Friday, August 29, 2014

Heading north up the West Coast

Much earlier in the year, before the winter rains, I headed north up the West Coast and spent my third weekend at friends' thatch cottage at the Het Kruis railway crossing, about 40km beyond Piketburg. There the sky is big, the stars bright and the vegetation subdued. 

Back then the region was dry-baked and unpleasant to be outdoors during the day.

In a few hours time I'll be leaving a cool and storm-lashed Cape Town - I'll be sure to see snow on the mountains as I head up the sparse West Coast that I love so much.

It's the flower season; it will be my first experience of the coast's famous flower spring extravaganza despite having travelled this unique and sparse land many times in as many years, including a coastline-hugging flight in a small plane up to the diamond-haunted Skeleton Coast in 1999.

My destination is Vanrhynsdorp, about three hours from the city, where I'll be based for the weekend.

I've been resentful of this upcoming trip, mainly because I'm under pressure at work, and thought that escaping for the weekend would only add to my load. Now that I've packed a book, some wine and meat for the braai (barbeque) I'm looking forward to peace, silence and the perspective that a trip rewards one with.

Happy Friday. Spring is next week... .

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The winter, and life, of my content

I've neither ventured from my pyjamas nor my apartment, but will have to later. 

My floor to ceiling glass sliding door on to Woodstock and the world is being smashed and battered by Wind and Rain; despite of which I hear the squeals-screams-laughter of break-time at the primary school below, but out of view.

A cup of coffee. Then another. Two Bakers' chocolate flavoured cream biscuits dunked into the intense Italian blend. Only two because I've struggled to get a pouch of blubber off my gut; at the gym for health and stress relief almost every day... I've no intention of making the task, that's become pleasureable, more difficult. 

Looking over my notebook from the last few days:

From my see-through desk I watch a slim black & white Woodstock cat pace across a rusted-red tin roof below, going where with such pizazz and determination?

Frrom the large and wide bus window I saw a man that looked like his dog, running and huffing and puffing and ginger.

A little boy with elven eyes and pixie breath walking backwards in laughter down the escalator; it fills me to overflowing with the joy of life.

Very early on he decided not to have children. It was the right thing to do, he felt. A moral and environmentally-conscious choice, with which he was satisfied.

Next week Friday I fly to Port Elizabeth and then hire a car to drive the 120 kilometres to Grahamstown, and to my alma mater Rhodes University (that's the old entrance pictured above):

I have a deep-rooted and intricate relationship with Grahamstown and Rhodes; a large part of that - which I repeatedly return to, to attempt to fathom it - is a deep and dark and sexual space that still haunts me, even deliciously.

Arriving at Rhodes in February 1990 signalled the end of my adolescence, as well as the beginning of the grieving process for the loss of my youth. 

At Rhodes and the immediate world surrounding it I grappled with my coming out; with my desire, no my deep, deep need for a 'life partner' that until then had remained unfulfilled; it was also the joyous and giddy leaving behind of an apartheid-era schooling and two-year army stint towards the end of the 13-year old 'border war' that South Africa waged with its neighbours. 

I had been nothing more than  a 'short back and sides' possession (canon fodder) of a conservative and deceitful state that was in its death-throes. Even though it's mostly unthinking conscripts were - because of the nationalist fervour, not unlike Germany's earlier in the century - cluless and being bullshitted into foolishly dying for 'volk en vaderland'. Because on every front 'Suid Afrika' was apparently under attack: from 'die rooi gevaar' (the communist threat), from 'die Roomse gevaar' (the Roman Cathlic threat'), and, of course what defined it as a nation, from 'die swart gevaar' (the black threat). Below is the flower of the coral tree, which in September will set the quaint and relatively ancient botanic gardens ablaze; I took this picture as I strolled the garden last year trying to say goodbye.  

All of this I left behind, breathlessly, passionately, for a world I'd never ever previously experienced in a society 'built' upon mind-control and manipulatioon: for a free and intellectual space at one of the country's four great 'liberal' universities, where I was able to, again breathlessly, get to grips with my own mind... where I was encouraged to take myself to the edge of my own psychology. While studying Journalism, Politics, English and for the hell of it, Speach and Drama (because I could).

It was 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison, four years prior to South Africa's first and free elections were held. When we heard the news, the university took us students in busses to spend the day basking in the sun and on the soft sand on the edge of the Indian Ocean only 60 km away... which was where I was also to spend many alone moments the rest of my time there contemplating my life's path, and angst. But I was free to do that.

