Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kabeljou, Oryx, Chicken- The Pride of Namibia

“The fish came fresh of the boats this morning.” “The meat is all from our family farm.” “This bag of chicken will feed our family of fourteen.” Two weeks in Namibia proved to me that in a country with so much potential, one of its biggest assets is the pride of its people.

August in Namibia is the high season, perhaps not the best time of year to be winging a road trip in Africa. John and I had fantasized about our 4-wheel drive rental car with rooftop pop-up tent. We naively thought we could call around dealers on our first day, playing them off each other to find the best deal. Instead we found that tour operators and European independent travelers armed with advance reservations beat us to every 4x4 in Windhoek.

We happened upon what was perhaps the last available rental car in all of Namibia, a gold Corolla. We slapped down a credit card and prayed she would survive the dirt roads of this vast, open country.

The pre-planning tourists followed us everywhere, falling out of tour buses in front of us at service stations, caravans of white pickup trucks pulling into the ticket window of park entrances minutes before we did. We were not to be deterred. What we had going for us that all these supposedly smart planners lacked was the element of spontaneity. And it was just that sense of adventure, of not always knowing what city we would sleep in on a given night, that led to some of our most memorable encounters with the local people, not to mention their food.

Kamanjab is not much more than a blip on a map of Namibia. Two groceries, one petrol station, and one car repair shop pretty much sums up the entire town. Most tourists, don’t stop in this town for much more than lunch at Oase Guesthouse on their way to the bigger attraction, Etosha National Park.

We came the opposite direction, away from Etosha. Not quite sure of our destination we were looking for a place to rest our head for the night. The first sight of the dusty town is not terribly welcoming. The plains had recently given way to picturesque rolling hills but if one was looking for nightlife, curio shops, and maybe a German Bakkerie, this was not the place.

However, on deciding to stay, Oase lived up to its promising name. The guesthouse, a former market and then government headquarters, had a foliage filled courtyard with walls painted a soothing shade of green and a few hammocks perfect for afternoon reading. Owners Eban and Marianne along with their charming manager, oversee the small guesthouse with the warmth of long lost relatives.

We liked it so much we stayed on for a second night. Only later did we find out that they had been booked the second night, but chose to turn away an afternoon reservation so we could stay with them a second day. How quickly we became like family.

Both nights we feasted on oryx, a type of antelope with a deep venison taste. As we raved about oryx T-bone on night one and oryx fillet on night two, Evan proudly explained that all the meat, including the oryx, came from their farm. This was a family operation down to the provenance of the menu items.

Leaving our dusty, desert oasis in Kamanjab, we headed southwest towards a campground in petroglyph filled Twyfelfontein, the first recognized Unesco World Heritage Site in Namibia. In the strangely Greek sounding town of Khorixas, we stopped at this one stop sign dusty desert outpost to stock up on groceries, gas, and give the old Corolla a wash.

The markets in rural Namibia did not have much. We were lucky to find a few local sweet potatoes, onions and garlic. The meat was all frozen. We went for the boneless skinless chicken breasts hoping they would defrost more quickly than the rest.

In line behind me a perky girl of fourteen chirped, “Hello! How are you?” Griselda asked where I came from. I told her New York and she gasped. “That’s very far away.” Yes, I said. We had not seen many people from the States during our trip thus far. Americans were still a bit of a novelty in these remote parts.

I told her she had a very beautiful country, that we were enjoying our holiday very much. “Yes, thank you. It is a beautiful country. We are poor, but proud.” I told her I could tell, that they were proud not poor. She giggled.

We talked about school- she is number two in her class and wants to be a doctor. We talked about her family- fourteen relatives from several different families all live together and she is the oldest child among them.

We were both buying chicken, I noted. John and I had picked up four chicken breasts we planned to eat over two nights, the most expensive selection by the pound in the meat section. She had a 5 lb. bag of chicken pieces on the bone, the cheap stuff, frozen solid in a family pack bag. She said they would cook it up in water and a bit of oil and eat it with corn meal porridge, they hoped to make it stretch for all 14 people.

Meanwhile the cashier protested as she was ringing us up. She ran to the freezer section and came back with a bag identical to the one Griselda held. She was trying to tell us we could buy more chicken for less money than we were spending on our boneless skinless breasts if we bought the frozen family pack. It was too hard to explain that we didn’t need that much food and that we would pay more money if it meant wasting less.

We thanked the cashier anyway. She finished ringing us up and we waved goodbye to Griselda. I hoped that her chicken dinner with porridge would feed that big family. And I prayed that smile and spirit would see her through this tough life and on to her dream of medical school.

In addition to vast desert landscapes, teaming wildlife, and dramatic mountains, Namibia is known for its cryptically named barren northern shores, The Skeleton Coast. With a name that implies death (so given for the many sailors who met their demise after ship wrecking on the bleak, deserted coast), one would not think it to be a habitat teaming with life, fish life.

Hentiesbaai, just south of the entrance to Skeleton Coast National Park, is not high on the tourist agenda unless the tourist in question is a fisherman. I’m not good with a rod nor does John have much interest but Hentiesbaai is where we found ourselves one unplanned evening, looking for a guesthouse to crash for the night.

What we found was a town not particularly friendly to tourists save for the Desert Rendezvous B&B and two restaurants the manager recommended. Fishy’s Corner, with its fishnet décor and quaint green awning, drew us in with a welcoming store front on an otherwise bleak street in an foggy, empty fishing town.

Kabeljou was the fish of choice that night. The large Afrikaner waitress in a purple and neon pink tracksuit informed us that it was just off the boat that morning. John tried to order his fried and mine sautéed. They both cam out fried but we were not disappointed. The white flesh was firm and sweet in the way only a truly fresh fish can be. It had been lightly floured and fried, served with a wedge of lemon and superfluous tartar sauce, the fish being so good on its own it did not need more than this simple presentation.

A place like this does not get many outside visitors. Perhaps we should not have been surprised then when the tracksuit waitress was put off by our questions about the fish. She immediately became defensive of her pronunciation (the Afrikaans accent was heavy), but relaxed a bit when we assured her we just wanted to know more about the fish because we liked it so much. She repeated the spelling and the fact the fish was fresh off the boat this morning. In a city that has little else to pride itself in besides their main industry, an outsider messing with the fish, even if it is a misunderstanding, is probably the ultimate insult.

Black or white, German, Afrikaans, or Damara descent, the people I met along our journey all struck me with a dignity and patriotism that rises above all contrived notions of origin and ownership. As far as I could see, from the badlands of Khorixas where Griselda lugged home frozen chicken to feed an oversized family to the barren seaside town of Hentiesbaai where our white Afrikaner waitress announced the fresh catch of the day, the people of Namibia are proud of their land… and the food that comes from it.

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