Weeks 40-42: Our Last Blog Post

Our  emotions right now, standing at the boundary of our Olive Odyssey and Home, run the gamut from nervously excited to tearfully sad.  The future is both more certain and less certain than it has been for the past year – thus the nerves and the excitement.  The past – that is Our Year with Olives – has been infinitely more enriching than we could have imagined. Looking back at the year – a snapshot at this moment – we could say that….

  • We have learned a lot about olives and olive oil*- an understatement
  • We have been universally welcomed and treated kindly by strangers – a surprising discovery
  • We hope we can capitalize on the investment everyone has made in us – a goal that we are honor bound to realize*
  • We have found from living in several countries that it’s difficult to get millions of people to work together on tough problems, and that the difficulties we see abroad are startlingly familiar.
  • We have learned a lot about ourselves – mostly humility – knowing that often we get it wrong first time around and sometimes even the second time, but thankfully people have the patience to set us right.

So, this will be our last Blog Post, the final Chapter in the Year.  Thank you for reading and thank those of you who made comments.  We hope to write the epilogue and provide you with details of when and where our book will be available.

* working title of our book: “The Purest Mixture from the Wisest Tree: Chemistry of Extra Virgin Olive Oil”.  We are 3/4 way through the first draft and have some nibbles from a publisher.

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Week 37: Kiwis Come Through: Hobbits at Heart

Consider a place as green as Ireland, with more sheep than people, and possessing an island culture where it seems everyone knows everyone else.

Consider a place that claims Peter Jackson as a native son, the All-Blacks rugby team as important celebrities, and will as members of the Commonwealth of Nations – still roll out the red carpet for Prince Henry who visited while we were there.

Consider a place where thermal hot springs and volcanic islands craters and major earthquakes abound.

 Consider all this, and you’ve got New Zealand.

The Maori people were the first modern humans to settle this land about 600 years ago. Their legacy looms large in New Zealand today. Many if not most town names and roads (outside of the larger towns with English names such as Wellington and Christ Church) are derived from Maori names such as Waiheke, Rotorua, Taupo, Wairapa, and Rangihoua.  A Maori totem is stamped on the coin of the realm. The two major museums we visited both had exhibits about the Maori culture – and we learned that they came by boat to the uninhabited island – most likely from Polynesia and had no written language. We learned from our Maori tour guide at the “Glow Worm Cave” that they also did not name living things, but used words to identify them that described their behavior.

Sustainability is an intense concern everywhere we visited (modern public transport in even small towns) and olive groves that used sheep rather than machines to prune the root shoots that need to be removed unless you want your olive tree to (re)turn into an olive bush. We saw windmill farms, hydroelectric and geothermal plants but the islands are nuclear free. Being healthy by eating well is important – olive growers have less of a problem selling EVOO here than elsewhere.

Local is recognized as being better. We were there to visit olive groves and presses – but since wherever you can grow olives you can usually grow grapes – we drank lots of wonderful wines grown on the island. Still we were told that national drink is not wine, but beer and we saw many local breweries and were told of a particularly wonderful local brew “Eight Wire Beer” – named after a product that is like duct tape in the US – used to fix just about anything that’s broken.

These islanders love to travel – and not only the grove owners and press managers that we met had traveled to the US – but the waiters and motel workers and museum guides had been as well. The spirit of adventure looms large in these islanders’ hearts. So, if we take a land as pastorally beautiful as possible, people who love their community and are yet open and adventurous, and a culture that celebrates pub life while insisting on healthy and clean living – does that not strike you as close to the Bilbo, Sam, and Frodo’s Shire as possible? By the way, immigration is welcome.

Rich’s photos can be found here: New Zealand Tourist:  https://www.dropbox.com/sc/jhgnp4rm1h1el2p/AABKpJ9XOrNlwtiypFy5FrxDa

Leaning in in Wellington

Rich Leaning in in Wellington

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Week 38: Frontier Spirit and Wide Open Skies: Our Australia


Sunrise, May 18, over southeastern Australia

We arrived in Melbourne Australia on an early morning flight from Aukland in time to see a lovely sunrise.  Monday morning at 8:30 AM at the Melbourne airport – all was chaos with tour groups from China arriving, business men and women on a flight in from Sydney, and all the regular mayhem associated with airports.  It took us awhile to find a way to cross the busy airport roadway and get to our rental car agency.  Once we did, we were treated like gold by the Avis representative – she an expat from Chicago.  It took us awhile to get our bearings, I think we circled the airport a few times before heading out in the right direction, but then off we went!

