Dear Rustam and Charlie,
I write to you both today–two strong, inspiring men in my life. You have many differences, though you share a fierce independence, fire and zest, loyalty toward those you love. I have felt so supported by each of you over the years, and you have each been formative in your own right. I feel honored to call you both uncles.
This letter finds me in the Botswana Delta, during my “siesta” between morning and evening safari drives. I will take a few moments to speak to you about a few of my favorite things: imbibements and music.
Rustam, I wish you were here to taste the wines. As you know, South Africa in particular has a stunning array of vineyards and local grape varietals. It’s been too dang hot to drink much red wine, but the whites have been impeccable: unoaked Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Chenin Blancs. The best are crisp and earthy, with undertones that remind me of this great wild African land they were grown in. Rustam, I remember tasting wines with you at Indika, and recall having at least one from South Africa on our menu while I was there, though I’m not sure what’s currently on the list.
I also remember weaving sweet fantasies with you, about trips to wine country in Northern Calfornia, Italy, France. Sonoma and Napa still have your names on them, Rustam. And they’re a heck of a lot easier to get to than Cape Town, I may add. Though you don’t get the same African backdrop, I’ll be so bold as to say that there are places in Napa and Sonoma that can hold their own against other spectacularly stunning locales. There may not be Table Mountain to survey from above and supervise your wine tastings, but there’s no lack of beauty.
Charlie, I wish you were here to hear the music. We haven’t experienced a whole lot thus far, but the rhythm in the land alone is deep, rich, compelling. The sounds in the birdsong, in the wind gusts, in the sweeping open fields of the Kalahari Desert. I hear the nature and think, of course African music is replete with such infectious rhythms, such soaring melodies, such fantastic call-and-response. All of this exists in the land–wind across the plains, birds hollering loud & proud, echoes and imitations lingering in the trees and desert grass. No instruments needed. There is music everywhere.
Once instruments DO come out to play, however, there is delight of a whole different caliber. By “instruments” here, I include voices and clapping and stomping feet. People themselves are their own instruments. And the harmonies and rhythms that a group of individuals can create together is truly astounding. This type of music, the music of bodies, feels to me like only one step from the music of the natural world that I spoke of above; beats and sounds and harmonies arising so effortlessly from their surroundings that they seem an extension, rather than an affront or disruption. Even the African languages themselves are inherently musical: guttural, many colored by clicks and rounded tones, beautiful curvature of letters and phrases. To me, the sound is comforting, gentle, playful–much like what I’ve experienced of the culture here, in both South Africa and Botswana.
And Charlie, the music also reminds me of you in its freedom of expression and spirited character. At our first safari camp, in the Kalahari Desert, a small group of staff–led by about 10 bushmen from a native local tribe–serenaded us with a series of songs, all accompanied by claps and shakers strapped to gyrating, pulsating calfs of the men. The melodies were led by a woman with a piercing call–loud, throaty, no vibrato; interrupted occasionally by her coughing, and more occasionally by peals of laughter. Nearly always, the song started in one key, and ended in another several half-steps higher. The palpable pleasure of the performers far outweighed–and was infinitely more compelling than–any semblance of flawlessness. Their songs were exuberant, peppered with surprising melodic twists and bends; unpolished by Western standards, but incomparably lovably–and therefore, to my ears, perfect.
Rustam, I imagine you too would have enjoyed yourself: seated next to the fire, glass of Meritage in hand, in the literal heart of the Kalahari. I recorded some of the audio I captured, and am looking forward to sharing once I have enough bandwidth to support an upload.
One more thing directed to you, Rusty: the food! I wish you were here to sample it. The cuisine is meat-heavy, with many of the flavors and ingredients reminding me of North India. There are a huge diversity of breads, muffins, and coconut-based pastries; fresh fruit juices and bright raw vegetable salads. Red meat is prepared brashly and boldly, usually medium-rare, and has been consistently fantastic–tasting fresh as if it came off the fields minutes beforehand, and paired with sumptuous mushroom gravies or red wine/olive oil-based sauces. Beyond more standard fare, we’ve sampled springbok (from the elk family); hearty ostrich steaks; tiny fried meal worms that are a local delicacy in both rural South Africa and Botswana; loads of fresh catch when we were in Cape Town (kingklip seems to be most widely available, though we’ve also had several other light white fish that remind me of cod, perch, or sole. And the smoked trout–pink and tender and as reminiscent of salmon as is possible). Squash, zucchini, and eggplant are common, usually sauteed in butter rather than vegetable oil; potatoes and “pap,” polenta-like pounded corn, are also frequent occurrences on a traditional table. And though now on safari I’m much more dependent on the whims of the chef on-site, in the big cities of South Africa, we found every type of food. From Portugese, to Italian, to Vietnamese, to Japanese, to burgers and fries. Suffice to say, we’ve had no lack of deliciousness available.
Sending much sun-drenched love to you both. May the hippos in my backyard be my witness: I raise a toast in each of your respective directions.
PS Today’s cover photo was taken in the Kalahari Desert, when my bushmen relatives led us on a walking safari through the vast and wild terrain. We are all related, uncles!