I was walking past the pet shop on the way home from school, when I saw a toddler trying to get my attention. The snotty little boy was holding a bottle, pointing; his adorable brown eyes eager for me to see what he was clearly so enjoying seeing.
I followed his gaze to the birds and the fish, and started ‘talking’ to him. Noting his grandfather’s approving smile from the shop next door prompted me to take the boy’s lead. Of course, he spoke no English (and, at his age, likely barely any Thai). But he clearly wanted to communicate about the colours and movements surrounding him. Bless.
We walked the shop, and I got down to his level to ‘ohh‘ and ‘ahh‘, and point out this fish, that fish. We were babbling away, sharing the uplifting feelings that animal encounters can bring. I love how, as a toddler, all sounds are new to him. It doesn’t matter that I am English. He knows no difference yet. He is too young to laugh at me, or exclaim ‘farang!’ [foreigner] to get his family’s approval.
When it was time to go, I waved and said goodbye. His grandfather was now outside the shop entrance, smiling from where he’d been watching us. (Don’t say I don’t do my part to try improve community-foreigner relations, he he.)
Truth is, I’ve had so many moments like this on the walk home. No matter my mood or energy level, there’ll be some encounter with a Thai child that buoys my spirits. I wonder whether I should be teaching toddlers, instead of high school kids? I also wonder whether the early experience of being one of twins, using the crytophasia ‘non-speak’ secret language that twin toddlers use, has helped me access that age, in which sounds can mean so many things, as they’re not yet defined by one language group’s rules and codes…
Anyway, thanks, kid. You won’t remember it, but I certainly will 🙂
After I took this pic at a dress shop at Lonely Beach, Koh Chang, I did something I never do – asked if I could touch him.
I’d been admiring an olive-green slinky number for a couple days, and was about to ask “Tao rai?” [How much?], when I saw this comfy beaut. Normally, I go ahead and touch the goods. But something told me to get permission first…
Good thing I did.
The owner said: “No, he bite. People say, ‘Oh, I have many cats.’ He don’ care. He bite evelyone.”
“Do you ever get to a city and immediately think, I want to live here?”
This question, along with “Do you ever get to a city and instantly hate it?”, is frequently posted in some of the travel groups I’m part of on Facebook.
Big girl + little girl = captivating scene near the Tha Pae Gate, on Chiang Mai’s moat.
In the case of Chiang Mai, it was the former for me. I could say it began the moment I stepped off the overnight bus, when I saw I had two lovely Tinder matches, while deciding how to head where next. This is no big deal for some, but for me teaching in rural Thailand for three months, the Tinder pickings have been slim.
The feeling certainly grew as we took our Grab taxi to the old town, and I spotted so many cute cafes, and more men – and trees! (Isaan is the dry part of Thailand so I have been longing for greenery).
But to be honest, I was primed for this ‘love at first sight’.
A close friend spoke highly of it, saying his fancy-sounding Italian mamma talked dreamily of retiring there. And it’s a hot spot among the global #DigitalNomad community, of which I hope to be part of (someday soon?).
Anyway. It didn’t disappoint.
Apart from my self-confessed bias, several of the other foreign English teachers who came to Thailand with the same agency as me had the same feeling. Unlike Bangkok or Pattaya, which can turn some (including me) right off, Chiang Mai is a heart-stealer of note.
Here are some pics I took while walking around, all starry-eyed and full of that hope-filled energy only a truly promising strong first attraction delivers.
(I’ll be posting more on what I’ve gleaned on the city’s #DigitalNomad scene, and what to do there if you’re just passing through, soon.)
Asian Art Deco: A cute cafe (and English signage, rare in my Thai experience so far) on Ratchapakhinai Road in the Old City.
Tempting streetside seating at the Kad Klang Wiang foodie/shopping square in the Old City.