One of the most striking things we realized in our 6 day 2000 km drive through the south–eastern tip of Australia was that despite our days and days of traveling, we had only sampled a tiny bit of the country. Everything is super-sized in Australia: the land (one olive grove we visited had 1.3 million trees on 2600 hectares), the ambitions (the hope that enough oil could be produced for export to meet the needs of the 3 billion Chinese market), and the resourcefulness of the Australian people.


Kangaroo in an olive grove

Much of the land we travelled through was agricultural and cultivated with fruit, nut, cotton, and grains. In this harvest season, side of the road farm stands sold oranges and squash and persimmons and eggplants. At $3.00 for 5 kilos, most of it was almost given away. This is a land where cattle graze on the plains and sometimes on the roadway – and one is expected to make way for the stray beef cow on the highway. Still, in the spaces between the vast farms and small towns one finds even vaster wilderness areas. Kangaroos are wild and everywhere – and these soft-hearted creatures seem to be universally loved. Everyone had a kangaroo tale. One saw a kangaroo hop effortlessly over a 3 meter (~9 foot) high fence. Another advised us to stop if we saw a kangaroo dead by the side of the road (a sadly too frequent occurrence) so that we could check its pouch for joeys that will stay with a dead mother unless another kangaroo happens to stop by and adopt it. She herself had rescued and raised several ‘roo babies that way. Once they were grown up and able to care for themselves, she released them to join the 100 or so other kangaroos that lounged happily underneath the trees in her olive grove.

Resourcefulness is a necessary talent when your nearest neighbor can be many miles away. A family of six that we visited on 600 hectares of land off a dirt road that was off another dirt road had all the children involved in the farming of the 80 hectares of olives – and the kids had been driving tractors since they could reach the pedals. One son’s hobby was hang gliding. Once he had finished his chores, Mom would use her truck to launch him up to catch the thermals and he would glide from place to face over the farm for 3 – 4 hours after which he’d land, call Mom to give her his GPS coordinates, and she would drive out to pick him up wherever he might be – sometimes as much as an hours drive away.   Towns come few and far between and in some places, the nearest place to get food or gas can be 60 km distant.   Around mid-day on one of our traveling days, we aimed for the town of Underbool. Our GPS assured us we could find some lunch there. One tiny general store had an open sign, so we pulled in across the street (no such thing as a parking space) and eagerly looked forward to local home cooked food. We discovered that most of the prepared food had already been sold – but we were welcome to pick up a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, and jelly and make our own sandwiches. Tough love.

Water is a big issue and water rights are sold and re-sold as prices rise and fall. The Murray River provides much of the water for a large swath of the agricultural parts of New South Wales (no groundwater here), and its rise and fall throughout the growing season was a huge concern for the farmers who depended upon it to irrigate their crops. On another farm ground water had been found – and a bore hole dug – at 120 m deep – after a “diviner” had been hired and had traversed the 100 hectare farm for half a day until his “divining stick” started spinning round and round in his hands. There they dug and there the beautiful water was delivered onto them.


Gerri Nelligan and Pat in Adelaide

Big hearts are another characteristic of Australia. Gerri Nelligan is a writer for the Australia and New Zealand Olive Group who had invited us to come to Australia back in December last year. After helping us to set up our trip, we realized that we would be visiting 10 groves and 2 labs in 2 countries, but that she was not on our itinerary. We discovered that she lived in Adelaide, a mere 250 km from one of the groves we would visit. We offered to drive into the city to see her and she offered to prepare for us a meal. Everything was home made – from her bread to the olives she had pickled to the salad from her garden and the divine olive oil quince crumble for dessert– that mid-week when we knew she was busy with deadlines and appointments both that day and the next. We were so grateful to her and to all the work she put into both this dinner and to making our trip happen.  At another moment, when visiting one lab, we waited patiently in a conference room while the scientist we hoped to visit finished up some urgent work. While we waited, we were served coffee – the traditional Long Jack is the local version of filter coffee, and we were reverently each given one piece of a Cadbury Chocolate that was filled with Vegemite, a strange condiment made from fermented brewer’s yeast with spices and vegetables added that is ubiquitous in Australia and we never figured out its appeal. We were told that this version of filled Cadbury chocolate was made especially for Australia and that we wouldn’t find it anywhere else.  Can’t say I’m too disappointed.


Kristie and Rich outside Kristie’s Veterinary Clinic

We were so lucky to be able to catch up with our grown up neighbor, Kristie Mientka, now a vet practicing in Sydney Australia.  We were so proud to see how she is thriving with her job, teaching spin classes, and working at an elephant rescue center when she can in Thailand.  She took us in to meet her boss, the vet who owns the clinic and who clearly was very fond of Kristie.  In an amazing small-world coincidence – she recently visited Bali where she met a Balinese man who had lived in Amherst for awhile and may have gone to high school with her Dad.  She and her boyfriend Sam will be in Sydney for a few more years, but we all hope she will be back stateside before too long.  We left her with some olive oil to share with Sam.

