Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lions, and Tigers, and Chocolates...Oh My!

I’m sitting under yet another whimsical umbrella at a dainty cast iron table while alternating between sips of rich Americano and nibbles of tiny, decadent chocolates—vanilla ganache, caramel truffle, and a drunk cherry. Only now, after my arm has been twisted tighter than when I played the game ‘Indian rug-burn’ as a child (what a horrible name), have I caved in to all the chocolate shops. I finally accepted coffee and chocolate as a well-balanced breakfast—sporadically of course.  Two weeks in and I feel very comfortable in this holiday lifestyle. It was tough accommodating, but I managed.

This past Saturday we went to the Lion and Rhino Nature Reserve.  We went on our own little safari and had an absolute blast! Although it was a park, I felt more in Africa during those few hours than I have felt in the last two weeks. The hills were rolling with  rich green carpet.  Birds that I’ve never seen before shadowed over the hills, moving like a large cloud only to temporarily block the sun over the land they flew above.  The minute we entered the gates, we saw tall giraffes welcome each car with a slight drastic nod.  I was slapped with a such a view only after a 45-minute drive from Jo-burg. Overwhelmed, I took out the camera and started taking pictures of EVERYTHING. Brian had to remind me to conserve the battery for things other than the small purple and red flowers along the rutted dirt roads.
 I held a snake!  I’m not talking about one of those measly little garden snakes that can be mistaken for a discarded Slim-Jim, I’m talking about an anaconda! Unfortunately, I forgot his name.  It was soft and friendly-like Willy or Bert.  Afterwards, we meandered our way to the African-style petting zoo. We pet lion and tiger cubs along with a full-grown cheetah named Eddie! Apparently he is famous in South Africa and has been filmed in several adverts. He was completely docile. We were told he has arthritis which as we all know, tugged at my heart-strings a bit.  The lion and tiger cubs were SO adorable.  The lions were brother and sister and snuggled together while they napped. Their paws were ginormous which indicates they are going to be very large creatures once they are full-grown.  In all honesty, I felt bad for them. They just wanted to sleep and be left alone, whilst every five minutes, animal-obsessed people like me entered their gates screeching a high-pitched squeal that probably promised them early-onset deftness. I couldn't help myself though, they were lion cubs! Anyone who has a heart would find it difficult to contain their excitement when given the opportunity to gently pet a wild animal, right? We ended the petting experience with a tiger cub named Milo. He was my favorite. Even though he was tired, he had a charming personality. He would hide under my legs or face his rear-end in our direction silently giving off the “pet this” vibe. He had a sense of humor. The two young ladies who kept Milo company ended our five minutes with news that had turned my emotions from elated to incredibly sad. I could see Brian in my peripheral searching my eyes for the first tear drop, and he found it. They told us that his friends were sold to other zoos that day so he was sad and lonely. REALLY? After all the cuteness I soaked up, you’re going to leave me with THAT? I’m sorry- that boarders rude. I politely thanked them for allowing me to pet Milo, and leaving me with a broken-heart, and told them I’d send them my medical bill…joking.
Afterwards, Brian asked a park director for advice on what to do next—we could witness the lion and wild dog feeding, or get lunch. With those options, I’d much rather feed myself than watch a poor animal be fed to a lion. I’ve come to the realization that I’m too soft for the wild kingdom.  Once we finished our mediocre lunches of chicken sandwiches and salad, we drove around the park and witnessed wild dogs and a lone white male lion tearing apart what’s left of a bottom-half of some animal— an antelope maybe? I have to admit, it was pretty cool to watch. Strangely enough, the lion gnawing at the remaining prey reminded me of Holly gnawing on her raw-hide. The contentment in the lion’s eyes was oddly cute and purposeful (even though the chump didn’t have to move a paw for it). We ended our day in Wonder Cave, a cave discovered by the Italians in the late 19th century who were searching for minerals and gold. Although the gold was a bust, they used the copious amounts of limestone for a booming business. It was stunning and reminded me of the Jeita cave in Lebanon, but on a significantly smaller scale.
We left the park with our eyes satisfied and our hearts full of excitement. As we exited the gates, I belted out The Circle of Life.  I only got to the middle of the second verse before Brian slowly increased the volume of the radio. Now that’s funny. A wonderful day ended with laughter and another fantastic experience under our belt.
We are traveling to Victoria Falls this weekend. We’re excited, for it is the seventh natural wonder of the world. We are doing a canopy tour and grand zip-line adventure.  I know marriage is all about compromise. Therefore, when Brian asked me like a child begging for ice cream or a new pair of rollerblades if I would bungee-jump off a bridge in Victoria Falls, I told him no. When he asked if I would swing over the gorge while hanging from a bungee cord and a harness resembling the same knotted sack a stork would use to transport a baby (I’m guessing a lesser form of torture), I said no. However, I did agree to zip-line our way through the park like a bunch of monkeys. How bad can it be? Famous last words. In all seriousness, I’m excited for this experience. It’s a wonderful and exciting blessing to be married to someone who challenges and brings me out of my comfort zone. But so help me if anything goes awry…You’ll be reading about it next week.
Thank you for checking in! Until next time                                                                                               Cheers!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Croissants, Bribery, Cricket, and Hot Yoga...