When it comes to tourist pics, this mango place is ripe for the picking 🙂
Glamour pusses take a break to post those all-important status updates 😉
John’s Place, beside the east side of the Old City’s moat. Go here for nice views of the NYE Lantern Festival goings on.
Ah, the temples you see, just walking around at night … peeping at monks going about their daily business.
Speaking of monks … they’re an everyday sight in Thailand, but I can’t get used to it. It was beautiful to be up early and hear their chants as they walked the streets on their morning rounds collecting alms. They do this every day, barefoot, no matter the weather. Read more at: http://www.thaibuddhist.com/monks-on-their-alms-round/
This little lane in the Wat Phan On temple provided brief respite from the crowds of the Sunday evening walking street market. I saw women circling the temple’s Golden Pagoda, carrying flowers; heard the bells being rung; saw delicious food; and bought colourful earrings here.
Cocktail, anyone? No, but I do WANT THIS DISCO CAMPERVAN REAL BAD!
Hello Kitty wall art on one of the little lanes I liked.
Lush hanging garden that fills me with a good kind of envy…
A welcoming entrance to one of the many massage parlours in the city.
I’ve been teaching English in Thailand for two months now, and it’s been three months since I left my friends, life and (dis)comfort zone in Cape Town.
It feels far longer.
I’d never been to Asia before, and when you do full-on cultural immersion − when nearly every sight, sound, smell and taste is fresh (well, not literally − some are anything but…), and you can almost physically feel your perceptions shift around every street corner − even 15 minutes of a day stretches into something memorable. Seeing the world through new eyes engages your full attention, which slows down time.
I see a lot of adorable Thai toddlers here; they make my insides gooey. They’ve also made me reflect on cognitive learning … on how the familiar becomes familiar so early; on the joy and wonder of experiencing things for the first time.
But newness isn’t always easy. Especially when you’re 40, and frequently fearful.
Back home, I’m often the youngest among friends; unmarried, childless, still “a maiden” in many ways. Not here, among teenage students and other foreign English teachers so fresh out of school, they may as well be taking a gap year. And while home (Cape Town) can be a playground for skateboarding Peter Pans and festival-hopping party girls to say things like “age is just a number,” being a middle-aged (!!!) teacher among twenty-somethings in a conservative, small SoutheastAsian town means you’re forced to confront your chronological age – or, at least, traditional (and possibly small-minded) perceptions on it almost daily.
But I digress. Back to the many gains of this adventure: So far, the biggest immediate gain has been the sensory stimulation. I see so many intriguing sights just sitting on my veranda here in Nongbuadaeng, in rural NorthEast Thailand. Then there are the festivals and markets and celebrations and rituals. And there have been many buses and budget hotels and markets and minibus trips to other Northern places in-between.
I sometimes wish I we were living in the imagined future, so I could do a quick download of all the daily images and impressions. I’m constantly thinking: I must write this down. I must save this picture. I must remember…
Then, there’s what this place is doing to my long-heavy heart.
The main reason I chose to try out ESL teaching here, over more lucrative places, was because of “the people” everyone raved about. While I’m wary of romanticising “the land of smiles”, I’ve been touched by so many everyday human interactions and treated very well by students, colleagues and town folk. Living so openly within a community (rather than behind high suburban walls, as we are in South Africa) makes you feel part of it, even if you’re just a foreign guest.
Last week, at a temple in Chiang Mai (where some of us teachers went for New Year), I said a prayer of gratitude for all the moments of grace and kindness I’ve been blessed to experience in the last two months – the sweet laughter in class, the generous warmth from the women of Nongbuadaeng, the nourishment of the delicious food. Thanks to my time in Thailand, something inside me must surely be shifting – how can it not?
Below, some notes on some of the things I miss, and some of the things I’m grateful for.
(More blog posts on teaching and living here to follow!)
WHAT I MISS
Proper conversations with friends. I love nothing better than a good, deep and detailed natter with people who know me. Language barriers reduce conversations to the bare basics here. And getting to know new people, from vastly different backgrounds, takes time and is not without its own challenges.
