When we lived in Hong Kong I found the expat supermarkets mind boggling. Talk about being spoilt for choice. Not much grows in this high-density concrete jungle yet browse the aisles of their supermarkets and there’s very little you can’t find. In season, out of season, every delicacy from every corner of the globe.
As wonderful as it is to live in the southern hemisphere and eat berries in winter, it’s far from a carbon neutral experience. Many miles are covered and many fossil fuels burnt to get those berries to you – plus untold amounts of pesticides sprayed to ensure they arrive looking pert and fresh.
Eating what’s in season, I’m learning more and more, has few (if any) downsides and scores of upsides. Here, in a nutshell, are just some of them:
Grown in the right conditions, seasonal food can be picked when ripe and is therefore fresher, juicier and a whole lot more flavourful
The journey from soil to plate is short and low on air miles
You’ll be supporting the local economy by buying from local farmers, growers and artisanal food producers
Variety. And getting back in tune with our natural cycles and rhythms. We were designed to eat certain foods at certain times of year. For example, watermelon and juicy fruit to hydrate in the hot summer months and leafy greens to strengthen our immunity before the winter months.
Supplies are high so it’s cheaper!
Still not convinced? Read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral for inspiration and great seasonal cooking tips.
And check back here soon for my Cape Town seasonal eating chart.
My Dad smoked when we were kids and I remember one birthday conspiring with my mom and sisters to get him his dream present, a carton of Camel Filter cigarettes. We were properly chuffed with ourselves. Looking at photos of our parties around the same time, I can’t help but chuckle at the bottles of coke strewn across the table.
These days smokers are pariahs who’ve been banished outdoors and few of us willingly ply our kids with sugar. There’ve been shifts in thinking and we’ve learnt a few lessons.
I imagine our own kids, when they’re adults, are going to be mind-blown by our frivolous attitude towards water. They’ll scarcely believe we watered our gardens and flushed our loos with precious drinking water. Or grew tropical plants in a Mediterranean climate. Perhaps the image of us cavorting in our pools will trigger the same smug disapproval we have when we imagine our mums smoking while pregnant or chauffeuring us sans carseats.
Cape Town is up shit creek after reportedly the worst drought in a century. Stage 4 water restrictions come into effect on 1st June and social media is in overdrive – with sobering official warnings, photos of our depleted dams, and countless water saving tips, much of it quite useful.
If there’s one upside of the drought it’s the conversations we’ve been forced to have, and the solutions we’ve had to implement. A mere 8 months ago, as a family, we were quite oblivious, and as a result careless, irrigating with Council water and luxuriating in regular baths. Now, it seems, there’s a new normal as people retrofit their homes and adapt to the water shortages.
But will it stick?
I wonder where we’ll be in say three to five years time, or after a few soggy winters. Reverted to our old ways with our immaculate lawns and sparkling swimming pools? Or will we have wisened up.
South Africa is a water scarce country, the 30th driest in the world. Our exploding population and changing weather patterns are putting huge strain on all our resources, not just our water.
Fan out further still, and it’s hard to ignore the impact of humanity’s demands on our straining little planet. The Water Project estimates that nearly 1 billion people on the planet do not have access to safe, clean water, yet for most of us reading this, contemplating life without water has an end-of-days feeling; it’s a very unsettling thought.
Can we even conceive of what will happen if we open the taps one day and they’ve run dry?
The anthropologist in me is always fascinated by alternate ways of seeing and doing. A writing assignment on waste management a few years ago was something of a turning point for me, as it brought home just how destructive our lifestyle of excess and waste is. It kickstarted a desire to tread a little lighter; to learn how to do things a bit differently.Since then, I’ve stumbled upon minimalism, the zero waste movement, urban farming, permaculture – whole new worlds are being opened up. These schools of thought all feed into each other, offering alternatives to our consumer-mad society, and I’m dabbling in them all as I figure out what resonates, what sticks, and what’ll get us closer to living just a bit greener and wilder in our sliver of suburbia.
In her food forest in the heart of the suburbs, Saskia Schelling of Urban Farmstead grows an abundance of fruit and veggies; it’s a thriving model of permaculture. Here she sheds some light on what permaculture is:
What is permaculture?
“For me that’s like asking ‘What is Life?’ The term Permaculture – Permanent Agriculture or Permanent Culture – was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, then later taken on by Geoff Lawton and others.
Permaculture is a highly effective way to design for a future of abundance, not just of food, but in every sense of the word. It’s often defined as ‘the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems and human living environments, which have the diversity, stability, and the strength of natural eco-systems.’
What this means is that permaculture design mimics nature in every sense – the natural laws, the organising principles and the patterns and interconnections that naturally occur in ecosystems.
Permaculture isn’t just about growing great organic veggies – although of course it does encompass these things. Neither is it a ‘plug and paste’ solution (ie one solution fits all environments).
The power of observation The permaculture principles, one of which is Observation, need to be applied to each and every site. You need to observe the soil ph, the natural biomes, the plants, azimuths, contours, people, land uses, natural vegetation, and insects.
Part of the beauty is that the actual design and solutions appear out of the process. If you follow all the design steps systematically, the design seems to present itself miraculously. The layers and layers of ‘data’ gathered through observation are overlaid and this, together with the visions and wishes of the stakeholders, informs the mainframe design.
