Something new for dinner

My explorations into Namibian cuisine have taken another step.  You may not want to hear about it, but hey, if you read my oryx brain story, this one should go down easy. Ready?

Jay and I ate deep-fried zebra snake.

Seriously.

It went like this:

Our chickens were in a major brooding mood.  A few of them were just desperate to sit on some eggs, and we wanted more chickens, so we let them.  The first hen hatched 13 eggs, and with that we doubled our chicken herd.

The second clutch was a bit of an accident.  The hen hid her eggs in tall grass and before we knew it, she disappeared to sit on them.  In time, we found her and her eggs, and with a bit more time, 10 chicks hatched.

Back in the coop, we could hardly keep the hens from sitting so we let one more have a chance.  Eventually, 8 more chicks were born.

Doing the maths, we now had 31 baby chickens running around.

No matter where in the world they were, these helpless balls of meat would attract predators.  I knew better than to expect them all to survive to adulthood, but nevertheless, when they began to disappear, it was depressing.

The original thirteen stayed strong.  Either their mom was tough and kicked some ass whenever something tried to grab one, or they just got lucky.  The second batch of ten, though, had a newbie, slightly air-headed, mom, and within a week, they were whittled down to five.

Then, the third batch began to dwindle – one or two at a time, every few days.  We had a repeat offender on our hands; a nocturnal snake who knew he’d found the jackpot.

When a python took one of the thirteen, who were now pretty big, he was too fat to escape.  So we hauled him out the next morning and transported him far from the house.  But the chicks kept disappearing.

One morning, I found another of the thirteen unable to walk.  His leg had a clear snake bite on it, and he died soon after.  Now we knew we had a venomous snake – that ruled out another python.  And mambas being day snakes left only one other suspect: the zebra snake.

http://lh6.ggpht.com/4bg4hIj9USj_Bg2m3vXYujHdaZjILZaxrUtNn2dht0fFbzewxiqquaYLkKRJFCNd7lQ0fo-nQkihkCE3MfTcDA=s1200

Zebra snake. Photo courtesy projectnoah.org

We began fortifying our coops.  Normally, we use just one, but with all these new animals, we were using two old, non-snake-proof ones.  We fixed holes, cemented around the bases, put up extra mesh fencing, and rested better once they were done, thinking the chickens were safe.

Yet the next morning, two more of the oldest chicks were dead but not eaten, a third paralyzed, and one of the younger chicks gone and another half-eaten and then regurgitated.  It was frustrating enough having my chickens become snake food, but to have them killed and not be anyone’s food was even worse.

I declared war.

My grand plan of attack, as told to Jay: hang bells around the coop wherever a snake might enter and then sleep outside.  “Whenever a bell rings”, I told him, “I’m going out there, and I’m taking the shotgun.”

Jay assured me this wasn’t necessary (kindly brushing aside the fact that we own approximately two bells, one being strapped to a goat’s neck, and I have only a slim idea of how to work the shotgun which is a bit overkill, anyway).  His much more realistic plan: attach a spotlight to a car battery and set it near the coop.  We then set the alarm for 3 a.m. and go out there, well-lit, in search of a snake.

Right on schedule, the snake turned up the second night.  And we didn’t even have to set the alarm, he was in the coop before we went to bed.  Jay took the appropriate-sized rifle, I held the light, and a minute later we had a dead, meter-long zebra snake.

Doing my maths again, this one snake had killed 14 chicks.  To ensure that they didn’t die in vain, in my mind, there was only one thing to do: we had to eat the snake.

Our farm staff was as clueless as we were about how to prepare a snake, not to mention completely revolted by the whole idea.  So, we briefly consulted the internet, then grabbed a knife and chopped off its head.

headlessThe head contains the venom, so headless venomous snakes are safe to eat.  The next task was to remove the skin.  First, we cut the bits holding it to the muscle,

skin be goneand after that, the skin peeled right off.

skin removalThen, out came the guts,

gutsthat contained the last of the last baby chicken,

my chickand just like that we had innards to toss, meat to eat, and a skin to . . . do something with.

