Zooolooo Hospitality in the Midlands

Just in case anyone had any illusions that paternalism in South Africa was dead…I can report from personal experience that it is alive and kicking in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands.

First of all, someone needs to tell hotel owners that no-one cares who they are or what they've achieved in their long and illustrious lives. Second of all, someone needs to tell them that we also couldn't give a cr*p about their socio-political views.

Allow me to elaborate…

The Husband and I set off on our annual adventure yesterday afternoon for a two-night stint in the KzN Midlands en route to Umhlanga. I had been dying to visit this particular Midlands establishment – renowned for its award winning cuisine – for years. At 5pm, we arrived and confirmed with the manageress that we would most definitely be "joining them" for dinner. We were told that we should present ourselves at 7pm for aperitifs, which would be followed by a speech by "Mr Blah-di-Blah" before dinner. Mr Blah-di-Blah's name (which I honestly did not catch) was pronounced so matter of factly that she may as well have told us we were to be addressed by Nelson Mandela himself. Although I suspected that Mr Blah-di-Blah was the hallowed owner of the establishment, I couldn't resist asking, "Er, who's he when he's at home?" It was then confirmed that he was indeed the almighty owner.

No big deal, you might be thinking. But The Husband and I have had our fair share of boutique hotel experiences where self-important proprietors actually think your life's goal is to belong to their inner circle. We were really looking forward to a private, romantic dinner to kick-start our holiday and we just had a niggly feeling about this scheduled "speech".

At 7pm sharp, we were seated on the guest house's stately patio for appertifs when, soon enough, Blah-di-Blah came bounding over to introduce himself. We decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and were on our best behaviour, exchanging pleasantries on the weather and other such engrossing topics. He then bounded over to introduce himself to some more guests as they stepped onto the patio. "We've met twice before," they reminded him politely, to which he swiftly responded, "Of course! Jolly good show! I thought you looked ever so familiar!" Yeah, right.

By 7:45 The Husband was ready to eat the 18th century stonework on the guest house walls so I gently asked if we could be shown to our table. "Sure," the manager told us excitedly, "it's almost speech time!"

Oh, goody!

At this point, I suspect the owner sensed the hunger of his guests, and, eager to now get us to our tables, he let forth with a joke for the benefit of his 15-odd guests which resounded across the dining area: "Gentlemen! You pay so much to marry our wives and then you can't even get them to join you for dinner! Hahahahahahahaha!!"

I don't even know how to comment on that, er, joke. I think it speaks for itself – although God knows what it's saying.

But his speech proved even better. Guests were treated to a 15-minute history of the his childhood in the Transkei, playing cricket with his best friend, Prince What's-his-face. During these idyllic times, the Prince bowled, while Blah-di-Blah batted, because, of course, such was the hierarchy in those times. (This was also put forward as the reason behind the Eastern Cape producing international stars like Makhaya Ntini who's "a phenomenal bowler" but who "can't bat".) We were then reminded that nowadays, the inverse is, of course, true: "the white boys" are bowling and black people are batting.

Just then, with no sense of irony whatsoever, he moved on to the topic of his "zooolooo" staff members, for whom it is apparently still "a pleasure to serve". Guests were then told that in many places in the world it is "no longer a pleasure to serve", however, we were assured that here at Paternalism Place, it is still indeed a "pleasure to serve". We were told that we would not experience Swiss hospitality. Instead, we would be privileged to experience "zooolooo hospitality" – something that "takes a little longer", but that is "much better" in Blah-di-Blah's (ahem) humble opinion.

At this point, The Husband looked as though he was ready to throw up. Trapped in my seat, with Blah-di-Blah sounding like he could go on all night (he hadn't ommitted to mention that he'd been a lawyer in his "former life"), I came up with the ultimate act of defiance. I reached into my handbag, pulled out my faithful Tabard stick and began painstakingly Tabard-ing my big toes. Fortunately, my strappy sandals meant that protecting the top of my feet from the mozzies was a really delicate affair, requiring enormous amounts of concentraion. In this way, I was able to drown out the remainder of the discourse, until eventually, mercifully, it came to an end.