While we visited and loved Melbourne (a cross between Boston and San Francisco), Adelaide (like New Orleans), Wagga Wagga (a bit like Oberlin, Ohio), and the capital city Canberra (WA DC with hills), Sydney is the crown jewel of Australia’s cities. Sydney is Sydney and we could not come up with any other city we have been to that it is like.  Of course the iconic Opera House and Bridge dominate the downtown waterscape,

but we also had fun visiting Taronga Zoo as you can see from the images below.

Sydney also has an adorable amusement park, beautiful Royal Botanical Garden, the Sydney Tower, The Rocks – the old city, China Town, downtown, and gorgeous beaches and bays serviced by ferries from the central harbor “Circular Quais.”  We were lucky to have our stay overlap with the absolutely magnificent “Vivid” display. Vivid is a light show that uses the Opera House and many of the classic downtown building and the bridge abutments as a backdrop for a visual extravaganza of lights and images.


On our last night, to say good-bye to the city, we ate at the Shangri-La Hotel’s Altitude Restaurant overlooking the harbor whose young chef, Nathan Griffin , hopes to have his food represent “Modern Australia on a Plate.”  We sampled a Vivid Degustation special food and wine pairing inspired by the Vivid Light Display spread out 36 floors below us at the harbor.

Here is a link to Rich’s photos:  https://www.dropbox.com/sc/204fyew6puti7xm/AACsv8LOv-J3L4IbzVyhxKvTa

and a link to our Olive Newsletter about the journey here:

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Week 36: Closer than Comfortable Encounters

With our hearts beating wildly – we could not quite process what we had just seen. A small family- mother, father and small child, had been standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross from the left side of the major two-lane highway – speed limit 120 kmph (about 70 mph). While we were still some distance away, they decided to cross in front of us, dad in the lead, mom by his side holding the small one’s hand. Getting to the middle of the road safely, they paused and regarded the minibus filled with passengers barreling toward them at full speed. Rather than waiting, they lurched forward and ran directly out in front of the bus. We knew they could not make it – and we swerved onto the shoulder to get out of the way of the minivan who we could see would need to take desperate measures not to hit the family. Veering onto the opposite shoulder throwing up dust and dirt, the van laid on its horn, but the family did not seem to process what was happening and continued forward directly in its path. At the last moment, the family stopped, and missed being hit by the van by what seemed to be a few millimeters.   Had we just witnessed a miraculous survival or a desperate act by a desperate family?

This moment framed for us a week in which violent acts in nature (Nepal and the Himalayas) and society (Baltimore, South Africa) defied our understanding. Why had the family not just waited for the bus to pass? Across the globe, why would six officers of the peace so badly manhandle a young man who was not a threat and not committing a crime? We are aware of our own ignorance about what is the real story but that does not provide solace. In South Africa, it seems that unemployment, poverty and crime create a situation in which, like Baltimore, many people have no hope for a better life. Some turn to alcohol to ease the pain – and this has been pointed to as one factor in the astronomically high number of traffic deaths – three times the number of the US (33.9 compared with 11.8 per pedestrians100,000). Even more striking – 43% of these deaths are pedestrians just trying to get from one side of the road to the other. Pedestrian bridges are not used, we are told, because robbers lie in wait to take advantage of those trying to cross.  Everyday, we see children, families, and mostly young men take their chances with traffic that isn’t always as attentive as it should be.

Another symptom of this hopelessness is the xenophobia – resentment, fear, and violence toward foreigners in South Africa – stories of which saturate the news media and has even made its way to those of you in the US courtesy of NPR. Most of the attacks on foreigners have been in Gauteng province, in the northeast corner of the country (more than a day’s South_Africa_xenop_3285635bdrive from here.) However, the number of foreigners killed in the violence is truly appalling. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, an influential figure among the Zulu ethnic group, hasn’t helped as he is credited with sparking this new wave of violence after saying, that foreigners should “pack their bags” and leave. This violence is primarily aimed at other African people, who are fleeing a situation more dangerous or difficult than what they see in South Africa. Those being killed are from countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Closer to home, in what has been characterized as “RhodesRage” student protesters demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its prominent place at the University of Cape Town. Siya Minyanda, a local writer has summarized the controversy

well: “Rhodes was born in 1853 and went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest men and the premier of Cape Colony in 1890. But he is also responsible for the beginnings of enforced racial segregation policies in South Africa, with his early drafting of the Natives Land Act which later came into effect in 1913. Upon his death in 1902 Rhodes donated his fortune to setting up UCT, now ranked one of the best universities in the country. Aware of this history, protesters called for the statue’s removal from the center of the campus with a well-organized #Rhodesmustfall campaign, arguing that the institution should become “more African”. Some even called for his remains to be exhumed and sent back to the UK.” He goes on to argue that this strategy of removing historical figures whose politics are no longer popular is an attempt to rewrite history. His final words “As a black (UCT) alumnus who walked past that statue for four years, I think Rhodes should be left exactly where he is.” Another commentator Mighti Jamie, wroteYou bring down statues of hate and yet you build the biggest statue of all. To kill the very people who helped liberate you. You have made this soil a monument of hatred for your brother.”

