Saturday, 23 December 2017

Sister Cities

Sunset in the Valley of 1000 Hills.
When you're living in another country, travelling around and posting photos on social media, everyone thinks it must be so awesome, that everything is going your way. It's the Facebook life after all. You have to take the good with the bad in anything, but also make the bad good and make the good last. I've been living in the Valley of 1000 Hills for nearly 4 months now, visited Durban and Johannesburg and I have also been catching the local public transport - and nothing in the least bit dangerous has happened to me. There are some parts of town that I wouldn't go, but just walking down the streets I haven't been worried. South Africa is often said to be very dangerous, but I think some things are overrated - much like South America. The only real time I felt scared in all my time there was in Bolivia, outside the San Pedro Prison in La Paz. I had a guy come up to me and offer a personal tour on the inside and a few people in the plaza were staring at me and my camera, I even heard a couple of guys talking about me and started to follow me before I took off... scary. So far South Africa has been ok - but something happened to me last week that I have to mention here, as it's a story too good not to bring up - but it nearly wasn't. 

Afternoon light on the clouds after a storm.
Just beautiful.
Welcome to Durban.
Human Rights monument in Durban.
I was travelling back from Durban to where I was staying with friends in a place called Howick, using the local 'taxis' as per normal. I was walking between taxi ranks to get my second one for the day when a guy approached me, saying "howzit" (The SA equivalent of G'day) and being way too friendly. I was polite back but kept walking, but knew something was wrong when he grabbed my belt from the front - the other hand was going for my phone! I grabbed him and grappled to get my phone back, but he'd passed it to an accomplice, so I grabbed him too and we all wrestled and jostled to grab my budget smart phone. We all ended up on the ground grabbing and kicking each other - they got up first and pulled out knives and threatened to stab me. This shit was getting real and nearly took all the fight out of me... nearly. I followed them, yelling at them, swearing at them, hoping someone would help me as it was 3pm and I was on the main road - this whole thing happened in front of a busy petrol station. Somebody did. A little Golf with dark-tinted windows pulled up onto the curb, a guy got out and asked me what had happened. I pointed to the thieves and told him that they'd taken my phone. "Which guys? These ones?" he asked. The next thing was something out of a movie - he whipped out a pistol from the back of his pants, cocked it and pointed it straight at the perpetrators, walking slowly towards them. "Put it down," was all he said and they dropped it and scarpered. I grabbed my phone, not quite believing what had just happened - the guy told me to jump in the car and he would take me where I wanted to go. The thought that he would then rob me crossed my mind, but with the adrenaline and disbelief still cursing through my body, I just got in. He handed the pistol to the driver, who took the loaded clip out (it WAS real!) and stashed the weapon back under the seat. They dropped me off and wished me well, telling me that they can't let shit like that happen to tourists here or nobody will come anymore. So right. I thanked them profusely, shaking their hands, thanking them again. Now I haven't mentioned what colour these people were, the muggers or my saviours - but does it matter? This is not a race issue, simply a crime issue (and more deeply an education and economic issue). One minute you're angry and people for being so low as to just mug someone violently on the street, yet the next moment you're being saved by good people - what a World we live in. I still believe in putting up a fight and standing up to these people, to a point - no point in getting stabbed for a mobile.

The Zulu alarm clock.
A lizard basking in the afternoon sun.

The family's chickens.
The family goats.
Most of my friends wouldn't use these taxis for getting around, as the drivers are usually unlicensed and always drive like mad men... not having a car and needing to get around I have no choice. They are also quite cheap too - 34 Rand to get from the Valley to Durban - that's less than $4 AU. I have nothing to worry about regarding safety once on them, as I can't do anything about the driving, I just have to put my life in the driver's hands and forget about what could happen. People here don't like the wind and fresh air though, they seem to feel the cold easily so never open windows and also wear warm clothes - not a good combination in a van crammed with 16 odd bodies on a summer day. This is just one of those things you have to put up with in a country that doesn't really do public transport. I never catch these taxis on a rainy day, that would just add to the danger of an accident. Rainy days in the Valley have their own annoyances though - it's very loud on a tin roof which also had a few leaks in it, and the family's goats would also seek shelter, either in your doorway or inside if you left the door open. If they get in, they poop everywhere. I felt sorry for them, huddled up together against the rain, nobody likes being left outside in bad weather, but I stopped caring once they 'messed' my room up. The Valley has had some terrible storms, nearly blowing off roofs and knocking the power out, but somehow it is still beautiful, the clouds moving in, the rumble of the thunder and the beautiful sunset once the storm has had it's say. I could do without the 'chicken alarm clocks' in the morning though. Roosters start crowing before the sun gets up, starting at around 5am and continuing on though the morning and even afternoon. I swear they would sit outside my room and make as much noise as possible to piss me off. Once time I even got out of my warm bed, opened to door, ready to kick them, but I didn't see anything. They must be sitting on the roof and leaning over... bastards.

