That old chestnut

It’s a conversation my farm boy and I have a lot. It came up in our cramped Beijing and Hong Kong quarters; again in our quaint London terrace, and now more than ever it seems, when we’re lucky enough to sneak away for a country getaway.

A night away at Old Mac Daddy in Elgin is enough to send anyone’s hankering-for-a-patch-of-land into overdrive. Country life as the antidote to the stresses and strains wrought by the city? A quixotic idea perhaps, but one I see lingering.

It was bitingly cold, the air was pristine and the light golden. One night in our funky airstream trailer felt like a week it was so restorative; still, it wasn’t enough and we’ll definitely be back, for longer next time.

A plasticky month of May

To tie in with Plastic Free July, we’re ramping up our efforts and challenging ourselves to ditch all single-use plastic for that month. Seems easy enough, right? I thought so too, until I started researching and making mental notes of all the things we’d have have to do without.

Plastic is so ubiquitous in our lives it’s easy to not notice it. But once you start paying attention it.is.everywhere.

The biggie for us is going to be packaging. We’ve done away with the plastic bags, bottles and straws but we’re still very much in supermarket mode. So there’s planning and prepping to be done; and this month I learnt a lesson about the importance of this. My weaning-off-plastic attempts were badly scuppered. I snuck off for a weekend away and both my boys are May babies, so let’s just say that some bad planning resulted in me falling off the wagon (there was even a plastic-wrapped-suitcase incident due to a broken zip:-(

But I’m back on track and my homework for the next few weeks is to get sussed on bulk shopping destinations and other non-packaged grocery options. And root out all those pesky bits of plastic that insert themselves into our lives.

Plastic-free kids birthday parties? That’s one to start planning now to get right next year!

Dunes for days

dunes4I highly recommend having your birthday over an Easter break — you can gorge on chocolate, guilt-free, the entire weekend. We snuck off to Arniston for a few days of autumnal seaside living, and it was bliss.

We didn’t do that much beaching per se. The wind howled continually so we rugged up and hit the long stretches of coast to collect pebbles and peer into rock pools. But the highlight — especially for my boys — were the sand dunes.

The beauty and enormity of them totally surprised and thrilled them. Our weekend ritual became one of overindulging at the buffet breakfast then racing to the dunes, to trek up and down and get whipped by mountains of pure white sand.

With not a soul for miles, a blazing blue sky and the shrieking of kids creating sand avalanches — it was pretty special for the grownups too.

dunes5

dunes3

 

 

 

 

Ode to the Fragrant Harbour

hk harbourjpgWhen we swapped our humidifiers (bone dry Beijing) for dehumidifiers (perpetually soggy Hong Kong) I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Hong Kong was the antithesis of Beijing in every way. Beijing was dusty and barren, Hong Kong lush and dense and evergreen. Beijing sprawling and confusing, Hong Kong neat and contained and manageable. Beijing perplexing, Hong Kong recognisable and familiar. Beijing had spit-infested pavements, in Hong Kong spitters can be fined. In Beijing I was starved of English (or any) media, Hong Kong has book stores galore.

We didn’t do Hong Kong justice though; we were too sleep deprived. And when we hightailed it out of there two years later we were still a little weary from the rigours of new parenting. Looking back, here’s my take on the Kong – a mishmash of loves, loathes, anecdotes and regrets:

