Identity

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For many years I have kept a drawer in my heart filled with the want and hope that one day I could move back to South-Africa.  I have wrapped myself in the comfort of a blanket with stars and stripes on one side, and the rainbow flag of the new South-Africa that I left behind on the other. I have proudly affirmed myself an “American  African” to anyone inquiring about my origins, and although I raise my hand across my heart during the Star Spangled Banner, I must confess that except for the first and last lines, I don’t really know the words. I also don’t know the words to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) except for the few lines in Afrikaans found in the middle. I guess that makes me a pretty pathetic American and African patriot.

Identity plays such a role in our formation of self. Who am I? What defines me? What expresses my uniqueness, my character, and that part of me that makes me the one of a kind that each of us is? I left South-Africa at such a young age, full of rage for the unfair hand of cards I drew growing up in a world that required me to battle when I should have been allowed to just play. My fury raged against the forces that took away my childhood innocence at a tender age when I should have been just loved unconditionally. I was angry at the unjust years of struggle to redefine my destiny using just my own unwavering faith and strength that I would never allow myself to just become another statistic of circumstances. When I left the country of my birth, I left with the intention of never returning. I left with the burning desire to find a safe harbor, a port where I could drop my anchor and reinvent the identity of a very battle worn soldier. I was coming to America, the land of great opportunity and a new beginning, the land where dreams as big as a Texas sky come true.

Thirteen years later, in 2006, the tragic and untimely death of a very close and special person led me back. Like a very premature salmon run, I returned to the place of my birth. And I discovered that under my new found American heartbeat, my African blood was running strong. I recognized that my blanket was always double sided and I wished that I could one day come back to live in the country I was from and reclaim some of the missing years. I fell in love all over with the beautiful African light, the incredible vibrancy of an African life, and the way my soul is quiet and at peace when I’m surrounded by the African bush.

But . . . the years I spend in Texas and Dallas have been mounting, and the drawer filled with longing for my African dream has become much smaller. Like so much else, life happens when we make other plans. Slowly over the course of the past 23 years I have developed a deep love, not just for this wonderful country, but also for the great state of Texas and for Dallas. Last night I watched the sunset over White Rock Lake and the downtown skyline. This is my city, my ‘hood and my comfort. I’m proud to call Dallas home.

The inspiration to this blog started because I contemplated my own very recent Texas roots against a 7th generation Texan. How can it ever compare? Does it make me so much less of a true one from the Lone Star state? No, it doesn’t. Instead, what matters is the desire and commitment from both of us to want to make Texas the best place through our efforts and energy, both for the newbies like me, and the many generations before and after.

(Side note: I intended to write this blog about my love for all the special places in Texas like Big Bend, East Texas, Austin and the Hill Country, BBQ and Caddo Lake. Be patient. It’s imminent! )

I spent three weeks in South-Africa last year and during the trip I finally accepted that I’m American with just enough African spice to be different. It makes no sense to carry a dream of relocating “one day” to a country where I have no family and I really don’t belong. Instead, I shall visit often to satisfy my hunger and feed my African soul. In the meantime I’ll learn all the words to the Star Spangled Banner and show my deep gratitude for every opportunity presented to me by this great country.

Quitting

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day1_1Five weeks. That’s how long it took me before I could wash the Kalahari sand out. For five weeks my gear bag and I had a silent stare off each time I entered my bathroom. “Unpack me” …. “No, I’m not ready, leave me alone!” … “Unpack me … ignoring me won’t make me go away!” … “Dammit, I’m not ready!” Inside the bag hid the memories that I was not yet prepared for. I didn’t want to look at the T-Shirt I didn’t earn the right to wear. I didn’t want to put away my bib number and checkpoint card with all the unmarked time slots. I was not ready to wash my sweat from my racing pack. Much of my hesitation was born from my own insecurity and doubt about my endurance racing future. As long as that bag was sitting on the floor, I didn’t have to decide.

It also took a while to write about the day in the Kalahari when I changed from a racer to a crew member. After I completed the Himalayan 100 in 2010, I stared at myself in the mirror in my hotel in Delhi and asked myself who I was? I wanted to run down the streets and shout to people about what I just did. I felt such elation and accomplishment for completing my first ever race, let alone a 100 mile ultra stage race in the Himalayas just a year after having received a breast cancer diagnosis. I was so proud of myself.  I felt unstoppable, on top of my world, where I could reach out and touch each star within my dreams.