I couldn't help but bring a few baked goods home to eat at our leisure
At the moment, it is 9am and I'm sitting on the balcony delicately pulling apart one of the warm croissants photographed. I'm sipping french pressed coffee, something that oddly enough did not become a routine until moving to South Africa, and for that, I already have something I will bring back home with me. The breeze wisps my hair and the sun shines only on my feet which are resting heavy on the protection bar.

The croissants are from a beautiful restaurant/bakery located less than half a mile from home. It's called Junipa's, and it's my favorite restaurant thus far. It has three different rooms, the interior dining room, the bakery, and outside seating. The entire restaurant is open. The interior dining/bar area has a gorgeous brick backdrop. Simple yet whimsical chandeliers hover over the re-fabricated, burlap upholstered furniture painted with warm and inviting colors. On Sunday, we started the day off by going to Junipa's for an early breakfast. We began the meal with two Americanos, sans milk.  It is common to drink Americanos with milk in SA. When they arrived, a tiny chocolate chip and walnut cookie was perched next to the cup.  As I reviewed the menu, my eyes hovered over the traditional breakfast-- two eggs, bacon rashers, spiced sausage, grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms, and toast. However, I couldn't help but notice the Salmon Florentine in my peripheral.  Finally, I caved. After all, why would I order something that I've already made at home?

Salmon Florentine - Junipa's
First look at the plate and one thing came to mind -- the meal was absolutely gorgeous. The Salmon Florentine consisted of a delicate-tasting, yet dense potato latke (savory potato pancake), poached eggs cooked medium per my request, wilted spinach, hollandaise sauce, with thin and rich smoked salmon wrapped in an inviting rose, and balsamic vinegar providing what seems to be a protective barrier for the meal.  The spinach was more toasted than the described wilted consistency. The latke maintained just the right thickness to act as a vessel for the poached eggs.  The salmon was sliced just a tad thicker than your standard prosciutto which rendered it incredibly pliable. As a fork full broke through the protective barrier, just the right amount of vinegar clung to the food. The tastes were phenomenal and exciting.

Passion Fruit, Lemonade Cordial--Junipa's
Following our unexpectedly elaborate breakfast, we experienced our first (and in my opinion last) cricket match-- South Africa vs. West Indies.  Upon arrival, we were shuffled through the expected security procedures but were unaware of what would happen next.  The guard who searched our bags brought us aside and told us we were not allowed to have cans.  Oh no. It was too hot to go a few hours without anything to drink. Being from the states, we should have assumed that our cans would not be welcomed, but were temporarily in la-la-land and figured all sodas, canned or not, would make it through. I politely begged and played the I'm new around here and don't know the rules, so please let me break them act. He hesitated, shook his head, hesitated again, then suddenly shouted "Twenty Rand!" Brian and I darted stares at each other then to the sodas, then back to the man. It quickly dawned on me that he was bribing us! "Give him the R20!" I said to Brian who still was in disbelief of what was happening. So he did, we snatched our bag before he could change his mind, and were off as if nothing ever happened. That was just a small taste for how corrupt things are around here. You can basically bribe your way out of anything.  Good to know, if we ever find ourselves committing a worse crime than soda-trafficking.

