Whenever I think of reunions, I immediately think of the opening scene in Love Actually – the movie I force the Husband to watch every December. Because there really isn’t a happier place than the arrivals section at an airport. All of a sudden those stiff aeroplane breakfast eggs are a thing of the past as hordes of groggy looking people meet up with their friends, family, lovers and the driver with the ‘Mr Von Hoogenboesem 4 pax’ sign.
A week after we said goodbye to my Brother, the Brother-in-Law – who lives in Canada – arrived in Mexico to join us on our grand adventure for a couple of weeks. We were so excited about his arrival, that I decorated a packet of churros with birthday candles. (Sometimes, it’s just not worth it to go into the details). The Husband went to pick him up at the airport, while I decorated the churros. Big hugs, bigger tears (on the inside) and lots and lots of beer ensued. We talked about EVERYTHING, including the weather, because the Brother-in-Law was as fair skinned as an English lady after the Canadian winter. We also talked about our plans for the days ahead, which involved the following:
Catching a ferry to Isla Mujeres
Doing absolutely nothing on Isla Mujeres
Catching a ferry back to Cancun
La Isla Bonita
Super cheesy headline, but Isla Mujeres sure is beautiful and super chilled. We’ve been to lots and lots of islands during our trip, but Isla Mujeres was special. It wasn’t as busy or commercialised as the other islands, the swimming was easy and the Brother-in-Law treated us to three nights in a fancy hotel – imagine that: our very own bathroom, white sheets and a bar fridge. How luxurious!
The island also has this really cool vibe. Giant murals adorn the walls on every street, the sandy beaches are as white as the Brother-in-Law’s inner arm and all the rich and annoying people were partying on their yachts away from the beaches, so that was awesome. We snorkelled, we drank beer, we watched schools of dolphins cruise past our balcony and we were merry.
Being the intrepid travellers that we are, we also wanted to see what lies on the other side of the island (actually, we knew what was on the other side – it was a lighthouse at Ponta Sur). So we hired some bicycles to go and see for ourselves. We were the cool cats on the block, with our snapback caps and gangster bikes, me slow poking behind the boys and cruising along the potholed streets of the island.
Did we get to Ponta Sur? Uhm. No. We had to return the bikes before the end of the day, and my slow poking wasn’t really helping. So while the Brother-in-Law scooted ahead, the Husband and I cruised past an interesting variety of holiday homes. Big ones, small ones, scruffy ones, empty ones and one filled with lots of snotty nosed children and chickens.
Long story short, he almost got to the other side of the island. And it wasn’t like he had to collect a pot of gold or something. It was just a short adventure fuelled by that lovely curiosity of a traveller.
We went to Isla Mujeres to do nothing. And that we did. To waste time just being, really is precious.
What’s that you asked? Photos? But of course! What’s more, I’ve even edited a video! Lucky you!
From day one I realised that my life would never be that of an extra in a Peter Stuyvesant cigarette commercial. No waterskiing with Ken lookalikes or sharing of cigarettes with trust fund kids from Santa Barbara wearing pink golfers. I’m just not cool enough. And I start to hyperventilate when my feet can’t touch the bottom of the swimming pool/dam/ocean, which pretty much puts me straight into the loser camp, with my collection of library cards.
And that’s why Cancun was such a non-event for me. And unfortunately, we had to spend a lot of time there, due to its transportation hub status. Or whatever. We also had to dorm it, and I’m still struggling to erase the stale boy breath that somehow never left our rooms from my memory. We stayed at one hostel, but slept in 4 different dorms – the first dorm we shared with my Brother, a Chinese lady who couldn’t speak a word English or Spanish (and who had a fondness for boiled eggs), a handful of emotionless gawky German teenagers and a girl with smelly feet. We all shared a bathroom and a shower inside the dorm. Then we moved to a private room for two nights (for our own sanity), but we still had to share a bathroom and a shower with two guys who shaved a large dog in the shower every morning. Then we moved to our third dorm the night the Bearded Wonder’s brother flew in from the Great White North, and there we met a super friendly guy with ginormous snow boots, for in case a snowstorm hits Cancun. He didn’t leave the room once. I think he was waiting for the storm to hit. Or something. There we shared a bathroom with a couple from across the hall. She threw up every morning. Then we moved to another dorm before we left for Cuba. By then, all our fellow travellers started to look (and smell) the same. It was like a Melrose Place for people with stinky feet and unplanned pregnancies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a quick look at Cancun, seeing that this is a travel blog.