  • It’s a money town. People come for the big bucks – inflated salaries, tax breaks, cushy expat lifestyle. Locals and foreigners unite in their worship of Hong Kong’s gods – career, money, status, labels.
  • It’s a city of extremes. Louis Vuitton clad corporate types, Dior on every corner, people begging on the pavements outside. Old people with backs crippled from years of hard labour hobbling alongside white collar workers in immaculate suits. Central district is a shrine to capitalism yet wandering out to the remote islands feels like stepping back in time, lives untouched by the frenetic pace and consumer madness of the city itself.
  • It’s a city of contradictions; tradition and modernity clash and blend at every turn. Sleek high-tech buildings that adhere to feng shui principles (think a giant hole in the center of a modern skyscraper to allow a dragon to fly through).
  • It’s an insanely efficient place where things get done so swiftly it makes living anywhere else feel disorganised and very very slow.
  • It’s a small place but , as photojournalist Tom Carter puts it, Take a stroll around Tsim Sha Tsui…and you can see the entire human race in one square-block radius.’ Despite this multicultural mix, it feels segregated. There isn’t just an expat-local divide but foreigners from different parts of the world colonise their corner of the city. Western expats converge in the highrises of midlevels, Filipina helpers can be seen en-masse in public squares on Sundays, their one day off.  
  • It is, surprisingly, a very green city with awesome hiking trails. I left having spent way too much time in air conditioned malls and far too little time exploring the trails.
  • It’s also smoggy. Horribly smoggy. Cleaner than Beijing but enough to get down in the dumps about the state of your lungs on a regular basis. Combine this with ridiculous humidity levels and it’s little wonder people tend to stay indoors.
  • The escalator is so unique to Hong Kong – an outdoor escalator that takes you from the bottom of a steep hill to the top, dotted all the way  up with cafes and restaurants packed with beautiful young things. Surely one of the best places in the world for people watching.
  • While heavily pregnant, I was queue-jumped in rush hour while trying to hail a cab. It was one of my pet hates so all sorts of filth poured out my mouth about said queue jumper. Witnessing this, an old Chinese man ran up to me, lurched into the road and did a spot of queue jumping himself to hail me a cab. He gave me an apologetic smile and said I’m sorry about that, it’s just the Hong Kong way, you have to learn to fight’. Too true.
  • We lived in such an expat bubble it’s hard to fathom triad activity anywhere in the city. But apparently this is a thing. I guess way beyond the plushness of Central, in the city’s underbelly?
  • Not quite as sterile as ‘Asia lite’ Singapore and less edgy than Beijing but still with an edge of it’s own, Hong Kong strikes a good balance between being liveable but also fun and culturally rich. (It always makes Monocles ‘Most Liveable Cities’ list).
  • If I had to do it over: I’d check out Chungking Mansions, the big Buddha (shocking I know), I’d hike the more remote islands, explore armed with a camera and have at least one completely debauched night in Lan Kwai Fung.
  • Best bit – as always – the friends we made (and the foot massages!).

So much in life is about timing and for us the timing was a little off. I was immersed in nappies and night feeds and so in a sense could have been in any city. Which is a pity really as Hong Kong is one kick ass city – with an unrivalled night life, super glam expat scene, incongruities everywhere that simultaneously frustrate and fascinate. It was a strange time in my life, where nothing and everything happened, like a stop on the way to somewhere else. Yet as the place where I married my love, had a blissful pregnancy and became a mother, it’s forever close to my heart.

Falling for my firsts

granadilla flower
Spotting this beauty first thing on a Monday morning was the sweetest moment.

Our veggie patch is at the back of our house; you need to walk out and around to get to it. It’s a trip I’m starting to love, I can feel the anticipation build as I round the corner. I get excited to suss out what’s happened overnight, and, if I’m lucky enough to have a cup of tea in hand, to sit, groggy and unwashed, and enjoy a few stolen moments of complete solitude before the days starts. A momentary vacation from my thoughts, and from my kids (turns out its a great place to hide from them).

It’s been two months since we started growing and one of the best parts are the firsts. First granadilla flower (I think I yelped out loud when I spotted it), first green pepper bud (imperfect as it was), first homegrown salad. My pride and joy, I almost can’t bear to eat these little babies.

green pepper
I love this green pepper dearly. She doesn’t look very healthy or edible but she’s my first and she’s snuck into my heart.
salad
A bit heavy on the rocket, but hey, it was my first homegrown salad and it was going to taste amazing regardless.

 

Mighty Middle Kingdom

Vipassana
In Feng Shui, the door is the mouth of the home, allowing chi to be drawn inside. Red doors, very common in China, symbolise good luck and happiness.

