Playing Marbles on the Wild Coast

We played marbles, my daughter, a young African boy, and I, one sunny morning on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

I meandered along the fine sandy beach, the morning sun’s warmth increasing, the wind less than the day before. My daughter walked near me, searching for shells or some creatures of the sea.

Around the curve of the coast, a little boy appeared near us, his black eyes big and friendly. Picking up a round seed, the size of a marble, he flicked the seed with his thumb, shooting it far along the wet sand. My daughter followed, taking her turn and learning quickly. He saw me watching and gave me a seed and motioned for me to play, too. Using a stick to create a line in the sand or his hands to dig a shallow hole, he showed us what to do, flicking the seed as if it were a marble. Shooting and flicking and sometimes tossing the marble, we followed his lead, doing what he showed us with no words.

He told us his name was Paul and that he was 6 years old. He counted to 100 in English and drew the alphabet in the sand, reciting each letter as he wrote with a stick for a pencil. He wore a torn Michigan sweatshirt and sweatpants and bare feet and when he tried on my daughter’s sunglasses, he posed in a typical “cool” manner, leaning back, his arms crossed until we laughed.

Around the corner from where we played, several women appeared, with tall buckets on their heads. Wearing long skirts and shirts, their heads covered in fabric, they walked with their hands free, nodding as they passed, continuing on beyond the river mouth to the colorful thatched roof huts on the hills.

When it was time for us to go, we said good bye to Paul and left him playing on the beach, marble in hand.


Blank faces met ours as we drove into the petrol station. Expressionless, the men pumped our cars. Until we tried to speak their language. “Molo,” we said in greeting. “Molweni,” he replied. We were practicing the few words we knew in Xhosa, the language of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.

Communicating in South Africa is easy for those of us who speak English. Most South Africans speak at least some English, one of the 11 official languages of the country. But according to the 2001 Census, English is the fifth most common language spoken, outspoken by Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and Sethoto sa Leboa.

During our walking tour of Langa Township, Siviwe, our tour guide taught us a few words and even taught us how to click. Though the rest of us tried, only my daughter is able to click correctly, making the sound with her tongue as she pronounces the hard c sound in the word Xhosa. We learned the simple greeting, “molo,” when meeting one person, or “molweni,” when meeting more than one. And we learned how to say thank you, “enkosi.” As Siviwe brought us into the shantytown homes, we were able to greet those who lived there in their own language and to say thank you for allowing us to see their homes.

“Enkosi,” we said as we gave the man a tip for pumping the gas and cleaning our car windows. He smiled then grinned when my husband asked him if he was a Chiefs fan.

“Go Chiefs!” we all called out from the car, holding up our fingers in the American peace sign, also the sign for one of the biggest soccer teams in South Africa. He laughed and poked his friend who was a fan of the Chiefs biggest rival, the Pirates, and they cheered as we drove away.

We drove toward the coast, passing children walking down the dirt road. As we held our fingers up high with the sign for the Chiefs, they jumped up and down and ran after us yelling, “Chiefs! Chiefs!”

The people at Bulungula Lodge encouraged us to learn a few more words of Xhosa and to communicate with the people we encountered in the village. We learned to respond when someone asked how we were and to ask about their health as well.

I learned to say thank you in Sethotho (“galiboha”), and although my pronunciation was corrected by the women of the village, we all laughed together.

As we moved away from the coast, traveling to other provinces where Xhosa is not spoken and other languages are dominant, our lack of words separated us from the people. We never learned any Afrikaans or any Zulu, relying only on English to get us by. And although we attempted to smile and to talk to those we met, our response was most often a blank stare. Without knowing a few words, we had lost our connection and our individuality, becoming just another tourist in a sea of faces going by.

Tour of a Cape Town Township

Broken glass lined the wall’s edge only steps away from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Like barbed wire but prettier, the jagged glass edges sparkled and reflected the morning sun, its sharpness a deterrent to thieves, intruders. Gates and high walls and barbed wire surrounding and shielding wealth and money.

From the highway you can see the shanty towns, metal and cardboard sheeted houses just big enough for a bed or two and a small kitchen. Bathroom down the dirt road in an outhouse by the river. Litter strewn and blown around. Children running and playing. Women washing clothes by hand.

Others live in dormitories. Three families to a room with only three beds and a TV. Children under 5 sharing the family twin bed with their parents, older children in the hall, sleeping mattress to mattress.

