Day 42: Half a bag of red onions
The following day I am at the petrol station in Calitzdorp looking for a lift to Ladismith. The female attendant suggests that I ask at the municipality because, ‘Hulle karre is op en af die hele dag van hier tot in Ladismith. Op en af!’
The municipal receptionist eyes me suspiciously and declares this a matter for the mayor. She offers me coffee and when she reappears she has a few curious colleagues in tow who all give me a critical up-and-down.
Some fifteen minutes later I am ushered into Mr Valentyn’s office. We shake hands and he bursts out laughing, ‘When they said there was a girl in reception looking for a lift, I thought you were a runaway!’
It turns out that he is on his way to address a rural school near Ladismith. It is almost school holidays and he wants to appeal to the learners to listen to their parents and stay off the streets at night. Afterwards, he drops me off in Ladismith and stuffs some money in my pocket. Just in case.
It is still early. Breakfast time. I scan the little town. There are very few people around and I find myself absorbing the quaintness of the place. Then the sweet aroma of coffee wafting from the Kanna Kombuis reels me in. Before I know it one cappuccino is coming right up. I can afford it, thanks to Mr Valentyn.
The owner, Barbie, greets me with such enthusiasm that I feel instantly at home. By this stage I have quite a few stories to share. Pandora at the next table and the patrons next to her all get caught up in the morning’s spontaneous energy. Our tables merge and we form an animated circle – Barbie, Pandora, Hercú, Jurie and I. Jurie and Hercú are from Montagu. They delight us with their stories and typical Afrikaans sayings, such as when Jurie eulogises his wife’s rosyntjiebrood: ‘Jy hoef nie ’n perd op te saal om ’n rosyntjie te gaan soek nie.’
In the course of this morning I am invited to stay on their farm where Hercú promises to teach me to bake the famous raisin bread.
I reach Montagu after a few days in Ladismith and Barrydale, but before I can even ask anybody about the Lombards, I find myself spending a night in a room that was a barn before it was a school and is soon to become backpackers’ lodgings behind Café Fresh.
The next morning I am treated to a royal breakfast. While I eat, savouring each bite, Jemima, the owner’s daughter, draws pictures in my notebook and tells me about her dog who now lives in heaven. When I tell her that I can hear him bark she admonishes me, ‘Silly, he can’t bark in heaven any more.’
Then her father, Pieter, arrives and hands me half a bag of red onions in an orange net. He’s heading back to Cape Town today and thought it might be a good idea for me to take this as an offering for my next host family. Our eyes meet – I swear I see a devilish glint in his – and it is clear that we share the same mental picture of a hitchhiker by the roadside, her thumb begging you to stop and the bag of red onions urging you to drive past. We throw our heads back and laugh. Little do I know that these red onions will lead to a gift chain of events that will last throughout my journey and that will see me walking barefoot for a few days.
I am about to enter the local supermarket to ask where I can find the Lombards when I almost run smack-bang into Jurie himself. ‘Ah, jy is hier,’ he says. ‘Ons het gewonder wanneer kom jy!’
Their farm kitchen is filled with the aroma of a lifetime’s baking, cooking and love. Hercú throws her arms around me, switches the kettle on and points to the table in the centre of the kitchen. On one side I see a bag of flour, a few other ingredients and hanepoot raisins. Hercú tells me they were bought on the very day we met in Ladismith and have been waiting here for me ever since.
‘Kaffertjie? Kaffertjie!’ Hercú calls, ‘Kom jong, hier is die meisiekind waarvan ons jou vertel het!’
Kaffertjie is Hercú’s kitchen right hand. She immediately begins to show me how to make the bread and over the course of the next three days I eat raisin bread between all the other meals.
When I feel that the time has come to leave I hand them the half bag of red onions. Hercú has already given me a jar of homegrown, home-made apricot jam, which I shall pass on, and to that she now adds a generous helping of traditional Christmas cake and insists that it is mine and mine alone. (And believe me, there’s no need to saddle a horse to find the raisins in this cake, nor the nuts and brandy, for that matter.)
Again I am dropped off at a petrol station, my surest source of a lift, where I find two gentlemen and a lady who can take me as far as Napier. After a detour to their favourite pub, The Fox, I wave them and the bottle of apricot jam farewell. My belongings have been enriched by a bag of peaches.
In the early afternoon I amble through quiet Napier, a town that begs to be captured on film. I have been given a bunk bed in the Suntouched Inn by its owner, Craigon, whose invitation has brought me here, but it is very quiet and lonely and my camera doesn’t want to be kept indoors. There is such beauty in a wall that is not quite straight, or a woman walking down the street of her home town, oblivious to her placement in a photograph.
Eventually, exhausted by the heat, I head back to the Inn for a nap. Fortunately I left the sliding door slightly ajar so the room should be nice and cool, I think. And I can do with a slice of Hercú’s Christmas cake before I lie down. I wonder briefly why there is a small piece of foil on the floor. Then I see that my bag has been moved. And that my Christmas cake is gone. All of it.
Just outside my room I find the culprit – a guilty-looking dog with a piece of foil still dangling from its mouth. At first I’m upset, but then reason returns and I feel concerned about the copious amounts of alcohol and foil the animal has ingested. I mean, this was a whole quarter of a gigantic cake, and Route 62’ers are not shy about lacing their cake with brandy – and not for medicinal purposes either. Then my eyes fall on my walking shoes, or what remains of them, and I realise that the dog’s appetite was even bigger than I thought.
Walking around barefoot in a place like Napier automatically leads to more friends, and offers of shoes flood in. Liani, a woman I meet on a veranda and whose impromptu invitation for dinner I accept, lends me her plakkies to wear home that evening. She is happy to give them to me, but I decline. I leave Napier the following day with new stories and new friends, wearing my broken shoes.
Sometimes the gifts are the stories and sometimes the stories are the gifts. I could arrive at a students’ digs in one town bearing a bottle of organic red wine from the mayor of the previous town, or foot the medical bill of one family through the grace of another. One of my hosts installed a geyser for the family that had hosted me the night before. There’s a special beauty in arriving somewhere bearing unexpected gifts. I found grace carrying the untold hopes for our country in a half bag of red onions.