The Valley

Nieu Bethesda – part last!

The next morning we got a lovely breakfast spread of bread, sheep’s milk yogurt, cold cereal, eggs, fried tomato and onions, bacon, and boerewors, and set off for the Valley of Desolation and Graaf-Reinet.

Only about half an hour away, we drove straight through the town (2010 Dorp of the Year!) and up to the national park.  The roads up the mountain were terrifying, winding, with no guardrail and an unimaginable drop, and barely enough space for two cars to squeeze by each other.  Though I’m not scared of heights particularly, I did get panicky enough for Paul to first ask me if I was alright, and once assured of that, laugh at my panic the rest of the way up the mountain.

At the first lookout we could see Graaf-Reinet from about ¾ of the way up the mountain.  Pictures just cant quite convey how freakishly high up we were.

Back in the car, we drove a few more frightening minutes up to the tippy-top of the mountain.

This is where we were going:

After a small walk, we were at the lookout, which gave us a view of the staggering Valley of Desolation – part of the Karoo Basin, which once held an inland sea which has since evaporated, and left gorgeous rock structures, a few twiggy bushes, and not much else in its wake.  The immensity of it and the expanse, the sheer amount of space and distance just cannot be captured either in words or pictures – at least not mine anyway.  But it was a breathtaking experience – and we even saw a dassie!  The weekend was complete.

This is the end of the Nieu Bethesda chronicles! Look forward to hearing about Cape Town very soon.


The Sky

Nieu Bethesda – part…ugh, I forget!


After our quarts of beer, a plate of lamb and barley and pickled turnips, dessert of risotto with walnuts and local honey, and a bottle of wine, we wandered/staggered/stumbled outside, back to our room.  The sky.  In the middle of nowhere, there was almost no light pollution, and a new moon to boot.  It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Thousands more stars than I’d ever looked upon, and the milky way looking positively milky, thick with stars that were so many billions of light years away you couldn’t even tell them apart from each other.  Shooting stars, even!  Looking up at a sky like that, where the stars reach right down to the horizon, it’s easy to see how people imagined the sky as a dome, pricked with stars.  It was easy to see how the sky told a story to the Greeks, how up-there was the natural place to imagine heaven would be for the Christians.  Before electricity, before streetlights and stories-tall cities, it would have looked like this for thousands of years, an endless yet perfectly orderly and dependable arch of the stars marching across the sky every night.  I was rapt with wonder, until finally I was shaking of cold, and we retreated inside to the electric blanket and hot water bottles.

The Town

Nieu Bethesda – part 3!

After all the excitement with the Owl House, we took a look around in hopes of locating some beer. The main intersection boasted a pub and trading post that were both closed.  We heard of a great brewery and cheesery (?) but when we tried to go, that was closed too.  There’s a café in the post office, but that was closed too.  There was another small café across the street, but it didn’t serve alcohol.  Finally we located a pub, which was a small, whitewashed one-room building with a fireplace, a bar, and a small fridge.  Spirits were clustered on the edge of the bar, along with various kinds of dried jerky.  Beer sat in boxes piled up behind the bar.  We ordered our beer and ended up with a quart each, and settled down to watch the rugby before dinner.



It ended up being a real cultural experience, and we got involved in a disturbing if not eye opening conversation.  At first the men chatted about rugby in Afrikaans, and I stared into space, catching only a few words that sounded enough like Dutch, or the few that were dropped in English.  A younger friend of the bar man came in, and started to involve us in the conversation by dropping into English.  Rugby commentary turned to a grilling on the debt-ceiling situation when they found we were from the States. Then taxes in South Africa. How hardworking people have to pay an arm and a leg so “they” can sit back and collect.  There are only 46 white people, he tells us, and a few thousand blacks and coloreds (colored = a term for people of mixed racial background in South Africa) in Nieu Bethesda, according to the census six or seven years ago.  Then how “they” stole two of the men’s sheep, and when he finds out who took them, “they” will be sorry.  The other man cautioned him, “You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to be careful,” he repeats, hinting at how you can’t get away with those things these days.  The subtext was clear.  Even a tiny town like Nieu Bethesda has its own township, a mix of tiny one room brick houses and shanties, where the poor black people live clustered together a “reasonable” distance away. Even this beautiful little village nestled between the mountains of the Karoo, there was hatred, fear, divides.  It goes deeper than I can imagine as a foreigner, as someone who has only been here a few days.  Luckily it was seven, and our lamb dinner was ready, so we snuck away.

Nieu Bethesda – part 2! (yaaayy!)

After we checked in, we headed straight for the Owl House & Camel Yard, the main draw of the town.

How to describe this terrifying, beautiful, disturbing place?  The house was owned by Helen Martins, also known as Miss Helen, who grew up in Nieu Bethesda, dreamed of leaving, escaped by marriage, and then was cheated on so returned home to care for her dying father (who she locked in a windowless room; apparently he was a jerk.)  Once she was alone, she started decorating the house – at first with colored window panes, and later by painting almost every wall and ceiling in the house and covering them with crushed glass.  I can only imagine how beautiful it looked by candlelight.

Her walls were covered with framed nudes, reproductions of the Mona Lisa, and enormous mirrors.  She enlisted the help of a local (black) man to help her make sculptures with cement, of which they made many.  She also had some gorgeous shoes, but unfortunately my picture of them didn’t turn out.

Behind her house is the Camel Yard, a garden of playful, bizarre, and sometimes disturbing sculptures.  Needless to say, the locals were weirded out by her and she had few friends. Many townspeople considered her garden an eyesore. It was certainly something to behold:

Are these people trying to turn back time or pull it forward?  The hours on the clockface are months.