After I finished the Trans Rockies 120 last year, I was again overwhelmed with the warmth of victory. I basked in the glory of my medal, the T-Shirt, endless memories, and the company of my many new friends.  I have pictures with bouquets of flowers in my arms and big, happy smiles.

This time after the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme another very silent, one way mirror conversation happened at 32,000 feet across the Atlantic 10 hours into a 17 hour flight.  I looked into my haunted eyes in the tiny toilet and wondered if I had what it takes. Could I really ever complete a self-supported race? Am I strong enough? Am I tough enough? Self doubt doesn’t eat you up; instead, it slowly gnaws away at you until you are left with the scraps of your once grand ambitions.

quit1I often revisit 1:25p on day 2 when I decided to withdraw from the race. Such a nice word – withdraw – so much kinder than loser, quitter, failure . . .  Sigh. I know. Please. I have heard it all. Showing up at the start already made me a winner. Only 45 people out of more than 1.7 billion signed up. I didn’t quit, I was injured. Yeah. I know. But that does not make it any easier looking into my own eyes, because when I am 100% honest  . . .  I wasn’t prepared properly. Period. No excuses. No bullshit. I was not. And I knew it long before 1:25p on day 2, when it was 122F under a thorn tree in the Kalahari Desert . . . when I quit.

I started doubting myself the weeks leading up to the race when I hurt a tendon in my foot. It was an ice cream injury, simply missing the step at my daughter’s favorite store, Yumi-licious. I doubted myself even more on the endless bus ride to the Kalahari when one of my new race friends commented that my pack was too heavy compared to my body weight. And self-doubt raged inside me when I encountered my first sandy river beds on day 1. I have never walked in sand like that, let alone run! I knew then that, regardless of the heat, the chance of me finishing was slowly dimming.

But I just wanted to finish. How hard could that be? It’s only 155 miles over 6 stages. Long, yes, but not much longer than the Rockies. Just to finish? Certainly I’m capable? I have finished two other races, haven’t I? I live and train in Dallas, hot as hell in the summer. Certainly I can handle heat? I’m mentally tough, I don’t quit, and I’m a survivor. I was racing for a cause. I have to be almost dead to quit, don’t I?

(Side note: Self-supported races change the playing field for wannabe runners like me. When you have to strap on a pack in the desert and carry all your supplies for 7 days, you just entered the endurance race version of “The Hunger Games”. You can be taken out by so many variables. Your margin for error shrinks from small, to very slim, to none.)

camp3Only seven women entered the race and how proud was I of those six girls at the finish line! I was in great company. Bakiya gave the boys a stiff run for their money and finished in the top. Sanet made the Afrikaans girl in me proud with a very strong finish. Bridget ran the Himalayan 100 with me and is a true non-quitter with the best cleavage around. Annie, with the gorgeous curls, just kept walking like the wonderful Jonny Walker commercial. Laura was the veteran of the Kalahari and could hear the sand whisper as she passed. And finally Pam from Singapore showed that a tough girl can have the sweetest smile.

Spiderman was the sweeper behind the last runner. Can I just say one thing? I never want to be swept again. Ever. It screwed with my head space. I knew he was waiting for me. Sitting under a tree watching me struggle thru the endless sand. I would listen to his quad bike engine, needing him to speed up to come say hi, simultaneously wanting him to go away and let me fight thru my demons alone. He became a lifeline on day 2 when I was limping from tree to tree. He was my insurance policy that I was not lost. I’m grateful for his kindness when I needed it most, but I wish I was not swept. I wish I did not have someone who agreed with me at 1:25p on day 2 that it was perhaps not a good idea to continue.

day2_4After Doc Jann and I agreed that my patella tendon took a lot of stain from the steep climb out of a gorge, and that continuing may cause a more serious long-term injury, I was taken to the crew camp with several other racers that were the other casualties of day 2. No words were necessary to express the agony we felt. Our eyes told the story of the intense disappointment of a “dnf – did not finish – after many months of training and thousands of miles travelled to be at the race start. We all came to finish, but that day the Kalahari Desert had other plans for us as my fellow fallen comrades also suffered a combination of injuries, dehydration and illness.

