Foreign places

2014-10-22 00:00

WE fulfilled a long-standing intention and went to see the Namaqualand spring flowers. “Were there flowers?” people ask — and yes, there were and they were as lovely as we had expected. But the real interest of the trip was the foreignness of it all. It’s a different world there, a different culture.

We camped. We pitched our little tent, not on rolling lawns, but on rocky sand which got into everything. This was semi-desert, hot by day and cold by night which we had not bargained on. My beloved travelling companion slept in her jeans and two jerseys, and would have slept in her overcoat if she had one.

It is an Afrikaans world. We tried to immerse ourselves in the culture and hoped our poor Afrikaans would be forgiven (it was). We delighted in koeksusters but were not so successful in other culinary ventures. We discovered that geroerde eiers are quite different from scrambled egg, moerkoffie is not the same as cappuccino. We tried skaapstertjies (very nice but very fattening), but even in the interests of cultural affinity couldn’t face smileys (baked sheep’s head).

Shopping involved challenges. We wanted two small lamb chops for our braai. There were no little packs of chops in neat cellophane wrapping. The obliging butcher pulled out a whole sheep from his fridge and asked which bit we wanted. We needed a litre of milk, some nice Klawer wine and some matches from the small village supermarket. They did not take credit cards. They needed cash only. The nearest ATM was 75 km away.

Yet the kind of global commerce to which we have become accustomed in Howick has not passed them by in Garies. Since said travelling companion did not have an overcoat to wear to bed, we needed another blanket. Beijing has reached the Karoo. The excellent Chinese shop in the main street in Garies (actually, the only street in Garies) could oblige with a lovely soft one printed in leopard spots to which we have become devoted. I thought I might cut an inch or two off the leopard-print blanket to make a leopard-skin headband for a different kind of cultural exchange back home but the head of the house has forbidden that.

For a change from the flowers we drove to the seaside. To be more accurate, we thought it was the seaside, a tiny hamlet called Papendorp. I don’t know what the village has to do with popes, and it turned out to be not on the seaside but on the banks of a salt lake. We discovered a well-maintained but utterly abandoned motel on the shores of the lake, the only inhabitants being the municipal workers who were having an extended lunch break (it was by now three in the afternoon) lying in the shade of the trees in the garden. Wandering to the waterside jetty through the garden of a motel that has clearly been deserted was a little like wandering the decks of the Marie Celeste.

Exploring the coastal bush on the lakeside, we met an old man of Khoi lineage who was filling cans of water from a municipal standpipe. He spoke at length in excited Afrikaans, too fast for us to follow or understand much, although we nodded and smiled, and when he seemed to have made a joke we laughed along with him. But we gathered that he had been a teacher in Papendorp all his life, and was now extending his income a little with water sales. He said: “Ek is a Hottentot. Ek is baie trots daarop.” I could not face telling him that Hottentot is not a word we use any more. It seemed to him to be a matter of great pride that he still lived in the same place where his cultural ancestors had lived for centuries before. I could understand that. People in the Karkloof feel the same.

The cemetery in Vanrhynsdorp was, not unexpectedly, filled with Van Rhyns from past generations. Touchingly, however, there were also two war grave sites and two war memorials side by side, one with the graves of boers who had died defending their homeland, the other with the graves of the “khakis” who had died so far away from theirs. In one corner of the cemetery, but still part of what would have been Christian consecrated ground, was a little group of graves with the Star of David, the headstones inscribed in Hebrew. Perhaps one day there will be headstones in Cantonese? I would like to add that in the newer part of the cemetery were graves of other South Africans who would not earlier have been admitted into this cosmopolitan resting place, but I would be lying. Vanrhynsdorp has not entirely entered the Rainbow Nation. It does, however, have a most beautiful Dutch Reformed Church, a historical monument, and the church is trustingly left open, quite unguarded, for tourists to visit and admire — not a practice you could emulate in Howick, so perhaps there are advantages in being a little behind the times.

And then home, with one overnight stop in a motel near Trompsburg called, misleadingly, Beau Vista, the only beautiful view being that of a large industrial building over the road. There were no other guests. Perhaps visitors are unusual in Trompsburg. They took two hours to make fish and chips. Perhaps fish is not locally procurable in the Free State. And then the green grass of the Midlands and back to a warm bed. We still use the leopard-print blanket. We feel enriched by our brief immersion in a foreign world. Or is it perhaps we Midlands folk who are the foreigners?

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and Anglican priest.

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