My car. I asked for a walkable town and I’m glad for it, but a lot of the local sites are only reachable with wheels − and I’m having scooter issues. With my driving phobia history, knowing two young men who died on scooters, and not having insurance to cover scooter accidents, I wasn’t going to hire one. But the three younger English teachers I’m with did and I didn’t want to miss out on outings or be the ‘granny of the group’. (Too late!) I’m still too poep-scared (as we say in South Africa) to ride the damn thing further than our block. But I haven’t given up on slaying the beast just yet … I miss the freedom of being able to go greater distances than my feet will take me.
Nice toilets and showers. Cape Town’s drought toughened me up a little, so I’m used to no baths and treating showers as cleaning necessities rather than languid luxuries. Here, you have to confront non-Western toilets (and ‘the bum gun’), carry toilet paper (which can’t be flushed and must be placed in the waste basket), and showers are those soft-flow hand-held jobbies hung upon the wall. *Sigh* #FirstWorldProblems
Proper cutlery (and such things). No, this isn’t because we’re eating with chopsticks. We aren’t. In Thailand, you eat with a fork (left hand) and spoon (right hand). You use the fork to push food onto the spoon, then spoon the rice into your mouth. (I’m still figuring out if it’s the same for noodle dishes). The cutlery is of a thin metal, the kind you may take camping, so I miss the feel of a heavy knife and fork in hand. Ditto for plates and glasses. At café’s here, it’s all plastic plates and cups. I wasn’t able to find any ceramic plates at the shops for my flat, either. On the plus side, everything has that impermanent/festival/camping feel, which is fun. And there’s less to break.
Some food items, like proper coffee, cheese, salt and pepper. Even though coffee is grown here, Thailand isn’t a place (like Greece) where you’ll easily find a good coffee. At the cheap hotels we’ve stayed at, it’s strong and powdery. In the shops, you’ll find instant varieties pre-mixed with milk powder, sugar and even ‘weight-loss’ or ‘skin-tightening’ ingredients. It took me a few weeks to find ground coffee, but I’m still on the hunt for a bodem (using a tea strainer until then). At restaurants and cafes, there’s sugar, chilli and soy sauce on the table. Funny how you quickly miss everyday rituals, like cracking salt and pepper onto your meal before starting.
Friendly pets. In Chiang Mai, I asked a #DigitalNomad I’d just met if there was any downside to living in Thailand. “As you’ve probably seen, it’s the attitude towards animals,” she said. It’s true. The many street dogs here are full of mange and on their own mission. The outnumbered cats are skittish and still elusive. As a pet-sitter and animal-lover, I miss animal affection.
A body of water to swim in. In the North, we don’t have the beaches Southern Thailand is known for. While Cape Town’s cold Atlantic sea is hardly inviting, you always know it’s there. When it’s hot here, I crave a body of water to swim in. But the local reservoir is not for swimming, and the nearest pool requires a scooter ride to get to (and is not exactly clean). It’s not surprising that most of the kids here can’t swim. (Again, #FirstWorldProblems).
Articulation skills and the ability to read environment. There’s lots to be said here, in a longer post. But just imagine, for a minute, not being able to read street signs, menus, receipts, SMS messages from your bank or phone provider. I’m used to being literate, and feel pretty ‘lost’ in my surroundings at some point in every day.
WHAT I’M GRATEFUL FOR
Living in a walkable town. During the placement process, the agency asked us for our preferences, and this was one of mine (together with WiFi and a verandah or outside space at home). I’m loving walking through the food market each day, and strolling to the 7/11 at night – pretty much a no-no back in South Africa, as it’s too dangerous to walk alone at night.
The agency support.I’m told I can earn more through a direct placement and wasn’t too sure about my agency before getting here (I had all kinds of suspicions). But they offer a curriculum, telephone support 24/7 (even for things like translating a Thai text or speaking to a Thai person to organise transport etc.), and the visa support has been a relief.
