Readers of this blog will know that my wife and I, both Canadians, have been travelling in South Africa for almost six weeks. During that time, family members and friends have been receiving pictures and short updates almost daily, chronicling our adventures.
The question I’ve been hearing from them most often is, “What’s the difference between the two countries?”
Well, there are obvious differences, of course, and some more subtle—none of them in any way threatening, but many quite interesting.
Take driving, for instance. South Africans drive the opposite side of the road—the right-side, which we would call the wrong side, rather than the left-side, which for us is the right side. They drive smaller vehicles than many of those found on North American highways, which is a good thing because most of the roads are narrower than we are accustomed to.
There are fewer traffic lights, except in the most urban areas, the preference being for roundabouts, many more than are found in Canada. Entering and exiting those roundabouts is tricky at first, what with everyone coming at us the wrong way.
But South African drivers are remarkably polite, and forgive our mistakes with a cheery wave. Honking horns are almost never heard.
Another difference is the language, or at least how it’s spoken. English is the universally-accepted tongue, the lingua franca, but there are many others one overhears everywhere—Afrikaans, Dutch, and nine indigenous languages. The most unique of these is Xhosa (pronounced klozsa in English), and known as the clicking language for its eighteen click-consonants produced at three different parts of the mouth. It’s delightful to listen to, impossible for us to replicate.
English is spoken with a distinct South African dialect (although some of our hosts along the way have joked that it is we who speak with an accent).
“Eh?” we reply.
Terminology and phraseology differ, too; petrol for gas, braii for barbecue, lay-by for lookout, and takeaway for take-out are some examples of the former. My favourite phrase is the usual South African response we hear when we thank someone for a service or favour rendered. Unlike the ubiquitous reply in Canada, “No problem!” (which always seems rather impersonal, as if the person being thanked couldn’t care less), we hear the much more thoughtful term, “My pleasure!” (pronounced play-zhar).
It’s music to our ears.
Food, and the whole dining experience, are differences we’ve noted in our travels, as well. Almost every restaurant, even the ‘white-linen tablecloth’ variety, accepts casual dress; not sloppy or scant attire, to be sure, but smart, summery ensembles. In a country where summertime temperatures can soar into the mid-40’s, that makes eminent sense to me.
We can dine on many of our favourites from home—beefsteak, lamb, fish, and chicken, for example—but more exotic choices are available. And delicious. Springbok, kudu, and ostrich steaks are popular, as are varieties of fish not available in Canada, such as kingklip (my preference). And the recipes, many of which are of Dutch and indigenous origin, are a delight to our palates.
The wines are superb (which is not to imply that all Canadian wines are inferior), and the favourable exchange-rate between the Rand and our dollar makes them quite inexpensive. We’ve visited numerous wineries in the Worcester/Robertson/McGregor regions of the Western Cape for tastings, lunches, and dinners, and have yet to be disappointed.
It is a fact, however, that the best vintages are not exported to Canada, so it’s been a real pleasure to sample them here. A recent host told us that one of the more commonly-stocked South African wines available to us at home is considered by locals to be “our plonk!”
Perhaps the biggest difference we’ve noted on our journey is the contrast between what we expected to see, and what we’ve actually discovered. The garden route region we’ve travelled is a magnificent montage of mountains, oceans, vineyards, and the vast majesty of the Klein Karoo (a semi-desert valley between two mountain ranges, home to many wineries and beautiful wilderness areas). South Africa has been more spectacular, more beautiful, more dramatic—and therefore different—than anything we could have anticipated.
But it has been said in other quarters that all of us would be more profitably recompensed if we chose to focus, not so much on what makes us different, as on what makes us alike. In that vein, we’ve found there is one significant similarity between this country and our own—the warmth and hospitality of the people we have encountered.
The lingering memory of our travels, lasting long after all the photographs of all the remarkable sights we’ve seen have been viewed and shared, will be of the South African people. Were it not for the love of our own country, and for the family and friends who are there, I believe I could live here quite happily.
So, I suppose all the differences amount to not much difference at all.