3 of a kindIn the kitchen, the meat was chopped up,

filetsbattered up,

bread crumbin'and fried up.

deep fryMost people say that snake meat, ironically, tastes like chicken.  Not being a big meat eater myself, that’s the best comparison I have for you.  Jay constructively noted that it tasted like snake. In any case, there was about as much meat as there was bone, making for a tedious meal.  I’m certainly interested in trying other, fatter species, though.

So, ye legless varmints beware, there be snake eaters on this here farm.

In pursuit of the elusive Namibian kangaroo

The sun had long ago set, it was probably nearly 9 pm.  Usually, we try not to drive at night because headlights, even brights, will only do so much when an antelope the size of a refrigerator decides his road-crossing must be done in front of your speeding car But my flight got in late in the afternoon, and it’s three hours to get back to the farm.  Staying in Windhoek wasn’t an option either; Jay and I both prefer the farm to the big city, especially when there are cats waiting for you.

The one good thing about driving at night is, although the wildlife is oblivious to mortality, they are active, and for the most part, it’s a whole other set of creatures than we normally get to see during the day.  There’s the owls and night jars that hang out on the road and the jackals and rabbits that fling themselves into the road.  On rare occasions, a porcupine or honey badger might waddle by.  But this particular night held something in store that I never knew existed.

We had just come to the neighbors’ farm, only another 5 minutes to go, and the headlights captured movement ahead of us on the left.  My eyes focused in on it; a small, reddish-brown furry thing, about the size of a big squirrel, with a long, black-tipped tail.  And then it raised itself onto its lengthy hind legs and hopped away.

“Huh”, I said in my tired, travel-dulled state of mind, “I didn’t know Namibia had kangaroos”.

“Yeah”, answered Jay, “it’s a springhase (said shpring-HA-zeh).  I don’t know what they’re called in English”.

“Oh.  What’s a springhase?”

“It’s a rabbit.  It just jumps on its hind legs.”

And there you go.  I may not have seen an aardwolf, a desert lion, or a lechwe, but I have at least heard of them.  Never, in my 6 years of traveling to, through, or living in this country, had I ever heard of a springhase.  There was a brand new mammal in my world.

The next day I looked it up in my animal books, but found nothing.  It didn’t help having only it’s German name but none of the pictures looked like what I saw.  So I turned to the trusty internet and googled “springhase”.  And there I learned, sensibly, that their English name is spring hare.  But in the nonsensible world of naming animals, they aren’t actually a hare.  They’re a rodent.  But a very special one, as they are the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae.  Which may be why I’ve never heard of them.

the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae
the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae

If you haven’t already yet googled it yourself after buckling to curiosity, here’s a link to a site with some good pictures of the spring hare.  I want you all to know though, that being the authentic blogger that I am, I went out that night, camera in hand, in an attempt to get my own photo of this unusual animal.  Jay and Sniffeldog came too.

As we had never seen one on our farm, we drove back to the neighbors hoping they’d still be there.  Jay hauled out the giant spotlight for more precise lighting and we called the neighbors to let them know that the weird flashing out front was just us trying to get a picture of their jumping rodents.

Each time eyeballs appeared in the distance, Jay zoomed forward and I snapped a photo.  Here’s the winner from that chaotic series:

Which may just be a normal rabbit.  Eventually we reached the end of the field and only thick bush lay ahead, which I had learned from my extensive internet research, was unsuitable spring hare habitat.  So we turned around and headed for home, hoping for another glimpse.

When we saw more eyeballs, I leapt out of the car, determined to get a better picture.  I landed, however, directly in a short, unseen thorn bush and got stuck while Jay sped ahead to keep them in sight.  So while I was bumbling about with the bush, Jay got our object of pursuit directly in the spotlight as they slowly hopped away.  By the time I freed myself and caught up to them, this was the best I could get:

If you look really close you can see the long tail.

So this authentic blogger and abysmal photographer is getting on with life in Namibia and wondering what other bizarre creatures are lurking in those bushes, waiting for fortuitous discovery.