That I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, yet. (Sorry!) Contrary to what many expect, Thai cuisine isn’t that vegetarian friendly. And ordering veg-only is just another communication complication. I’ve seen the lengthy process of someone trying to explain that no meat should be in the fried rice be served pork fried rice, only to get non-veg food served to them, and have to suck it up and eat plain white rice and sliced cucumber … there seems to be fish sauce, chicken, pork broth or egg in most dishes.
That I was able to buy a new phone. My one had a cracked screen and kept running out of space, even with a new SD card, but new phones were just too expensive to buy back home. I picked up a new Samsung Galaxy J4+ for less than 5000 Baht ($156; R2230) at the Big C in Bangkok, and it’s been essential for life here (with its need to Google translate, use local banking/taxi apps and Google maps).
That I’ve had some teaching experience.While it was part time and at an English creative college, rather than full time at a Thai high school, it made it easier for introverted me to stand in front of many sets of eyes and do all the prep necessary to feel prepared for 50-minute classes.
Feeling part of a community. Note I say feeling over being. We are farangs(foreigners) and get called so daily. We’re just passing through for a season. But after five years of freelancing alone at home, with no family of my own nearby, being a respected member of a community, living close with our neighbours, attending local events and just being part of the daily flow of life has been so good for me on so many levels.
So after that long post, is there anything you want to know about my Thai teaching adventure? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you here…
I took advantage of a freebie on a school excursion to (briefly) see the city where the historical Thai cat breed, the Korat, comes from.
The head of the school’s English Department, Teacher Po, kindly invited me on a field trip with an age group I don’t teach, so yesterday I went along for a day’s break from the small town that is Nongbuadaeng.
I’m loving so many things about this TEFL travel stint, but I’ve yet to slay ‘the dragon’ that is my hired scooter (eye rolls allowed, to a point, on this one – it’s an old fear story), so any chance to see other scenery for a better perspective (and sense of movement) is embraced.
You gotta love Thai buses. I see these Michelin men on many of them…
The great part about my teaching location is that there are a few small Northeastern cities a couple hours (by bus) away, so you can explore a region that isn’t on the typical Thailand Tourism map relatively easily (I say relatively because you always have the language barrier to navigate around bus times, which bus to take etc.).
The field trip was to the city the Thais call Korat, though its actual name is Nakhon Ratchasima (in what’s Thailand’s largest province). As Teacher Po said, “Even the cities here have nicknames,” referring to the fact that Thais commonly go by nicknames. The other foreign teachers here with me for the semester have been before, so I knew it has shopping centres and things Nongbuadaeng lacks, but knew little much else about the place – other than it’s where the famed blue-grey Korat cat, the relative of the Siamese, comes from. (Curious cat fact: The Korats are associated with good luck, so are often given as a gift in pairs to newlyweds here.)
I think the beaut on the right is a Korat. Been on the hunt for one since I arrived in the region. (This one lives on the streets in Nongbuadaeng, though, not Korat itself.)
On the itinerary:Check out the Suan Kaset 100 Rai flower show linked to Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University’s Agricultural Research Center, which is only open at certain times of year; get to the Terminal 21 mall, so the students could do some shopping; then head to a temple.
There wasn’t enough time to get to the temple (sadly!), but we reached the first two stops. I had to laugh at the flowers, though, as they were cosmos, which grow wild on the roadside at autumn time back in South Africa, in the province I grew up in.
(They’re actually something of a family symbol, as I was pictured in them with my twin in proud family pictures. As kids, we liked to do the royal wave from the back seat, pretending the cosmos’ purple blooms were the admiring faces of our populace. And each autumn, when they come out, my photographer Mom drags my Dad out on a drive to find them.)
Cosmos in the foreground.
While the flower display wasn’t large (think two fields), the prettiness was great for taking pics, and it was fun to be among them with the Thai teachers.