I have struggled with my decision to quit endlessly and have second guessed myself over and over. Could I have gone on even with my knee injury? What if I just went to the next checkpoint? What if, what if, what if. ..  Ugh!! I met a seasoned racer recently who gave me sound advice: Never doubt the decision you made in the heat of battle. Trust that you knew best then. Looking back the picture always looks different. Ok. As I breathe . . . I did the right thing. I withdrew because it was the right decision under that thorn tree that day when it was hotter than hell, when I was limping with 125 miles and 5 days left, and with a pack that was 10 pounds too heavy. I accept my decision. Just breathe.

top1I have questioned my racing motives every day for five weeks while fighting with my gear bag. What do I want to achieve with ultra endurance racing? Is it really just about a T-Shirt and medal? To just finish? A race notch on my headboard?  Proving to myself that I’m alive post cancer, because I’m afraid of dying? NO!! I now know that it is my sport. It is what I love doing and I want to do it better. I want to give it my best shot and “just finish” is no longer enough. I love the places that the toughest races on earth take me. But above all else, I love the people I meet and the friends I make. I don’t want any more to be the wannabe pretend runner that tries to wing it. I want to show up at the start line prepared and ready to race. For real, for me, with no excuses.

(Side note: I’m fortunate to live near a state of the art performance center, Playtri, which is an official USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center, the highest honor USA Triathlon can bestow on a training facility. I needed some serious coaching and training as I obviously don’t have a clue how to train myself, and as of Dec 1st, I’m one of their new members. I have delegated my training regime to my coach Mo. Although stubborn, I do follow direction well, especially when I need plenty expert advice, guidance and help. After a month of hard work I just ran a personal best on Dec 30: 6 miles in an hour, 10min a mile! Wow! I can actually run!)

start2Failure never tastes good but I learned more about myself and what I want and need than had I finished this race and came back to Dallas wrapped in a T-Shirt with a trophy. The Kalahari Desert knew that I was not ready to graduate from its rocks, sand and hot terrain. It wanted me to come back when I was worthy and prepared to take on its sandy riverbeds, gorges, cliffs and heat. Thank you for a priceless gift.

I washed my gear bag and its contents on Dec 1st when I started training for my next race that I’m registered for: The Grand to Grand Ultra, September 2013. Running from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase in Utah. 167 miles over 7 days, 6 stages and again fully self-supported. Take note: I’m not showing up to “just finish”! I will be back to complete the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in 2014 – the 15th anniversary of this great race, in an enchanted land, amongst strangers that became friends and family.

Endurance

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While at the University of Pretoria, South-Africa, I worked on Sunday nights at a restaurant that featured a Jazz band. Every Sunday night they dedicated “New York, New York” to me and every Sunday night I was re-infused with the intense desire to come to this great land of opportunity.

I had no idea how to make that happen but like much else in my life, I figured it would reveal itself. Little did I know that 25 years later I would run across New York City’s bridges and through all five boroughs in my first marathon. November last year I got my medal, my T-shirt and the right to say that I finished the NYC Marathon in 6 hours. But New York provided me with so much more. Over a 26.2 mile stretch, I touched the hands of many, and looked into the eyes of the hundreds of spectators that came out to cheer us on. Strangers shouting my name ducted taped to my chest . . . “Go, Henda, Go!” . . . It gave my legs the extra power to keep going. And it became the wings on my feet during the last 4 miles in Central Park to the finish.

But it was the runner at mile 11 that touched my heart the deepest and whose image is burned forever in my memory. I regret not stopping to ask his name and to share with him how much I admired his tremendous accomplishment. I regret not sharing with him how profoundly I was touched by his strength. With two artificial legs and both arms amputated above the elbow, it was his courage to race that remind me that we race because we can and not always to win.

Fast forward to springtime in Dallas. Why not participate in one of the toughest mud races in the world, the Tough Mudder? Well, to be accurate . . . Why The F Not? That was our team name when I convinced four friends to come crawl thru mud and scale walls with me and run 12 miles between obstacles. I learned about the Wounded Warrior Project and again my heart was touched by the team of men that started in our group. Their teammate raced with an amputated arm while carrying the Wounded Warrior flag. Once again I was left speechless by the tremendous ability for our spirits to soar if we allow greatness to enter our minds.