We walked through Langa Township, its resident, Siviwe of Cape Town Township Tours, our guide. We learned how to say a few words in Xhosa trying our best to click. We learned to greet people in their language as we entered their homes and learned to say thank you as we left. We watched women searing sheeps’ heads, making “smilies” a local delicacy. We passed small stores with hand painted signs. We saw a bed and breakfast and even a BMW. We learned that the community feeling is so strong that even those who make it big, the soccer stars for example, don’t want to move out. Instead they build a brick house in the “wealthier” area of the township.

Our tour ended with the children, dancing and singing, their smiles and talent giving us all hope for their future.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft.

Eating Gluten Free in South Africa

When my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease, I couldn’t imagine traveling in a country where I didn’t speak the language. How and what would she eat? Eleven years later, we were ready to give it a try, and though we don’t speak Xhosa or Sesotho or Afrikaans, our 4-week trip to South Africa and Lesotho was almost entirely gluten free.

Before we left:

  • We ordered a gluten-free meal for the plane but brought along snacks just in case.
  • I researched the type of food we were likely to encounter and learned that in the villages, maize (corn) is a staple (called pap).
  • I googled “gluten free in South Africa” and discovered that gluten-free products do exist in health food stores and in major supermarkets (Pick n Pay, Clicks, Woolworths) in the big cities.
  • We packed dried food meals that only require boiling water to cook (check out Trader Joe’s for a few gluten-free options). We also packed gluten-free oatmeal and lots of gluten-free bars (Think Thin and Lara bars).
  • We chose to “self cater” many nights which was a less expensive option than eating every meal out and gave us the opportunity to cook for ourselves.
  • When booking a bed and breakfast, I always asked what type of breakfast was included and told them that one of us ate gluten free.

What we discovered:

  • On the plane (we flew Lufthansa and South African Air), the specially ordered gluten-free main meal was always gluten free (e.g., salmon, rice and veggies with rice cake and fresh fruit or omelet with potatoes and fresh fruit). But the snacks were not (ham sandwiches on a roll with a granola bar or oatmeal cookies).
  • Just like in the U.S., each supermarket varies in the products it carries. We found gluten-free bread and crackers at Woolworths and gluten-free pasta at Pick n Pay. We found gluten-free bread and cookies at a small health food store in Cape Town’s Sea Point, gluten-free granola in the town of Ladybrand and even gluten-free rusks at a Pick n Pay just outside of Kruger National Park. Some supermarkets, especially Woolworths, carry ready-to-eat food which worked well for a spontaneous picnic lunch (cheese, fruit, veggies, hummus). Many brands carry gluten-free labels, and all ingredients were listed.
  • Having bars and dried gluten-free food gave us peace of mind and when dinner at the lodge was not gluten free, no worries, we just boiled up some water and cooked some freeze dried Indian food in minutes. GF cookies were handy as a substitute for the many wheat-based desserts (e.g., cake with custard sauce, milk tart, or apple crumble) we were served.
  • Breakfasts were easy. We ate several English breakfasts, complete with eggs cooked to order, stewed tomato, bacon and fruit. Just say no to the toast or pancakes on the side (and be sure to check for cross contamination).

When we didn’t speak the language, there was always some one who did. Since English was not the first language of our translators, we had to put some faith and trust in them. In the villages, the people cooked simply from whole foods so we rarely had to worry about hidden ingredients (e.g., barley malt). When we told them no flour and no bread crumbs, the first response was always, “Shame!” but they listened and told us when a meal was not gluten free. Though we carried paper bags with us and Pepto Bismo and Tums, there was never a need. In 4 weeks of traveling throughout South Africa, my daughter never got sick and never went hungry.

Reading Before You Go

While the kids read about South Africa, the adults read as well, choosing other books to add insight to the country and to our trip.

A few years ago, I read three books about South Africa, recommended by a friend after she had lived in the country for 7 years. I read about Apartheid in Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and post-Apartheid in Disgrace by J.M. Coetze. In When the Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head, I read about tribal traditions and modern day conflicts. In these three books, I first gained an insight into some of the struggles and conflicts of the country of South Africa.

Before we left the U.S., I read about the Dutch first arriving on the African continent in The Covenant by James Michener, I learned about pass laws and police raids during Apartheid in excerpts from the autobiography Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane and in the children’s book, Journey to Jo’Burg by Beverly Naidoo, banned in South Africa during Apartheid. I learned about women slaves and prisoners on Robbens Island in the 1800s while reading Unconfessed by Yvette Christianese.