How can we make sense about these actions, in either country? We are hardly in a position to explain anything, but can offer some hopeful glimmers from our limited vantage point. Over the weekend, we participated with our local church in a visioning weekend. Trying to solidify a bond between a church in Kayamundi and downtown Stellenbosch, the leaders in the church organized a weekend retreat to explore how small but concrete steps could be taken to deepen existing bonds, and to help both communities to see the good in each other, and to share talents that each had. The results included such things as joint choir practice and songs, sharing time in each community, and spending time for each community to teach something to its counterpart. These were very positive steps, taken by mixed groups who had respectful conversations to produce them. We were told it had been a 5-year journey to this point, building the ways of understanding the different ways each group works, and grappling with the preconceptions and misconceptions on each side.

We have had to deal with our own. Looking at a beefy contractor, with an Afrikaans name and a somewhat curt attitude, it was easy to think that he was a symbol of the Apartheid era, until we found that he had grown up in Kayamundi, had been friends with many of the parents of participants from that town, and spoke isiXhosa. He knew more about the town than anyone who did not live there. Our feeling on listening to a man talking about his military experience 40 years ago, when a fellow soldier’s comment about inter-racial marriage inspired murderous hatred, had to yield to his realization a few years later how terribly he was indoctrinated, and how that led to a desire to reform. Asking in a get-acquainted session for someone who spoke 3 languages helped us discover that most of the Kayamundi people needed to do just that: in addition to the home language of isiXhosa, they needed to speak Afrikaans and English to get work.

We are not in the same situation as the family in the middle of the road. For one, we have found that when we tell people that we are from the US, they are fascinated, not angry. Mostly the fascination comes from the fact that we are here when very few Americans are, and we are referred to as “the foreigners who like to talk to us.” However, we feel that there is a lot of traffic moving past us that is closer than we thought, and we are not always in the right place. Our one hopeful thought on an uncharacteristically dark post is that for almost all of us, the instinct is to swerve off the road to save a family. Even if they have made some terrible choice, and run into harm’s way, it’s worth it to help them. The challenge is often to see that we have the ability to change. We ourselves share the US tendency for impatience. It’s hard to conceive of a plan for rebuilding a community that lasts for decades, much less to be steadfast in the pursuit of it. We have been inspired by those we have seen trying to do it, in their own imperfect way. It’s been difficult for us to admit to South Africans how we still struggle after so many years. Clearly, however, the right answer is not to give up, but to see all of us in the middle of the road, and try to give us a chance.

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Week 34: Home is Where You “Load-Shed”

Load shedding” in South Africa means that a community’s power is shut down on seemingly random days for a couple of hours by ESKOM, the local power company, to “alleviate stress on the power grid.” It happens on cool days as well as hot days in a manner we cannot begin to understand. We have begun to suspect that the condition is politically motivated and strategically planned to most inconvenience the general public. Conspiracy theories aside, it has allowed us to embrace the philosophy that random intermittent interruptions in expected service is a way to reimagine life and embrace a less encumbered way of being. Shedding old baggage encourages invention and re-commitment to what is important. In addition, this shared experience helps to break down barriers to building community. Welcome home!

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Load-Shedding in Style

For us here in Stellenbosch, the “crisis” happens most often between 6 and 8 PM. There are some practical implications: we cannot get into our garage and most importantly we cannot make dinner. During the first few load-sheds, we paid attention to the load shedding status (which changes by the hour) and learned to either get home before 6 o’clock or to have a back up plan to get in through our front door (two additional keys we don’t normally carry with us) by locking these keys outside the house. Not being able to cook dinner was something we could either plan for by having a prepared dinner that didn’t need heating or respond to by having a braii – South African bbq. Now with several dozen load–sheds under our belt, we have reached a new relationship with load-shedding. We have learned that many restaurants have their own generators – and load-shedding specials that encourage families to come in and spend two hours eating and drinking in company of others with light and warmth that is otherwise not available. In this past week we spent two lovely load-shedding evenings in the communal atmosphere of “Jimmy-the-Fish Restaurant” and at “Flavours Restaurant.” At JTF we got to enjoy a young couple with a cuter than possible one year old whose energy and antics kept them from eating–until the young wait staff (called “waitron” here) scooped up the baby and spirited him off to the kitchens. This allowed Mom and Dad to relax, breathe and eat their dinner.