A tale of two cities
So Cancun is basically made up of two parts. The first part is the infamous Hotel Zone, with 300 odd hotels and other things one would expect a Hotel Zone to have. Like massive malls with international brands (yawn), clubs (not cool enough), and rows and rows of informal traders selling those neon CANCUN CANCUN CANCUN shirts (not drunk enough).
But the beaches on that side are spectacular (if you’re not travelling during hurricane season).
Then on the other side – the dodgy end if you must – lies, well, the other side of Cancun. The normal side. The side where real people live, eat and do their hair. And because we spent our days wandering the streets, we got to know this side really well.
Hello downtown Cancun
When travelling (on a budget), you tend to check out things you won’t normally check out back home. Like cemeteries, plain Jane neighbourhoods and markets selling socks and nail clippers. And to some this might sound boring as all hell (not that hell is a boring place), but I’ll forever be intrigued by the way in which people in foreign countries live their lives. Even though everyday life abroad is very similar to the everyday life back home, there is a foreign je ne sais quoi that I love. Take for example the ever travelling school child. In every country we’ve been to, school kids are always on their way to school, no matter the time of day. Do they start at different times? I don’t know. Did 20 moms forget what time school starts? I don’t know. Did they all get lost on their way to school and so they spend the rest of their days wandering hopelessly, trying to find the school? I just don’t know. And it’s this not knowing that’s absolutely wonderful.
All these unanswered questions can make one hungry, so we spent most of our time at the local food market – a big square lined with loads of food stalls and a happy gaggle of churro and marquesita trucks. Oh marquesitas! When we first saw these cheese-and-Nutella crispy pancakes, we were both seduced and repulsed by it. But when we got to know these troopers a little better, we were hooked. See, a marqueasita is a crispy waffle, rolled up like a pancake and stuffed with Nutella/jam/caramel sauce and cheese -not the gooey quesadilla type of cheese, oh no. A nice sharp little number, grated and feathery. My goodness. It’s the perfect sweet crunch, earthy cheese and heavenly chocolate combination. And of course, the churro trucks didn’t escape our patronage. So after we’ve surrendered ourselves to cheesy quesadillas, meaty nachos and mouthsful of torta, we went straight for the sweet, comforting arms of Mother Mexico’s desserts.
So here’s a list of things to do/not to do when you’re stuck in downtown Cancun because you need to catch a ferry or plane or catch someone who just got off a ferry or plane.
Avoid Mercado 28 – the mothership of all things touristy and CANCUN CANCUN CANCUN shirts,
Don’t avoid the food market (but avoid the pickled cactus quesadillas),
Take the bus to the hotel side of Cancun, but don’t get off. It’s not worth it. The bus loops, so you can just sit and stare out of the window and imagine what it must be like to sleep in a proper hotel bed, with proper sheets and your very own shower, a nice thick robe and a continental breakfast with fresh croissants,
Go to the hairdresser. After 6 months of not blowdrying my hair, I needed a bit of TLC. Post-blow dry I felt (and looked) like a pedigree Afghan hound.
It goes without saying that we do like ourselves a fair bit of travelling. The great outdoors, the great indoors, stopping for a Wimpy coffee at the side of the highway and ordering a sandwich in Enrique Iglesias’s mother tongue – if it’s different to my coffee and sarmies at home, then you may sign me up.
So imagine the squeals of delight when a box filled with Tangled Tree wine arrived at our doorstep. And won’t you know it, they were made for travelling – neatly contained in slender, chic plastic bottles as opposed to glass that goes ka-klunk ka-klunk while you’re driving on a dirt road.