Terminal 21 is the second ‘proper mall’ I’ve been so far since here (the other was in Pattaya, some 7 hours’ journey away), and each floor has a different country as a theme. There’s a food court serving all kids of delicious and affordable Thai food. (The Pad Thai was about 35 Baht/$1/R15).
Well, Hello Kitty! (And you, massive Christmas tree hiding in plain sight in a mall in a Buddhist country…)
Other than checking out the H&M sale and spending money I wasn’t meant to at my favourite shop here, the Chinese retail chain MINISO, the best part of this stop was the loo experience. I’ve never sat on such a fancy throne, with different bidet options (this angle, that angle, this speed, that temperature … lovely luxury after the non-Western toilet situations you can encounter in public facilities here).
Forgive me for I have pictured and posted a toilet. (This from someone who balks at buying toilet paper in bulk!) But some of the squat-toilet scenes I’ve seen here made this seem like it was gilded in gold. Hands-down the best toilet experience, ever.
I bought a big box of Dutch butter biscuits from the fancy ‘farang’ (foreigner) food place for Christmas Day at school, then it was back on the bus to Nongbuadaeng. My best part of the day was the booming beats the kids chose: regional folk-pop music featuring the dialect specific to Esan (or Isan … another thing here is the variant spellings, making Google research tricky even in English). Being around such smiley and wholesome teenagers can be good for the mood, that’s for sure. And I love that they’re loving their own culture so much.
Next weekend, we’re shedding out teacher caps for the long NY weekend to finally get to Chiang Mai. Can’t wait to see the city so many #DigitalNomads rave about.
This poignant coming-of-age fantasy, which made me weep a little, deserves more praise than it’s received. Here’s why…
City of Circles was published about a year ago. But it didn’t garner nearly enough buzz, IMO. The book’s author, Jess Richards, also wrote Snake Ropes, which was shortlisted for the COSTA award in 2012. The Guardian described Snake Ropes as “visceral, evocative” and “haunted by the influence of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood”. Such comparisons say something.
Many readers would enjoy the themes, messages and motifs in City of Circles. There’s alchemical and astrological imagery; and crows, horses, magpies and tarot cards feature (as do signs, omens and superstitions). Part of the story is set within a circus community, bringing other popular titles to mind (think The Night Circus and The Queen of the Night). It’s for readers who appreciate the fantastical, the magical and mysterious, with a lovely love story in the mix.
Given how much I enjoyed this read, I was surprised that it seemed to have fallen under the radar. But who knows … perhaps I missed some convos about it, or maybe it’s one of those slow-burners that’ll go on to be a sleeper hit some day.
WHAT HOOKED ME IN
I’ve grown to understand the appeal of ‘ugly sexy’ men, so I was drawn to the hunchback character (the romantic lead) mentioned in the book’s blurb:
Danu, in mourning for her parents after a disease ravages the circus she calls home, begins a high-wire act with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu’s birthplace, the magical city of Matryoshka, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold the answer to her past and reveal the secret of the locket her mother entrusted to her as she died. When the circus leaves Danu stays behind.
Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city of circles?
On opening the book for a squizz, I felt the impact of the book’s first line: “Dying faces are the colour of soiled linen”. Flipping through, the chapter titles gave an indication of the book’s themes. They read like blessings, or lines from a folk rhyme, and point to a transformational ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure, too:
One for Sorrow
Two for Learning
Three for Refusal
Four for Yearning
Five for an Element
Six for Sold
Seven for Secrets, Never to be Told
Eight for Heaven
Nine for Wealth
Ten for Your Own True Self
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Danu loses her parents to illness, which ends their “safe group of three”, living together in their circus caravan. She’s frozen in grief, as if “behind glass”, and hunts for her parents in her dreams.
Danu needs a new place to call home. At first, she thinks she should leave circus life and join “the flatties” (as the circus folk call outsiders).