Namibia’s secret lakes

Don’t be fooled; Namibia really does have water.  It is not this dried-up-raisin of a country that it pretends to be.  That giant desert?  Just for show.  Check it out:

Apparently, this was the best picture I took of it.

Lake Guinas.  One of two, count ’em, TWO, natural lakes in Namibia.  I was astounded to hear of their existence (and a bit perturbed that no one told me about them earlier), but lo and behold, there they were on the map, practically neighbors.  As we were already in the region for a business excursion, it seemed sacrilegious not to visit.  Besides, it was hot, and we wanted to swim.  The time had come.  The girl from the Great Lakes state, the fresh water capital of the US, was going to see the oasis of her adopted desert home.

In the car on the way to the first one, Lake Otjikoto, Jay and I became as excited as two little kids talking about how we could camp there for the night, cook our dinner over the fire on the beach, go swimming under the stars, etc, etc.  It would be perfect.  Pulling into the parking lot was already a relief; big trees hung down low as if to take pity on us weary travelers.

As Jay approached the park-rangerly-dressed lady, I got sidetracked by the snakes-in-the-jars.  There, outside the gift shop, was a bench with five or six rather large snakes coiled up inside big glass bottles with some kind of yellow liquid preservative.  I must apologize, however, for the lack of photograph.  I was so excited to go swimming, I forgot I even owned a camera.

I then turned around and the ranger informed me that the dog had jumped out of the car.  “He’ll be ok,” I said and waved my hand like “no big deal”.

“No”, she said, “no dogs allowed”.

I looked around at this big, green, shady (and empty) park and then at Jay, hoping he would tell me this was a joke.

It wasn’t.

“No camping or swimming either”, he said.  I felt my heart implode.  The lady informed us that a man had drowned in the lake in 1927 and no one has been allowed in since.  Just to see the lake was N$25 a person.

So we respectfully declined, put our offensive dog back in the car and drove for the second lake, Guinas.

These two lakes are sinkholes, something like 110 meters deep, says a geophysicist friend of ours.  Rumor has it that they are actually connected underground- when a colored dye was put in one it eventually surfaced in the other.  What a trip that must be.  They even have their own endemic fish species, the Otjikoto tilapia, listed, not surprisingly, as critically endangered.

After a few long dusty roads we arrived and found a big white sign that said “Welcome to Lake Guinas.  No fishing, no swimming, no shooting.” So, it turns out, although Namibia has water, no one is allowed to use it for any sort of fun-inducing activity.  You just look at it.

Look, water.

At this point we were too hot to bother with frivolous things such as rules and since this lake was on private property, there were no rangers to scold us.  Besides, the sign was in Afrikaans and if asked, we decided, I would promptly reply in my best American accent that all I understood was the “Welcome to Lake Guinas” part.  So in we went.  At long last, relief from the heat.  Floating around, I envied the birds cheeping from the cliff edges.  How lucky they were to have this natural wonder as their home.

Sniffel, not a fan of swimming, wonders why we would do such a thing.

On our way out we brought with us a few of the many beverage bottles that littered the path down to the water.  Apparently, the rarity of this landscape in Namibia was not enough reason for people not to trash it.  We could only imagine how many had been chucked in and sunk forever.  And wondered if this was the reason all fun had been banned.

Visiting the lakes made us curious what else Namibia was hiding underground.  Once back home, we immediately began looking for cave entrances in the hills around our house.  I am quite determined to find our own massive body of water so we can go swimming whenever we want.  And the sign out front will read:

Welcome to Lake Scorpion.

Dogs and camping welcome.

Drowning and littering prohibited.

Violators will be fed to the tilapia.

More than it seems

A bit of home maintenance the other day made me realize that I may not be giving Namibia as much credit as it deserves.  Sure, it likes to make life difficult by not raining or sabotaging attempts to grow food, but maybe it’s all just an effort to make us humans a little more resourceful.

See, I’m trying to grow mushrooms – a possibly futile venture to grow something in this country that is not meat. The old building I’m using as the growing room was exactly that, old.  It had a few holes between the cement walls and the tin roofing which were allowing my crucial humidity to be sucked out into the black hole of water that is Namibia.  But rather than using plaster to plug them up, I decided to go natural and brought in some termite dirt.