And here’s the best part – it was still early April, so we had an overindulgent amount of South African public holidays to look forward to. With time in our pockets and wine in our boot, we decided to take our wine places. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer: Giddy up.
Hello sunset, meet my friend sauvignon blanc
There is nothing (nothing) like a Cape Town sunset. We gawked at a couple in Thailand, missed a couple in Mexico and got engaged during one in the Czech Republic, but a Cape Town sunset is just magical. Now many folks will tell you that the best place to watch the sun setting over Cape Town is >insert an infinite amount of places here<. It’s all relative – and very, very subjective. But one that really grabs you by the ears and says to your face ‘this is real beauty, son’, is watching the sunset from Bloubergstrand. To your left the city hides in the mountain’s shadow, right in front of you lies Robben Island and in between it all some gallons and gallons of salty seawater, gently slopping about. So we decided to crack open our first bottle there and then. The wine was easy on the palate, we were easy on the conversation and the sunset was just beautiful. Sunsets and sauvignon blancs should really get hitched. They were totally made for each other.
Elgin. Elkin. Tomato. Tamato.
Since moving to Cape Town, we realised that not all things are pronounced equal. In Joburg we say ‘muslin cloth’ and in Cape Town they say ‘maslin cloth’. In Joburg we order ‘rotis’* and in Cape Town they order ‘rooties’. Which brings me to our second travel destination. Elgin – the real home of the big apple(s). Now we pronounce it with the ‘g’ like the ‘g’ in engine. But I’ve heard two people, who I trust dearly, pronounce it like the ‘g’ in Goethe. But seeing that I didn’t take phonetics at university (and I didn’t grow up in the Western Cape) I cannot say with any authority what is what. What I can say with authority – thanks to my dear friend Google maps – is that Elgin is a leisurely 56-minute drive from our apartment in Gardens. That is if you head straight for the apple trees. But you shouldn’t. Because there is a restaurant/deli/farm stall called Peregrine en route that will turn any low-carb disciple into a gluttonous glutenite. Oh the breads! Oh the pies! Oh the tarts! It’s a feast for the eyes. Rumour has it that their pecan nut pie is worth driving 56-minutes for.
Elgin is the kind of place you meander through gently. Roll down the car windows, have a friendly argument about what album to listen to and check out them apples. That’s basically what we do every time we go there. You never really stop anywhere specific, but the views are so spectacular that you tend to stop everywhere. We decided to pair the bottle of Moscato Rosé with them apples. They blushed. We blushed. It was the perfect pair.
Chocolate. ‘Nuff said.
Our third bottle, the Chocolate Cabernet Sauvignon, didn’t make it outside of our apartment. We hosted an Easter brunch with mimosas, which turned into an Easter lunch with wine and leftover Easter eggs. The bottle had ‘chocolate’ written all over it, we had chocolate written all over us, so it seemed like a good match. It was.
Castles made of sand
Our fourth bottle, the Butterscotch Chardonnay, took us all the way to Knysna. Yes. The Husband had an ‘if I take one day’s leave, we can go away for a whole week!’ moment after checking out the next round of public holidays. So we took an extended long weekend in May (just like the rest of Cape Town). We only managed to get out of the city at around 7pm (just like the rest of Cape Town). Come long weekends, they should regulate the traffic out of town like they do during dinner service at wedding receptions – tables 1 and 2 are first to dish up, then tables 3 and 4 and so on. We could divide our neighbourhoods up in sections and then everybody will be able to get out of the city, stat. It took us 2 hours to drive 20km, and our road trip flask of coffee was consumed 5km from our home.
Now there’s one thing that every traveller to Knysna should be aware of: there are speeding cameras EVERYWHERE. If you look underneath your chair, you’ll find a speeding camera. Behind your ear? Oh yes, there it is, blinking away. The highest concentration of these cameras is between George and Knysna and within the heart of Knysna as well. So take it slow. But you’ve got every reason to take it easy because this is such a pretty part of the Western Cape, especially in autumn. We entered the town in awe, with Knysna Lagoon on our right and a siege of speeding cameras on our left. Opposite Knysna Lagoon lies Belvidere Estate, and the autumny colours prancing around in the lagoon reminded me of a scene straight out of small-town America.