Once again I got my T-Shirt and the coveted orange head band. But this time at a steep price as I fell half a mile from the finish and got seriously hurt. It was on a half pike obstacle where the point was to run, leap and grab the arms of fellow Mudders. Unfortunately I slipped, and, unable to leap, slammed into the half pike face first. I blacked out with a possible concussion, broke two teeth, what looked like a broken nose and a blood pressure low enough to cause discussions of an airlift.

After 45 minutes in the medical tent I was stable and begging to finish the race. It took plenty pleading and crying to convince the staff to allow me to return to the place I was picked up. I walked the last half mile to the finish and earned my finisher headband and T-shirt with mud, blood and teeth dust on my face! It’s doubtful that I would ever do a mud race again.

Which brings us to the epic journey I’m about to embark on. The “Big Daddy” of South-Africa, the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme, a 155 mile ultra-endurance race over 7 days and 6 stages, fully self-supported. To quote from their website “Participants must carry all their supplies, clothes and compulsory safety/survival equipment for the duration of the event. Overnight shelter in camps, and water, which is strictly controlled and distributed during the race, is supplied. The event goes way beyond merely covering 250 kilometers in extreme conditions; it is a challenge to get past what normal people would regard as crazy, and achieve one’s personal goals.”

I have trained all summer in the convection oven of the Dallas heat. I have learned to accept 24 pounds of weight on my back while running, and to drink water heated by the midday sun to boiling point while letting my GPS compute the 50 miles a week I was putting on my feet. I have learned about nutrition and managing my hydration. When every ounce counts, you become a guardian to excess and a bean counter for every calorie that goes in the pack.

Here is why I love ultra-endurance racing . . . I love being pushed beyond my limits. I get off on that. I need it. I need the exercise regularly to remind myself that I can go beyond what may seem insane to most people. And I don’t get challenged enough just day-to-day. So, I need to take myself to a place where I can experience that sense of self over and over. Where I can come face to face with that force inside me that has guided me all my life, and know that it’s intact and solid. I find comfort to know that I have that strain of toughness in me that can endure and then go beyond. I love feeling that freedom from ordinary, from normal, from being part of the herd.

Am I ready? I don’t know. All I know is that I shall run/walk this race one checkpoint at a time. I shall surrender to the heat and the terrain, to the sand, and the weight of my pack pressing into my right breast scarred by my surgery and radiation. I shall willingly accept that it will take a “keep moving” attitude until I get to the finish. I shall think of the runner at mile 11 in NYC and of all the women that have battled and won their struggle with breast cancer. And I shall dedicate this race to the memory of all the women that lost their race with cancer. I shall complete this desert race for them because I can and I wish they did.

My most treasured gift this year is a bumper sticker from my daughter that reads “Why be normal?” Indeed. Why? It’s more fun not to be.

Ritual and Custom

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What does one do when you are terribly homesick on a Sunday night? How about cooking for 5 hours? If nothing else, exhaustion sets in after about 3 hours and after 5 hours you are ready to blog about it with a glass of red wine and feet up! It started with Skype calls to my friends in South-Africa. How I miss them! How I wish I can be there more often!     

I needed to build a bridge tonight and more than any other blocks; food, flavors and spice can transport me from the here and now to a moment captured from the past. I needed to pour my heart out by re-creating the memories of past comforts and peace – a gift to myself to ease the ache of separation.

(Side Note: The difference between a gift and a present? A present is something that you want the recipient to have. But a gift is something that the recipient would want.)

Naturally, an over-achiever would not be happy with just one dish; instead I chose to make four complicated and involved, from scratch, ensembles that could have secured me a spot on the Food Network. The first was from home; a quintessential South-African dish that crosses racial and cultural boundaries, called “Bobotie”. Malayan in origin, it shares a similar flavor profile with Indian undertones. Over the years, I have added my own twists and turns to a version that reflects my style and taste. It is a wonderful marriage of spices, dried fruit, ground beef and custard – think shepherd’s pie meeting Quiche with curry and garam masala.