That was the most important year of my life - I was born in 1990.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


The view of the harbour and Robben Island from Woodstock this morning was eery and reminiscent of the start of winter. Marvelously moody and atmospheric. 

The city was lashed overnight by the latest, and for me unexpected cold front that has brought snow to the province and winter clothing out of people's closets. Umbrellas don't do much good in Cape Town: even if your brolly hasn't turned inside out and broken a spine, the rain lunges at you horizontally.

Today my energy is low and I can feel the tiredness packed behind my eyes. I'm tackling it with good coffee and a beef and tomato stew at the German deli in the small centre close to work.

While I'm enormously relieved to have found my passports, also to have the screw back in my glasses, I'm less ecstatic about what I need to pull off before heading off to Prague early in November.

Next week Friday I leave for Grahamstown via Port Elizabeth, which I'm really looking forward to. The Eastern Cape remains my favourite province, the one that triggers me most.

I feel bland and insipid today, as does this blog post to me.

Smile and wave.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

This is a work in progress: Coronation West

From 'Truth or Dare': 

While sitting at a favourite coffee shop and typing these words, he came to two crucial realisations.

The first was that for once he was not on a deadline, that these words belonged to him, to twirl, to weave or crochet in any way that he so chose; that in this particular space, he was God. Well, to a point, because the compost he was sifting was his truth, and he didn't want to meddle with that: his truth, to him, was sacrosanct.

Because he was disabled by perfectionism, and now knew he had no deadline, multi drafts were possible, that he could fuck up as often as he needed to. He didn't have to get this right first time around. Relief.

The other realisation was that Words were his life. That if he wasn't imbibing them, thinking about them, or producing them, which currently he didn't do often, his life was then both meaningless and purposeless.

The sunlight was gone from the glass roof of the old but tarted up shopping centre; it had moved behind The Mountain. There he could still see it, basking golden on the granite baulk below the cable car station. The shadow fell across his heart and mood; it was instantly winter again. For today, with the unexpected warmth after the ice, he'd almost forgotten which season it was.

The lime green keys on his wireless keyboard were sexy and attracted the attention of passers by. But he frowned into the small screen and barely noticed.

Yesterday at this time he had managed to squeeze on to the packed peak-hour Salt River bus, just. And squeezed he was, against the double door.

He had no option but to hop off two stops later, Coronation West, or be swamped by the disgorging passengers at this the busiest stop on the return journey. It was the price he was happy to pay to get this bus, and not the next. This was for him the Arabic district of the city, Walmer Estate; he'd often heard the mysterious and ancient language spoken here, had seen the unusual but beautiful features not common this far south of the continent. And the strangeness that he liked to think that, only sometimes, he read as dislike of him.

In my two minutes on the pitch-tarred pavement I was punched-unnerved by a familiar-but-not reek I couldn't place. I sniffed the air like a hound dog. Then I clicked. This was the distinctive reek of coal-fire roasted lamb; it permeated my mind - hence the confused frown on my forehead - also the people-busy street, as did the hazy smoke from the kerb side fire. Busy it was with pedestrians: children and older folk, the men wearing fez's, and a dog. Freindly-busy it felt. And welcoming. This time I was also a foreigner, but much less intensely than last time.

Back on.

In the instant that the bus lurched to the corner he could suddenly see into the distance, across the broad and uninspired sweep of the Cape flats, snow on the peaks of the long Hottentot's Holland mountains in the east.

In the split sensory-second when the meat aroma and the sight of snow upon the distant mountains became one, he was instantaneously with his mother in Marrakesch as seven-and-a-half years slid away like glacier ice into a fjord.

That late December, when the snow had laid thick on the distant Atlas Mountains to the west of the city, the light, just like now, when he had first looked up and noticed it, was pastel pink at sunset. Minutes later the sky sloughed its skin to reveal its swathe of perfect navy-charcoal velvet scattered with diamomds. The moon that night was glitteringly full and more ancient than Africa itself.  Also, like this one, it hovered like a conqueror above a flat plain. Except that that plain was made of desert and this one of industry and shanties. The other difference was that the aroma of coal-roasted lamb and dust had permeated all of the old city, as opposed to merely one street corner. As had the putrid reek of the countless lamb pelts left out, like scabs, to dry on the sun-beaten flatbread roofs.