Now, one does not just drive to Knysna just to gawk at the trees in autumn. The Knysna Heads is a must-see as well (although we struggled with the seeing part, because it rained really really hard). We meandered to the Red Bridge Brewing Co. at 11am, went for a hike at Pledge Nature Reserve, saw some dolphins bouncing along Buffels Bay and stopped for a spot of tea and chardonnay at Noetzi beach, which was such a good spot to crack open the last bottle of wine**.
Some Knysna snaps, including a couple of mushrooms at Pledge Nature Reserve, stormy waters at The Heads and a quaint street corner in Belvidere.
So the moral of the story is that you should always say yes when someone asks you if they can send you a case of wine. And then you should giddy up and take it places.
*Very important footnote: The Engen garage in Gardens has the BEST vegetarian rotis. 40bucks. 40 000 tastebuds dancing with their hands in the air.
**So I left one bottle out, the Spicy Shiraz, but we had an impromptu dinner at home. Sooo, that was that for the shiraz.
Right. I’m not going to go on and on on how my blog ended up being that benchwarmer kid who never gets to play ball.* Nope. I’m just going to make a beeline for our adventures in Mexico, as the best of our days were spent under the Mexican sun. Mind you, it was actually cloudy and rainy half of the time, but even then Mexico still takes first prize at the Best Country Ever To Just Hang Around and Be Happy awards.
From Playa del Carmen, we took a ferry to Cozumel. And even though the Cozumel-Playa ferry looks like something the US Navy might use to conquer a developing country, we were still pretty much packed like a bunch of sardines in a massive floating tin can. Which is all fine, because by then our rear ends were used to sitting snug – come chicken bus or little boats over high waters. However, this time around our fellow passengers weren’t chickens, potatoes or Mayan families returning from the Sunday market, but rather a drove of Ironman athletes.
Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
But wait, there’s more. Besides this conglomeration of the super fit, we were also graced with the presence of a gaggle of 40-year-old damsels en route to a girls weekend. And imagine their surprise (and our horror) when we all realised our onboard entertainment was an Elvis impersonator. I’m not going to elaborate any further because words really cannot explain how absurd that whole experience was.
Cozumel was nice. Not really charming or quaint, but nice. It has a massive supermarket (foreign supermarkets will forever captivate my imagination), middle-class neighbourhoods with walls and doorbells and loads of touristy traps. As you walk from the ferry port towards town you are bombarded with hordes of glass-bottom-boat-snorkeling-excursionists and scuba-diving-trip-advisors. And the reason behind our trip to Cozumel was exactly that – the Brother and the Husband wanted to dive. So while they signed up, I bought a box of wine.
The heat is on like donkey kong
Our hostel was nice. Not charming, but nice. It had hammocks, a pool and loads of nervous Ironman athletes when we arrived. We bunked with the nervous athletes, and in-between the carbo loading (us and them) things were all types of awkward and quiet. Besides, the Husband and Brother decided to take it easy as they paid a pretty penny for the scuba excursion leaving at sparrow’s fart the following day, so sleeping in wasn’t an option. So I finished the box of wine by myself.
The following morning, knowing that I had a WHOLE day to myself, got me all types of giddy. I could peruse the haircare shelves of the supermarket to my heart’s content, I could cheer on the athletes like a proud mother – I could even walk aaaaaaaaaall the way to the other side of the island and chill on the beach. And as I took my first step out of our air-conditioned dorm, the heat attacked my pretty tough South African skin like a dog with rabies.
Needless to stay, my citronella candle and I didn’t move an inch that day. No photographic excursions. No reading shampoo labels in Spanish. And definitely no walking to the other side of the island.
Later that arvie, the Brother and Husband returned from their scuba endeavours, a bit underwhelmed. The Husband was hopelessly yearning for his Utila diving days, and the Brother was still on a cenote high. And then one by one the athletes returned. Half dead. Parched. And with bottles of tequila. Apparently, there is no better way to kick the rusty Ironman’s behind than with a bottle of tequila. Which we were about to find out. But first we paid a visit to the local cantina.