At breakfast this morning, our waitress wanted to know whether we'd be "joining them" for dinner this evening. We told them that we would like to, but gently enquired whether they would be any speeches to look forward to? Our waitress informed us that no, there would be no speeches. And I could swear I detected a bit of a twinkle in her "Zooolooo" eyes.

Leaving Las Midlands

We left Karkloof Spa on Saturday 6 March. But not until The Husband had been brutalised by the resident Thai masseuse. She was fresh off the boat from Ko Loon Poo or wherever, which I guess is supposed to make the experience doubly authentic. Only snag was: she was still trying to come to grips with basic English. Statements such as, “STOP! That HURTS!!!” apparently only illicited giggles from her. She was also unable to understand: “No, not leg massage – back massage, yes?” At this, she apparently nodded and giggled and made all the right noises to indicate that she understood, but then merrily continued bashing The Husband’s back.

Eventually, The Husband decided to try a different tack. It went like this: “Su Lin. I go shop….. I ask milk….. I get Singha beer….. I say ‘NO!’…….. I say: ‘I want milk’……. Again, I get beer……. I shake head….like this (husband shakes head vigorously)….. I say ‘MILK!’ …..Finally, man give me milk…… I happy…..I smile….(husband smiles)….. You understand, Su Lin?”

The universal metaphor of the in-store milk and beer mix-up. Of course. I always forget that one.

And The Husband’s wonders why I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time.

Amazingly, though, Su Lin did actually understand. She grinned, giggled and nodded (as one would expect by this point) and then promptly began pummelling his thighs.

50 minutes into his 90 minute massage, The Husband limped out of the Spa. His right leg was in such a spasm that he asked me to start the drive back to Joburg. Just to explain: this is not normal behaviour. Unless we’re on our way to a big cycling race and he doesn’t want to “strain his legs”, he drives. Always. He is such a shocking back-seat driver that I’m perfectly okay with the arrangement.

“Fine,” I said, “but I’m blind-folding you.”

Since he took up cycling, I’ve started carrying one of those aeroplane eye-masks in my handbag. One peep about my driving and I threaten to whip it out and make him wear it. If he refuses, I threaten to get out of the car. Very mature all round. But it usually shuts him up. For about 15 minutes – but it’s 15 minutes of bliss.

On this particular car trip, he had the post-cycle-race munchies. After he’d finished every Jungle Bar, banana, piece of biltong and anything else he could lay his hands on, he passed out. When he woke up about an hour later, he started moaning for Nando’s. I promised to stop 113km later at the big petrol station outside Harrismith. He whinged for a bit and then passed out again. And then I managed to miss the bl**dy turn-off. It’s really badly sign-posted when you’re travelling north, I’ve decided. Plus there’s nowhere to turn around once you realise you’ve missed it. We were trying to get back to Jozi as quickly as possible to see The Sister for 24 hours, before she jetted back to London, so I starting thinking I should just laugh off Nando’s…

Eventually, I decided the risk of a hungry Husband was far too great and I managed to turn around. With an espresso and a chicken burger in his belly, The Husband rediscovered his sense of humour and we continued our drive to the Big Smoke in peace.

As a born and bred Southern Cape girl, I’ve always struggled with the Highveld landscape. I love the city, but I can’t quite get used to the geography. On this particular Sunday evening, however, Gauteng honestly looked gorgeous. (Yes, I do realise how hilarious that sounds). We were on the N3 and I think we were around the Heidelberg off-ramp. It was about 6pm and the sun was this incredible bright orange ball in the sky. It created the kind of light that photographers dream about. Even the usually boring, barren landscape looked beautiful as a result.

Best of all, it wasn’t raining and there was no mud.

Bring on the Big Smoke.