My next labor of love were samosas: delightful little triangle bites filled with all sorts, and in my case, curried lamb with peas. Not only is it a much-loved dish in South-Africa, but it was also one of my most favorite street foods in India. Making the filling, then form and hand stuff the triangles, were an intense exercise in patience and devotion. Oh, but how sweet they were!

But my masterpiece was a chicken tikka masala. It is satisfying to create the layers of flavor and the complexity of a sauce known by many, but all my own. Not much of a recipe follower, instead, I trusted my taste buds to balance toasted cumin seeds, coriander, paprika, curry, garam masala and so much more. Rounding out the group was another classic, lamb biryani, which will always transport me back to Delhi, to my first supper after the Himalayan 100 mile endurance race.         

The stormy weather outside was a fitting backdrop to my head space as a great downpour reminded me of nature’s way to yield to heartbreaking sobs and a good cry. Never underestimate the healing powers of our tears, or the rain, as it cleanses and washes away much of our frustration and pain.  To ease my kids’ fears when they were little, I constantly told them that a rainstorm was God watering His garden and that all the flashes of lightning was God taking pictures of the beautiful flowers.

My internal struggle to balance the puzzle of my life is ongoing. My American polish shines bright over the strata of the underlying characteristics from my third world love affairs. I have lived the privileged life for so long that I wonder if I can traverse back along the path to a more rugged and uneven route.

My South-African roots run deep and it seems the older I get, just like an Alaskan salmon swimming back; the place of my birth is calling me home. I miss my people, my culture, and above all, the land, whose sunsets, smells and sounds bring pleasure to my soul. My African dream hopes to carry me home one day.     

India struck a profound chord that is hard to explain. Having travelled extensively across many continents, I have never felt so instantly connected to a time and place as I did in this very complex country of extreme contradiction. And maybe that is exactly what attracted me the most to India’s core, as I recognized the extremes that exist within me.

From the sheer wonder of the Taj Mahal, the intense poverty in Mumbai, to the greatness and splendor of the Himalayas, to Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world; I was thrilled by a tapestry woven with threads that took my breath away.

Varanasi (Banares) was the city whose spirit still echoes loudly and whose memory I unwrap often to enjoy like a special treat. Situated on the banks of the Ganges, it is the sacred city to both the Buddhist and Hindu and the holiest of all pilgrimages. As I stood under the tree where Buddha gave his first sermon, my wish was that I could be touched by my own enlightenment. I longed for the same peace I felt from the orange clad monks I encountered at the monasteries I visited.   

Watching dawn break over the Ganges, Holy River for the Hindu, wrapped in my beautiful sari, when twilight painted the world in blue ambient light, just before the first rays of the sun washed the temples and shrines in a golden hue along the river; I watched as thousands of people bathed in the blessed waters. I wished I could shed my own robes and baggage that easily, and stepped into my own waters of reverence.  

Being cremated on the Ganges is the supreme wish of a Hindu and the cremation flames have burned for more than 5,000 years at two ghats on the river, without ever being put out, ever. As I watched their flames from the middle of the river, I thought of the rituals and traditions that define the cultures we belong to. And I understood how much I am a nomad, sharing in many: some borrowed, some inherited and some acquired along the way, not always sure where I belong.

My Indian feast included witnessing exquisite pieces of art dating back to 2,300 BC. One of my most  favorite was a two-inch incredibly beautiful crystal sculpture of a woman’s head. I had no idea that the art of crystal was that old! I can still see her flowing hair and defined eyelashes in a piece that would have made Picasso envious. And it made me happy to know that humans were capable of creating such beauty so long ago. Regardless of the cultures that we belong, or the rituals we embrace, in the end, it is our humanity that ties us together. And I can embrace all the threads that have been woven into my complex design. 

Gift and present, I’m taking some of my homemade samosas tomorrow to a South-African Indian friend that calls Dallas home – somehow it seems to be the fitting close to my effort to build a bridge between the worlds that collide in my heart.

Close Encounters

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Wild animals have always called my name and some of my most precious memories involved my close encounters with several in the wild. I was recently on a business trip in Grand Cayman, courtesy of the Ritz Carlton, as they were marketing their new Dragon Bay development to several real estate agents from Dallas. No trip to Cayman is complete without stopping in Stingray City to swim with the Stingrays and soon three large ones had me wrapped up in their wings! But for the sake of full disclosure: I had fresh squid in my hands that they wanted it bad enough to exchange some hugs and kisses!