She knows some family secret could help her find solace in her grief and believes a locket of her mother’s holds the key − if only she had the courage to open it. She also remembers the name ‘Rosa’ being spoken by her folks in hushed tones. Who was (or is) she?
The answer must surely lie in the place she was born, where the circus will soon be headed: The City of Circles.
WHAT I LOVED ABOUT THE BOOK
The author’s writing style: Here’s an example:
“A warm breeze blows across her face. She exhales and rises from the wall. Going against the flow of pedestrians, she walks back towards Wringers Street. As she passes an alleyway, a tin can rattles along cobblestones. It’s the kind of sound stars might make if they’d fallen loose, and dropped to roll along an ordinary street.” (p. 250)
They gypsy theme: City of Circles shows you the best and worst of circus life, from the claustrophobia of living in such close quarters (“There’s never enough air in a caravan,” Danu says) to the warmth of singing songs around the fire at night.
I appreciated some of the wise words hidden in the folksy ditties. Take this chorus from a song Danu writes for an acrobatic sequence she and Morrie will perform:
“When threat of annihilation fills your lover with dread
If you’re not the same size then you’re ill-advised to wed
the bed’s a mile down when your wings get frantic
and rushed never lie with a lover who’s small enough to be
crushed” (p. 91)
Says something true about finding a partner with an equal fighting’ weight’, right?
The unlikely love interest: There’s great vulnerability in the intimacy between Morrie and Danu, and satisfying tension in her push-pull reaction to his desire for her.
Their moments of learning to tightrope walk as a duo are like an extended (and poetic) trust exercise, which works well as a device for helping build the tension and chemistry.
The City of Circles itself: Danu takes the bold step of starting over (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given that the title of the book suggests she’ll journey to the city she was born in!).
Spice souk (photo by Katina Rogers, Wiki Creative Commons).
The author has created quite an original world here: The City of Circles is built on a volcano, named after a doll, and made up of three circles (each of which is a different sub-city/neighbourhood). The circles move around each other, “like a vast mechanical toy”. In the outer circle, the main trade is in spices. This made from some evocative scenes, like this one:
“In the glow of streetlamps, coloured dust swirls in red, orange, ochre, yellow, black, white … Mist descends through the night sky, magnified around the lights … Flavours and smells compete as colours dance. Allspice, cardamom, chilli … cinnamon, curry, pepper … cinnamon again, ginger … she’s drunk with it.” (p. 95)
Sounds like a place I’d want to spend a few fun nights in!
“The main street must be the hub of the outer circle. It looks to be a circle inhabited by rogues, entertainers and pleasure-seekers. Café tables are crowded with enthused and argumentative conversations. Thieves snatch and scarper, the drunken swagger, lovers kiss, and vagabonds plot in huddles on corners.” (p. 94)
It’s exploration of loneliness and isolation: This is where it got me in the feels. The book introduced me to the concept of The Anchoress. I’d never known of the term:
Anchoress Saint Madelberte-Maubeuge (Wikimedia Commons).
“An Anchoress was a deeply religious woman who chose to live a solitary life in confined quarters called an anchorage or and anchorhold, which usually consisted of a single small cell. The anchorage or anchorholds were similar to hermits but rather than living alone in forests or caves the anchoress lived within populated communities. The anchorhold was often attached to the wall of a church.”
Danu remembers meeting an anchoress once, when she was nine. The woman had lived alone in a cave for 20 years. Danu asks if she gets lonely, to which the anchoress replies:
“As long as I’m still curious, I don’t mind loneliness. I’ve deeply considered all the types of loneliness that there are, and invented some new words.” (p283)
The anchoress then shares her list of these 15 words with Danu. I particularly related to:
“Ignornly:The kind of loneliness which others comment on – as in, ‘I think he’s lonely’ and their expression shows sympathy, but also a little wariness, as if loneliness could be contagious.”
“Idealone:A hankering for an imagined scenario – where it’s the idea of the situation that causes the loneliness.”
