Monthly Archives: March 2012

I’m here, Marmite is not, but I am here.

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My dear devoted readers (yes, both of you), I humbly apologize for abandoning you for a few weeks. You must feel as though I got up to refill my plate at the buffet and never returned to our table. Or that I secretly upgraded, leaving you at the backpackers’ hostel wondering where I took off to with your long-distance calling card. Well, let me say that I have done neither.

I have simply been bogged down in life. A life that involves traveling half way around the world with 2 children, flicking through time zones like a global Rolodex, and then, upon arrival in New Zealand, dealing with a vomiting toddler, baking a birthday cake, cuddling new nieces and nephews, scouring the shops for Marmite, flying in a helicopter, and consuming many flat whites (that’s a milky coffee) (not all of the above happened at the same time because, um, yuck).

Now I am reaching out to you from Australia because why not travel some more and thumb our noses at yet more time zones? And, the very best of reasons, there is a wedding to attend. So life now involves dashing between rain showers in the Sunshine State (oh, the irony), wondering why I didn’t slim down for this wedding, marveling at the friendliness of Australians, and drinking more flat whites (therein may be my answer to why I didn’t slim down).

All of this has kept me a tad busy, but I am never far in my thoughts from a blog post. I intend to carve out some time to post about NZ because being there has reminded me of all the time I have spent in that tiny, wonderful country, lucky girl that I am. To keep my promise to you, I will forgo critical things like being with family, sleeping, and drinking outstanding Australian wine…no, no, let’s not be silly, now.

Sit tight and let’s talk soon, okay? In the meantime, amuse yourself by reading about the Marmite crisis in NZ. It’s real, people. Very real. Send help.

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Sportswoman of the Year (for jerky consumption?)

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Where: Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa (the link actually shows where we stayed)

Beautiful view of Northern Drakensberg mountains from our cottage.

Plate of food: The food that is memorable from my time in the Drakensberg mountains is biltong. Biltong is simply strips of dried meat. Full stop. Done. Lamest post ever.

Well, I guess I can elaborate a bit.

No one likes to admit that they like beef jerky, except me, that is. Biltong is tastier than beef jerky and generally easier on the mandibular joints. I liked trying the more exotic game meats which as far as I could tell were just beef that had been mislabeled.

You can find biltong in almost every shop/cafe/petrol station, so we often bought paper bags of it whenever the chance presented itself. Filling up the car? We should really get some biltong. Waiting for my mother-in-law to buy souvenirs? We should chew around on some biltong. Just ate breakfast 20 minutes ago? Man, I have a hankering for biltong!

It’s also a very handy food to take along on hiking trips. Those Voortrekkers really knew a good thing when it came to desiccating meat! We hiked nearly every day that we were in the Drakensberg and someone always had a stash of biltong to munch on. Besides being good fuel for some of the longer walks (we took Matt’s Mum on an unexpectedly long and complicated journey – this did not earn us ANY points with Matt’s Dad), gnawing on biltong made me feel like I was hardy and robust. Believe it or not (mostly not) I am neither hardy nor robust, as the story below will illustrate, but once in a while a girl wants to feel like she can conquer the wilds of Africa…one piece of biltong at a time.

It was part of the whole picture: walking many kilometres over rugged terrain, watching baboons thunder along the path in front of us, resting on huge rocks to catch our breath and look at the expanse of Africa below us, deliberately not thinking about snakes resting under those same rocks…and eating biltong. Do you get it?

The best: Surviving to see another day (see below)

Story that needs to be told: On our last morning in the ‘Berg a group of us decided to climb to the top of the Amphitheatre, a 5km long escarpment and one of the distinguishing features of the mountain range. It was rumoured to be a 5 hour round-trip, but we had an added time constraint in that the rest of our group wanted to hit the road back to Durban. Nothing like hiking under duress!

There was a helpful man where we parked our car who explained that there were two routes to the summit. Pointing to his right, he said “That way is behd.” And then pointing to his left, he said emphatically “But this way is werse.” He also informed us that the path to the right culminates in “the Chain Ledder“. Huh? What was that? Wait, I wasn’t paying attention! And with that, led by my father-in-law who only ever does things quickly, we set off at a brisk walk/jog along the path to the right.