One of the most exhilarating moments came about in a steel cage in the icy cold waters off Cape Town in South-Africa. Cage diving with the Great Ones had been on my bucket list for a long time and I finally had the chance in 2009 to come face-to-face with a great white shark. Which of us will ever forget Jaws? It was a seven man cage that was about 3 feet wide and suspended off the side of the boat as the great whites are surface feeders. I was the first to enter the cage and had the eerie feeling that I would be the animal in the cage!

The water gave me an instant brain freeze but the cold was soon forgotten as the first of about fourteen great white sharks were circling the boat. One, nearly ten feet long, came within inches of my face and looking into his steely eyes made me extremely grateful that I was behind bars.  The next diver rotation enjoyed a much closer run-in. I was leaning over the boat to get better pictures of the sharks when one of the large ones tried to attack the cage and got his bottom teeth stuck! With two massive slaps of his tail he broke free and the impact rocked the cage and boat dangerously from side to side. I almost lost my footing and nearly became lunch. Needless to say, shark diving for the day was cut short.

Last summer, we were in Zimbabwe and I finally checked another one off the bucket list – an elephant back safari. Although I have had many close encounters with elephants while on safari in South-Africa over the years, I had never touched an elephant or rode on one before. Majestic and large than life, as I wrapped my hands around his trunk, feeling his rough skin and looking into his soft brown eyes with the longest eye lashes, I felt like I was looking into pools of ancient wisdom. His name was Jake, and with my daughter and me on his back, he led the rest of the herd thru the African bush. It was a unique vantage point to experience the bush up high and from behind his big floppy ears, and to feel his tremendous power, as we were gently swaying from side to side. He effortlessly crushed the trees that were in his way as he happily grazed on branches. We were also able to get remarkable close to the other animals and I really felt like I was part of their world. Afterwards it was a total joy to toss treats into his mouth.

Scuba diving has brought me close to many underwater moments that took my breath away. During a night dive in the Bahamas several years ago a very large octopus wrapped itself around my arm. Their intelligence is legendary and they are masters at problem solving. As I was feeling his sucking cups took hold of my skin, I could only hope that he would recognize that I was not food.

One of the most incredible inter-actions I had was with a massive whale shark in Belize at 100 feet. Click here for the link to my blog post about the moment when I came face-to-face with the biggest fish in the ocean. It will always be one of my most amazing experiences, above or below the water!

I swam with dolphins in the Caribbean, have held lion cubs, felt a cheetah purr and been feet away from rhino, leopard and water buffalo in the wild. And I have a dream to one day personally meet the humpback whales. They occupy a very special spot in my heart. In 1996, as I scuba-dived the sheer outer wall of the Molokini crater in Maui, I heard their complex songs under water. I have never heard anything more beautiful and it was another dive where I wished I had a few spare tanks!

Remembering my wild friends always brings a smile to my face and fills my heart with gratitude that I had the chance to become better acquainted with them. They remind me how great and beautiful life is, and how much I love to live each day and how grateful I am for all the goodness that have come my way.

True Gifts

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Like the simultaneous mix of sweet and bitter to create delicious dark chocolate, Decembers past had been a split for me between the delightful and the tart. My son was due on Christmas Day and what a tremendous joy of the season it was to hold him close to my heart on Dec 21st, twelve years ago. Back then, he was so tiny and delicate, where as now he almost towers over me! And when I cradle him and my daughter in my arms, I know we share a bond for a lifetime and that they are the most precious gifts I have ever received.       

But growing up in South-Africa, December underscored my lack of family and was the month with a sharper edge.  My boarding school was my home during the school year from January to mid November, but the long summer break in December always begged the question: Where do I go? When I was four years old, with a mother un-equipped to care for her kids, neighbors took me in and raised me for a while. And years later, their son William and his wife Tienie’s farm in Makwassie became my regular home for the holidays.

Makwassie is a very small farming town about 3 hours northwest of Johannesburg. It is big corn, sunflower and groundnut country and as flat as Texas on any given day. As kids, my younger half-brother and I would take the Cape Town train from Johannesburg and it was my job to make sure we got off at the Makwassie station, usually around 4 o’clock in the morning. This was 1970’s South-Africa, I was barely ten years old, and the responsibility weighed heavily on my shoulders to keep us safe.  