As we explored Cape Town, I read about Apartheid and townships from the point of view of a white woman in The Age of Iron, another book by Coetze, while my husband read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. As we traveled to Lesotho, I learned about life for women in Lesotho while reading Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya’s autobiography, Singing Away the Hunger. As we explored Kruger National Park, I learned about running a game lodge and an elephant sanctuary while reading The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony.

Each book gave me an insight into a different aspect of the country, its history, and its people. For more and different book ideas, check out your library, look in travel guides and do a few internet searches. Have fun reading!

Teens, Books, and South Africa

While planning our trip to South Africa, worlds and miles away from our lives in New England, I looked for ways to interest my teenagers in the trip. Although my kids (ages 13 and 15) like to travel, I have learned that if they read a book or watch a movie about the place we’re visiting, they are more invested in the trip.

So before we left on our adventure, I did some research and spent some time at the library. My kids each read a few of the books before we left, we bought a few books for the trip, and while we were there, we learned of a few more.

Ranging in ability, maturity, and intensity, some books appealed more to my daughter and others to my son. Neither of my kids read all the books but read the ones which interested them, including a few when we returned home. Following are a few of their favorites:

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba: an inspiring true story about a 14-year old boy who builds a windmill in rural Malawi, a country in southernAfrica. My son read this book in school and referred to it often during the trip.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony:  Both kids loved this funny and exciting true story about poachers, elephants, and life on a South African game reserve.

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin: my son enjoyed this true story about Apartheid, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and the changing of South Africa.

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood by Robyn Scott: my daughter liked this true story about a young girl growing up in rural Botswana during the 1980s and 1990s.

Waiting for the Rain: A Novel of South Africa by Sheila Gordon: a story of two boys, one white and one black, growing up on a South African farm during Apartheid. My daughter and I enjoyed reading this book together, before and after the trip.


Traveling Safe

High accident zone, high fatality rates, car jacking, mugging. These words stabbed articles in books and on the internet about a place we were choosing to travel: South Africa. As I researched our trip, searching the internet became a scary endeavor. I found myself stumbling on blogs and forums where random stories grabbed me by surprise.

I shut the computer off and walked away; I closed the book and took a deep breath. I was terrified but focused on the positive and heeded the following advice as we traveled in South Africa.

  • Dress inconspicuously. We left the skinny jeans and stylish clothes at home, much to my teenage daughter’s dismay. She and I wore no jewelry. We dressed simply in layers, in earth tones and blue jeans, in t-shirts and fleece, in long shorts and capris.
  • Keep the money minimal and out of sight. We carried our passports, extra money, and memory cards in money belts under our clothes. We carried a $50 bill in our shoes. We divvied up the credit cards among the four of us, only carrying small bills in our pockets or change purse.
  • Hide the valuables. If you can’t leave them at home, keep them hidden whenever possible, even while driving in the car. I stowed my camera and other personal items in a large purse-looking camera bag. The rest of my family hid their compact cameras in their pockets and used small backpacks to carry their water bottles, books or jackets. As we drove through small towns, my camera was hidden beneath my feet.
  • Consider the cameras. Although I wanted a telephoto lens to capture animals on safari, I was leery of traveling with a big camera and wanted to be as incognito as possible. I chose to purchase a lens with a zoom from 18 to 270 mm giving me zoom options in a relatively compact lens.
  • Travel with a cell phone. We bought an inexpensive cell phone in Cape Town and used it to communicate with our friends in Durban and our future lodging hosts. Carrying a cell phone also acted as a security blanket.
  • Travel during the day.  Friends and books told us not to travel at night. Animals and people edge the big highways and small rural roads during the day as well as at night. Lights may or may not warn of erratic drunken drivers zigzagging across the roads. So we didn’t. We planned our trips accordingly.
  • Stay inside at night. Although a challenge in the winter, when daylight hours end at 6 p.m., we chose to rise with the sun, getting an early start to each day. We ate dinner early too, often cooking for ourselves or bringing takeout back to our lodging.
  • Keep the gas tank full. We fueled up whenever possible and traveled with emergency phone numbers and a GPS.
  • Know where you’re going. Travel with maps, research your trip before you set out, avoid looking unsure and vulnerable. If you become lost, know that people may be happy to help you but will likely not know the way themselves.
  • Keep things in perspective. Be prepared to walk away and not try to fight or to hold onto anything. Give up your camera, your car, your purse. Remember nothing is more valuable than your life.
  • Know what to do if something should happen. We each carried a laminated card with emergency phone numbers: our friends’ in Durban, the Automobile Association, the American Consulate, a relative in the U.S.

