THE BLOG

The South Africa Diaries - Part II

15/01/2013 11:43 GMT | Updated 16/03/2013 09:12 GMT

Last summer I received a travel grant from The Gladstone Memorial Trust for a trip to Tibet. For various frustrating bureaucratic reasons, I never made it to Tibet. However, the Trust generously allowed me to keep the grant for a different trip - one to South Africa with friends from college. I was required to write a travel report of my experiences, which I thought I might share on this blog. This is part 2, about our experiences in Coffee Bay, Chintza, and Plettenberg bay, along the coast. The first part can be found here.

Country bliss

Our next destination was a remote little village called Coffee Bay, so named because of a shipwreck of a coffee bean freighter a long time ago. It now no longer has much to do with coffee, and is more like a notorious getaway for backpackers, due to its beautiful beaches and friendly locals. It is very cut off from the rest of South Africa, and is about a two-hour drive from Mthata. As we sped (I say sped, I think it was more trundled) along the hilly roads deep into the Transkei, our driver told us to relax - we were in heaven now. As the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the valleys between the rolling hills, it definitely felt a little bit like heaven. The scenes we passed were dotted with huts painted bright turquoise. I learned that these huts - also known as kraal - were a mark we were in the Transkei, and the color symbolized equality during the Apartheid.

This part of the country felt very detached from the rest of the world. Steep hills separated villages and towns, and life in the kraal was still to a large extent very traditional. We had organized a village tour through a veteran of the ANC Women's League named Betty, and she assigned to us an exuberant tour guide named Silas. I first met him as he boomed up a hill for me to come out of my hostel room, and greeted me with an intimidatingly cool handshake/fist bump choreograph that made me feel as full of street credit as Humpty Dumpty. Silas was born and raised in the Transkei. He told us that most young men now leave the villages in search of work in cities, sometimes in the mines. Those who remain have few opportunities, and the integration of tourism had become an important part of their lives. Tourism constituted probably the only contact the villagers had with the rest of the world - Silas told us he charged his mobile phone at the hostel we were staying at. The influence of tourism was sadly evident in the way the local children chased after us with their palms outstretched, asking for money.

Silas took us into the kraal of the village headman for a home-cooked meal. We were given a taste of their homebrew, which was first splashed over the floor as a sign of respect to the ancestors. The "mamas" of the village performed dances for us, and some of the lyrics of their songs were a curious mix of Xhosa and English, from people that otherwise knew not a word of English. It was strongly encouraged for us to get involved with the dancing, and I was suddenly struck by ludicrous the concept of the tourist actually is - self-conscious and awkward, but also childishly eager to immerse into a new culture. Some of the guests were dancing to the traditional beats of the drums and the Xhosa lyrics like they were in a Beyonce music video, and pouting for travel snaps holding up confused village children. I felt halfway between amused and desperate. How much of "ethnicity" is genuine and wonderful, and how much of it is a plastic souvenir?

The most interesting part of the evening was a question and answer session at the end of the evening, translated by Silas. Some of the questions and answers were genuinely edifying, for example the various takes on how much life for the villagers has actually improved since the end of Apartheid, and whether the ANC's promises have been fulfilled. It seemed people were generally pleased with the many improvements that have been made, but the problems of employment, livelihood and crime were on the increase. An incredibly pompous Afrikaner lady piped up with the occasional question that I first laughed at, but soon made me want to slap her. After ascertaining several times, loudly, that Afrikaans was her lovely language, she asked Silas in a deliberately slow and clear voice "if the Xhosa people even have a word for imagination?" Silas, in a heroically genial way, replied with an amalgam of Xhosa clicks and said, "Yes. I've just made one up." What I remember best, though, was something one of the mamas said. She said that in spite of everything else, never before could white people come into her home and eat a meal with them. Now they could, and for this she was grateful.

The Wild Coast and Frontier Country

Sad as we were to leave Coffee Bay, our next destination turned out to be even more beautiful. As we drove out of the Transkei (passing Nelson Mandela's house as we did so), one got the sense of emerging from the wintry countryside into lush, green, seaside summer. It was dark by the time we got to Chintza, but when we woke up next morning to the pitter pattering sound of monkeys climbing over our porch, and went outside to investigate - a single thought entered my head: "this must be paradise". The beach that opened up under us was breathtaking. The endless sea glimmered calmly, and even the sand seemed to emanate light.

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Paradise in Chintza.