My love for cooking was born in Tienie’s great farm kitchen where food was done on a large-scale and eating was big business. Tienie also taught me to sew and she patiently salvaged my projects into wearable fashion. And every year I would read and re-read all the wonderful books on her shelves, and lose myself in their stories of love and adventure. With William, I would ride the tractors, feed the baby chicks and lambs, milk the odd cow and visit the pigs. Surrounded by warmth and joy, for a few weeks every year, I was just a happy kid having fun. And my Makwassie family became dearer to me than any blood relatives ever could be.

Santa, or Father Christmas to us from the south, always came on Christmas Eve with his bag full of presents, that he would hand out by name. Part of me knew that it was William dressed up in red with a beard, but the other part believed in the magic of the season and that Santa would bring my heart’s desire.

For the past 19 years we have spent most Christmases in Oklahoma City with my parents-in-law. Since my kids have been little, we made sure that the chimney is open and cookies and milk are set out. Santa only comes when kids are asleep and leaves the presents under the tree to be opened on Christmas Day. Over the years I have become Santa’s public relations officer and director of local operations, expertly moving merchandise long distance. At almost 10 and just turned 12, my kids’ logic may tell them otherwise, but their hearts still believe in the charm of Santa. My daughter summed it up on Christmas Eve, “The Santas at the mall are fake, let’s go to the North Pole and meet the real one!”

We spent the 2006 holidays in South-Africa, and I was delighted that my kids would be on the farm in Makwassie for Christmas. As little American city slickers; it was their first trip to Africa and their knowledge of the African bush and a working farm were seriously limited. I worried that they really believed milk and meat came from the grocery store! But most importantly, I wanted to show them my country and the farm where I spent such happy times; and I wanted them to meet all my friends that were my family. 

We put the cookies and milk all the way at the electric fence gate and could only hope that Santa would know the code to enter. Once again, William was Father Christmas, and this time he came on a tractor and flatbed thru the corn fields. Cloudless and balmy, it was a night of pure delight and one that we still talk about . . .  after all; creating lasting memories with the people you love is the true gift of the season.

(Side Note: There is a difference between a Gift and a Present. A Present is something a person gives to another, because he wants the receiver to have it. A Gift is something a person gives because he knows that the other person will like to have it. In either case, the real worth lies in being thoughtful with our gifts and presents!)

Santa, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas . . . In South-Africa, December is very much the heart of summer and I always wondered why Santa wore so much velvet and fur. It also really concerned me that his flight plans covered mostly the northern hemisphere, but what about us down at the tip of Africa? The terrain is not exactly reindeer and sleigh friendly, and with all those layers, heat stroke was very possible. I concluded that he must have a cousin to take care of his Southern business, in a jeep, with a few African antelope and khaki shorts.    

This past Christmas Eve we followed Santa’s path on Google Earth and I guess next year I need to friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. And maybe he will get plugged into Skype so that I can text him with last-minute instructions. Whether he wears velvet, fur or some cool khaki shorts, and whether in Oklahoma City or a farm in Africa, I am reminded every year that these days my December’s edge has become smooth and soft and its days filled with much love and laughter.

Street Food Musings

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Across the globe, street vendors entice us to sample their delightful bites. If we are willing to throw caution to the wind, we can savor these yummy morsels and solidify a lasting memory of the specific moment and place we devoured these potentially unsafe little thrill rides.

(Side note: After getting every immunization shot on the list for India, I was also armed with my local pharmacy and had enough diarrhea, stomach, dehydration, Z-Pack, Ciprofloxacin and other medication to supply a small village. I was very lucky never to get sick and came home with the whole shop intact and I wonder if there is a market on e-Bay for unused medicine?)  

My earliest introduction to the joy of a sidewalk mouthful goes back to the “boerewors” rolls in South-Africa that are sold on many street corners. “Boerewors”, or farm sausage, is made from beef and pork with ground, toasted coriander seeds as its leading spice. Topped with either ketchup or Mrs. Balls peach chutney, a “boerewors”-roll would be one of the many reason I could never become a vegetarian! Another favorite is “pannekoek”, crepes that are lightly dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Simple and unpretentious, it warms the heart and melts in your mouth. And like a much-loved blanket, both these wrap me in the precious memories from my childhood.