“Upwrench: The rational side – loneliness needs to be felt and solitude is needed even if it’s not always comfortable. Letting loneliness come, but giving it a time limit: not wallowing.”
The story behind the story: It was clear that the author knows what it is to feel adrift, grieving, and lonely. An author’s end note tells of Jess Richards’ journey in writing the book, which involved the end of her marriage and her father’s death. These heavy, heartfelt experiences resonated throughout the book; I could sense emotional truth behind it.
Her marriage ended in the early days of writing, so she packed up her life and became transient, looking after people’s houses and pets. This is something I’ve been doing (I read this book during a housesitting gig).
Says the author: “At its core, City of Circles is about love and grief. It’s been a beautiful and truthful and difficult tale to write during my own strange journey. Perhaps all fiction is in some ways autobiographical, even while telling its own story.”
(There’s more to her story. But I’ll let you read about her Happy Ever After yourself.)
SO, HOW DOES IT END?
Like the best of endings, it’s bittersweet. Danu finds what she seeks, but not without a serious sacrifice. Which is pretty much how transformation works IRL, right?
While the character’s outer journey is in some ways the literal opposite of mine, I took it to be representative of Individuation, of finding the Self. It’s also about belonging; trusting and loving your Self; finding your centre of gravity, your foundation, on this earth.
This book is for all of us who seek a soul mate, love, care and nurturing – in other words, a place to call ‘home’.
I’d never been to Hopefield, until my latest house- and pet-sitting gig landed in my inbox. It’s one of those small West Coast havens in the heart of Fynbos country, where people flock to, come Spring, to see the land covered in wildflowers.
In Spring, parts of the Cape West Coast are covered in a multi-coloured blanket of wildflowers that draw scores of snap-happy tourists.
Granted, it’s autumn, so no flowers. And the severe drought we’re having has dried up the river that runs through the town. Still, I had nine days to slow into the Hopefield pace of life, on a plot on a dirt road just outside town. Keeping me company were two dogs, a kitten (!), and shelves and shelves of books. (One of the homeowner couple is also a freelance writer.)
The house had no alarm, and the gates to the property are left open (both rare in South Africa). I worked with the doors open, looking at views of horses and alpacas. Amid all the farm murder and land grab discourse circulating the land, it was a privilege to be in open space, sans high walls, noisy city neighbours, and Cape Town’s howling southeaster. I made a retreat of it by reading very little online, turning off the radio, watching the sunset each evening on the veranda, and walking the property under the night sky.
The oddly soothing view of the dry Zoute River from the main house overlooking horses, alpacas and sheep.
The owners, who rent out a cottage to creatives needing somewhere quiet to work, are great people. We spent an evening drinking wine and chatting under the stars, as they filled me in on the house, pets, and local amenities.
Unsurprisingly, the town boasts aPep store and (more surprising) a basic Spar − which the owners jokingly call “Sparse”. (True, it’s not fancy pants. But the staff are super friendly, and it does stock things you might not see in a city Spar, like a section for wool, and Jigsimur – that vile-tasting but effective aloe drink helping many a tannie’s ailments.)
Other than that, it’s mostly churches (and a newish Internet café where I could do printing and scanning, etc.). Hopefield was started as a church community in the 1800s, and it still boasts a ridiculous amount of churches for the size of the population – including the iconic Dutch Reformed Church built in 1879, where you can still hear the antique Foster & Andrews organ installed in 1911 being played during Sunday services.
The NG Kerk on Hopefield’s Church Street.
On my first trip to the Spar, I was thinking: This really is a one-horse town, when a man came by trotting on a horse in the middle of “the high street” (Voortrekker Road). So it’s more a one-horse, one-man town 🙂 And therein lies its appeal. Hopefield looks like a Karoo dorpie, but it’s just a 1.5 hours’ drive from the Mother City. You may literally see a chicken cross the road, like I did, and have to let sleeping dogs lie where they are, in the middle of the road in the middle of the day. Another indication on the smallness of the place is that the police station is on Stasie [station] street; the main church is on Kerk [church] street. So you’re not likely to get lost 🙂
Here are five other ways to while away the (slowed-down) time on your visit…
Inside the sweet-smelling Simply Bee shop of affordable natural products.