Creepiest sculpture?



She continued decorating and making sculptures until, with the onset of arthritis and failing vision, she took her own life.  She was born and died in the same house.

We got a combined ticket to the Owl House and Kitching Fossil Safari, so we headed over there next.  We saw some dinosaurs and a demonstration of how fossils are cleaned, which was actually kind of interesting.

The “safari” was little more than two rooms, but since we didn’t have any expectations going in, we weren’t disappointed.  Actually, it was quite interesting to read a bit about the history of the Karoo, as it is such a vast and raw expanse of land, it seems like it was lifted right out of The Land Before Time.

To be continued…

The Drive

Nieu Bethesda – part 1!

This weekend’s excursion took us to Nieu Bethesda, a (very) small village nestled up in the valley of an impressive mountain range to the north of the Eastern Cape, aka middle of effing nowhere.  It is variously an old settlement that never quite took off, a tragically tiny village without tarred roads, an artist colony, and home of the Owl House and the best sky of stars I’ve ever seen.

We rented a car and drove 4 hours north to the little town on mountain passes, twisty roads, flat roads that went straight into the horizon, and alternately dusty and soggy unpaved roads, and were crossed by a family of vervet monkeys and babies, a clan (?) of baboons, and saw an ostrich farm and innumerable sheep and cows on the way.  Occasionally we’d see a farm house with a ridiculously ornate gate, but the whole way on both sides the road was laced with fences.  Big tall electric ones that protect the game parks, and small evenly space barbed wire fences to keep in the sheep.  Fences sometimes broke away from the road and marched (pointlessly?) up the side of a small mountain, bisecting it with disturbing precision.  Other times they clung tenuously to cliffs and the steep edges where the mountainside was blasted away to level the road.  I saw a lot of fences.

While we were there, there was all of one restaurant running, where we collected the key for our room which was down the street.  There is a massive church (apparently the village was founded because it was too far to go to the church in Graaf-Reinet, 7 hours in the 1800s and about 30 minutes nowadays, so they built their own) and no streetlights.  Or traffic for that matter.

Welcome to Nieu Bethesda!

To be continued….

The Domestic Life

Being here for a month, it feels less like a vacation, less like a one-week-free-for-all and more like a protracted study abroad, with just enough time to get settled before I’ll be plopped back on a plane and drugged with jetlag until I stumble back intoNew England.  It’s been a week and a half (I had to check a calendar because I had absolutely no clue how long it had actually been) since we arrived. Nearly everything takes getting used to, and reminds me ofJapanin its other-landliness. From funny-shaped plugs to separate faucets for hot and cold water (aka, scalding and freezing as it only comes in those temperatures) everything is familiar, but not quite.  The refrigerator is tiny like in my apartment inJapan, and I like being able to place things on top of it. The shower is a precise science – you’ve all seen those pie charts, but this is worse.  Even the tiniest nudge turns the water from skin-peeling hot to arctic, and it often inches up to the former while you’re inside.  The bath is better, but the water is brownish green when it sits in the tub.  I’ve been assured it’s perfectly safe and clean, but I dream of my deep, clear ofuro instead.

The most dramatic appliance so far has been the washer.  After reaching critical laundry levels, I volunteered to was some socks, as it had been raining for days and the sun had finally shown itself over our drying line outside.  After fiddling with some buttons and dials, I heard the sound of water and it seemed to be humming happily, so I went back to my novel in the bedroom.  I popped out for a snack to find the kitchen covered in water.  Preliminary inspection revealed a geyser spouting out of the water draining tube, and after a few pathetic attempts of plugging it, I smashed buttons until the machine shut off.  I tried to mop, but as I lamented to Paul, “There isn’t even a thing to wring the mop with, so I was just pushing water around the floor!” (Later, I realized you can wring mops with your hands.  I am a terrible person and a prat.)   After unreturned phone calls and whining, people showed up to suck up the water (..it had dried 2 days ago?) and finally to fix the washer.  We hung the laundry and it dried by the next day, the only fatality my mini-Che sock that a bird had pooped on.

In all, great success….!!

More of the house:

Living room!

living roomKitchen!


And lemon and avocado trees live in our yard..!!

avo (L) and lemon (R) trees!

A Year

It’s been officially over a year now since I left Japan.  Due to a plethora of time-zone difficulties, I couldn’t be quite sure which was the exact day in which country and the day passed largely without ceremony.  (Ok, so we had a welcome dinner – but it wasn’t for me specifically of course, but for the visiting lecturers.  Sigh, obscurity!)  It’s still hard to understand exactly how I feel.

I’m happy with the extent to which me & Japan are still connected.  I work with Japanese students, I still listen to bits of Japanese music, read Japanese news, I still have friends and connections still in Japan.  But it’s not an obsession.  I don’t live in the past, or in a self-made Japan bubble, watching dramas every night over my somen noodles and edamame.  I think I’ve found a place for that part of my life in my current life.  But I still miss it, as I said – little things and big.  I hope I can go back soon.


Coming here to South Africa has reminded me so much of my time in Japan, whether by stark contrast or freaky similarity.  Even the act of (trying to be) blogging again has felt strangely like putting on an old pair of shoes you forgot you had. Trying to understand another culture, though, is apparently a pair of shoes that never get broken in, and give you terrible blisters but always in a new place.  At least there are bandaids everywhere too, also known as beer.


But enough sappiness!  Will update you soon on the wonders of Nieu Bethesda and boring stories of day-to-day life in little Grahamstown. With pictures, Mom!  Promise!