It was all very different then, those few nights in the riyad: He had cried from frustration when he's started reading a very lonely planet's guide to travel journalism. So impossible and unachievable he'd thought when confronted by the beauty and strangeness before him that he was - too brittle and too desperate inside - to even attempt to sketch it in words.

I loved that trip, I loved my mother as she was then, fearless and impassioned, before she lost her passion to travel and explore, before she independently relinquished her independence; we had travelled to there together, only seven short years ago. Perhaps seven years towards the end of a life is much longer than  seven years in the very middle of one.

There was also a Frenchman in jeans and a blue t-shirt, with long blonde hair, who'd walked across the sqaure not knowing that he'd been trapped forever in a memory, and in the digital amber of my Canon: Beautiful boy. Thomas Mann. Death in Marrakesch.

He'd been reading Paul Bowles then, also Tom Orton's diaries, in attempt to decode Marrakesch and Morocco.

Until then most of his travels had been to countries and cities that weren't in any way out of his comfort zone; instead, there he was in an a North African Arabic-speaking country that neither looked nor sounded, nor smelt like anything he'd ever experienced. And as one long life chapter was about to be written closed. 

I was with my mother; while she was undeniably thriving on the rush of this journey, I sometimes fearfully held on tight to her apron strings. To think that she'd scoured Egypt on her own, and there I was quivering in her wake.

Remind me, please, to stop at Coronation West again.

I found hmmm just down the road

Around every Cape Town corner is a surprise; they often come in the way of culinary treats in special places, made in love by creative people. I'm actually writing from one of those places, about another place, right now... but that's another story for some other time.

I'd walked past Hmmm at least five times since my work had relocated its venue to Roeland street at the beginning of 2014. Each time I'd - almost - rung the small bronze bell that's loosely tied to the wrought-iron security gate. But it was only last week that I'd truly discovered and savoured the 4-table Clare Street establishment in a nondescript part of Cape Town's central Gardens area.

As it turns out, inside the plain-Jane buildiing thar has as it bookends two panel-beating and spray-painting businesses, is Hmmm Taste and Flavours (with not a single hipster in sight).

What I especially love is when my first impressions and instincts are confirmed in a big way, albeit it later: Hmmm is a small owner-managed bakery where owner Alison Stoner-Harper (a graduate of London Cordon Bleu School of Patisserie and of world renowned Silwood School of Cookery) and her team can be found hard at work. 

The first thing that hit me on the level of sight and smell was CHOCOLATE: I could see and smell lots of it, mostly displayed in small loaves in the simple glass-cabinet to the left of the main counter, as well as on the large  'baking operations' table amidst the busy team of bakers quietly hard at work.

With a bit of nosing around I've found that they supply up-market restaurants and delis, and their artistic creations have been used in numerous film shoots and magazine ads.

While I ordered a cappuccino and wolfed down a scrumptious breakfast at 3pm, only to be charged R36 for both (that's outstanding value!), it's actually cakes that are their speciality: custom wedding cakes, birthday cakes, surprise cakes - they bake them all on the premises, in full view. Other treats are their decadent biscuits, tarts, rusks, homemade ice-creams and quiches. (It's exactly the off-the-beaten-track kind of place I'd love to introduce my wizened traveller-mother to...when next she's on the southern tip of Africa.)

It's a cozy fresh-coffee shop where breakfasts and light lunches are served while you're left to your own devices, literally, or to page through an old fashioned newspaper or book (remember those?).

I'll also always support a friendly owner-managed establishment that serves breakfast all-day long.

While South Africa is undoubtedly a nation of foodies and packed with culinary delights across many cuisine genres, the majority of it extraordinarily good quality and value for money, Cape Town definitely, um, takes the cake. As I'm currently teaching my second year feature & review students, a journalist and/or writer could fill a lifetime's career with all things food-related.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Listening to my own creaking bones"

feel almost guilty for doing this - the words below are from a blog post by an Irish writer, James Claffey, living in California, and whom I gratefully follow - because I'm linking to his most recent post, Connectivity, which echoes my sentiments on social media; even while I hypocritically share it within the realm of social media and the blogosphere: 

"The sky moves, clouds of white cappuccino foam, tinged with a blushing edge from the sun’s setting. My head is pounding from the constant bickering of Facebook messages and unsolicited Tweets from strangers. My plan is to expel myself from social media altogether, to abscond from the interwebs like some old dog ambling down a narrow road to find a place to rest. Safe in my own skin, I think, less panic than I ever want to deal with, that’s my goal. Rather than check-in addictively on phone or laptop, I choose to light a fire, crack the spine of a dusty book from my neglected shelves and pour myself a glass of red wine. The messages tell me we have a new civilization, a new way of connecting, a salesman’s pitch of a world to inhabit. No. No thanks. I’d rather listen to my own creaking bones, my settling body, and flow gently to the sea."

