Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Neil: Out of Africa

Our safari truck growls into a tiny South African town. It is one of the few stops I haven't been looking forward to much. Here we are offered one of two options: We can go to a micro brewery or we can take in some arts and crafts. This is most unlike the rest of the Drifter's tour. It's touristy...and we never like touristy.

Sheree and I exchange looks and decide not to do either. We will pack up our cameras and take a walk and meet people.

We wander into "The Village Inn Restaurant and Karoo Kitchen."

The Karoo is a vast beautiful place. The day is searingly hot with just enough of a breeze to keep certain Canadians from melting, leaving only cameras, sunglasses and garish colored shorts in haltng little bilingual puddles.

We step into a dark interior, twice as dark because the sun outside is so very bright.

The menu is hand printed on a fireplace. It offers items like ice cold ginger beer, lemonade and fresh scones.

I am struck by the idea that I have walked ito a hobbit hole because the rooms are crowded with lovingly placed bric-a-brac. Everything has a place.

No one's here. But there is someone humming a softly off-key tune in the distance.

We stand and chat with another tour-fleeing couple and poke around at the stuff on the shelves.

Eventually a voice that has seen a LOT of miles cheerily calls he's 'on his way.'

Shuffling feet that sound like they're encased in favorite slippers. Into the room walks an old guy who looks a lot like James Whitmore.

He's a friendly little fellow whose face lights up at the prospect of actual customers.

"Hello," he says. "I'm Neil."

It feels strange to be introducing ourselves at a restaurant, but we all do and shake his hand.

Sheree orders a coffee and I opt for ginger beer. He nods again, increasing my suspicion that I am with an affable hobbit and shuffles off into a back room.

He's gone a really long time. I mean a REALLY long time. I start to wonder if he has died. Eventually he shows up again, carrying a small kettle and a frosty glass of ginger beer.

After putting the drinks on the table, he settles into the table next to us, for a little chat.

He's very curious about Canada. Having farmed until recently in South Africa, he wants to know about how farming works here. Personally, I have no idea.

We chat about how proud he is that his wife is the official translator of plays for a South African playwright I have never heard of.

Sheree takes a sip and declares she's never had coffee this good. She's not making it up...she's really impressed.

I sip the ginger beer. It's really sweet.But it's cold and it's wet...and there's this wonderful bite to it.

Neil is impressed with our cameras and he asks about them. He doesn't seem to know much about photography but he's interested.

I am replying to his questions...but I am thinking, not unkindly that Neil has the bushiest eyebrows I've ever seen.

"We've got just under a thousand people here," he says. "A 40% unemployment rate and 23 restaurants."

"That seems like a lot," I observe shrewdly.

He nods again "It is. But tourism is increasing every day."

I am thinking of the rutted African goat trails we took to get here. Neil is, apparently, an optimist.

He tells us about some of the photographic opportunities in the area.

Sheree thrusts the kettle at me. "You have to try this COFFEE," she says.

We've been living with instant truck slop so long I have forgotten what coffee tastes like.

This stuff is dusky, buttery and rich. It is amazing. I want to order a pot of my own, but can't afford to wait the seven hours it will take to make...and our time is already running out.

If we are going to take any pictures, we have to go.

So we say goodbye to Neil and his charming restaurant and his classic coffee and walk out into the African sun.

I thought you would like to meet Neil. But then I think EVERYONE should meet at least one Neil in their lives.

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