Indigenous folks around here have long used it to build houses, and still do today.  Mixed with water, the dirt from termite mounds turns into a paste.  Sometimes, cow patties are added for stability and then they pack this stuff around a wooden frame.

The walls of old house on the farm, not used for 14 years, still has some termite dirt standing strong.

So I packed it, sans cow patties, into the holes in my mushroom house.  It was free, took about ten minutes, and seems to be holding the moisture in.

Amidst the packing, I became rather impressed with the termite dirt and what a wonderful job it was doing.  My curiosity about what made it sticky prompted a bit of research.  Surprisingly, the information was not readily available and required digging, but the extra effort was worth it, uncovering much more than what I was seeking.

It seems mound-building termites, such as our local Macrotermes genus, have an “adhesive secretion” which binds the dirt together, allowing them to build their impressive mounds, some reaching more than 3 meters (over 9 feet) high.  It is this secretion which makes the paste, allowing us to build houses or plug holes in walls.

What’s more, this termite dirt, compared to surrounding soil, is loaded with nitrogen, an essential element for plants to grow.  Farmers throughout Africa have figured this out and use termite dirt for fertilizer or simply grow their crops on the mounds.  It can boost production by as much as 5 times that of average harvests.

The dirt is high in other nutrients as well, including calcium, and pregnant women in rural areas have been known to consume this dirt, a process called geophagy, helping with milk production and bone formation of their child.  It is a common practice for undernourished children as well.  So not only do people consume the termites and the mushrooms they grow, but they eat the mound itself.

For me, that is the essence of Namibia; one species providing food, shelter, and medicine.  It’s not really an abundance kind of place, you just need to know where to look.

So it seems I have a lot of learning to do.  But still, I think a little rain wouldn’t hurt….

I blame England

I sweat.  I sit up straight.  I focus so intently my eyeballs dry out.  I scan the 2-foot-high grass, lining each side of the road-with-no-shoulder, for the wildlife-with-no-sense-of-timing.  I remember the man we gave a ride to last year after a kudu kamikazied his semi-truck.

Am I on the right side of the road?

I check the engine temperature.  I turn off the radio because I think I hear something dragging under the car.  I move into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the jalopy going 40 km/h on the 2 lane, 120 km/h road.  I think of the near-weekly newspaper headline: Family killed in head-on collision.

Should the tires be wobbling so much? 

It begins to rain.  I turn on the blinker.

Dammit blinker!

I turn off the blinker, and turn on the wipers.

Am I driving too fast?  Is the parking brake still on?

It begins to pour.  I turn on the super-speed wipers.  I slow down.  I peer through the river cascading down the windshield.  Suddenly, a warthog darts across the road followed by four wartlets.  I brake with as much force as possible without sending the car careening through the bush.

Dammit warthog!

I return to bolt-upright position, eyes wide, and continue on.

Ten minutes later, the rain has stopped, I’m in town and wondering that I make it anywhere at all navigating the most dangerous part of all Namibia: the roads.

Namibian road signs

First off, whoever’s idea it was to have different countries drive on different sides of the road should be excommunicated from Earth.  They can take the person who made different outlets for every continent with them.  This was a terribly stupid, not to mention dangerous, idea.  Tourism is big in Namibia, and as there are no passenger trains, all of those tourists drive.  So, unless those tourists are from the UK, or a country that the UK managed to convince of their left-side driving idea, they are solid contenders for driving on the wrong side of the road and creating havoc.

I’ve done it, and it was rather terrifying.  I fumbled frantically with the stick shift, also new to me, trying to reverse and/or get myself out of the path of the oncoming, honking car.  (I believe that he felt the honking was necessary to inform me of my mistake that I hadn’t noticed, and to help keep everyone calm.)  Then, after acclimation to left-side driving, I returned to the States, and terrified everyone over there.  To offset these grievances, I consistently amuse folks in both countries when I attempt to get in on the wrong side of the car, regardless of whether I’m passenger or driver.  I do it all the time, to this very day.  There’s really no playing it off.

