40 things I did the year I turned 40

I just turned 42. I spent the day in Sapa, up high in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. As we sat down to eat and drink rice wine (AKA “happy water”) with the hardworking Black Hmong family hosting us in their homestay, after planting rice in the green hill terraces you see in travel guidebooks, I wondered how I got to be so lucky.

My life post-40 is so different to what it was pre-40. My thirties were full of highs, and way more lows. So I thought I’d share some of the big and small things I did the year I turned forty in a deliberate effort to change course.

rice planting in Sapa Vietnam

The rice paddies at Mama Mu’s homestay, Sapa. Note the buffalo and the family planting rice.

  1. Saw the year in with an after-party swim with friends at dawn. An owl winked at us from a perch between branches.
  2. Celebrated 12 years of ‘flying solo’ (with its many moments of romantic potential, missed connections, heart-heaviness; as well as its total independence and undeniable character-building).
  3. Mourned the end of my ‘happy family’ fantasy. Decided to turn to Option B: Travel.
  4. Lived in other people’s houses, giving their pets and homes TLC while they were away. I stoked fires, gazed into glossy animal eyes and slept with furry bodies breathing beside me.
  5. Went on a facilitated sacred mushroom journey. The fabled Heroic Dose took me on a (thankfully) beautiful trip that nourished me for months after.

    sacred magic mushroom journey

    Artwork by Burakerk / Pixabay.

  6. Got down and dirty at AfrikaBurn (the African version of Burning Man) after a seven-year break.
  7. Subsequently lost my heart on a sparkly dancefloor under a big, starry sky 😉
    Saw the sun rise just after watching a huge wooden artwork burn in the African desert, being held by a beautiful young foreigner dressed in a Zebra suit. (Ten months later, I was being held by another older foreigner while watching the sun set over the sea on a Thai island *wink*)

    afrikaburn 2018

    The sunrise burn at AfrikaBurn 2018 (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of whose pic this is…).

  8. Admired an epic halo form around the moon with special people. Twice.
  9. Completed my TEFL training to teach English as a Foreign Language.
  10. Renewed both of my (long-expired) passports.
  11. Had an Enneagram reading tell me I’m likely a type 4 (Individualist – sensitive, introspective), not a 1, as previously believed. (Makes much sense, TBH.)
  12. Had an astrologist tell me, “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Hold on for 44.” *gulp*
  13. Worked with my old boss and mentor; repaired some (somewhat) burnt bridges.
  14. Shared a sunset beach ritual with my identical twin sister (to claim what we wished for, and let go of what no longer serves us). We later dined at the place the World Restaurant Awards voted Best Restaurant in the World for 2019.

    paternoster beach

    Paternoster on the Cape West Coast, where we stayed for our shared birthday xxxx.

  15. Danced around a pole. Poorly.
  16. Left my country’s borders for the first time in nine years. (Ended up visiting five in that year.)
  17. Met the male cat that lives in the rocks beneath the Greek Parthenon (meaning “unmarried women’s apartments”, ha!) on the Athens Acropolis. Fast, feisty fella.
  18. Took a writing retreat on Lesbos, the Greek island the poetess and ‘tenth muse’ Sappho was from.

    flamingo bar skala eressos lesbos

    Flamingo Beach Bar, at the lesbian-friendly Skala Eressos beach on Lesbos, the island the poetess Sappho came from.

  19. Attended my first gay wedding as part of the (one) groom’s party – a special honour.
  20. Packed up the apartment where I’d worked and lived alone for five years.
  21. Marie Kondoed my home and got rid of most of my possessions. Not the books, though. Hell no.
  22. Moved to a new continent – experienced the culture shock that is SouthEast Asia.

    som tum salad

    My first meal in Thailand. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, I couldn’t stomach the overly fishy Som Tum salad with raw prawns.

  23. Faced a financial reckoning. Filed years’ worth of tax returns (finally!).
  24. Started paying off debts accumulated during my feast-or-famine freelance years.
  25. Changed careers, temporarily. Started back at the bottom with others fresh out of uni/college.
  26. Started working with children.

    monk day Thailand

    Monks’ Day at the farming school where I taught.

  27. Became a foreigner in a foreign land. Twice.
  28. Lived in neighbourhoods where few speak English; lost language as a daily tool.
  29. Tried many weird foods for the first time. (Fried silkworm pupa, crispy crickets, pigs’ intestines, chicken-blood soup, to name a few…)

    Khanom chin and chicken feet Thailand

    Khanom chin noodle soup with chicken feet and chicken blood (the dark jelly bits). It was made by my favourite student’s grandmother, so I didn’t have the heart to decline the offer.

  30. Spent my first Christmas away from home. Worked on the day. (Which, in Thailand schools, means wearing red, posing for pics, watching a lot of Christmas-themed shows put on by the students, making kids make Christmas cards and sing along to English carols.)
  31. Walked with elephants at a sanctuary.NOTE: Never ride elephants, and do your research to find out which sanctuaries are really what they claim to be. I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project started by Chiang Mai locals and the Karen hill-tribes. But I still have mixed feelings about the experience/sanctuary vis-a-vis responsible tourism and the elephant issue in Thailand. In my mind, my money went towards supporting the tribes who look after the elephants in their care. I realise it may not be as simple as this.
  32. Walked into my first NYE party on my own, not knowing anyone there.
  33. Went sailing for the first time, around Thailand’s beautiful islands.

    Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket

    Buying prawns off of a longtail from the yacht … near where the James Bond film was filmed, Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket.

  34. Savoured the holiday romance of my dreams. Ooh. La. La!
  35. Started learning (the basics of) two new languages.
  36. Got onto the back of a motorbike for the first time. Got into a tuk-tuk for the first time.
  37. Navigated the art of using a squat toilet. Note: navigated, not mastered.
  38. Marvelled at the joys of walking alone at night, safely, for the first time in my life.
  39. Took myself less seriously by becoming the buffoon you sometimes have to be when teaching without the aid of a shared language.
  40. Moved into my first houseshare, the day I turned 41.

    Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

    Stormy seas on my 40th birthday, Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

5 Things to do in Hopefield, on the Cape West Coast

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.

wildflowers western cape

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.

zoute river hopefield

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.

succulents

cottage kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unsurprisingly, the town boasts a Pep 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.

Dutch Reformed Church Hopefield

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…

Bees and propolis products

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.

farmer market hopefield

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).

Langebaan kitesurfing lagoon

The dreamy, desolate beauty of Langebaan Lagoon.

3 LANGEBAAN

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.

dollhouse miniature

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 🙂

tart tapas

5 T’ART

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’Art is 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).

Hopefully, I’ll be back in Hopefield in Spring for the wildflowers and annual flower show, and to visit the fossil museum, and have a beer at Die Plaasmol.

EXTRAS:

  • If you’re interested in staying in the cottage of the property I looked after, check out the listing, here.
  • Read more on the architecture of Hopefield (and get a pear pavlova recipe!), here.