The track was narrow and already very high – we had driven a long way up and started walking from the car park – and it clung precariously to the side of the mountain. At certain points there were coils of barbed wire set along the steep hillside about 10m below our track. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved that there was something there to stop my fall if I lost my footing or if I should be terrorized by the thought of getting tangled up in that barbed wire. I found a happy medium and went with “slightly terrorized”. To compensate for the drop of doom on my right, I spent most of the time jogging with a strong tilt to my left.

Run! Run! Run! Then stop and pose! Good.

Up and up we went, until we came to the base of a cliff. There, dangling down, were the Chain Ladders. That’s not a euphemism; they really were ladders made out of metal chains. After running along the narrow path and then being faced with 40m of rusted, rickety chain ladder stretching up the rocky cliff, I did what any person girl would do: I sat down and cried. I am not afraid of heights, but it turns out I have a healthy fear of falling from a chain ladder onto the rocks below and having to be carried 2 hours back to the car by people who don’t have nearly enough biltong to keep them going.

I told Matt I wouldn’t go. He told me I didn’t have to, which we both knew was rubbish, but it was nice of him to say. My feebleness was made worse (or “werse” which is how we still say it to each other to this very day) by the fact that we were hiking with my brother- and sister-in-law who are the sportiest people ever bar Olympians.

After some deep breaths I got up and grabbed a rung of the ladder. It felt dishearteningly thin. The chains wobbled as I put my weight onto them. The metal clinked and clanked with each step.  I looked only straight ahead of me, seeing my white knuckles grip the next rung. I was sure that one chain link would give way. I mean, how often do you think this ladder is maintained? It’s such a bloody hassle to get up there with my tools…meh, forget it.

That's me teetering near the top on the right. One of my better angles, I think.

My heart was pounding and I was breathing loudly. Beside me was my unflappable brother-in-law who was chatting about this and that as he climbed effortlessly. Bless him for trying to maintain some semblance of enjoyment while I practised my histrionics. Eventually we reached the top of the ladder, but lo and behold, that was not the top of the escarpment. There was a small lip on the cliff and then…another chain ladder (only 20m high this time, ha!).

We all made it to the top, but I cannot tell you about the view. I remember it being expansive, undulating, and brown – the grass scorched from the African sun – but nothing else. I was still shaky and the knowledge that we had to return the way we came was never far from my mind. That first backwards step over the edge of the cliff with my foot searching in the air for the ladder rung was serious butt-clenching stuff. My palms are sweaty as I type, even 9 years later. How are you holding up?

The Chain Ladder experience has remained one of my defining moments. Many people do that walk and many people probably don’t bat an eye at it, but for one girl who is neither hardy nor robust, it was a big deal. It was the conquering of a fear that was heretofore unknown. I have returned to the memory of it over the years as proof of my ability to do things: move to yet another country, give birth to 2 babies, go for a job interview, write a blog, etc. I always end up with “Well, I climbed that Chain Ladder, so…I guess I can do this, too.” Come to think of it, biltong would have helped in all those situations, too…

Triumphant! And heavily cloaked in fleece...

What’s your equivalent of the Chain Ladder? What fears have you conquered? How sweaty are your palms after reading this? (Here is a spectacular 360 degree photo of the Chain Ladder – click and explore it for yourself!)

“Travel can also be the spirit of adventure somewhat tamed, for those who desire to do something they are a bit afraid of.” Ella Maillart

Giddyup in Southern Spain

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Where: Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

The bright festival gates in Arcos de la Frontera

Plate of Food: Here’s one for the great minds of our world (and this blog): is sangria a food? Now, don’t be hasty – remember that it has fruit in it….

Poor sangria has acquired a bad reputation (mostly from American students on Spring Break vacation from what I can gather) for being sweet, potent, and for under-age drinkers. The sangria we had in Spain was refreshing, pleasant, and tasty. We ordered pitchers of red sangria as we sat at an outdoor cafe late into the night. The air was warm and filled with music. We were surrounded by tables of Spaniards, who were animatedly talking, kissing, laughing – and they were all drinking sangria.

You can mix up a pitcher of sangria once you are back home, but the ingredients will fall short. There is something about drinking it in Spain that elevates this drink to an experience – a very happy experience.