Drive on the left...avoid the oblivious people...ignore the billboard suggesting a drink...

These days, although I have not what one would call “mastered” the stick, or the driving side, I at least appear to be someone who has (until I try to get in on the passenger side again).  And so, I earned myself a simple assignment: follow Jay into town in the car as he drives a friend’s car so the friend can pick it up.

Simple; and yet not ten minutes into the expedition, I drive full on into a ditch.  Actually three ditches.  That sounds like a hard thing to do but, to my credit, the ditches were not always there.  See, around here we have these seasonal rivers created by the torrential rains mentioned earlier.  The purebred Namibian driver, i.e. Jay, can drive full speed down a dirt road and somehow always know where those rivers have flowed and thus, avoid their subsequent trenches.  The falsely confident imported driver, i.e. me, turns a corner by the first neighbor’s house and hits three of them consecutively.

I managed not to flatten the tires but I bent something called the tire rod.  This left me with an upside-down steering wheel, even less steering on a car with no power steering, and a constant, horrendous squealing for the next hour into town.  No matter how many times I got out of the car to look, I could not see what was causing the squealing.  But I did entertain (or worry, I couldn’t tell) the many road construction workers.  I waved as if all was well while praying the tires would not explode and that Jay would, one day, trust me again with his car. 

Of course, he did, this past Monday, granting me the solo adventure with the dry eyeballs, the downpour, and the wartlets.  I made it to my destination and back without breaking anything, hitting anyone, or forgetting the parking brake.  Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to do it without the anxiety, too.  And without running a circle around the car, looking for the driver’s side.

Poolsharkdom awaits

I’d been playing pool for a few years before moving here.  Unfortunately, despite this lengthy opportunity, I did not build my skills to a sufficient level to avoid having my self-esteem smeared across the green felt from time to time.  Thus, it was good news when I discovered the wealth of pool tables in Namibia.  My relocation did not mean the end of my pool-sharking dreams.  But the road to reach them is not a smooth one.

It began one day in Windhoek.  Running errands in the nation’s capital meant the usual traffic, crowds, and exhaustion.  We needed a lunch break and Jay had a faint memory of a little pizza place with a few tables.  Out of this memory he pulled the route to a wee side road and cold beer, pizza, and pool.  It was here that I was introduced to the African pool table.

Although Africa is 6 million square kilometers bigger than North America, they did not have enough room for American tables and had to shrink them.  They smushed in all four sides along with the holes and deflated the balls by about a third.  Then they made one-size-fits-all-children cue sticks that I feel I might break with one hard shot.  Not optimal for us tall people but out of our control.

American cue left, African cue right. Don’t sneeze, you may splinter it.

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The fun continued on a trip to Rundu, a town on Namibia’s northern border.  In an attempt to mingle with the locals, Jay and I went off in search for a bar with a pool table.  We found the curiously named:

But instead settled on the more traditional Free Town:

This place had all a bar really needs:  walls (sheet metal), floor (dirt), bar (wood) with a few stools and beer (cold), and, of course, a table (pool).  The few patrons plunked upon the few stools were not shy to stare at the two whiteys that just walked in.  We may have been the only ones to ever have done so.  No one spoke English or any of the other languages from our area of the country but we did manage to order two bottles of beer and communicate that we wanted to use the table.  The patrons whirled around on their stools to watch what would surely be a spectacle.

I was now used to the miniature tables but I had not yet played on one which had more duct tape than felt.  That wasn’t so much an obstacle as the cue ball that disappeared in the table depths every time we scratched.

The patrons were very helpful though.  The men would lift the table and shake the ball out when it stuck and the women shared, in Kavango, their version of the rules.  The two words I did understand were “two times”.  This was in reference to the two shots a player got if their opponent scratched.  When we scratched, everyone would yell “TWO TIMES!”, we’d fish out the ball, and play on.

I had many supporters since I was the woman.  The men gathered around me each shot and, after discussing it amongst themselves, point to the ball they recommended.  Free Town erupted in cheers when I won and I received many handshakes.

