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What Makes A Place Special? The Incredible People of Stellenbosch

Whenever I travel, I find great joy and excitement in exploring the food and the sights of my as yet unexplored destination. I love seeing the different sky, smelling the different air, tasting the foreign flavours and visiting the local sights. I make a point of getting to know the ins-and-outs of the area I’m staying and exploring the spots where the locals spend time.
But the one thing that I enjoy most about travelling, whether locally or internationally, is meeting the people that call my destination ‘home’. A destination can have all the beauty in the world cascading from its every mountain; every high-rise and every crashing wave, but it’s the people, the faces and souls of the place, who provide the spirit that will linger in my memory.

I had lunch with a couple of young local boys in a slum in Mumbai, whose great kindness and generosity conveyed within a couple of hours the inexplicably wonderful spirit of the people of India. The spirit that cannot be put into words or pictures, but must be felt to be understood.

I went on a safari trip in the Kruger National Park with a young wildlife guide who had such passion and genuine love for the bush that it brought tears to my eyes, which I wiped away quickly, blaming the cold morning air.
In the mountains of Swaziland I met a young boy who, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, told me he dreamed of being a pilot. This was a little boy who had lived in a small orphanage in the almost-forgotten town of Bulembu for all 10 of his years. I asked him if he’d ever seen a plane before and he told he that no, he had never seen a plane.
This little boy’s dream has been something I’ve carried with me ever since. A reminder that our lifestyles and experiences should not dictate our dreams, but that it should be the other way round.

The dreams we carry in our hearts should be our compass, leading the way, showing us which paths to take as we stumble our way through life.

In South Africa, I’ve met entrepreneurs whose dreams of feeding their families without the hand-outs of others have lead them to building careers as homestay cooking teachers, jewellery makers and highly-skilled iPhoneographers.
My trip to Stellenbosch was one full to the brim with the most delectable cuisine, the most wonderful wine and the most eye-poppingly beautiful scenery, but once again, the real highlight for me, was meeting the people.
In the home she built with money saved from her small scone baking- and selling business, Ma Lily runs a cooking school and homestay business, welcoming visitors from all over the world with her sweet smile and warm hospitality.
In her poky kitchen, she teaches guests to cook traditional South African pap, morogo (spinach and potatoes, grown in her own garden) and spicy chakalaka. While we sat on traditional woven mats on her living room floor, eating with our hands and savouring the flavours of her simple and delicious food, Lily told stories of the daughters she put through school, refusing to take government funds, and of the turbulent marriage which led to her new life in Stellenbosch many years ago.

She had us hanging on her every word with a folk tale and had us breathing a huge collective sigh of relief as she released a loud belly laugh at the punch line.

Latiefah is a soft-spoken Cape Malay woman who has spent her life caring for her husband and children, now grown and caring for families of their own. Bravely, she fought against her own painfully shy nature, demonstrating to a room of hungry individuals how to cook a traditional Cape Malay chicken curry and roll authentic rooti’s.
Later, while we were tucking into her delicious meal, she told me of her dream to get her driver’s license this year, despite the protests of her husband. Shyly, she told me that she has had enough of being a subservient Muslim wife, relying on her children and husband to get around, while they are now often too busy with lives of their own to drive her.
I’ve never in my life wanted something so badly for another person.
The strikingly beautiful Ilse van der Merwe runs her popular local food blog, The Food Fox from Stellenbosch. She gave up a successful career as a music bookings manager, promoting the local talent to audiences far and wide to follow her passion for food. 
She will soon be opening her new demo kitchen, where she will teach guests how to cook traditional food and her specialty kitchen store, where she will stock niche kitchenware. I could listen to Ilse speak for hours about food, the local musical talent in Stellenbosch and actually, anything else.

On a walk through Kayamandi Township with our local guide Thandi, I snapped a picture of two cherub-faced little boys coming to investigate the tourists and practiced handstands with two tiny gymnasts. Between courses of gastronomic bliss and sips of bottled poetry, these are the people and memories of Stellenbosch that I will carry in my heart for many years to come.

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  1. Ahhh, this is so good!