Sunset from Devon Valley Hotel terrace.

Sunset From Terrace at Flavours

On Friday nights at Flavours, we love to sit with a glass of wine outside on the terrace to watch the sunset or inside by the fireplace.  Entertainment on weekends is provided by Arahundi, a young male vocalist whose deep voice and guitar strumming make us feel at home.  Most of his repertoire are songs that Rich and I grew up with — and he does a particularly excellent job with anything by Billy Jeol.  Last week, we set ourselves up by the fireplace and found ourselves next his girlfriend who became unsettled when she looked over and saw that our wine glasses were emptied. She served us up some red wine that we later learned she had made herself – while her boyfriend sang out his heart for us (or more likely her). Once the hands of the clock turn to 8 PM – the power returns – and we all return home none the worse for wear.

“Welcome home.” Load shedding is, of course, only part of the new normal we are experiencing. “Home” should be a familiar place, and with almost 12 weeks in Stellenbosch we have begun to experience this. Here are some people who make us feel at home:

  • The staff in the pharmacy we frequent have told us how much they appreciate our business, asking with concern if we are enjoying our time and thanking us for our support.
  • Ophelia, who has given us both haircuts, is so tickled that we have become her customers, and has boasted of us to her coworkers – calling us “the foreigners who talk to me.”
  • The wait staff at Flavours who recognize us from our previous visits and will allow us to order things not on the regular menu.
  • Pamela, the campus coffee shop owner, who calls us by name.
  • Daniel, the coffee roaster at “Die Oude Banke” (The Old Bank) who calls us “the strange americans” and has planned a tasting menu for us for the next several weeks that will take us through all his different roasts.

“Welcome home” is a feeling we get when we have seen this town through summer and fall and in it’s entry into winter. Sharing the changing seasons with a community makes you more an inside member of the group.


“Welcome home” is a feeling we get when we can carry on a conversation with a local about which of the indigenous birds is more stupid: the guinea hens or the hadeda ibis.

The hens with their painted faces and spotted feathers might look glamorous when standing still, but they have teeny little legs and run in silly groups and can cause each other to get into a big panic just because….. well just because. In the way their little legs scuttle back and forth they remind us of warthogs which we could never watch without laughing. On the other hand, the hadedas might look dignified until they try to fly. Their poor vision causes them to bump into things and crash land into trees and waters in the most unceremonious ways. Their call (referred to by some as “Flying Vuvuzelas“) is raucous and loud, and might help prevent them from crashing into each other. The good news is that they eat grubs and snails from lawns.

“Welcome home” happens when you realize that you are not alone, and that your neighbors are happy to help. After our second aborted bicycle ride (Pat with two flat tires), we arrived back at Nagtegaal Street and were dismayed to find that our garage door opener – that we had carried with us – just decided to quit working. Eleven locks stood between us and entry back into our house. We were not sure what we would do. Our cross the street neighbors had been watching with some curiosity as we struggled with the garage door. “What’s the problem?” they asked. Within a few minutes, a ladder appeared and one of our little neighborhood children was popped over the picket topped 6 foot exterior wall and into our back yard and through to our garage and able to open the door that had refused its remote commands.

As you know, we have been very busy in the past few weeks trying to finish up the work we set out for ourselves, and trying to get ready for a busy tour of New Zealand and Australia. After a late day in the lab, or writing, or planning, it’s been nice to be able to relax in our small house in Onder Papegaaiberg (Under Parrot Mountain). In a manner that reminds us of our time in France, this relaxation extends to a number of public spaces as well. One notable excursion, a spontaneous Saturday afternoon jaunt, took us into the Jondershoek valley and up a short drive to the Stark-Conde Winery. Their wine tastings are held around a small house built on an island in their pond. Sitting on the lawn, gazing at the sheer cliffs looming above us, well-tended by our elegant server, even taking in the blackened areas from the recent wildfires in the area, it was impossible to stay tense.

We recognize that our time here is short, and that we don’t really belong here long-term. However, there certainly seem to be a wide array of people and events that are trying to convince us otherwise. We are grateful for all of them.


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Week 32: Pontoon Boats, Cango Caves, and Lazy Lizards too!

The easternmost slice of the Western Cape: from the Breede (Wide) River Valley, north through the Klein Karoo and out to Prince Albert Valley, is geologically and socially unlike anything we had seen previously in South Africa. We decided to investigate the region to see how olive production here differed from the Western Coast.