Two enthusiastic fans hold up signs to induce excitement and cheer
Although we had a lovely time getting to know our new friends, learning the game, and relaxing in the SA sun, the game was not what we were expecting.  We ignorantly assumed the game would last about 3-4 hours. It wasn't until I comfortably sat my bum down that we were told the game lasts seven hours. Yes, seven hours. Sitting in seat F-103 with enthusiasm and delight, I suddenly felt as though I accidentally entered the elevator in the Tower of Terror in Disney World. For those of you who do not know me well, you will never find me on that ride as long as I can help it. So, I sat back, scanned the field, then did what any foreigner would do-- I learned the game. I won't go into too much detail, but as an American, the game doesn't make much sense to me. Like baseball, the home team gets the advantage of batting first. The only difference is that they bat for the entire first half of the game. It isn't until about four hours later (including half-time) that the opposing team gets to bat. Fairness doesn't seem to be a common occurrence in this game. I would think the opposing team would be exhausted by the time they are up to bat which unless they're modern-day gladiators, ultimately renders them the predetermined losers. I'm sure it doesn't always play out that way and that I'm missing an important variable.  The game as a whole was a good experience.  In addition, I have an even greater appreciation for baseball and the limited playing time it offers.

I creepily shot a picture of the open bakery where everything is made in-house.
I've never seen an open bakery like this one! Note the massive loaves of bread dough.
Back in the states before our trip, I looked up places to do hot yoga.  I threw my back out, yet again, just a few days prior to our trip and decided that I would strengthen my body while I'm here. I am 26, after all, and incredibly too young to be using IcyHot on a somewhat regular basis.  Last night, we ventured out to our first hot yoga class at Zen Hot Yoga. Without trying the Bikram class, we decided to commit to their new member special - Unlimited classes for 10-days, only R250!  When the petite yet delicately chizzled lady approached us before the class asking if we've done Bikram before, I confidently nodded my head followed by a highly confident 'yes' . Brian was more even-keeled and said no.  She went through what seemed to be a verbal terms of agreement by spatting words like - faint, feeling like death, vomit, and you can't leave. Prior to my first hot yoga class in Ohio, my sister mentioned that they slowly increase the temperature throughout the duration of the class. That was not the case here. We walked into the very, very hot room that was in one way, peaceful and relaxing, and another overwhelming and intimidating. Throughout the class, I sweat more than I had ever sweat in my life. I could feel the toxins clutching each drop of sweat that dropped down my arm. That's right, my arm. I had never sweat from my arm before. Nevertheless, 60-minutes later we survived and enjoyed our first class. I felt a sense of empowerment and strength that hopefully turns into an addictive drug leaving me at its mercy, resulting in my continuous return. I'm happy to say that we attended another class prior to publishing this post.

Once we returned home, I put together a late dinner -- 1) Seared pork chops seasoned with nutmeg, salt, and pepper, with a whole-grain mustard, white wine, and Nutella sauce, 2) roasted portobella mushrooms topped with a dill, garlicky dutch feta cheese, and 3) butter-glazed carrots cooked to the point of a tiny crunch and smooth finish. It was a concoction I had thought of only a few hours before and had to improvise with Nutella when I realized I didn't have a sweetening agent to balance out the acidity of the wine and mustard. It turned out that the silky chocolate-y hazelnut spread added a warm nutty flavor. I have fallen in love with dutch feta. I had my first taste on pizza. It is rich, tart, creamy, crumbly and mild all at the same time. Rather than use blue cheese (on of the very few foods I despise), I used the dutch feta to complement the subtle smokiness of the mushroom.