He truly is an independent writer (you'll realise this from reading his blog posts), adamant to function-write on his own terms, even if it means that it will 'cost' him, possibly dearly, in the publising world. 

I tip my cap to him. 

(Photo: I took the picture at dusk a month ago from Muizenburg beach, looking towards Smon's Town. It was the middle of winter then, but that's no longer the case.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Nothing is lost, ever

As I sit down at my morning pages table, the one with the extraordinarily beautiful view over a sleepy Woodstock, congratualting myself for getting up early, on time, the tiny screw falls out of the right arm joint of my glasses. Thus changed the course of my day.

Fumbling around like a helpless old man on the floor searching for a minutiae is one thing, but doing it without your glasses on is another. Aaah, it's found, victory! 

Lee, who found it, said that nothing is ever lost... in the eyes of God. 

The victory was short-lived though; I've still not managed to get the screw back into where it oh-so-crucially belongs. This day, a pressured one I knew in advance, was instantly off-course, and at short distance, where I need it most, out of focus; I'm far sighted.

Lee, a lot more deft with his fingers, spends ages trying to get the screw back in; to use the time constructively I react to a note that's been on my table for over a week: "Get passports out and check expiry dates". Now is the perfect time to pull down the medium-sized and bright-orange Travelite that's battered itself across the world. The Prague trip, should it happen, is less than two months away. That's all.

The passports are not where they have always been - instantly my stomach knots - because I'm meticulous in my safe-keeping of them; there is nowhere else that they should be. Nowehere else.

A swathe of rain curtains across the city and reaches Woodstock quickly. 

I've lost an hour, already, and I'm without my glasses. And passports. I've also not written my morning pages.

As the obese droplets slash-and-splat the windows I recall the amazing space I was in on Camps Bay beach as the last red dot of sun ghosted into the Atlantic. That was Sunday night.

I'm going to trust, as I always do: Nothing is lost in the eyes of God.

It's a beautiful cappuccino and chocolate-croissant day as rain gurgles and splutters in the gutters; I'm alive and in perfect health, I have a roof over my head and a warm bed at night; there's food in my stomach and not only do I have a perfect job, but I also have a hot shower. 

There's many in the streets below who have none of these.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The rain comes, as does spring

The days, the weeks, the months are flying rapidly by; spring has come early this year and I'm astounded that bar a few more (possibly freezing) cold spells, we are through the so-called 'worst' of winter.

After a week of fantastic spring weather that saw the inhabitants of this city flock in what I call 'champagne weather' to its coastlines, forests, parks, botanic gardens and mountains, the rain is again hurtling against roofs and windows. While The Mountain and city remain well hidden beneath a voluptuous elephant-grey duvet.

It's within this moodiness that I thrive: on fire-full hearths and the Cape's finest red wine, on Arabica coffe and toasted chocolate and almond croissants seeped in Belgium chocolate. This is the Cape's secret season.

Right now, like identical beads on a necklace, the days seep into each other while pressure and stress tenderise my shoulder muscles: even so I love my life, also the city that has adopted me, and a 'job' that embraces me, dances closely with me.

I'm happlily teaching an extra two evening classes, but they sap any remaining spare time that I had. The extra work is part of my now much shorter-term plan to completely free myself from debt's chains. My life is more streamlined and simplified than ever before - I'm champing at the bits as I sniff the hints of freedom in the air.

In the first week of September I'm savouring a trip to my alma mater, Rhodes University, in the Eastern Cape's Grahamstown. In fact, I cannot wait.

I'm also waiting to hear about a trip to Prague and the Czech Republic in early November; although it's going to stretch me intellectually - long story - I am embracing stretchment (new word). I am especially excited about seeing new shapes of noses, eyes, eyebrows, shades of skin, bone structures and lilting languages that are in such contrast to the ones on the streets that spiral and network around me right now. I long to taste other flavours, to look at a different sky and to plug into a history so startlingly different to my own.

Life is moving so fast right now,  that I savour these valuable coffee breaks - on my own and with myself - beneath the rain and away from the distracting knocks on my office door.

It's a beautiful day; life is beautiful. I am alive and blessed.