Fabulous Photos from Rich with this link.

South of Stellenbosch and east of Sommerset West, you will find picturesque coastal plains that rise to steep coastal mountain ranges with semi-arid rolling plains on the far side. Once you cross Sir Lowry’s pass, the terrain is crisscrossed by broad rivers that allow water for irrigation. The soil is rocky; red and iron-rich, mixed with clay. The area is rural and the population density quite low. Wheat and cornfields are being replaced by olive groves and wine orchards and everywhere you see sheep.

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Sweeping semi-arid planes with hills in distance

We visited three olive groves in this Southern peninsula – two smaller sister groves about 100 km from Stellenbosch in the Bot Rivier valley, Gabrielskloof and Anysbos each with about 20,000 trees and the third, another 300 km distant, Greenleaf, the largest olive oil producer in South Africa, with almost 200,000 trees.  Though each farm produces extra virgin olive oil, the personalities of the three oils are as different as the three families/teams that run the farms. In each case, we were welcomed, shown around the farms, and our questions patiently answered by busy people who were in the middle of their olive harvest. In one, we also got to lunch in their first class restaurant , in another, we visited with the resident Toggenberg goats and took home some fresh made feta and aged Caprino cheese and in the last (Greenleaf), we were driven in the owner’s 4×4 out to the grove and watched the giant Colossus mechanical harvester begin harvesting a row of trees. We were told it would take about an hour for the harvester to get to the end of the row, a km down the valley. Since trees are planted about 2 meters apart, in a super high density arrangement, this means about 500 trees are harvested in one hour.   The Colossus is run with a team of about 3 men in 12 hour shifts and the goal is to work 24/7. Given down time, repair time, and time out for the unexpected, it will take about 4 weeks to harvest all 200,000 trees.

As we left Greenleaf, Sean White, the owner, directed us toward a shortcut – one in which a pontoon raft would take our car across the Breed River and save us 50 km of dirt road driving. For 45 Rand (about $3.00), three men working together pulled the raft with our car (and three more) across the river. The process was quite ingenious: each man would wrap a chain he held in his hand around a cable that spanned the river and trudge from one end of the raft to the other with the chain over his shoulder slowly pulling the raft forward. When the first man had walked 3 meters, the next would add his chain to the cable and join in behind his colleague, and then a third 3 meters behind the second. Whenever the first reached the end of the 10 meter long raft, he would unwrap his chain and walk back to the other side of the raft, wrap his chain once more around the cable, and walk back towards the opposite side.  It took about 10 cycles to get us over the river. Rich and I experienced another “Never did I ever…….” moment.

Traveling north from here, you must traverse one of several mountain passes to cross the second band of 1000 meter high mountains that separates you from the interior Klein Karoo (Little Desert) and the towns of Ladismith, Oudtshoren and (eventually) Beaufort West. We stopped for refreshments in a small roadside diner that boasted having sold, 1,058 roosteren broods, which we discovered was not some local rooster dish, but roasted bread.   So we munched on rooster brood, sloppy joes, and Caesar salad and fortified ourselves for the mountain pass. In a random bit of luck, we chose the Tradouw’s Pass (Women’s Pass in old Koi) from just outside of Swellendam to Barrydale. Suddenly it seemed, we had left behind the dusty plains and the hillsides were lush and green, apparently outside of the rain-shadow of the coastal range and high enough to capture their own moisture. We travelled through a steep sided canyon with waterfalls and the Tradouw river at its base (not quite raging as we are just coming out of the dry season). Like many of the passes in South Africa, we learned that this pass had been constructed by engineer Thomas Bain in the late 1800’s using prison labor (300 convicts) and £1,000.

We skipped through the pass in light traffic, though since Pat was driving there were at least 10 white knuckles in the car. Once through the pass, we drove quickly east through the towns of Barrymore, Ladismith, and Oudtshoorn and arrived at dusk at our destination in De Rust (the Rest) just north of Oudtshoorn. De Rustica Olive’s general manager, Jupp welcomed us warmly, and gave us a quick tour of this spotless modern facility. The last batch of olives from the day’s harvest was being pressed, and we were impressed by the modern machines, spotless interior, and as always the lovely smell of olives in the malaxer. Jupp led us to our guest cottage “Oudemuragie Gasteplaas” for the next few nights, courtesy of De Rustica Estates.   We met Maggie Fouri, our hostess who had halloo’ed us from the barn, and came in wiping her hands and explaining that she was coming from delivering twin lambs. She settled us in Vogelsnest Cottage, all the while apologizing for its smallness (it wasn’t), and oozing energy and hospitality. No sooner had we unpacked our bags, and settled ourselves onto the porch to watch the lingering rays from the sun, when Maggie reappeared bearing two slices of chocolate cake warm from the farmhouse kitchen. We knew we were going to like it here.

