On Saturday night I boarded South African Airways bound for Johannesburg. If a seat on a plane can be a country, a place of belonging, the crew heard my accent and welcomed me home.
‘Welcome home.’ from the gentleman at customs on landing. I had time to kill before boarding for Cape Town. As per habit, I went to have my customary coffee at Mugg and Bean. Uncanny I know, but the waiter asked me if I was here in March, he remembered me. Ok, I thought, and asked him how he was. ‘Today is our last day as we are closing so I am lucky you came today.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘What happens tomorrow?’
‘We are all jobless.’ He said, matter of factly, and smiled. Looking around, I saw the staff, and not an inkling of despair, of anger, just a usual day at work. Would I even have pitched up for work knowing that I was out of a job by the end of service? And not panic about tomorrow? Shake your head, you are jet lagged, only this is really happening. Needless to say, I gave my lovely waitron a massive tip and felt so sad at the situation, but in a strange way, so proud of each and every one of them.
I knew I was back in South Africa. The country where resilience is the operative word. Young boys begging at the stop street, gestures of an empty stomach, a prayer and a shrug of the shoulders when you look the other way. Women sitting beside their meagre offerings of oranges, green mielies for sale. On the flight to Cape Town I spoke to the young, black man beside me. He grew up in Durban, lives in Cape Town, misses his family but is more grateful for his job. He has no complaints, and sends money home every month.
The truth is that I was coming to South Africa for a short visit to be with my mum on her 89th Birthday. I was arriving, broken after some difficult months in London and in need of …nothing. No talking but just observing and letting life spill over me. The winter days in Cape Town, in a room overlooking the beach offered me just that. Silence and an opportunity to watch the rain as it dripped onto the ocean. The hues of grey and blue, of sand and foam, of empty beaches and gulls that loop and dip brought a calm I had not experienced for some time. While the Cape Townians moaned about the weather I drove into the wine lands, the wet upon the vines, the silver of branches ready for new tastings about to grow. Franschoek was deserted, boarded up. Sacred Ground was open and we hustled inside for hot soup and freshly baked bread, watching the rivulets scamper off tipped chairs outside. The town is resting. For the few places still open, fires in the hearth called our names.
I love the Cape Winters. Strange coming from someone who dreads the onslaught of a British winter, but in the Cape, lulled by open fires, soft rain and red wine, the mantel folds around me and I hit the pause button on my life. And I am quiet. Of course. the compulsory stop to get wine: in my case, a case of Môreson. We dash through the rain down the rose covered walkway, in the late afternoon to be met with a smile, a taste, and a number of bottles of our favourite canine named wine.
For the foodie traveller, this may be the best time to visit.
Flying to Durban, to drive up to Pietermaritzburg is an entirely different story. It’s hot, Durban winter hot. Some days a breeze may bring the jacket but mostly its still beach weather. The drive is a nightmare of dodging taxis’s, road works and the busiest highway in Africa. My little car is fodder for blue light brigades and runners across the highways, but I manage to look sideways to the fields of cane and timber to arrive at my guest house, my home for the next four days. The Royal Show is on, Art in the Park is on and the I want to say, coming home is well, coming home, but for the sadness of this great Victorian city, now tattered and flaying in neglect. The business of African life permeates and mocks the statues of Victoria and Shepstone. This is not the city I remember. Parks are barren and dirty, buildings stand raped and ready to fall. I cringe at the beggars at the robots and make my way to my Guest House, a beautiful, stately home that still reflects the standard of living I remember.
All however, is not lost. The people of Pietermaritzburg are as positive and dynamic as I remember. This is still the home to the best schools, in my opinion, in the country, and once I find my way up the hill, to Hilton and the Midlands, life takes on a fresh perspective. Utterly beautiful landscapes.
Productive industry of small entrepreneurs who have drawn from their surroundings and offer all sorts of commerce. Gorgeous names like Piggly Wiggly, Zulu Lulu and La Lampara for starters. Culture in Art, fabric printing, hides and embroidery all on offer. Wine too, and a visit to Abingdon Estate is a must on the agenda. A million ideas of how to bring these wares to England!
For the past four days, my beehive of networking and friends is based in the Midland Liberty Mall. I did not see the Mall, not even a walk through the Mall, but a time of renewing and remembering that no matter where in the world I find myself, there is an arrow straight back to those who formed my life when I lived here.
I am overwhelmed. Exhausted. Hosted a birthday party for my mother on her 89th birthday in the place she now calls home. A collection of the elderly, the lost and the lonely, loved and cared for with dignity and unselfish love. Leaving her tomorrow for London will break me again, but being here, with friends, in South Africa will keep me going.
I did not travel far. Did not see the many sights, but the experience, the people, the space, the warmth and resilience of this country has me crying at goodbye. South Africa has the most beautiful scenery in the world, but what makes her, truly defines her, are the people, rich and poor, with and without, who are never far from the rainbow of believing in a better day. And proud of where they are.
This is why you must visit. Why you must go from the one dimensional to the deeper nuances of what amazing, optimistic and happy people there are here. How can I be broken when others have absolutely nothing and still keep smiling? Be hurt when I do not have the slightest inclination of what really means to have lost but keep believing it will get better?
I love the Cape Winters, I adore the people here and I am healed by just breathing in the South African air. How to sell South Africa? Walk past the politics, past your definition of loss and see a connection of people to their land, to their waking to sunshine, to rain and no matter the season, life will always be for the living. With hope.
Without complaint, I am humbled. And healed.
As I fly to London tomorrow, I want to say: I can come back anytime when I need to restore my faith in human nature. It is not an uncomplicated country, not without problems, but still beautiful. A woman loved is always more beautiful, and for those living here, she is very loved.
Some images care of Fodors and South African Tourism