While backpacking thru the Middle East in 1989, I will always remember the Falafel pita pockets (deep-fried chickpea balls) from Old Jerusalem. I stayed in the old part of the city in a musty and very damp youth hostel, with small, rickety cots that were tightly lined up in neat rows. But its location was perfect and allowed me to wander through the labyrinthine paths and let myself get lost in history. I was in Jerusalem during Ramadan, absolutely dirt poor and unable to afford much beyond the cheap 2 Shekel falafel pitas that were sold everywhere.  I will never forget seeing my very first snow while standing in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, eating my pita pocket. My clothes were soaked and my feet were frozen, as I had no real winter clothes, however, I can close my eyes today and be transported back to that moment instantly. How crisp was the Falafel and how dazzling, to be dusted in white fluffy snowflakes!

Several years later I was in Granada, Spain, in the Medieval Moorish district of El Albayzin, famous for its narrow, winding streets. It was 2am, and after a long night of dinner, bars and Flamenco dancing, hunger called out to us to find something delicious. Sitting on the stone steps near the church of San Nicolas, we were munching on “pulpo” (octopus) fries with the most spectacular view of the Alhambra at night. To this day, that was the most unforgettable fries of any kind that I have ever had! Many members of our Granada Salmeron family were with us and I will always hold the memory close, which represented a different time in my life, before kids, when 2am street snacks were the rule and not the exception.   

In Peru, during the summer of 2009, following my two breast cancer lumpectomies, I was introduced to a new kind of street food – “Emoliente”.  Vendors congregated in the streets at dawn and dusk with their rolling carts of unlabeled glass bottles, full of colorful magical ingredients. We were in the village of Urubamba, in the Sacred Valley near Machu Picchu, and our driver stopped to let us enjoy a glass. In Peru, “Emoliente” is the quintessential equivalent of chicken soup or a cup of hot English tea. People drink it to cure ailments of all kinds, and before or after going out on the town. But to me it held the potential of severe regret later that night. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound! The secret of successfully enjoying any street food or drink, is not to ask yourself where, when and how often things have been thoroughly and safely cleaned. If you do, you will never allow yourself to leap into the turmoil of a potential stomach nightmare!

India delivered a new frontier in my street food tolerance. During the days leading up to the Himalayan 100 endurance race, I was a food vigilante. I axed any opportunity to sample anything that came with the risk of me being sick. No dairy, nothing from the street, and in fact, nothing that was not cooked or peeled ever crossed my lips; and my liquids were limited to beer, cola, or bottled water.  

After the Himalayan 100 race I was in Varanasi with the family of my surgical oncologist, and I had to make up for lost street food time. I ate the most delicious, freshly fried “samosas” near Banaras Hindu University, wrapped in banana leaves. In South-Africa ”samosas” are a familiar snack as well, and the stuffed triangle pockets have always been a big savory favorite with me.           

The next tasty morsel, “Chaat”, came from the corner vendor at the store where I purchased my precious Indian sari from. It was a delicious, tangy concoction of spices and potatoes. The line was long in front of this vendor and a tip from Streetfood101: lengthy lines are always a great sign! My last street bite amidst the crazy traffic on a busy road, from a push cart vendor, was “Golgappa”. Small enough to fit completely in your mouth, “Golgappa” is a delicate hollow pastry bubble, filled as-you-eat with a spicy blend of tamarind water and potatoes. Topped by a choice of sweet or zesty chutney, it delivers a 3 second maximum explosion of taste in your mouth. And like popcorn, you cannot just have one, alternating between sweet and spicy chutney, you finally have to force yourself to stop popping them!        

In New York City the street food is synonymous for me with pretzels, gyros, roasted chestnuts and hot-dogs, particularly after a show on Broadway. Of course, it also comes without many of the risks of a tummy roller coaster ride of some of my more illustrious street fare experiences. But there is something so thrilling for me to share the food of the locals. And I find their tastes, like the ancient knots in carpets that carried messages between weavers, to carry the memory of a special place long after I have left.

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