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View from Our Porch at Oudemuragie Guest Farm

We got down to the olive press early the next day and went out to the groves to see how the hand picking was organized. Several teams of workers in different groves were stationed throughout the estate depending on which cultivar and which grove was ripe for picking – a decision Jupp would make each day with the Farm Manager, Cully. A tarp shaded flatbed trailer was half filled with crates of olives. As soon as the trailer was full, it would be carted off to the press. The workers used ladders and hand rakes, with nets spread out on the ground, but no mechanical device whatsoever. In a switch from previous practices, Jupp used a contractor to supply the laborers, and the contractor would be paid by the pound rather than by the hour to incentivize the workers.

We took a break from the hot sun to grab a lunch in downtown De Rust to meet up with grove owner Robert Still and his wife and daughter. Quite an eclectic place, we got delicious coconut chicken salad and water with fresh mint. Fresh herbs decorated the table and the staff were welcoming, attentive, and friendly. Back at the press, we sat with Rob for a while and then did another tour around with the press at full capacity and reported to the group about the debate in the industry about whether to filter or let settle and malaxation times.

That evening, we did some grocery shopping and decided to cook lamb chops on the braai at the cottage for dinner. With green salad, a beautiful red wine, and a loaf of warm fresh baked bread and butter that arrived courtesy of Maggie once again, we had a delightful evening watching the last rays of sunshine on the hills and searching for the stars that were somewhat hidden that evening by clouds.

The following day we took Maggie’s advice and headed west on the dirt road in front of our guest farm. The road meandered for many km past ostrich farms and camping grounds and at least one water reservoir until we finally hit a tarred road that would take us to Cango Caves and then north through the Swartburg Pass and over to the frontier like town of Prince Albert.

Each of these excursions was unbelievable spectacular – the 1 km of underground limestone caves some of them 20 meters tall with clusters of floor to ceiling stalagmites and stalagtites (while realizing only 25% of the total cave series is open to the public) –

– the breathtaking Swartburg Pass with views both north and south that clicked off for me the desire to ride in an airplane over the South African landscapeSwartberg Pass

– and the sleepy and friendly village that is a haven to travelers just through or starting through the pass.


Prince Albert , South Africa

We devoured a slice of hot apple pie with clotted cream and some scones at “The Lazy Lizard” and returned to De Rust as the shadows grew longer, following a rain-less rainbow south through a second shorter pass and back to our guest cottage. We enjoyed our last evening of spectacular sunset, brilliant star and moon scape, and our leftovers were all the more delicious with left over home made bread and butter.

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Entrance to De Rustica Olive Estate

On Sunday, our last day, we did a morning hike to get a high vista of the whole valley.  The physical beauty was sublime but when the early morning stillness was broken by distant singing from an African Church we couldn’t even see, but definitely heard, we wondered if we were indeed in heaven.

We decided on the northerly route back through the Meiringspoort canyon and back out to Prince Albert. We returned to “The Lazy Lizard Café” to pick up a picnic lunch (featuring fresh figs and roast lamb) and headed north and then west on the N1 all the way back to Capetown (550 km).

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Week 29 – Providential Encounters

A UMass faculty member who offered a tasting of South African Wines, a friend of ours from church, the father of a first year Amherst College student – each of these individuals back home in the US suggested we reach out to their colleagues, friends, and family in South Africa.  We have tracked down these rather distant connections and are so glad we did.  It has brought such richness and depth to our lives in South Africa. Our encounters have convinced us of the hand of providence in what we are doing. We can’t help but feel that our being here is part of a bigger plan.

One example of such a connection is the Keyser family, with the connection being through our friends Margaret and Jim at Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley, MA. We were interested in attending a service at Margaret’s childhood church, the VGK Congregational Church in Wellington – a town about 60 km from Stellenbosch.   Margaret put us in touch with her brother, Zanephyn, and arrangements were made not only for a church visit, but also for us to join the Keyser family at a braii following the service. On a bright Sunday morning we drove through acres of spent grape vines, each field with its own combination of red and gold grape leaves, white flowered overgrown grass, and red soil. We arrived just in time for Zanephyn to usher us into the church and then he was off to join the other elders of the church. This Sunday was one dedicated to the children of the church, and the culmination of a week-long celebration of Family in which 1000 church members participated. The children had worked hard to prepare some singing (in English) and dancing (no translation necessary) and recitations of bible verses in Afrikaan by individual children and the following phrase by the entire assembly:

“Die Bybel is die woord van God, en die Woord van God is die waarheid.”

(The bible is the word of God, and the word of God is the truth.)

