking direction from a small yellow sign (unlit) propped up in a gutter, we made a right turn onto a paved town street. This worked well for about two blocks after which the paving disappeared. Literally. We were suddenly clunked off the pavement onto a rocky, rutted, uneven mishmash of gravel, dirt, holes, and bits of old pavement still clinging to the original roadbed. The gravel road out to my father’s farm is better terrain than this! What little ambient light remained was weakened by the choking cloud of dust that boiled up around us and the oncoming traffic…a few cars interspersed with a lot of really big trucks…and we decided to take a break from the confusion and have dinner. There was a Spur dimly visible to our right as we finally punched through that cloud of dust, and Hubby was starving.

I don’t know what we were thinking...that the traffic would melt away during our break, perhaps...but Hubby and I had a quick meal and returned to the fray. The situation had not improved in our absence, and the ratio of trucks to cars seemed to have increased in favour of the trucks. But we knew where the entrance to the N3 was and, fortified with a hearty meal and the happy knowledge that we were but three hours from our destination, we again braved Harrismith’s incomprehensible traffic plan and set out to hit the Escarpment and wend our way down to the Indian Ocean.

It wasn’t as easy as we expected. Dodging and weaving between the huge commercial trucks, we got across the street and headed to the on-ramp only to discover that the road that lead to it had disappeared! In its place was an unlit rubble-strewn construction yard littered with stacks of cement pipe, piles of gravel and sand, and construction equipment. We could see the freeway overpass and the opening beneath is that used to be the on-ramp to the N3, but it was on the far side of the construction yard and the signage was gone. Where was the entrance to the N3? Had they constructed a new one? Just exactly how in the hell were we to get to Durban?

Hubby followed a truck, hoping it would be en route to the elusive N3, only to find himself piloting Bertha into a truck yard. Bless his heart, Hubby is not one of those guys who refuses to ask directions…he pulled right up to the truck boss and asked him how get onto the N3 to Durban and, to our horror and surprise, the man pointed to the construction yard!

By now it was full dark and that construction yard was unlit. The only light was a feeble spill over from the truck yard’s overhead lights and the intermittent illumination provided by the vehicles that braved the rutted darkness. Hubby saw a truck turn into the gloom and quickly pulled in behind it, using its tail lights as a guide through the plumes of dust churned up by countless wheels rolling through the dirt and gravel. At the last minute our headlights illuminated a sign that directed us under the overhead bridge and Hubby swung Bertha to the right and we plunged into absolutely pitch black hell, the road no more than a series of holes, gravel and a swirling haze of dust. Eventually the road smoothed out, but there was no light save Bertha’s headlights, and so it was with sudden surprise we found ourselves merging into the seething tide of vehicles hurrying their way down the N3 to Durban.

We heaved a sigh of relief at having been safely delivered from Harrismith, and I remarked that I had always disliked the town, that I found it scary. Hubby shook his head slowly and replied that, after navigating this outrageous debacle of disgracefully poor planning and execution, he was afraid of Harrismith, too!

* * *

Our sigh of relief was premature. As we exited the labyrinth of Harrismith and headed towards Van Rienen’s Pass, a bright flash of light off to the right caught my attention. Some kind of beacon, I reasoned, perhaps something to alert aircraft. A few moments later it flashed again but the third flash did not come at the regular interval one would expect of a beacon.

“What’s that?” I asked Hubby, pointing out the window.

“What’s what?” he asked, eyes glued to the dark curving road.

“That flash of light over to the right.”

He rolled his eyes briefly and then fixed them back on the road. “Lightning,” he said, a tinge of exasperation in his voice. How, after all, could I not recognize lightning?

“You’re kidding,” I said. “It had an orangey-red centre…lightning doesn’t have an orangey red centre.”

“It’s lightning, I tell ya,” he said, squinting into the gloom.

“Well, if it is,” I replied, “I hope it doesn’t mean a thunderstorm.”

There is a belief that to name something is to make it real. You do not speak the name of the devil or his minions lest your naming them opens the gates of Hell and releases the little beasties upon you. That belief should be expanded to include weather phenomenon.

The treacherous trip down Van Rienen’s Pass in some serious darkness was accomplished with a minimum of knuckle biting. But when we arrived at the Mooi River toll booth, it was apparent that rain had recently visited the area. Hubby made some comment about the storm being past…a mistake of matchless proportions since it opened those gates a second time. Before we knew it, we were hurtling down a steep winding road in darkness relieved primarily by the blinding high beams of the oncoming traffic…with rain splashing on our windscreen.

“Looks like we are driving into the storm,” I commented innocuously.