Picture perfection, however, was not accurately reflected in the weather. We'd wanted to surf, but it was too windy. This really should have been some indication of how unsuited the day was for the beach, but armed optimistically with sun lotion and a British attitude towards weather we trundled on and faced the sun. It was like battling a very cold sandstorm. We lasted about an hour. I think by the time the third group of people passed us wearing sweaters and hats, we realized we were not at all appropriately dressed. Later that day, the battle against the elements saw a sequel, which also embodied a battle of the sexes.

In true South African spirit, we'd decided to celebrate the fine weather with a proper braai - the South African barbeque. The nearest grocery store was across the beach, which during low tide had a shallow pool of seawater about ankle deep running through it. However, by the time we made it there, the tide had risen waist high. The girls and I decided it would be simplest to go back and eat the spaghetti Bolognese the hostel kitchen had promised us. The boys resisted - grunting and beating their chests instead. The indicated through testosterone-fueled pointing and growling that they were real men, and were thus going to wade through the tide and get us meat. So we let them go, half hoping they'd drown in either the sea or at least their own masculinity. As we waited for their return, our hostel receptionist actually waded across herself, carrying her tiny poodle, who climbed to the top of her head for safety. When she crossed safely, we realised with marginal bitterness that the boys would be just fine. So they returned, triumphant and emanating alpha-male shine. We admitted defeat, went back, and had a delicious meal. (This story has not been exaggerated in the slightest.)

It was in Chintza that we did one the coolest things I've ever done - we visited a game reserve that housed a few tame cheetahs, and spent some time in close contact with them. They were absolutely magnificent creatures, and a lot softer to the touch than I expected. I thought they would be sleek and streamlined killing machines, but they were genuinely just very large cats, except their purrs were much deeper, and they had tongues that actually felt like sandpaper. One of them seemed to take a liking to the soap I'd used in the shower and wouldn't stop licking me, and actually bit a hole into my shirt. I wondered if I'd let it lick me for long enough, whether it would eventually realise that I could be its dinner.

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Just a big cat.

Calm seas and stormy debates

Next up was Plettenberg Bay. In contrast to the rustic sights of the Wild Coast, Plettenberg was tame, pretty, and in a way incredibly boring. It might as well have been the South of France. It felt and looked like a place the wealthy came to summer. Plett was quaint, but had that feeling that every seaside town almost inevitably holds - of being slightly run down and past its prime, possibly exemplified by the many tea and coffee shops that you would imagine someone's Aunt Mildred frequenting. We actually went into one of these for a cuppa, and I'm fairly certain disturbed a fair few Mildreds on their afternoon out.

Our team split in Plettengerg - the slightly more adventurous of us went sea-kayaking with dolphins. This sounded like an altogether much too taxing activity for me, so my friend Philippa and I sat on a boat and went whale watching. We did indeed see two, and it was a wonderfully couch-potato friendly way to see something so incredible. Two whales swam about lazily, occasionally raising a fin or a tail out of the water to say hello.

The team split again later on that day when we were having dinner at a charming evening market. Fueled by a box of cheap but tasty South African Cabernet Sauvignon, we somehow went from discussing the day in the great outdoors into the most intense political debate I have ever been involved in - and I study this as a degree. I regret to say that it descended into a bit of a shouting match towards the end, but the debate itself was fascinating, and absolutely affirmed to me that I chose the correct degree. It was one those incredibly vast arguments that in retrospect didn't seem to have a point, but at the time feels like the only argument worth having since time immemorial. In essence I think it was whether or not it was possible or advisable to transcend the current capitalist system, without being a Marxist. We think we understand success and a good life - but what if all of this understanding has been conditioned by a system that was never a choice? For example, Silas, our tour guide, must make do with what options he is given. If he didn't choose to become a tour guide (only possible because he learned English), go work in a mine near Jo'burg, or be unemployed in a country embedded into a world economy he never chose - he would have no other alternative. Similarly, on the other side of the world, my graduating peers can choose to work as a banker, a doctor, a consultant - have a family, buy organic farm produce, travel to South Africa to go whale watching and wine tasting. This is obviously a caricature, but arguably most graduates from my circles do not go on to change the global conditions so that Silas could have other choices too. And yet they tell us we go to the best university in the world. Why? How does one choose when almost everything has already been preconditioned, and it seems there is so little we can change?

I wonder if it's because we are finalists now that we were forced to consider these questions, or whether it was because we were removed from the comfortable and the familiar, and that travel was doing it's job of making us think. Either way, I am incredibly glad we are thinking, rather than just mechanically filling in the graduate scheme applications without a fight.