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The knowledge that we are made of stars

In three days time, I will leave behind the mid-winter’s chill of the South African plains for the high summer pressure cooker of the Persian Gulf, for the shimmering sands of Qatar. I’ll be housesitting in Doha for an Egyptian-British couple by the names of Amany and Simon and I’m already praying to the gods of endurance that my heat tolerance will last the month.

If I go mad before I make it to London, if I run away from Qatar and turn up in Patagonia, you will know it was the heat that did me in—the heat, which is damn near halfway to boiling, supplemented by 95% humidity. It will take less of my courage to walk the streets alone, a woman in the Middle East, than it will take to leave the air conditioned confines of the house for the steam bath of the sweltering souks.

My weeks here in Addo have been languorous, restful, the working hours long but easy. All I have to do is make bookings and play hostess to backpackers from all over the world. I spend my evenings in the kitchen with Cindy the cook, whose language I can’t pronounce the name of. Xhosa is a dialect of snap, crackle, pop, full of clicks and riddled with gulps.

This week I finally managed successfully to utter the Xhosa word for “done”. I don’t even recall what the word was now, but I won’t soon forget the delight in Cindy’s eyes when I managed to repeat my first click, only one of five distinct clicks in the language, and until then, I couldn’t produce one. Her full name is Cindy Nwabisa Mbuzana. In Xhosa, Nwabisa means “happiness,” which is fitting, and Mbuzana means “little question.”

She teaches me her cooking tricks, how to tie a turban, and we dance while I help her make pizzas for the pub guests. She and Zama, the barman, are my favorites here, so fluent of smile and light of heart. I prefer their company a thousand times over to the kids playing beer pong in the bar. Cindy is such a heart-warming and fascinating companion that I barely even notice working all night in the kitchen after manning the reception desk all day.

We constantly amaze each other, and what’s a little cooking in exchange for unremitting amazement? I’m astounded by her cheerfulness, her linguistic dexterity, her devilish and dauntless sense of humor. And she is enthralled with my descriptions of America, of China and the rest of the world.

When I explain that in Seattle, it is ten in the morning, even though it’s evening here, her round ebony eyes sparkle softly with wonder and widen in amused disbelief. Then I say that in America, July is high summer, and she is absolutely dumbstruck with shock. We work through a long and laborious conversation during which I attempt to elucidate the concepts of axial tilt, time zones, and latitude.

I’m not sure she’s grasped it any more than I can manage to pronounce the five distinct clicks of Xhosa. But in the end, we laugh and get back to our dancing, our pizza, and our language lessons.

After closing that night, I wander off the dirt path that leads from the pub to my room. Without consciously deciding to, I walk into the pitch black field that spreads out behind the lodge. I lay on my back in the tawny swathe of grass and let myself get lost in the sky. I marvel at the luminous tendrils of our galaxy, the pinprick twinkles of others. All around me, thousands of suns glint like diamonds in the velvet infinity of the firmament.

I am so immersed in the celestial spectacle that I barely even notice my tears. When I do realize my cheeks are wet, it only makes me smile. This is the best way to cry—for beauty, for gratitude, for the miracle of the universe, for the knowledge that we are made of stars.

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