Mistake number three…within seconds, the rain was pelting down in sheets and the windscreen wipers, turned up full, could barely handle the downpour. We went on a while, driving through various intensities of rain and I found myself thinking ‘As bad as this is, at least it’s not foggy!’

Yup, you guessed it...within seconds we swopped rain for fog! At first it was ragged little swirly bits that flirted with us, momentarily blanking out the view but then coyly retreating, but it soon tired of the game and attacked us with a vengeance. My lead-footed Hubby actually slowed down after turning on our fog lamps and finding the fog no less impenetrable. At some points we punched through the fog into a mercifully clear patch, but only just long enough to catch our breaths and plunge right back into the all-obscuring wall of thick, opaque mist.

Eventually we got far enough down the mountainside to escape the fog, only to find the sheets of rain had returned. It poured on us all the way into Durban, where it finally let up only minutes before we reached our destination. It was 10:30, we were exhausted, and we were so relieved to have finally arrived that it took a moment to register that the parking area of our B&B was full and there was no place to put Bertha! The night guard came to our rescue and directed us to an alternative, a single garage just a few metres up the hill. It was so narrow that I had to get out of the car before Hubby eased it inside, and he even had to fold up Bertha’s mirrors to make it, but finally we had her ensconced in her snug little berth and we trudged wearily to our room and collapsed into exhausted heaps on the bed. It was morning before I realized that the storm that had dogged us from Harrismith all the way to Durban had spared the Morningside area. Our Bertha, steaming and sodden from her trek through a wet Hell, had deposited us in an area that, despite the humidity that fogged my specs as soon as I exited her air conditioned interior, had received not even a passing nod of acquaintance from the storm that had dogged us for the better part of two hours…Durban was bone dry!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Of coffee mugs and global commerce...

My husband really likes his coffee. So much so that, as a Christmas gift from me last year, he picked out one of those whiz-bang super-duper fancy-schmancy coffee machines that, if it had a set of wings, surely it could fly!

Six weeks after Christmas he seemed happy with his coffee maker. He’s a mechanical engineer, after all, and he seems to be rather pleased with his new toy, fiddling with this control or that, visiting all manner of specialty coffee shops, buying tiny sample bags of this exotic coffee or the other, all for trying out in his new…it grinds its own beans! machine.

One of the more interesting side effects of his new coffee obsession is his attention to coffee cups and mugs. Like most people, we have an eclectic collection of odd mugs, mostly broken sets, and a few strange souvenir mugs from various venues. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, some tall and narrow, some short and stout, all of them holding differing amounts of liquid. Hubby likes a big cup of coffee, but one of the unfortunate things about his fancy-schmancy coffee machine is that, while the spout height is adjustable, it is only adjustable to accommodate mugs of the short, shorter, shortest variety. A tall mug that will accommodate a man-sized serving of coffee just will not fit. Alas, my man’s hero-sized Tigger mug from Disneyland has had to be shelved!

So, the other day we were wandering through our local Pick ‘n’ Pay (South Africa’s answer to Safeway, for American readers) and happened upon some mugs that seemed to be the answer to his prayers…just tall enough to slip under the spout and wide enough…in a pleasingly tapered shape…to accommodate a healthy helping of coffee. And, to make them downright serendipitous, they were blue and white, which is the colour scheme of my kitchen accessories. We bought four, but only after searching through a dozen or more to find four relatively perfect ones…the rest having nicks, chips, kiln-marks, sloppy paint, or other such imperfections.

Hubby was overjoyed…we got home and he slipped one under the coffee machine’s spout and it was one of those millimetre-close fits. “Super,” I said. “Give me the mugs and I’ll wash them for you and you can make yourself a cup of coffee.”

Did I mention that they cost less than R7 each…less than a dollar? A peculiarly low price, considering that they seemed to be well made out of quality materials. They had a soft matte glaze that I recognized from more high-end crockery in the States, and while they were obviously seconds, they were nicely designed and made. It hadn’t seemed particularly odd in the store…just a really good buy…but at the sink I had to give them a second thought. The bottom of each mug was covered with a bar coded paper sticker and as I removed the first one I saw the words “The Cellar.” Odd, I thought, continuing to work the sticker off…wasn’t “The Cellar” the name Macy’s uses for its housewares section (which is ordinarily larger than an entire Boardman’s store and more fully stocked with higher quality merchandise)?

I continued to scrub at the sticker until it finally rolled up into a little gummy ball in my fingers and what did I find beneath it? “Made in China Expressly for Macy’s”! I let out a hoot of laughter, distracting Hubby from communing with his Beautiful Coffee Machine. “Macy’s!” I crowed. “These were made for Macy’s!” He looked momentarily non-plussed, then wondered aloud if Macy’s knew that merchandise made expressly for them was being sold by other retailers. Ordinarily, when seconds of this nature are released through other outlets, the identifying labels/marks are removed or obliterated…there should have been a big blob of black paint obscuring Macy’s name before this went on the shelf.