For example, after mapping and observation, it’ll become obvious that a soggy, marshy part of a property is not the best place to erect a house – instead, it may be the perfect place to build a dam perhaps, or plant water-loving plants.
Nothing in isolation
Permaculture also takes into account the economic, social and environmental aspects of a habitat. It’s principles can be used to shift stale or stagnant working environments into healthy, vibrant, flowing, productive ones. It serves as a basis from which to make holistic, viable decisions, whether in corporate or private arenas.
The are three permaculture ethics which are key to healthy interactions with the earth and with each other. They are Care for the land; Care for the people; and Share the Surplus.”
To read about Saskia’s super inspiring story and find out about upcoming workshops, see here. And to learn more about Permaculture in South Africa, have a look at Love Green Permaculture.
Can I still call myself an aspiring minimalist if I have a very long list of books I’m coveting? If I fantasise about piles of books, stacks of magazines and a coffee table overflowing with tomes? Admit that I’ll never get round to reading them all, but just want them?
Currently lusting after these evocatively titled books, taunting me with their aesthetically pleasing covers.
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!
Arriving at Saskia’s house in the suburbs, there’s nothing to prepare you for the abundant food forest contained within its walls. Over a period of 5 or so years, Saskia has toiled, tirelessly, to transform her conventional suburban garden into a thriving model of permaculture.
Her passion is contagious. Below is just some of what Saskia had to say about her journey. I’ll be sharing more of her wisdom and insights in further instalments of this post, but for now…
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What motivated you to start growing your own food?
I’ve always had a passion for growing edibles and for gardening. This stems, I suspect, from many hours spent watching my mothers’ veggie gardens thrive; the taste and smell of just-pulled carrots still hanging onto some good earth; freshly plucked strawberries and sweet sweet figs; oooh and those apricots!
I also have memories of myself in my toddler years, pre-teens and teens on my grandparents small holding in Pretoria, conversing with the chickens, sheep, peacock and tadpoles and observing the fascinating processes of my grandfather’s honey collecting, biltong-making; and planting and harvesting of maize and other earthly goodnesses.
It was however, not until Kent Tahir Cooper walked into my yoga classes some 7 years ago, that my passion for permaculture was truly ignited and fuelled. I ‘interned’ myself under the watchful and mindful guidance of Tahir, by intensely converting our run-of-the-mill urban garden into a zone of permaculture abundance.
It took many hours of sweat, perseverance, many challenges, and extremely late nights watching movie upon movie: from Bill Mollison to Geoff Lawton and everything in between. I stopped at nothing – to my family’s frustration. I measured and walked and observed every corner of the property and implemented the permaculture principles without holding back.
Some of the benefits?
The compounding benefits I observed whilst working with nature thrilled me, not only in respect of my own personal health, but also in the health of this patch of urban space. The more intensely I worked and connected with the earth, following the permaculture principles and techniques, the more I observed positive shifts and the unquestionable regeneration of this ecosystem within ecosystems that I call our home. My family then followed as they began to experience the shifts too, and to taste the fruits of our labour – literally.
We also began to notice the cost-saving in terms of veggies and fruits and herbs; and the petrol saved from driving to the shops and back; and the health benefits of eating home-grown fresh produce. Our friends and family noticed too and started asking for help to implement the same at their homes; then came our children’s friends asking questions, and so the children’s workshops came into being; and then came the demand for planter boxes to house the veggies, so we started to make those. The garden and system continued to develop until we had surplus knowledge and plants and produce to share, and now we love to share!
The journey continues to unfold as every day brings new challenges, new ideas, new solutions waiting to be revealed.
Top tips for someone wanting to start a veggie garden?
Observe, observe and observe your site.
Involve all of the stakeholders right from the beginning whether you are working with your own home, an NGO, a corporate or private individuals. Obtain EVERYONE’S input, ideas and vision.
If you possibly can, attend a good internationally accredited PDC (Permaculture Design Course) that has a reputable reputation and is facilitated by experienced permaculture practitioners; or obtain advice and guidance from an experienced trained permaculture practitioner.
Design a sound viable Mainframe Plan. Without this, you set yourself up for possible disappointment down the line.
Plant what you eat, and not what you don’t.
Have fun and enjoy the journey!
Your favourite things to grow? And things you’d love to grow in the future?
Too many to name but here are a few: tamarillos (tree tomatoes); Italian tree tomatoes (actually tomatoes – huge ones); asparagus; bananas; granadillas; tulsi; ashwaganda (the bull-bulls love them!); watercress; pear-melons; grapes; zucchini; beans; peas; figs; brussels sprouts; sweet potatoes (edible, pretty, groundcovers – why on earth would anyone BUY them. They LOVE growing in sandy soil and are so abundant!); lemons; apricots; celery; kale; chard.
I’d love to grow a large abundant sage bush – for some reason sage just doesn’t grow well in our soil. I’d love to grow kiwi fruit, and coffee, and litchis and coconuts, but our micro-climate is not quite ready for those additions as yet. And we LOVE to collect our own eggs! We also LOVE to grow our heirloom veggie and herb seedlings; indigenous plants and pioneer plants for ourselves, our friends and family and the greater community.
*Stay tuned for more from Saskia. And to read more about Urban Farmstead’s workshops, check out their site here.
I 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.
When 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.
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.
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.
At the base of Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain
(*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).