Having a basket ball.

March 16, 2006

Rueben Ndwandwe weaving a basket at his home.I am really taken with African crafts. Soyan and I both particularly like baskets. Throughout our travels in South America we bought almost no souvenirs, something that we did intentionally, but regretted slightly. Here in Africa we wanted to buy a few things for the house that we don’t have. We had looked in many of the small craft markets that dot tourist sites like the dimples on a golf ball, but we had not found any baskets that we really liked.

In Eshowe, a small town in the heart of Zululand, we went to see the Vukani Collection Museum, home to the world’s best collection of Zulu crafts and baskets, hoping to learn a little more and see if we could find some baskets.

Frommer’s South Africa writes:
“While Westerners head for cultural villages, many urban Zulu parents bring their children [to the Vukani Collection Museum] to gain insights into the rituals, codes, and crafts of the past.”

We learned a lot about the purpose of baskets. A large number of baskets were made specifically to hold beer, which was traditionally the woman’s job to brew and serve. Traditionally the baskets were beautifully woven, but without color or pattern. In 1972 the Swedish missionary, Rev. Kjell Lofroth, under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded the Vukani Association, a cooperative to train and provide income to the Zulu people. He took Zulu baskets to Europe to sell. While he was successful in his initial sales effort he was consistently asked if he could provide Zulu baskets with color and pattern. He returned to Africa and began a major renaissance in Zulu baskets.

Soyan examines the baskets
The museum has many beautiful baskets, but one modern weaver’s work stood out. Reuben Ndwandwe. The baskets had intricate designs and a unique style of overlaying a second level to increase the complexity of the designs. Soyan and I were both immediately taken with his work. Unfortunately the museum didn’t have any for sale. Most of what they can get their hands on they keep, and everything else sells out almost right away.

We explained that we were heading to Durban, and asked if there any place there that we might find some of his work. The curator thought it was possible but suggested that we call him directly.

Call him?

I have never been to a museum where I could admire the artist’s work and when I inquired about it, I could call him.

Yeah sure, let’s call him!

Two minutes later Reuben verified that there was no place to find his work in Duran, but he did have a few baskets at home, if we wanted to come and see them.

Home was three hours in to the hills of Zululand, but what the hell, when will I next be in Zululand? We agreed to meet him by the side of the road in a small town near his home. We’d be the white people driving the Camry.

We stopped at an ATM before leaving any semblance of civilization to get some money in case we found any thing we liked, and I kept repeating “This is so cool!”. When I go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I see things I like there too, but I never get invited to the artists house to check out his latest work.

As I suspected we had no trouble finding Reuben on the side of the road, and a few minutes later we were in the little compound that was home to him and 3 of his 4 wives. (He kicked out the one that tried to poison him, but that is another story).

Our Reuben Ndwandwe baskets
He was warm and gracious and asked us to wait while he got the baskets. He returned with large tacky plastic bags and unceremoniously dumped his latest baskets out on to a straw mat. I particularly enjoyed this, because just three hours before I had been prohibited from using a flash, much less touching these sacred museum objects. Now here was the Artist treating them like so many potatoes.

After some haggling we bought four of the five larger baskets that he had. I took a few photos and we headed back out to start our long drive to Durban.

I can think of little else that I have enjoyed purchasing as much as these, too bad I shipped them to the States and I won’t see them again for a year.

Surfing Baptism

February 26, 2006

Surfing BaptismThis morning we headed to Victoria market in search of Indian hawkers and Indian food. We found the market virtually empty on a Sunday morning, and once again, failed to eat Indian food.

We did however enjoy a walk along the beach after lunch. Along the way we stopped to watch surfers from the concrete walk way. As we were watching them, I noticed a group of middle aged black woman and and children watching the surfers from the waters edge. On closer inspection, one woman was carrying a drum. A man and a woman from the group seemed to be wading out chest deep in the water, and he was dunking her.

Soyan realized that they weren’t watching the surfers at all. They were conducting a baptism.

With god as my witness, and in case he is busy a bunch of surfers, you are now born again.