 There were prizes awarded, a guest speaker who animated a bible story (we THINK it was the story of the Good Samaritan but our Afrikaan is not good enough to be sure), and we were given a pulpit moment to share a welcome from Wesley Church to this faith community and to give thanks to them for the role they played in making Margaret who she is and then sharing her with us. We were treated like celebrities by the ~ 200 children, many of whom wanted to shake our hands at the close of the two hour service. The churches vision statement declares its’ covenant to making each person who enters to worship, regardless of his or her background, feel welcome, and a part of this faith community. Despite our being the only whites in this group of 600-700 non-whites, we were made to feel so welcomed. How wonderful to see a group whose actions lived up to their rhetoric.  The service filled us with hope for a brighter South African future than we had felt to date.  In our University Town, we often feel a status quo of deep race divisions, poverty and an expectation of criminal behavior.  In Wellington, we saw with gratitude that these children (South Africa’s future) will blossom when they are held with such love and pride by their community.

well church

Later we sipped cool water as the family gathered at one of the several adjacent homes occupied by 4 of the 5 Keyser brothers and their families. These homes surrounded their family home, still occupied by their mother, now in her late 80’s but quite definitely, the queen of the roost. The braii began: three grills were set up, the wood fires started, and each one attended to by a brother or son-in-law sitting in a lawn chair with an umbrella overhead to shield them from the bright sun. Two sisters and various sisters-in-law busied themselves happily with brought dishes in the kitchen, and nieces and nephews and cousins played in the yard.   Grandma, new baby, Mia and her Mom, Mom’s father-in-law, and Rich and I sat under the shade with fans, ice-cold pitchers of mint and lemon water, and a delightful recording of music to entertain us. Ten-month-old Mia’s dancing moves were most respectable, and she kept us laughing.well braii

We tried to help, honestly, but each time we were shooed away – or given a clearly ceremonial task to make us feel better and encouraged to relax in the shade and visit. When the meal was ready, we joined the 20 family members at the table, were formally welcomed (again) and Rich was asked to say grace. This is what was served: a first course of cream of mussel soup, a dollop of curried chicken with rice, and then the main course– grilled spiced chicken, tender lamb chops, luscious beef steaks, choice boerwurst to

The Keyser family at table

The Keyser family at table

accompany a half dozen salads. Large platters of bread made from dough grilled on the fire and fresh corn-on-the-cob were passed around the table. We ate till we could barely move, and after the dishes were cleared, sat for another long spell before dessert of bread pudding with raisins was served up. When we realized we had been sitting and chatting about everything under the sun for several hours, we decided to say our reluctant good-byes.   We felt so comfortable and sleepy, and so much at home, that we could have joined others on the couch for a little late afternoon nap, but we didn’t want to push our luck. We said our grateful good-byes and were welcomed to come again. We will definitely be back.


Another example of a providential intervention in our time here in South Africa is that of our breakfasts with the acting Rector, Dean Mohammed Karaan, an acquaintance of the father of a first year student with whom I worked with at Amherst College. It was to him that my first inquiry about a potential sabbatical was sent two years ago and it was because of his special intervention on our behalf, that we are at Stellenbosch today. We asked to set up a meeting with him just to say thank-you and to introduce ourselves, and after several false starts because of his terribly busy schedule, we finally were able to meet him in the only clear slot on his calendar, 7:30 AM for breakfast at an in town hotel, Coopmanshuijs.

Die Oude Werf had this non-traditional wall of mounted springbok heads, including one made of crocheted patches and another of wire.

Die Oude Werf has this non-traditional wall of mounted springbok heads, including one made of crocheted patches and another of wire.

Our first meeting was simply delightful, we were charmed by his gentleness, modesty, and intensity – and his delight in hearing us talk about our two favorite things: liberal arts education and olive oil. He confessed that it was most unusual for him to have gotten personally involved in setting up a visiting professorship but that, in addition to the coincidence of his being in the middle of a book about Turkey and our experience working there, “something in your first email resonated with what I had been thinking about educational models.” So here we are.

Our first breakfast was repeated at another hotel, the Oude Werf, where we arrived with lasers and molecular models and gave Dean Karaan a molecular overview of olive oil chemistry with hands on activities. It is our wish that our visits will continue during our time here as it seems he is working out something about his own platform for educational reform and our meetings are helping. We feel humbled that he has taken so much of his time to hear us rattle on. We get the sense it is meant to be.

It is our sincere hope that we will not miss the opportunities laid out before us. We want to be in a position to give as much as or more than we take, and to follow the path that seems like the right one. With the grace of God, we will do that.

Here’s a sunset photo taken last Friday which can’t help but fill you with the beauty and mystery of the Almighty.


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