During our trip, we saw high accident zone signs and crazy drivers. We heard stories of car jackings, drunk drivers, and mauling hyenas. We half listened, changing the subject as quickly as possible, and throughout our trip, from airport to airport, we were ever vigilant: aware of our surroundings and our belongings, taking nothing for granted, watching each other and others. After 4 weeks of travel to a land half way across the world, we arrived home safe and sound.

Planning a Trip to South Africa

Traveling 7,850 miles to another country on the other side of the world is no trivial trip. We spent hours deliberating whether we could go, when, how we would travel and what we would see and do. Here’s what we did and how we planned the trip.

Airplane tickets from the U.S. to Johannesburg are not inexpensive and our initial research discovered prices from $1,600 to well over $2,000 each depending on time and final destination. We learned to do the math. At the time of our research, prices in South African Rand tended to be 14% in U.S. dollars. So if lodging was R1400, it was really $200. We researched the cost of lodging, in country airfare, trains, rental cars, and petrol. We looked into park entry fees, game lodges, and food and came up with a budget we could afford. We factored in travel time, made an initial itinerary, and extended our vacation time from 3 weeks to 4. We told the kids and bought our tickets. Now it was time to plan.

We bought books and checked books out from the library, finding “Rough Guide” and “Lonely Planet” books to be the most detailed and most informative. We ordered maps online, and most importantly, we talked to people. We spoke to local friends who spent 7 years living in South Africa. We spoke to our friends who live there now, making appointments to talk on Saturday mornings when it was 8 a.m. at our house and 3 p.m. at theirs.

Another college friend of my husband’s, who brought her family to South Africa the previous summer, proved to be our most valuable resource. Through email and phone calls we asked her numerous questions. What did they do? What did they wish they’d done? What would they do differently? We ended up staying at two of the accommodations they recommended and following a similar route to theirs.

We read Trip Advisor online forums and reviews. We used Google Maps to get directions to and from many places and to get an idea of distance and travel times. Before we left, my husband used Google to “drive” a few sections of road, becoming more comfortable with the roads before actually driving them, and I became intimate with the country and its geography. Now we were ready to go.

By planning the trip ourselves, we were able to do the trip. We controlled the cost and the activities, choosing to stay at many self-catering options in order to afford the game lodge safari experience at the end. And once we were there, we reveled in the experience. We lived South Africa, and the 4 weeks flew by with little disruption or surprises in our itinerary.

Why Did We Go?

When I told people we were going to South Africa, I often met with blank stares or pauses on the phone. “Why did you decide to go there?” Many asked. Even those who love to travel, who’ve explored the U.S. and Europe, would ask, “Why South Africa?”

Why would anyone want to go to Africa? Why did we go? And why South Africa?  Besides the opportunity to visit another continent and see animals we’ve only seen in the zoo, we were motivated by the desire to teach our children about other cultures, specifically those living in a third world country; the opportunity to meet our sponsored child in Lesotho, and the security and comfort of close friends living in South Africa, who could show us the way.

Ever since my husband spent a semester in Kenya, he’s wanted to go back; if not to Kenya then to the continent. The time he spent in Africa was a special time in his life which he has talked about since I’ve known him. We have masks and baskets and kikoys around the house. And when our children were toddlers he began saying good night to them in Swahili, “Lala salama.”

In 2005, we began sponsoring a child in Lesotho, a very small and very poor country located within the country of South Africa. We send and receive letters to and from a girl named Nthabeleng, now 13 years old, the same age as my daughter.

Then last winter, we received a holiday letter from college friends living in South Africa. They were staying, at least for another year. That letter was the final impetus for an amazing 4-week trip our family experienced in the summer of 2011.

Seven months later we were traveling to South Africa, visiting cities and villages, upscale malls and townships. We met Africans and Afrikaans, hiked in the mountains, ate ostrich, and photographed lions and rhinos. We experienced cultures different from our own, learned a few words in another language and even met people who had never heard of the United States.

So for those who wondered why, and for other travelers or those just curious about our trip, this blog is for you. Keep reading and happy traveling!