Because I refused to move an inch the whole day, I had serious ants in my pants come dusk. And the cantina right next door was the best place to get rid of them ants. What fun we had! With every beer ordered, you get a lovely round of botanas – little plates filled with exciting things. First we had some nacho chips and salsa (always a winner). Then our charming waitress – who had a unique touch in the art of eyebrow shaping – plonked an assortment of fried things on little toothpicks, accompanied by a plastic bowl filled with mushy black frijoles, on our table. We tapped our toes to the lovely toe-tapping beat of the cantina music, whilst debating what the fried little things we’re so merrily consuming really were. More nacho chips made their way to our table of merriment, and after the second round of tequilas our waitress presented us with the pièce de résistance: a whole fish. Now how one eats a whole fish in a bar is another story. But we ate it with gusto and ordered another round to celebrate the wonder of the botana.
After nagging the Husband for hours to dance with me, the Brother offered to take me for a spin with his two left feet. When we got back to our table, a hombre with beer eyes asked me to dance. Or that’s what I think he asked. The Husband happily gave his wife of 2 years away to this complete stranger and had a lovely chuckle at my predicament. So I danced. It was awkward. And instead of cutting in, the Husband filmed it. How lucky can one girl be.
When we got back to the hostel, the Ironmen and ladies were having a hoot, so we joined in. After not drinking for a whole year, these super fit teetotalers partied like students on Spring Break. We went to a club. We had conversations that involved a lot of head nodding and big ‘I have no idea what you’re saying’ smiles. The Brother only returned the following morning.
Adiós Cozumel and Ironmen
And so our island adventures came to an end. Squashed in between many a hungover athlete, we made our way back to Cancun to bid my dearest brother farewell >insert sad face here<, and to await the arrival of the Bearded Wonder’s brother >insert happy dance here<.
*An analogy that describes my blog having to take the backseat while life happens. Quite rich coming from me, seeing that I’ve never played a team sport in my life. I can’t even catch a ball.
Sometimes all it takes is a quote from Dr Seuss to get back on track. Our trip ended on 13 January 2015 when we left New York City kicking and screaming. But not in a ‘we’re getting deported’ kinda way. More an ‘Oh, so this is the end’ kinda way. It’s sort of similar to that feeling when you finish a really good book. But like a really good one, at an odd time like 19:30 on a Saturday evening when you don’t really have plans for the rest of the night, but you don’t want to do something else. You just want to feel sad because you’ve finished your book.
So for the past 9 months I’ve refused to write about the rest of our adventures. It was too sad. Didn’t look at the millions of photos we took. Didn’t want to edit our video clips.
But now, after 9 months of getting over this breakup, I’m ready to share our stories again. They won’t be as detailed. But they’ll come from a good place. Because it happened.
There is a direct, heartstring-strumming connection between the smallness of things and that gasp of sure astonishment it usually leads to. I recently gave birth to a small baby, and every morning, afternoon and during the wee hours of the morning I’m still amazed by the amazingness of this tiny little human. It sure is something.
But I digress (and gush), as sleep deprived mothers often do.
So back to my original point. Small cups of espressos are – and let’s be honest here – way better than milky lattes. And as far as the gastronomical blessings of my spirit country Mexico goes, tacos really are little morsels of heaven.
The same goes for small towns – they’re like those nice bite-sized biscuits you get with a coffee. They’re so good, you sometimes order another cuppa just to get another biscuit.
A while ago (I was still pre-waddle pregnant), a friend invited me to McGregor for the weekend. She’s there on a story and doesn’t want to drink alone on the stoep after sunset. Drinking alone is okay. But there’s something sad about drinking alone in a small Western Cape town after the day called last rounds.
‘Sure’, I said, while preparing my nose for another weekend of sniffing wine as opposed to drinking it.
And so we packed our toothbrushes, three lamb chops and a box of rusks and left Cape Town for the weekend. Through the Huguenot tunnel, past the landscapes of the Montagu pass, across the belly of Robertson and voila! You’ve arrived.
