Monday, June 16, 2008

Journey To South Africa: MIDDELBURG

The Afrikaners are mostly Dutch, German and French settlers. They are a fiercely loyal and proud people and very traditional, with emphasis on traditional. The town the van der Walts live in is Middelburg, located in Mpumalanga (Eastern Transvaal) and it is the most beautiful country you'll ever experience. To learn more about this area, click HERE.

Our friends and "official tour guide" were Johannes van der Walt (JC) and his wife, Alien. They have three beautiful children, Chrisjan, 14 yrs... (Chris-yan), Martiens, 12 yrs... (Mar-teens) and Jolien, 7 yrs... (Yew-Leen).

From the airport, they drove us in their VW Microbus on a 1 1/2 hour trip to their home in Middelburg. We watched the world go by while riding on the left side of the road. Actually, we got a taste of this in England when we were bussed from Gatwick to Heathrow.

My first impression of South Africa, besides the really BRIGHT sunshine, was how quickly the landscape changed. It's like traveling through the United States, only instead of taking days to see different scenery, it changes by the hour. JC and Alien also brought along two good friends who are also their neighbors, two policemen, Beertjie and Oosie. (I give up on trying to pronounce these names... just make a wild guess.) Beertjie is over the "protect and serve" precinct in his area. I thought it was very interesting that there are two distinct divisions of police: traffic cops and those who "protect and serve."

We arrived at their house and unpacked and moved into their "flat," an apartment behind their house they had just recently completed and had not yet rented out. I have to say, the houses in this Afrikaner community are very quaint. They're covered with brick or rock (I didn't see a single wooden house in these communities) and ALL, I mean ALL houses have a barrier, usually a stone or brick wall surrounding it with eloquent ironwork gates. A few houses had razor wire above the walls (first time I'd ever seen razor wire) and every single house had iron bars in the windows... some intricate, some plain. The streets have very few sidewalks, but the walls around the houses are placed about 20 feet from the streets with well kept lawns on the street side. Behind the walls were beautifully kept flower gardens, flowering trees and ivy in bloom. I felt like I was looking at a magazine.

We managed to stay awake and socialize, I even accompanied Alien and Jolien to Jolien's ballet lessons. Later that evening we had our first taste of Afrikaans cuisine of Bobotie and yellow rice with sweet potatoes and fresh salad. It was positively delicious and different from anything I've ever tasted. We retired to bed around 11:00 pm GMT time. Even though our biological clocks said it was only 4:00 pm E.S.T., the lack of sleep sure caught up with us and we both slept like newborn babies.

Friday, Jan. 15th

We awoke at 5:30 am to very bright sunshine. I still don't know what time the sun rises in the summer in South Africa... must be around 4:30 am! After we ate breakfast with the van der Walts, the four of us took off on foot to take a walk around town which was just a few blocks away from their house. On the way, we passed the school Martiens and Jolien attend. It was track and field day and all the kids were out in the school yard teamed up and ready to participate in different sports. We decided to go in and watch and I wished I'd brought my camcorder! The kids go to school barefoot until they reach high school level. It's not required, but is encouraged - a practice to promote strong bone growth in the feet during their developing years.

We found Martien's class inside the gym and I found it interesting that we could just walk right in without having to pass any security like in our school systems here in the States. They made an announcement that we were American's visiting South Africa and the kids decided to put on a little show for us. Those who don't participate in the sporting events become the cheering section for their team. And they have practice to try to out-do the other "cheering teams." Everyone has a function, either in sports participation or showing their school spirit through cheering. I can tell you... these kids can make some noise and it was an unexpected pleasure watching and hearing all of them. Next we found Jolien and watched her class participate in a race.

We left and headed on to town and I was amazed to see so many stark differences from our own lives here in London, KY. Street vendors lined the streets with tables filled with everything from jewelry and watches to shoes and handbags. In some areas, there were fresh produce on the sidewalks. These vendors have their ware set up right in front of the stores and businesses. We walked to a bank to exchange some travelers cheques for Rand and had to go through a double security door. In other words, the inner door closes and locks before the outer door will unlock to let you in and vice versa. About a week later, Gary and I went to a different bank and were greeted with armed security. He scanned us with a wand and then let us enter. Very tight security.... an interesting contrast to the U.S. where we simply walk into the banks here, but face armed security at many schools. Another stark contrast... no drive thru's, it doesn't exist in SA, with the exception of a few McDonalds.

We ended the evening with a tour of the hospital Alien works at, Midmed Hospital, which is in walking distance from their house. I was extremely impressed with the "feel" of the place. I felt as if I were in a hotel rather than a hospital. If I had to be hospitalized... this is where I'd want to be.

Saturday, Jan 16th

Awoke and rose 5:30 am, downed some coffee, got dressed and Gary and I walked to town... just to browse. When we returned, Gary and I prepared a "southern" breakfast of biscuits, gravy, scrambled eggs and sausage for the van der Walts and I was pleased (and surprised) my homemade biscuits turned out. They don't have canned biscuits in South Africa. As a matter of fact, when Andre visited us in the States last May, his report to his South Africa friends included our use of "bread in a can."

We spent most of the day loafing and enjoying the company of the van der Walts as they prepared for a special braai to be held that evening in our honor. Around 5 pm, the guests starting arriving. First to arrive was Andre - it was great to hear him speak Afrikaans (a rare thing to hear when he visited us in "English only" speaking Kentucky) and finally meet his two daughters, Jeandre and Tania.