Cappuccino con panna & a delicate sugar bowl overflowing
with cinnamon sticks and coarse brown sugar
The bakery at Junipa's, providing sweet and savory scents that
manage to linger in the outside air.
It is common that apartments complexes provide housekeepers once a week in SA. This news caught me off guard and leaping for joy. Never have I imagined to have a housekeeper, let alone one so early in my life, but I'll take it! The adopted roll of June Clever, which I mentioned in my previous post, was getting easier and easier. Her name is Thully (tool-y) and she is dear. It wasn't until late last night that I realized we didn't have cleaning products and that it's our responsibility to provide them--I knew there was a catch (joking).  I woke up, walked to the store, arrived at 7:08 only to find out that it didn't open until 8. I looked around the shopping mall with a glazed look of confusion.  I decided to follow the scent that seemed to be saying come hither. I rode the escalator knowing that I was getting warmer and as I stepped off the moving staircase, I saw it. It was a cafe/bakery called Petits Fours.  It seems as though my nose smelled the goods baking for the later crowds because the cafe was not yet open. Servers were preparing the tables and chairs.  I asked one of them when the cafe opens and they politely replied that it wasn't until a half-hour, but he would make me a coffee drink. Without hesitating, I pulled up my own seat from the stacked chairs and placed it at a table sitting just outside in the courtyard. I ordered a cappuccino con panna, sat back, and observed like a fly on the wall.  A man to my right was sweeping with a flat-broom while whistling a tune I've never heard.  Past him, another man was placing solo flower vases on each table, pausing to ensure the colors are not clustered in one part of the room. To my left, another man gently hung a small ivy bush from a hook hanging from the umbrella.  It was clear that this cafe, like most in SA, paid attention to detail.  A large but subtle smile worked its way across my face as I basked in the performance in which they provided me.

Until next time...



Saturday, January 17, 2015

Avocados, Coffee Shops, and Thunderstorms

May I just start by saying, this is literally my first connection with the outside world since Tuesday of this week. As I count backwards the days since our arrival (only on one hand), I regrettably realize that back in the states, I have allowed myself to be fully dependent on technology.

I am sitting at a coffee shop with a delicate cup of subtly sweet cappuccino, accompanied with a red-colored 70% cocoa chocolate medallion and a petite stirring spoon. This cafe is in the middle of Hyde Park Shopping center, a mall which on the inside looks like it was scooped up from Kenwood, OH and plopped on the beautiful soil of South Africa. The difference - everything seems to be more intentional here. The food, the people, the work, even the weather all  have an inviting touch that seems to be lacking in some parts of America. Don't get me wrong, I love home and the people who make it just that, but South Africa has a humble pride that renders its locals eager to help when they hear our less-refined accents.

The weather is remarkable here. Humidity is practically non-existent. I know because my hair has the tight-spiral curls I once owned as a child. A daily mid-afternoon thunderstorm provides torrential downpour and lighting bolts all in the span of about 30 minutes. Nevertheless, the sunshine always manages to make its way through the tight cracks of the clouds, only to provide light air, and a beautiful sunset to top off the evening. As I mentioned earlier, the weather seems very intentional here. It rains just long and hard enough to provide nourishment to the plants that have a regimented consumption schedule. It goes as follows - sunshine, rain, massive storm, sunshine. If it rained in Ohio, you'd see the lingering aftermath of gloom and humidity for a couple days. Ew.

Our apartment felt like home the minute we walked in. There's no A/C so we leave the windows open constantly, and I love it. The smell of the outside lingering indoors is probably one of the top-5 smells, in my opinion. The kitchen is TINY but there are no complaints here. I am embracing the fact that I have less counter, pots and pans, and utensils to clean. But wait, there's a dishwasher (YAY) so the cleaning is pretty minimal.

I've temporarily adopted the role of June Clever while I'm here, and I'm completely embracing it. I've made 2 dinners so far, only with the spices of salt and pepper. They consisted of, 1)  white wine and mushroom spin on chicken marsala served with roasted green beans, and 2) a porterhouse steak served with broccoli and Yukon gold mashed potatoes.  They were pretty basic, but not lacking!  Our dining out so far has been delectable! We stumbled upon a pizza restaurant (Piza e Vino) that served gourmet flat-breads with unique toppings like honey, danish feta, chicken, avocado, and roasted cherry tomatoes.  Avocados are as common in restaurants as salt shakers on tables. They're everywhere (glory be)!

Last night we went to Higher Grounds Restaurant (picture on right), a restaurant located on St. Stithian College campus in Randburg. The view was breathtaking.  We indulged in escargot (snails served with a rich garlic butter sauce), and grilled calamari salads. The prices here are definitely something to write home about. Our entire meal including beers hovered right around $30 USD.

That covers most of it! I'll write again when I'm able.