A bite-sized town for a bite-sized weekend
McGregor is a one street town. We arranged to meet my friend at Temenos Gardens, which is just down the main street. And snoozing in the middle of the street, right in front of the gardens, a black dog – baking in the half-baked winter sun, waiting to reach his daily quota of belly rubs. With hands smelling like dusty street dog, we went inside to look for my friend. The black dog took the lead. And with wagging tails, we entered the gardens.
Temenos Gardens was created for the sole purpose of acceptance. Everyone is welcome. Every religion, human and spirit in search for some peace and quiet. Even the neighbour’s cat left the comforts of his home and moved in. This massive garden pays homage to the world’s beliefs through little shrines, quotes or meditation areas around every corner. And for the bookish, there’s a librarianless library. Go on, have a read or a quick browse. The doors are never locked and the books are always keen for a conversation.
The artist, the wine maker and the cinema operator
Every small town features at least one of the above mentioned. And if you’re really lucky, it’ll even throw in a candlestick maker* as well. McGregor has all three. As well as a Top of the Pops go-go dancer from way back when, an olive farmer, a German grappa distiller and a donkey sanctuary. All of this, neatly packaged in a one-street town.
The story of the artist is the quintessence of McGregor. Painter Edna Fourie traded her city shoes for the rustic nothingness of the Renosterveld just outside McGregor, where she paints and breathes. And this open sky simplicity speaks volumes in her work. Bemind winemaker Ilse Schutte cashed in on her dream of having her own wine cellar. She ended her tenure as wine maker at the big wine estates and moved to McGregor. Today she produces a Shiraz that will make – in the words of Mick Jagger – a grown man cry. Her Bemind Shiraz smells like the leathery study of an old, rich gentleman with a fondness for literature, female tennis players and many a glass of wine.
And you know how you always rock up at a place and think ‘My oh my, let’s give up everything and open our own beach bar/yoga retreat/taco stand right here, right this moment’? Olive farmer, Annalien van der Colff and her husband did exactly that. Passing through McGregor, they fell in love with the town and the farm that was – by complete coincidence – for sale, and decided on the spot that this is it. They’re going to break up with city life and start a new life in McGregor. And they chose olives to make it happen.
The story of the cinema operator is my favourite. Why? Because he showed us a 10 minute clip of Prince Igor in the poppy fields on an unsuspecting Sunday morning? Maybe. Or because they decided it would be a good idea buy the slightly odd Moroccanesque house on the corner of a street and turn it into a cinema and live music hall? Definitely.
The aptly named Wahnfried** is the home of all cultural affairs in McGregor. In the mood for a classic movie? Go and take your seat in the Wahnfried. How about some live music? The 1873 Bechstein grand piano is very eager to share some notes with you.
And now I’m done with my story
But not with McGregor. This town will definitely see me again. Actually, we’re going back in a month’s time. Yes.
Before I go, and should you go, remember to go to these places as well
Tanagra is a definite must-visit. They produce a range of Marc (also known as Grappa, distilled from fermented grape skins) and Eau de Vie (distilled from fermented fruit). Now, the Husband (who is coincidentally also named Marc) tasted a rather fetching amount of Marc samples at 10am. The rest of his day was a hoot.
Lord’s Winery is the perfect spot to wave the sun goodbye after a long day of small town endeavours. This wine estate is just outside McGregor and it really is the most serene spot. They make a mean Pinot Noir as well.
You simply cannot visit McGregor without scratching a donkey behind his ear. Eseltjierus Donkey Sanctuary is the home of many a rescued donkey. Ask for a tour, the guides are always more than happy to introduce you to the donkeys and share their stories.
Oh yes. And give Mira a call if you need a bed. There are loads of really nice accommodation options available. You really have no excuse.
*Not too sure about the presence of a candlestick maker. Will have to get back to you on this.
**If you chop the word Wahnfried in half, you get madness (wahn) and peace (fried), which fits this vernacularly obscure space like a glove.