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

  • Culturally, China is very heterogenous. Though the majority of people, about 90%, are Han Chinese, there are about 56 different ethnicities.  A friend gave me the most beautiful book called ‘China: Portrait of a People’ by photojournalist Tom Carter, and I never tire of paging through it, enraptured by the faces.  From the Islamic Uighurs to the matriarchal Miao to the Yi and (depending on where you stand politically), the Tibetans and Taiwanese, the diversity is truly astounding.  People always talk about ‘the Chinese’ as if they’re a homogenous mass, and when I’d try imagine China before living there, I’d picture a sea of indistinguishable faces.  Such a huge misconception. What’s interesting is that my Chinese colleagues would tell me that – to them – all westerners looked the same. I guess cultural reductionism works both ways.
  • The food is mind-blowingly delicious and completely diverse – it’s certainly not all chow mein and chop suey. Different parts of the country have very different cuisines. During our time there my husband would attend elaborate Chinese banquets where he sampled delicacies like sea cucumber, jellyfish, camel’s hump, camel’s paw and live lobster shashimi.  He always said the food he liked most was the ‘peasant food’ – the wholesome simple food that ordinary Chinese people ate. The fancier the banquet and the more the hosts tried to impress, the more unpalatable the food – and I totally agree.  I still salivate thinking of hotpot in the winter, spicy sichuan fish with its tongue-numbing pepper, Xinjiang kebabs, dofu, refried beans.
  • It’s not all zen and yin and yang. I was bumped and pushed and shoved and queue jumped. I was surprised that ancient Chinese practices like feng shui and traditional Chinese medicine didn’t seem very prevalent, not on the surface anyway. I learnt this is a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was hell-bent on eradicating all traces of traditional Chinese beliefs — he regarded them as backward and a threat to progress.  If you look hard enough, you can find corners of peace and tranquility and the quaint China you imagine, but on the face of it it’s noisy and in your face and dog-eat-dog.  In competing with a billion other people in the race to modernise, I get why it’s like this; still –  I always took it as a personal affront when someone pushed in front of me or into me.
  • The incredible ethnic diversity has resulted in different dialects – linguists say somewhere between 7 and 14. Most expats tackling Chinese are not brave enough to learn Chinese characters, and opt for pinyin instead.  Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters, using punctuation to denote the tones. And tones are very important. The example always given to beginners is that of ma – which, depending on which tone you use (first tone maaa or fourth tone mah), can mean either ‘mother’ or ‘horse’ (a faux pas waiting to happen basically).
  • The government may have loosed its grip somewhat, but when we lived there censorship was alive and well. Our first experience of it was while watching BBC – a segment on China had just begun when the TV screen went blank. Social media sites are blocked and unblocked randomly and don’t even try and google Tiananmen Square or Tibet. I once managed to find a copy of National Geographic from a tucked away kiosk in a mall that stocked foreign language magazines (English magazines were always a treat!). It was the run up to the Olympics so China was getting lots of coverage. Inside was an article on China and every reference to Tiananmen had been manually crossed out with a black marker pen. The diligence of the censorship police seemed to know no bounds. The few times I did try engage my colleagues on the leadership of the country I was met with blank stares and stony silences.
  • The geographical diversity is huge. China has mountains, rivers, lakes, plateaus, karsts, snow and sunshine. It’s like a dozen countries in one, though with just one time zone! The winters in the north are subarctic and the summers in the south are tropical. A vivid Beijing memory is of streets jam-packed with bodies wearing full-length padded jackets, not unlike duvets. With temperatures of -10 not uncommon, warmth definitely trumps fashion. A trip to see the famous Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin (a town in the very north of China, close to Russia) was a highlight, admiring the giant ice sculptures, in below thirty temperatures, with frozen nostril hairs and layer upon layer of thermal wear.
  • The Great Wall, I was surprised to learn, is not one long wall but rather a series of connecting walls built over centuries and – contrary to local belief – I don’t think you can see if from outer space.  It’s a truly spectacular sight though and if you’re ever in that part of the world, try and do a weekend trip with William Lindesay.  He’s a Great Wall researcher whose claim to fame is being the first foreigner to walk the entire length of the wall.  His knowledge is incredible and he’ll take you to some remote sections of the wall miles away from the crowds. www.wildwall.com

There it is, my version of China for Dummies. Years ago, I remember reading in the Lonely Planet that India is a complete assault on the senses and I found that to be true. I also found the same to be true of China. It’s hard to be indifferent about it – you love it, then hate it, then both at the same time. It’s just completely impossible to ignore.

(*This post was written years ago. Even though we’re now happily ensconced in the suburbs of Cape Town, putting down some roots, sometimes, in and amongst all the domesticity, I still get an itch, to pack it all up, move somewhere new and be presented with that wonderfully exciting clean slate. For now, the closest I’ll get to that are flashbacks to our expat days).

The morality of meat

I still chuckle when I think of my husband watching me tuck into a rack of ribs and remark, not unkindly, ‘Oh, how the mighty have fallen’. Heavily pregnant, I’d finally, and wholeheartedly, succumbed to the meat cravings I’d been having for the past decade.

I was a smug vegetarian, I think  because I was conflicted about it. I believed (still do) vegetarianism to be an admirable (and increasingly necessary) choice, but eating meat made – still makes – me feel good. My ideals and my desires – couldn’t marry the two.

Some of the greatest thinkers of our time, men of science and of religion, rejected meat, usually on moral grounds. This inherent morality –  where you can point to peoples’ compassion, or lack thereof, makes the flesh eating debate tricky territory to navigate as it invites judgement; it leaves space for right and wrong, kind and cruel, virtuous and evil. How can you be an evolved soul and still eat animals? Or be privy to how animals are farmed and not take a stance?

Even if you manage to manoeuvre your way round the cruelty, by just not thinking about it, as most of us do, our meat consumption is seriously bad news for the planet — something that’s harder to ignore with environmental issues so high on the agenda.