As the sun was going down in the South African sky, JC started the grills (two HUGE ones large enough to feed a small army). It was interesting to notice that they use only wood and not charcoal to burn in the grills. Even more interesting... okay.. .amazing was to watch JC casually stroll up to the grill with a small, portable tank of handy gas (propane gas) and a hose with a nozzle attached. He lit the nozzle for an instant torch and stuck it in the middle of the wood. Didn't take long to have a nice fire ready for the meat.

I was definitely not prepared for the reception we received. We were treated like family and presented with gifts upon gifts from people we'd never met in our lives. Every_single_person, including children spoke fluent English. Interestingly, many of them had never even heard each other, nor their children speak English. The Dutch, German and French mix has created a most beautiful language in Afrikaans, and even though I tried to learn Afrikaans before we visited South Africa, I couldn't understand hardly a word that was spoken. It sure is different listening to conversation than hearing words on a tape. Over the course of the next three weeks, hearing it spoken reminded me of an Italian Opera... you don't understand a word, but the music is beautiful and moving.

A braai is a lot like our barbecues, with the exception that it's potluck. Everyone brings their own meat and several also brought a "side dish" with the most interesting and unusual being pap (pronounced, "pop"). It tastes like grits, but is sticky like overcooked rice and is topped with different sauces. This particular pap was complimented with a spicy chutney sauce. Delicious, but filling. One thing I can say about Afrikaans cuisine... it is spicy! There's a lot of India and Asian influence in their seasonings. After the meal, we danced the night away and had a blast watching everyone dance their traditional two step, the sakkie sakkie, to traditional Afrikaans music that has a definite German influence.

Sunday, Jan 17th

Awoke again to bright sunshine and an unusual sound.... Indian prayers being recited somewhere in the distance over loud speakers. Middelburg (and most towns, I learned) have a wide variety of "neighborhoods." Indian, English, Afrikaner, and two types of townships: black and colored to name a few. Not that these people aren't allowed to "mix," but I was told they still prefer to live mostly in their own ethnic groups. Among the black peoples are 8 different tribes and there are 11 officially spoken languages in South Africa, along with even more unofficial languages. You get a definite taste of this wonderful diversity when you walk downtown.

We began the day with a tour of Arnot Power Station, compliments of Willie, a highly knowledgable Arnot employee and new friend whom we'd met the night before at the braai. Arnot is a division of Eskom, the 4th largest supplier of electricity in the world. I've never been in a power plant before, so I can't make any comparasions. But I was especially impressed with the "new" section which keeps track of everything using state of the art computer equipment, from the powergrids to the internal workings of the power generators to monitoring the temperature of the coal burners.

That afternoon, we visited Botshabelo, a historical area near Middelburg. There, we also met several Ndebele women. They were strikingly dressed in vivid colours with metal rings and beaded hoops around their necks and ankles. One particular Ndebele woman was working on beadwork which they incorporate strong, geometric designs in both their beadwork and paintings - I have to say, it is truly of exceptional quality!

Gary and I had our first encounter with real, honest to goodness Monkeys (Vervet Monkey). I can tell you, they are mischievious, brave and quite intelligent. When we first arrived and began unpacking our picnic stuff, we immediately got a firsthand look at their antics. Some tourists had left their picnic basket unattended and the monkeys were deftly opening it and helping themselves to every single item in the basket. I'm sure nothing was left - boy were these people going to be in for a surprise.

We spent the entire day in Botshabelo and headed home at sunset. I decided to take some pictures of the animals against the sunset and rode in the back of Andre's pickup with the kids for a better view. Wow, it was still a shock to feel the warm, summer air instead of the cold, winter air back home.

In the evening, JC smoked a leg of pork and we enjoyed the meal with a fresh green salad. We visited Willie and his wife, Anet for a small get together at their house and showed them how Americans dance to rock. It was an enjoyable night and I was fascinated by the water fountain complete with statue in the middle of their living room.

Monday, Jan 18th

We visited Loskopdam and enjoyed coffee beside the dam wall. Later, we walked to the top of it and looked over the breathtaking view below. What a sight to be standing there watching beautiful white birds circle the water below.... so this is South Africa. :-) We stopped at a biltong shop, Damwal Butchery and bought bags of biltong - from spicy chili to some nice strips seasoned in what tasted like soy sauce.

Upon returning home, I made dinner for them of fried fish (completely non-fattening on Mondays), potato salad, cole slaw and fried mushrooms, which I think they actually enjoyed. After dinner, we visited some friends, Piet and Tillia and enjoyed an evening of pool (billiard) competitions.

Tuesday, Jan 19th

Awoke and rose at 5:30 (I really think the sun comes up at 4:30 am!) and spent a good part of the day at Loskopdam Game Reserve where we spotted our first "wild animals," among them, a white rhino and her young. We were not allowed to leave our vehicle, except in a designated picnic area. When we finally reached the picnic spot, we sat down to a cup of coffee and some snacks. JC decided to walk to the tourist info center (barefoot as usual - these people go barefoot more than us hillbillies from Kentucky). It wasn't long before JC returned and casually informed us he'd been bitten by a snake. It's a good thing Alien is a registered nurse, I was ready to haul him to the nearest hospital, but he assured us he felt fine and the snake looked like a Loop Snake which is non-poisonous. Must have been - he's still alive and kicking. After all the excitement we started packing to leave and two park rangers walked out of the bush with R5's casually slung over their shoulders. These fully automatic rifles are the equivalent of our M-16's. The rangers told us they carry these to match the fighting power of poachers. I thought it was to ward off the wild game.

Wednesday, Jan 20th

Spent the day shopping, packing and preparing for a trip near Durban. The kids get to go with us and we're all excited... especially Gary who loves the beach more than life itself.

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