Vindaloo Peek-A-Boo

Indian Food I was delighted to learn that Durban has the largest Indian community outside of India. While this is an interesting fact to share with unsuspecting family and friends, I was excited because I love Indian food. We had excellent Indian food in Tanzania, but that was more than a month ago and we were ready for some more.

We picked up recent Frommer’s Guide to Southern Africa from a book exchange in Zambia, and decided to try the 2 “must visit” Indian restaurants in Durban. When I called to make a reservation at Gulpur, I go an error about the number being invalid, but I attributed this to my lack of prowess at navigating the South African phone system.

When we arrived at the specified address last night, we found a new restaurant in place of the one we were looking for. I guess I should have been more confident my ability to use a phone. Instead, we settled for dinner on the patio of Tribeca restaurant, surround by several tables of trendy young Indians drinking martinis and eating pizzas and burgers.

Tonight we once again set out to try the other mustn’t miss Indian restaurant: Jaipur Palace, and found we were a week too late for its closing party. I guess Indian food isn’t as popular with Indians as it is with us.

Determined, we went to Little India a restaurant passed on our trip to the Musgrave Center. The Mutton Vindaloo was excellent, the Aloo Mutter and the Chicken Sagwala were pretty good, but we were delighted none the less.

Little India is located at: 155 Musgrave Road, Durban. (031) 201-1121

Indian food photo by Miss Domestic used under Creative Commons license.

Food Fusion Confusion!

February 25, 2006

Mugg and Bean Oriental Chicken Burger Mugg and bean is a South African chain that purports to serve American food. I found this item on their menu and I really don’t know what to say! This is one confused food item!

An oriental chicken burger that has guacamole on it and is served on a bagel?!

Yes it has teriyaki sauce, but does that really justify calling it “oriental”? Why not call it “mexican”, I mean it has guacamole. Or deli style, it is served on a bagel.

A pair of queer birds

February 16, 2006

Birders (that’s bird watchers for those of you not hip to the birding scene) are normally passionate and obsessive people. While I enjoy snapping a few shots of birds, I don’t share their obsession. Nonetheless, I usually like people who are a little bit obsessive. If someone doesn’t care deeply about anything, he isn’t usually very interesting.

I found the passion I read about in The Big Year, a recently published book about competitive birding, to be charming and I understood it perfectly.

So when I met the pair of British birding lawyers on my recent wilderness trail trip in Kruger National Park I expected to like them and maybe learn a little something about the local birds. I was surprised that I needed only spend an hour with them before I learned to identify the sound of the constant chattering of a pair of Snotty Nosed English Nit Pickers. Once I had heard it, I wasn’t able to escape it for the entire trip.

The right side is the wrong side.

February 9, 2006

We are in Johannesburg, South Africa. Wherever we go we try to soak up the local culture and seek out local adventure. Since Jo’burg is a city of mall culture and the car jacking capital of the world, we decided there was no better way to fit in than to rent a car and hit the malls.

It is, however, not the risk of car jacking that is scaring me- it is driving on the left side of the road. It takes complete concentration to make a right hand turn across a divided highway and go through a rotary without killing myself or anyone else. I must have turned on the windshield wipers twenty times trying to use the turn signal since everything is reversed.

Despite all this, after our 89 hour experience on the train (coming soon!) we decided to rent a car and tour South Africa without depending on public transit. Since the dangers of the center of Jo’burg have driven many people to the suburbs, we spent yesterday visiting a number of malls that comprise the social and recreational life of most white residents of the city. We were buying a tent, air mattress, cooking stove, pots, towels and the dozens of other things that we need to be semi self sufficient as we drive the country.

Today we are leaving Jo’burg and heading northeast toward Pilgrim’s Rest and then on to Kruger National Park. On Sunday we start a three day hike through the park, then we’ll head to Swaziland and along the coast toward Capetown.

We now have a South African cell phone with free incoming calls, so give us a buzz at [number deleted becasue it is no longer functional]. The 0 may not be necessary when calling from overseas, so if it doesn’t work try removing the 0. Please remember we are 7 hours ahead of the East Coast so please don’t call past 4pm ET unless it is an emergency.

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