Those who’d espouse a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle have a powerful case. To skim the list of reasons to ditch meat:

  • Factory farming is pretty grim: cruelly confined spaces, growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial fattening of animals, the heartbreaking mother-calf separation hours after birth.
  • Meat farming gobbles up resources. It’s estimated about 30% of our  (ice-free) land is now used for meat production. Huge swathes of rainforest are being cleared to make space for livestock farming.
  • The cows themselves are huge polluters, releasing toxic methane into the environment.
  • One stat from Cowspiracy that’ll scream out at you: it takes more than 2000 litres of water to make one hamburger. I still can’t wrap my head around that stat; it’s so grossly disproportionate it almost defies belief.

My kids are complete carnivores, so it’ll be a while before we embrace vegetarianism. But it is time to cut back – way, way back. Abstinence didn’t work for me, I’d cave then beat myself up about it, so I’m trying a different approach. To flip things around so that meat is an occasional treat rather than a staple. And to be more mindful about where and what meat we buy – though just thinking about that minefield gives me a slight headache. Free range, organic, pasture fed, ethically sourced – what does it all mean, really?

Part of weaning off meat is having accessible, tasty vegetarian recipes up your sleeve. Check back soon for some of our favourites that can be made in a jiffy with minimal ingredients. Meantime the hunt for slightly more sophisticated, hearty vegetarian recipes continues; I know they’re out there. Anyone got great recipes to share?

Famous vegetarians
Einstein; Pythagoras; Plutarch; Leonardo da Vinci; Leo Tolstoy; Gandhi; Charles Darwin; Voltaire; Jane Goodall; Pamela Anderson; Natalie Portman; Paul and Linda McCartney; Steve Jobs; Mike Tyson; Bill Clinton; Hitler*

(*The Nazis apparently introduced animal protection rights that still exist today; the fine for hurting an animal was two years. If that’s not a study in the complexity of morality and the human psyche!)

buddha quoterwe quote

einstein quote

Babylonstoren

 

 

The first time I visited Babylonstoren, two years ago, I was blown away. Having just gone back, with a newfound passion for growing food — oh.my.word. My husband said he could hear my ovaries singing.

All those beautiful strong plants, that soil teeming with microlife, the nooks and crannies amongst the giant sunflowers, prickly pear forests and quince trees. And the blue and white tiled decor. Maybe that’s where its magic lies. It stirs both the grower and the aesthete in you.

 

Our patch – an update

We’re forging ahead with our veggie garden despite the relentless heat. In retrospect, planting during a drought may have been unwise – but the seasons are turning; the days are crisper and there are traces of dew in the mornings. And, most crucially, our well point is up and running.

garden-helpers
My helpers hard at work prepping the soil with a nice thick layer of compost.

We’ve started small, sticking to veggies that were already in the patch or that we’ve had luck with before. Though today, on a whim, I snuck past the nursery and couldn’t resist picking up borage and echinacea.

Borage, much-loved by experienced gardeners, is said to have all kinds of benefits – it adds trace minerals to the soil, self seeds, is edible (one has to wonder how edible with those prickly leaves), and is a magnet for bees and other pollinators. So I’m giving it a whirl. Echinacea – who can resist those gorgeous flowers?

garden1
After removing the trampoline, we left the tomato plant, pomegranate bush and lemon tree where they were; they seemed happy. The chilli bush in the box on the right was grown from seed by my husband – it has not loved the transplant. You’ll spot rocket, kale and lettuce seedlings and our granadilla plant leaning against the wall on the left (begging for a trellis). And a pop of pink in the corner.
fig
Planting this fig tree was a big moment in my life. Love everything about them and have longed for one in my garden. Now just need to learn how to grow them! Tips anyone?
green-pepper
Raw green peppers are one of the few veggies my boys eat so had to include these. And kale for us!

Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.
– Thomas Berry

Earmarked

A momentous day! I finally convinced my boys (the not-so-farmy ones) to move the trampoline so I can claim a patch of land to start a veggie garden. Here it is, in all its bare earth glory.

veggie-garden
I’ve inherited a few stragglers that grew under or around the trampoline – a small lemon tree, a pomegranate bush, and a very determined tomato plant. For the rest, its an untouched parcel of land in which I get to realise a long held dream – to plant a fig tree!

I know next to nothing about growing vegetables – the learning curve is going to be steep. First task – remove the bits of rubble and prepare the soil, enriching it with compost. All the while plotting and dreaming about this little tract of land in our little corner of suburbia, where we’ll toil, grow, learn and find nourishment.

Garden as though you will live forever
-William Kent