Then the bartender wanted to play.

She was about half my height but glared at me like a bull sizing up a naked matador; no challenge.

She snatched the cue from Jay and roughly ground the tip with the chalk hanging from the ceiling above the table.  I broke.  A blink of an eye later, she catapulted the cue ball off the table and out the door.  This happened more than once; she shot impulsively and missed often.  I didn’t win so much as she lost.

Skills, 0,  interesting African experience, 92.

~~~~~~~~~~

After playing many lopsided, coin-eating tables throughout Namibia, into Botswana and even Zimbabwe we finally decided to settle down and have a uniquely quirky table of our own.  Ours has different sized holes and will eat any ball at any time.  For extra skill-building, Africa occasionally sends in her jillion-strong army of bugs to change at will the course of our balls.

“11 ball, corner pocket, off the dung beetle.”

Alas, it is through this cruel world I must plod fate-ward.  As Muhammed Ali once said: “Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion.”

I’m sure I’ll only need another 50 years or so.

Grocery shopping in Smalltown, Namibia

I think I utterly confused a few folks last Friday while working on this story.  The looks on the faces of the local supermarket customers asked “Why is this really tall white girl taking pictures of our corn flakes?”  I smiled and nodded and tried to act as though I was a professional and this was completely normal.  A writer’s got stories to tell and stories need pictures.  So I set aside my self-consciousness to introduce the world to our Pick-N-Pay supermarket.

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I grabbed a cart on the way in.  The carts, called trolleys, are not the mammoths from home that can flatten small children.  These are much daintier and more practical.   Whoever decided to make trolleys simply double-decker basket holders was a genius. 

~~~~~~~~~~~

First stop is always the produce, as it is in many food shops.  One will find the usual fare; squash, taters, apples.  But nowhere else have I seen robot peppers.

It took some brain power to figure out this moniker.  Then I remembered that in South African English, traffic lights are called robots, supposedly because they are the robotic form of policemen who used to direct traffic.  In any case, I find them quite entertaining.

Another South African vegetable specialty are baby marrows.

You say they look like zucchinis.  Yes, yes they do.  They are zucchinis.  South Africans, however, prefer their zucchinis to be miniature and so harvest them early and call them something no one else does (except, you know, Namibians).  It doesn’t affect the tenderness or flavor, nor have I found any other reason to do this.  Nor do I know what a marrow is.

~~~~~~~~~~

After the produce comes the meat.  I never spend much time in this section.  But it also has some regional flair.  Boerewors.

Afrikaans for “farmer’s sausage”, this is a staple around these parts.   A braai (a barbecue) is not a braai without them.  Bring this if you’re invited to one and you’ll make friends.

~~~~~~~~~~

Into the packaged foods next.  First aisle: jams, jellies, Nutella (even in Namibia), and just below that, the fish paste.

One even has multiple fish paste options.  Anchovies, unidentified, or tomato flavored unidentified.  I have to try it before I can say anything but it’s said to be a popular breakfast smear.  Available online for South African expats worldwide.

~~~~~~~~~~

One will be hard-pressed to find a bakery or sandwich shop in this country that does not offer broetchens, German “little breads”.

They are cheap, versatile, and tasty.  What more can one ask of their bread?  Healthy?  Whole wheat/grain broetchens, while less common, do exist.

~~~~~~~~~~

I regret to report that the Namibian markets have been corrupted by American corporations.  Shelves are stuffed with such products as Kellogg’s corn flakes, Doritos, Coca-Cola, Tampax tampons, and Colgate toothpaste, of which there was enough to paste our town’s teeth for years.

And the Christmas fruitcake tradition was, unfortunately, not lost in Namibia.

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Then, you’ve got your chunks of dog which never cease to amuse me.  Note that any size dog can be a cannibal.

And specials signs which could be considered discriminatory against tall people.

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In the end, I will embrace all of Pick-N-Pay’s wide variety of products and cultures represented, and I’ll make an effort to try those still foreign to me just as long as they continue to carry my one trip-to-town treat, the all-important, ever-delicious cheese flavored maize snacks.