Other questions are brought to bear... Did the Chinese manufacturer have Macy’s permission to wholesale Macy’s QC rejects to other vendors? Did the Pick ‘n’ Pay buyer recognize that s/he may have been buying goods that the commissioning retailer may have ordered destroyed (a common practice for seconds in the ceramics industry)? Does Macy’s know that substandard merchandise bearing its name is being sold overseas? Is Macy’s earning anything from the sales of its goods here in South Africa?

My husband is happy with his new mugs, but this whole thing brings up some hard questions for me in relation to South Africa’s newest trading ventures with China. Will my next trip to America find me looking at South African goods that the commissioning manufacturer never intended for sale in the US…and for which he receives no earnings? Somehow, I don’t think that’s such a far-fetched idea.

Holiday in Durban...

Saturday, 3 November 2007

We are taking a holiday to Durban…and we are taking Bertha (our Mercedes ML430). Our anniversary and Diwali fall at the same time this year and it was our intent to combine the celebrations. And my dear Hubby’s gift to me was a week of shopping. He’s such a darling!

We managed to get out of town just a few minutes past 3, but seeing as how it was a Friday afternoon, the roads were already busy. Once out of town, however, the traffic thinned and we were left with a gloriously clear afternoon and room for Bertha to stretch herself. We leaned back and hit the road.

Hubby and his little sports car collect a lot of traffic fines. Late last month we received four of them in the mail, two issued on the same day from the same spot, only 20 minutes apart! Duly chastened and R2000 poorer, Hubby undertook to be more circumspect on our road trip and set Betha’s cruise control according to the posted limits. It turns out to have been a good thing: while the municipalities may rely on cameras to catch their speed demons, out in the bundu it’s traffic cops sitting on the side of the road just over the top of a hill or around the side of a blind curve. I saw more traffic cops yesterday afternoon than I see in an entire month in town! (Note to American readers: traffic enforcement is a separate division from law enforcement here and, unlike in America, law enforcement officers will not accost you for making an illegal U-turn or busting a red light. That’s the job of the traffic police.)

I have a theory about this... There are basically two tiers of cities in South Africa: the big ones like Joburg and Cape Town, and the medium ones like Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg. Every thing else is smallish by comparison, and some of the towns here are minute little specks of human habitation plunked down in the middle of nowhere…like Leeu Gamka. The biggest problem with these little places, I think, is that they lack any real source of revenue and they are too small and/or uninteresting to draw that stream of tourist bucks which keep other places alive. They languish as poverty pockets, unable to even properly maintain their municipal responsibilities. Then somebody introduced their local gendarmes to the traffic camera and not long after that somebody realized that you could use it to pick the tourist’s pockets without ever having to look in their tired eyes and try to puzzle out their accents.

Laingsburg is a case in point. Famous for no more than having been nearly drowned out by the Buffel River some 25 years ago, Laingsburg has joined the growing cartel of nowhere towns that have lost sight of the real reason for speed zones: reducing traffic speed for safety purposes, which can usually be accomplished by the simple expedient of parking a traffic cop car visibly by the side of the highway. Little more than a wide spot in the road, population less than 6,000, Laingsburg’s entire physical presence is little bigger than a couple of sizeable petrol stations and the obligatory bottle store…but it boasts a huge board at its outskirts bragging of how many thousands of speeders have been cited there in recent months. This may seem laudable at first glance, but when you stop to realize that the place is just one giant speed trap, it becomes obvious that this is likely the town’s main source of income. Why else would you be required to slow to 60kph (from the 120 of the highway) in order to pass a petrol station out in the middle of the desert? No agriculture? No industry? Need money? Put up a speed trap and rake in the bucks!

So, we managed to get through Laingsburg and a few other speed traps (one of them with a mobile courtroom right there to pick your pocket on the spot!) and after a Steer burger in one of the Engen stops (franchised eateries are the way to go when you are on the road…no menu mysteries and uniform standards of hygiene in the kitchens), we finally made it to Beaufort West…another town with a well-established speed fine industry, our destination for the night.

Hubby booked us into the Lemoenfontein (which means “orange fountain” or “orange spring” for you English speakers) Game Lodge just outside Beaufort West. We drove through town…very circumspectly, having left a wad of money at the police station there a couple of years back…just before 9 pm, and at the other side of town found our turn. The sign said it was the road to De Jager Pass but our instructions said to go only 1.6 km and then turn left again. Of course, it was darker than Satan’s heart out and the road turned out to be a dirt track replete with signs indicating water-filled ditches that we would have to drive across. But, I reasoned, it was only 1.6 kms and Bertha is an SUV, after all, so not to worry. High beams on, we rolled over the pebble-strewn surface until we found the sign to Lemoenfontein and duly turned left.