1 SIMPLY BEE
The morning I left for Hopefield, I’d been admiring the new Simply Bee range of solid perfumes at a health shop in the city, not knowing that the beauty brand is based in Hopefield. The beekeeping family behind Simply Bee are passionate about bees, which is evident when you visit their observation centre, on Church Street. There’s a hive behind glass, and other educational material for tour groups or individuals to browse and observe. Fascinating stuff, and the friendly staff are right there to answer any of your bee-related questions as you watch the activity of the hive. They also stock products for beekeeping, which is becoming increasingly popular as a hobby in the Cape. Next door, there’s the rather pretty Simply Bee shop, packed with their honey, propolis and beeswax products.
Fresh finds — yummo!
2 THE SATURDAY MARKET
Every Saturday, locals catch up at The Mill Country Fair Market, organised by the Merry Widow guesthouse, also on Church Street. It’s a farmer’s market, so you can get fresh produce, yummy breads, homemade condiments and the like. I went with a small shopping bag, but when I saw the wares, I immediately grabbed one of the huge baskets they have for you to fill – which I did in about 15 minutes. The food is seriously good, and seriously cheap. One of the recent locals in town later told me that’s one of the reasons she’s loving her move to the country. Local food is affordable, and she watches a lot of it grow right next to where she lives. I bought biltong, organic meat, a quince, figs, cheese, pesto, wild mushrooms, sweet mustard and more… (the mini milk tarts and mince jaffle griddle toasties are divine, BTW).
The dreamy, desolate beauty of Langebaan Lagoon.
The place where many learn to kitesurf is a 20-minute drive away, so off I went for a day of beach reading and kitesurf watching. The area has seen a lot of development since I was last there, thanks to the influx of kitesurfers, but the beach was still pretty quiet on the weekday I went. I found a seashell shop, called Neptune’s Cave, the likes of which I haven’t seen since childhood, which made my heart happy. And looking at the blue of the seascapes there made me completely get the West Coast’s particular appeal. I had mussels and a glass of vino at the beachfront bar this time, but would recommend going to Die Strandloper, if you’re after a serious seafood feast nearby.
This grand little design beckons you in…
4 THE DOLLHOUSE SHOP
On my way out of town, I spotted a dollhouse outside shop next to Moose, another gift-shop-come-café popular with locals. What a find! Inside, there are haberdashery and craft items, alongside a row of dollhouse ‘box rooms’, including a garage, a fabric shop, a grocery store, and a medieval-style chamber, complete with four-poster bed. The book The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, came to mind. I asked the owner/dollhouse-maker if she’d read it. (She had.) And she told me about the Mouse Mansion.
“Do you have daughters and granddaughters,” I asked.
“I do,” she replied. “But dollhouses and miniatures aren’t for children. They’re for adults.”
I tend to agree 🙂
The homeowners were glad to have found someone who takes pet-sitting seriously, but they didn’t want me getting cabin fever, so they reminded me about the new local tapas spot (yes, you can even get tapas in small towns these days). T’Artis situated overlooking the river, at the town’s small theatre, Monte Christo. It’s currently only open on Wednesday and Friday evenings, and it’s BYO until they get their liquor licence. So take a good bottle and select titbits from the blackboard options, while the resident cat entertains you with his antics on the Moroccan-tiled stoep. I had octopus with potatoes, a veg phyllo pastry one, and the most delicious mini burgers I’ve ever eaten – seriously juicy! The chef, Werner, trained as a pastry chef, so if you like sweet things (I don’t), I’m told they’re to die for. (His pretty creations are also on sale at the Saturday market).