Two months in South Africa: too many observations and iPhone snaps to count.
Ted and I shared more than a few good chuckles over celebrity chefs and celebrity pine* trees. We’ve wondered out loud and shared conversations with hosts about the state of the country’s government and policies, we’ve visited programs doing admirable work to empower the disenfranchised in local communities, and we’ve visited the absolute class acts of tourism establishments along the Garden Route and in the heart of Cape Town.
We’ve also collected an amusing assortment of observations and oddities, and it only seemed right to share them with you:
Mr. Naked Chef comes up in conversation on a remarkably frequent basis. But it’s not just talk. More than one South African man referenced Jamie Oliver then whirled around to cook perfectly roasted veggies garnished with picturesquely sprinkled herbs and serve them up to eager dinner guests. Coincidence? (Wink, wink! Thanks, Alister and Gavan.)
Chutney. (& all sorts of other tasty goodness)
Listen, the South Africans speak my language: small-scale food production with big flavor. The Heinze Ketchup of the chutney world, Mrs Balls Chutney, graces many a table, but the real beauty is seeing independently made chutneys (and jams and spreads, too) for sale at countless coffee shops, country stores, farmers markets stands, and guest houses all around the Cape. One of our favorites? Chilli Chilli Bang Bang, as tasted during our visit to the delicious George Cheese Festival. The goods come from Wildebraam Berry Estate, where the farm kitchen makes and sells “delicious liqueurs including Youngberry, Honey, Aniseed, Rooibos, Peppermint, Lemon and Hazelnut” as well as “a tempting array” of liquored fruits, jams, dessert syrups, chutneys, relishes, and pickles… Yes, please!
Oh, North American tea (and coffee) drinkers: you weary souls who have been pouring cold milk into your hot beverages, mourning the way they grow tepid so quickly. This is the land flowing with hot milk (and sometimes honey, I suppose…but that’s beside the point). Cafes will ask and friends in home kitchens will heat milk automatically: it’s just the thing to do, and the especially attentive places will froth it up for you, too.
Thankfully, unlike in Lebanon, these South African electrical sockets aren’t delivery dryer-voltage shocks to unsuspecting Oregonians. But they’re enormously huge! Take a typical American 120 volt plug and times it by two or three times the size. Then imagine all three socket prongs as thick as a pinky finger. (Okay, my pinky finger, not Ted’s, but you get the idea.) The nice thing? Individual sockets almost always have an on/off switch, so it’s super-easy to conserve electricity when not using appliances.
This culture has it right: nearly every accommodation and private home will have generous soaking tubs. South Africans have a fondness for the calming rituals of life. Tea and baths. I can handle this. Plus, their local bath supply stores sell bath bombs way, way below Lush prices…
“It’s a Pleasure.”
The politeness factor in the service industry- no, scratch that -in most places among most people is incredibly high. This could be a bit of a reaction after coming through countries with less-polished inter-personal skills, but we noticed within the first day of arriving that folks behind the counter and on the phone and in line at the grocery store were quick to offer help and answer often with a smile. And in answer to a “Thank you,” instead of a “You’re welcome” or a “No problem,” we receive the sweet words with a South African lilt: “It’s a pleasure!”
Cape Dutch Architecture.
I’ve fallen in love with the signature Cape Dutch buildings: simple footprints with beautiful scroll work façades. Most have metal roofs, but the classiest are thatched with grass.
Breakfast is A Real Meal
When accommodations say breakfast included, they’re not kidding. No hard as a rock croissant or mini-box of cereal. They serve true English Breakfasts with bacon and mushrooms, eggs and beans, tomatoes and – if you’re lucky – boerewors sausage, too. Plus fruit and yogurt galore. (At my own breakfast table, I like plain homemade raw milk yogurt, but while we’re here traveling, I’m a sucker for the “Cape Fruit” variety made with peaches, apples, sultanas, pears, and gooseberries.)
Ya. (“yawn” … minus the “wn”)
We met a Brazilian (hi, Pablo!) in Bolivia who spoke great English, but he would always say, “Ya” instead of “Yeah.” It seemed so funny, until I remember that he studied abroad in South Africa. Here, yes is said as a “ya!,” and with deep conviction, too.
Listen, I have a confession. I didn’t even really know what Oregon Pine was until I got here. (I still don’t. I need to Google it, actually. I mean, I know what pine is, but I don’t know which genus and species are truly “Oregon Pine.”) Anyway. Everyone in South Africa knows Oregon Pine.
“Hello…and where are you from?” “Oregon-” “Oh, ya!, Oregon Pine!”
The story goes that indigenous pines grow too quickly, yielding wood weak and unsuitable for long-lasting construction. Half way around the world, though, Oregon grows trees strong and firm, beautifully light in color, and highly sought after by the South Africans whose sturdy timber is dark in color.
[Ding, ding, ding! After writing the first draft, I did my research: Oregon Pine is DOUGLAS FIR! Our crazy little ever-growing-everywhere tree (with its little “Douglas the mouse tail” sticking out of the cones) is the prized wood of choice here in South Africa. Of course it would be so simple. (Though, for the record, Pseudotsuga menziesii a.k.a. “Douglas Fir” is not a true pine.)]
Old Oregon Pine from early 1900s South African construction still sells today: “Recovered Oregon [wood] is hard, durable, seasoned for the decades it was in use and has a lustre and grain that suits the cottage style of furnishing – warm, homely, cozy and with a sense of timelessness. The timber is sometimes marked with the nail holes where it was placed by long forgotten craftsmen in houses that no longer stand. To many of our customers that simply increases the sense of homeliness of the furniture – there is history, a sense of continuity with the past leading to the feeling of durability into the future. The fine grain surface that shows up so well under polishing further enhances this feeling…Oregon has the pedigree, the finish, the resistance to marking, and excellent durability. You can visualize your Oregon furniture being used by your children in their homes one day!”
So funny to get to the bottom of this story. Also: knowledge of such reverence from half way around the world fills in a few mental gaps about all those sailing shipments leaving Oregon logging country back in the 1800s and 1900s…
Picture Perfect & Corrupt to the Point of Comedy
Postcard skylines, sandy beaches, gardens through the land of Eden. South Africa spoils with beauty and heritage. Concurrently, corruption runs deep: social ills grip the poorest of the poor…and the richest of the rich. We’ve scratched at the surface and scratched our heads. I’ve added books to my reading list and queries to my catalog of questions about this topsy-turvy world.
All these bits and pieces of South African culture: they’re wonderful and they’re heavy. They’re foreign and fascinating and they’ve grown familiar, too. After ten weeks listening and watching, experiencing and eating(!), talking and thinking, we’ve come to the realization that sometimes the only thing to do is acknowledge the complexities of the world, then take the time to laugh. Our conclusion: keeping spirits high and placing hope in the right places promises the best route to the future for South Africa…and for us.
Surprised by South Africa?
This post is part of our twoOregonians Tour the Cape series featuring quintessential and offbeat South African experiences, one-of-a-kind accommodations and beautiful B&Bs, respectful wildlife programs, social service projects, and landscape photography from the South African Cape. As always, all opinions, photos, and stories are our own; many thanks to our kind hosts and partners along the way. It was our pleasure to experience such genuine kindness and hospitality!