Well, if I had thought the De Jager pass road was a rough patch, it turned out to be a superhighway compared to the rutted track ahead of us. In the kind of pitch darkness that you can only experience out in the wilderness, we bumped and bounced our way for five kilometres up this swath that looked to be little more than a bulldozer’s bumpy track through the countryside. One lane wide and strewn with little boulders and big dips, it meandered through the rough terrain and up to a huge house that glowed like a jewel set on black velvet. We had finally arrived!

Tired from our journey, we didn’t waste any time on unnecessary amenities but went straight to our room. It was decorated in a “country living” kind of way, two wing chairs and a red Persian carpet set in front of the little Victorian fireplace, and the bathroom was a successful marriage of Victorian beadboard walls and footed tub with the modern double shower (two sets of temp control and two rain shower rosettes in a single large enclosure!). We were pleased to find the same brand of air conditioner that we have at home, so no time was wasted figuring out how it worked…it was 9 pm and still 27 degrees outside, and the room had a closed and stuffy feel to it. By ten we had turned off the light and within minutes Hubby was gently snoring beside me and I was drifting off to sleep. The one negative note was the carpet…sisal…a very unpleasant experience on the bottom of bare feet in the middle of the night.

It is now 7:30 am and Hubby continues to snork at my side. Breakfast is at 8:30 and we hit the road again immediately thereafter, but first I’m going to grab the camera and do a little prowling about. We are at a game reserve, after all…maybe I can catch a glimpse of something worth immortalizing!

* * *

Not a creature was stirring. It was already too late…and too hot…to catch anything foraging. On the road again…

Friday, November 02, 2007

Do not let that woman near my house!

So, has anybody seen the program Debbie Travis’ Facelift? It’s one of those home makeover shows where the homeowner takes off for a few days and this Debbie person comes in and does a makeover on several rooms of the house.

I don’t know if the problem is that I have some excessively firm ideas about what I like and dislike, or if this woman’s taste and design sensibilities are just disgracefully bad.

I’ve disagreed with a number of her choices over the last couple of weeks, but today’s show just freaked me out. I agree that the house needed some redecorating, but the end result was nothing short of hideous. More than anything, the room just needed some unification of theme and colour…it did not deserve to be savaged.

The lounge walls were replastered with tinted plaster…not a bad idea in itself…but in an overwhelming raspberry pink? Despite the fact that her children said the homeowner liked most all colours except hot pink, that’s what those walls were plastered. Then the beautiful red Persian rug was taken up and replaced with vulgar orange carpet tiles. There was a fireplace with a traditional white surround which was ripped out and replaced with dreadful black painted fake wood. The high ceiling was visually brought down by the installation of faux beams, ruining the lofty airiness of the space. The homeowner had amassed an eclectic collection of exotic furniture pieces, including some graceful carved teak benches that, with cushions, functioned as sofas. They were replaced with low, cheap, backless Indonesian chairs that looked like large footstools. I cannot imagine being able to sit down and relax on those things, for even though cushions had been provided, there was nothing for back support. Ugly brown curtains drooping morosely to the sides of the windows added an appropriately moribund finish to the room.

The kitchen started out as one of those dead-boring spaces of white appliances and white melamine cupboards. The walls were a bright sunny yellow and trimmed in white. While the kitchen did need a change, painting half of it turquoise and the other half a dirty yellow, then trimming the countertop edges with a cheap, tacky metal trim strip reminiscent of a 50s-era greasy spoon, was a less-than-optimal choice. The kitchen island that was added was a nice touch, but the top was varnished wood (edged with that shoddy aluminium strip)…in a wet space that is regularly used by three children…talk about a high maintenance addition! Then, as a final touch, the homeowner was gifted with a new refrigerator…with the door opening the wrong way! For someone whose business it is to mind the details, Miss Debbie sure dropped the ball on that one. Ultimately, the kitchen came out looking badly dated and sadly in need of a makeover.

I have to say, if that woman came into my house and replaced my oriental rugs with tacky carpet tiles, painted my lounge eye-watering pink, replaced furniture I had carefully chosen over the years with cheap Indonesian imports, and ripped out my traditional style wood fireplace surround and replaced it with cheap imitation wood, I would probably just sit down and cry the moment I saw it. “Oh no!” I would moan, “Oh no, how could you?” And God help her if she declared my gorgeous black granite kitchen counters to be passé and then proceeded to replace them with something kitschy…she would not survive to pass judgment on another ill-fated homeowner.

Keep that woman away from my house!