05 January 2014

30. - 5 Jan.: Bartolomeu Dias, Indian food and vintage music at Mossel Bay

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In the morning we head down to town. It's a grey, cloudy Sunday morning, and Mossel Bay is virtually deserted. It is drizzling at times,  and not a little windy. Not a great time for walking around. A few shops that sell souvenirs for tourists are sadly lacking visitors. To me this is ideal museum time: happily, the Bartolomeu Dias is at hand.

We all know the history of Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to sail beyond the southernmost tip of Africa in 1488. He landed at Mossel bay to load water and move on but before long he was persuaded by an exhausted crew that enough was enough and returned to Lisbon.


Main mast of caravel
What I did not know, and discover today, is that exactly 500 years later the Portuguese decided to celebrate Bartolomeu's feat by replicating his adventure on an exact copy of his ship. Well, almost exact, the new ship had electric power, a galley and toilets! It was the Portuguese community of South Africa that financed the trip. In the late eighties Portugal had just lost its last colonies and, with them, the dream of a worldwide community of Portuguese-speaking countries. This was a welcome effort to revive the old glory of Portugues exploration and the government supported it wholeheartedly.

The ship itself is housed in a building that was partially built around it. All around, artifacts from the glorious time of exploration, maps, paintings and pictures. A Chinese girl and her mother walk around the nearly empty museum with me and are surprised when I greet them in Chinese. The girl wants to take a picture with me.

It's lunch time by the time I am done with the Dias, but I am not so hungry. Look for a snack and run into an eatery of real Punjabi food, which is certified by the fact that I am welcomed by the owner who wears a white Sikh turban. I am the only patron and when I tell him that I like his wife's pakhora he sits down with me for a chat. I ask him how did he come all the way from Punjab to open a restaurant in South Africa. He replies he didn't.

His grandfather was a railway engineer in India in the 1870s and was asked by the British to go and build a railroad in China. He was offered a good fee and a British passport. That seemed like a good deal and off he went. As soon as he was done with that, the Brits thought to make another railroad in British Columbia, in Canada, which was then a British colony, so he went there.

The next rail project was in British ruled Kenya. Granpa was getting on with age and decided it was time to sink roots somwhere and so ended up settling in Kenya where dad was born and he in his turn. The Indian community in east Africa is a large one.

Then in 2006 he was vacationing in South Africa with his family. They liked it, especially the weather, much more pleasantly temperate than the hot tropical climate of Kenya, and decided to move. So now he sells Punjabi food (but also pizza) to the visitors of the museum.

After lunch I walk around a bit: it's still rather cool and grey. I stumble upon a shop of bric a brac. Military helmets, a bunch of carpenter's planes and assorted tea pots of various styles keep company to a pile of LPs and countless tableware strewn around in no particular order. The owner sits in a corner, silent, not even a nod to people walking in and out of his shop. This could be the den of a child of the flowers, or the pad of a single middle aged man who inherited his dad's collection and does not what to do with them. Maybe it is. Very fittingly, 1970s rock music plays in the background.

I am always tempted to buy something in this kind of shop. I almost feel I have to. So much of this stuff would look great in my own home. Which is why I hardly have any room left in my home. This time I am strong, and resist. I walk out empty handed, though I must make a special effort not to buy a collection of big old iron keys, maybe half a kilo each, that are laying invitingly by the door.

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