For real sticklers who argue that sangria is not a food, we also ate churros: fried sticks of dough sprinkled with sugar. Spaniards commonly eat them for breakfast dipped in very thick hot chocolate. I like mine just on their own, warm and delicious. The satisfying crunch of the ridged exterior and the fluffy dough inside is very appealing. My only complaint is that it bothers me to have granules of sugar stuck on my fingers. It bothers me more to be armed only with single-ply napkin to tackle these sugar granules. Am I alone on this?

The best/Story that needs to be told: Arcos de la Frontera was supposed to merely serve its purpose as an overnight stop on our way through the hills of Southern Spain. As we entered town, though, we saw a number of men in traditional outfits on horseback, riding through town. How quaint, we thought. Then we started seeing women in colourful Flamenco dresses. How amazing that this town is so devoted to its traditions, we mused. We felt as though we had stepped back in time. It turned out that we had actually stepped into an annual festival celebrating San Miguel. The whole town was transformed and every person took part by wearing these beautiful outfits.

Down the hill from the main townsite, a carnival was set up with tents, games, and rides. The tents were all blaring Flamenco music to which every person knew the words. Women of all ages clustered around and danced, dust rising up in puffs from their espadrilles. Their dresses were exquisite and each one was unique: spotted, striped, ruffled, colourful, and stitched to fit their every curve. Great care had obviously been taken to match earrings, hair combs, fans and shawls to the colour of the dress. The complete outfits were beautiful. And these women could move: hands twirled, wrists flicked, eyes flashed and feet stamped. It was spellbinding to watch. The music was infectious and powerful. The beat was echoed by every pair of hands clapping and every foot stamping. These people must have heartbeats that keep time with Flamenco music.

Dancing up a dust storm!

The men, in stark contrast, sat stoically on horseback, looking very dashing and maintaining incredibly good posture. The horses all faced the same way and no one spoke. Young women stood nearby glancing at the men from behind their fans. Once or twice, through some unspoken arrangement, a man would reach down and lift one of the girls effortlessly with one hand onto the back of his horse. There she would sit, legs to one side, arranging the ruffles of her skirt. It appeared to be quite a statement of attraction, intention, and importance. Not sure how that rates as a date, though: you get hoisted to the back of an aromatic horse and there you sit. Every so often the horse would shuffle its hooves. Ah, the romance!

"I'll just stand here at these horses' rear ends and hope that Esteban notices me..." Tough dating scene in Arcos.

I was enchanted. The traditional clothes, the horses, the music, the setting sun – it all seemed like it was from another time. A time when men rode horses and wore high-waisted pants. A time when women danced and said everything with just their eyes. Matt promised that in another life he would have hoisted me on the back of his horse….but, he may have been swayed by the promise of the last churro.

We walked back and forth through the tents, soaking up the atmosphere, until the sun set. Then we climbed up to the top of the river valley and sat drinking and eating late into the night. We didn’t dare leave to return to our hotel room for fear that when we woke in the morning it would all have vanished like a dream. Our stop in Arcos de la Frontera was so magnificent in that it was wholly unexpected and completely magical. The fact that we stumbled upon it made it all the better. We didn’t orchestrate the timing or the festivities. It just appeared before us like a mirage and we enjoyed it for one night, then left, slightly stunned, the following morning with the colours still swirling in front of our eyes and the music still pulsing in our ears.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”  Lao Tzu

Haggis, a hill, and a hand

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Where: Edinburgh, Scotland

A view of the city from the top of Arthur's Seat. Misty, green, and Scottish!

Plate of food: Some may think that writing about Scottish cuisine is like writing about Dutch big spenders. But I have always eaten well in Scotland, and I freely admit that I do not shy away from the traditional Scottish fare. No one has to twist my arm to eat the small package of shortbread that comes with my tea. No one has to scrape off the black pudding from my breakfast plate.

But I must speak now about – haggis! I am not afraid of this folkloric food and its dubious ingredients. Granted, I don’t consciously think about it or discuss it while I am eating, but I do enjoy it. I ate some vegetarian haggis while in Edinburgh which I thought was a bit pointless. I went straight back to the full and proper haggis. A day with offal and oatmeal cased in a sheep’s stomach is a great day! That is the saying, isn’t it? Well, in Scotland it must be.

The key for me is the gravy. This is essential to lubricating the haggis and, dare I say, masking some of the flavour. If the gravy isn’t perfect, the haggis is a sad, grey offering on a plate next to lumpy turnips and bland potatoes. But a gravy that is able to sing the praises of a haggis pulls the entire dish together, so that you are suddenly claiming some ancestry to the Macdonalds and you are willing to name your first-born Fergus. Such is the power of the haggis.

The best: Climbing up Arthur’s Seat. This iconic hill in the city is a must-see for any visitor. We were keen for the views from the top and the chance to simply set foot on a peak with such significance and history. It was a cloudy day when we set off on our walk, but we were not willing to wait for a sunny day as that may have meant waiting approximately 3 years.

All of the guide books claim that it is an easy and popular walk to the top. We shortly discovered that this was not the case. The grassy path disappeared as the track became rockier. We pushed on, but that required some impromptu rock climbing. I was happy enough until the cloud became rain and the rocks became slippery harbingers of death, then I felt uneasy. On we went, though, because the top was so enticingly near. My face was splattered with rain, my pants were covered in mud, and Matt yelled at me over the howling wind about where to find footholds: it was my worst nightmare. I was cursing Arthur and his seat.

We finally reached the top and stood there gasping and dripping, gazing out at the mist and the rolling clouds. We started to notice families with small children and elderly couples and people who clearly took the consumption of haggis very seriously. How did they manage the climb, we wondered. It must have taken days for them to reach the summit; my, what commitment! Then we saw a set of stone steps leading down. We followed them and saw more stones and a well-maintained pathway appearing out of the mist. People were streaming up the hill. There was no rock climbing, no concern for footholds. It was an easy, popular route….on the east side of the hill.

Note: we came up the WEST side.

At the top of Arthur's Seat. A couple of things: Matt is gripping my pant leg in an effort to prevent me from being blown off the hill, and we are both wearing zip-off pants for which I apologize (they have since been retired).

Story that needs to be told: As we walked down the Royal Mile one day, we noticed a heavy police presence. It was so striking that I decided to ask an officer what was happening. He smiled like a schoolboy and said that “one of the Royal family members” was on their way to the whiskey museum. Well, say no more, my good man! Matt saw his afternoon in a pub with a pint disappear as I excitedly took my place along the sidewalk, camera in hand. Suddenly, three cars rolled up the street and a team of people rushed out with metal fences to create a perimeter around the museum entrance. I scuttled forward with everyone else and happily found myself very close to the front.

The doors to the cars opened and out came…Prince Charles! I mean, that is a proper Royal family member, is it not? It could have easily been Prince Edward or Princess Anne who, frankly, are the ‘B’ team in the Royal family. We agree on this, right? But, no, it was the heir to the throne! In a kilt, no less!

He waved and went to enter the museum, but turned and decided to do a walk-about along the fence. I couldn’t believe my luck! I was behind only one other woman in the crowd. I got my camera ready as he worked his way along. Soon he was directly in front of me and I was torn between taking photos which requires my right hand, and offering my hand for him to shake which also requires my right hand. In a split second I decided to continue taking photos, but offer up my left hand to him. Strangely, I also decided that I needed to waggle my left wrist and all of my fingers in front of him.

"My dear lass, whatever is wrong with your left hand?"

There I was with the future King of England and I had my face obscured by my camera, I was squinting into the viewfinder, and my left limb was having its own little seizure. He bypassed my hand, as if anyone can blame him. He completed his circuit and waved once more before disappearing into the museum. I was elated despite my own bizarre behaviour. If nothing else, I feel as though I made an impression (probably more so on his security team). As for Charles (we are on a first name basis now) I must say that he has a pleasantly deep voice and very blue eyes. Even with those unfortunate ears, he was surprisingly dapper in his kilt and with a thistle in his lapel. It is reminiscent of the gravy jazzing up the dreary haggis, is it not? Ahem.

“Edinburgh isn’t so much a city, more a way of life….” Ian Rankin

Dear traveling friend, have you ever been to Edinburgh? How do you rate haggis? Did you go up the east or west side of Arthur’s Seat? How do you really feel about Prince Charles? I would love to know….