Wave watching in Durban.

It's a big ocean out there.

Natural medicines in Durban.
It't not all animal products - weird plants too.
Living in the Valley of 1000 Hills is beautiful, peaceful and very relaxing - great for hiking, taking photos or just enjoying the nothingness of it - but sometimes you have to head into the city for a bit of life and activity. When you get off the taxi, you're right in the middle of it - it's all going on here! There are cars everywhere, taxi guys yelling out the window trying to get more passengers, people cooking meat, selling vegetables as well as bits bobs for the house, and every building on the streets is a shop front that is crowded with people - not to mention all the fast food joints this country has, that famous 3 letter US fast food chain is by far the most popular. What I'd specifically come in to see was the natural medicine markets and Victoria Markets. Natural medicine in Africa still plays a big part in many people's life, in the same way that Asian medicine does with the Chinese people even though technology and science has become the 'new religion.' Walking up the stairs and across the pedestrian bridge over the main road in Durban, people bustling all around, the smell hit before I saw the first stalls. Many of these products are plant-based - roots, leaves and bark - but many are also animal parts. Crocodiles, snakes, lizards and large birds are just some of the things you see here and the smell is something that I can't describe - it's not a rotten smell, like bad eggs or off meat even, but more like a musty, bloody smell - hard to describe - but neither is it over-powering. The fresh air at the other side of the bridge was very sweet to breathe again after my short trip through this place. I managed to take a few pictures, asking one woman for a photo who let me take pictures of her art (she made instruments out of softdrink cans) but not of her. Another man got slightly angry at me, telling me and my friend in Zulu (native tongue of my friend and guide Puseletso) that taking photos would take away the potency of his medicines - but he also explained that it would be ok if I bought some of his products or just gave him some money. Funny how that works.

Mandella Mania!

Smelly natural medicines at the markets in Durban.

The Skycar to the top of the stadium.
Durban's Sister cities.
Victoria Markets are much more normal and more for tourists - postcards and souvenirs - but also interesting in it's own way. There is also a fresh food area, full of butchers with freshly-cut goats heads and organs, even some cow legs ready to bbq. Not to everyone's taste I know, but interesting nonetheless - one butcher's in particular attracted my attention with his sign that read "Lamb heads - you pick, we cut." Although, to be honest, there isn't that much to actually do in Durban, it's not a city like London or Paris, or even Sydney or Melbroune for that matter, but it does have a beach - and it's a big one. You need to spend some time down on Durban beach because living in Durban is all about the surf and waves - the beach runs right along the city's coast and continues in both directions as far as you can see. I started off at a cosy little Sunday market called The Morning Trade, a funky place that does artisan produce and products. I had myself an absolutely spanking lamb kebab with plenty of tzatziki and crispy meat. The guy selling these was very clever indeed - not only was the smell of freshly spiced lamb wafting into my nostrils, but he was offering generous free samples too! Not one person who walked past, smelt the food and tasted it left without buying - this caused many other people to come over and see what was making people leave from this one stall with a look pleasure and satisfaction on their faces. Full and licking my fingers for more, I decided to leave or I'd have to buy 2 more! Not far down the road is the Moses Mabhida Stadium, a 62,000 spectator capacity stadium built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It has an extended capacity of 80,000 which is used for international events, such as the Commonwealth Games, but apart from hosting rugby, football, cricket and other sports like bungee jumping and even concerts, you can catch the SkyTrain all the way to the top for a view of the city on one side, beach on the other. You can also walk it, but it's a steep old climb!

Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Durban's line stretch of beach.
Street art in Johannesburg.
One of the now defunct gold mines in Jo'burg.
I was lucky enough to visit Johannesburg in November, tagging along with some of my running friends for the Soweto Marathon. Although I wasn’t running, three of my friends were – one was doing to 10km, another the half marathon and my third friend was doing the tough 42km run. In my mind, this a quite made, running for hours on end on a road – but I understand the feeling of running and why people do it, I just couldn’t do it for 5 or 6 hours to complete a marathon! With training I’m sure, but I’d have to convince my brain first! Gerard is one tough guy though – he was one of the pacesetters for this particular run, meaning that he’d run at a pre-determined speed so that other runners could stay with him and finish with him, all the while being encouraged by the group and helping to be pushed along till the end. He also does 100 milers – 160 odd kilometres of road running, for a day and night and then some of the next day too, in any weather. That is madness! Anyway, it was a great chance to visit the capital, as I’d never been before and I love new experiences – it's the biggest city in the country but not the capital - there are 3 of those, Pretoria, Cape Town and Bloemfontein! Driving towards Jo’burg (as people from SA call it) the first things you see are large, square hills around the city. I had no idea what they were, but I was told that these are what’s left of the gold mines – the reason why the city was actually founded in the first place in 1886. Now abandoned, the council has tried to plant trees on them, make them look a little nicer, but sadly there’s not much you can with them – they will always be there and a reminder to the cities origins. Walking around the city centre, I could also see reminders of the British Colonial Age – sadly, now, hidden behind rubbish, homeless people, and awful smells on the street. I don’t know what the city was like 20 years ago, but it seems as if it has been left to fend for itself for decades – as if no services were running. No garbage collection, no welfare support, parks and gardens being looked after and even the buildings looked so tired and down-trodden that they’ve just given up the will to live. I’ve since looked up old photos of Johannesburg and it’s very, very sad – it was a thriving city in the early 20th Century, much like Sydney was, stone buildings, wide streets full of horses, carts, people in suits and hats. Nowadays, in my opinion, there is no reason to visit this city – why would you want to see a city, walk down the streets, when all you can see is poverty, rubbish and dirty graffiti everywhere as well as the smell of uncollected garbage and urine?

The fort at Constitution Hill with the Telkom Tower int he background.

A guard post on the wall at Constitution Hill.

Vodacom Tower.
Constitution Hill.
I know that this sounds like a very harsh call for the capital of South Africa, but this is what I saw and felt in the city. I asked my friends and they smiled a little and agreed – not a happy smile or agreement, but more like it’s the shame of the nation. I know people live there, people with good jobs and families too, but they all live in the wealthy northern suburbs – why you may ask? An educated worker in a decent job, maybe an office job, can get 10% more money by working here compared to other cities in the country. Still not enough for me. The other people that live here? No choice or maybe they don’t care or don’t see it as I do. There were some things worth mentioned though, so I will concentrate on them – not everything was bad. I walked through the city centre, not really daring to take my phone out to snap a pic or check my directions, my camera came out very rarely to take a quick snap and then went back in my backpack very quickly. No taking chances. I found the old British fort on Constitution Hill, which was a quintessential fort of the time. Large, white-washed walls that towered over the surrounding area, sloping inwards to deflect enemy fire and small turrets on each corner for rifle defence. I walked in through the large double-doors that lead into the heart of the fort, expecting to be told that it’s closed or that I’d have to pay to visit, but there was none of the sort and so I enjoyed a free and unguided self-tour at my own pace – the way I like it. The fort was commissioned in 1896 as an upgrade to the prison on the current site and was designed to control the town along with the railway and all-important mines. It boasted two long rang guns linked by large earthworks and of course a firing step for infantry – it came into action not long after being built – it was taken by the South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1900 during the Boer War (1899-1902). The fort was quite quiet, a few people wandering around it’s walls, but there was also some kind of posh brand-name Bourbon party, which I was not interested in at all, but I did see where the fancy people go to have a good time, drink and take selfies – a stone fort protecting them from the real World.

One of the few beautiful buildings in Jo'burg - The Johannesburg City Council.

The large gate for the fort at Constitution Hill

The local take away store.
Jacarandas and the city skyline.
The rest of the city wasn't much to look at up close, by the city skyline in the setting sun was very pleasant. The modern buildings, along with the two taller buildings, the Telkom and Vodacom towers, along with the purple flowering jacaranda trees, Johannesburg can seem pretty in the right light. I returned my hostel for the night, having picked up some very tasty 5 rand ($0.50) chips from a hole-in-the-wall takeaway store, and watched a bit of terrible South African television. Unfortunately I couldn't make the television any more interesting as the alcohol laws in this country don't permit the sale of alcohol after 5pm on a Saturday and 3pm on a Sunday. You can buy a beer in a bar or pub for example, but not to takeaway. This leaves two options - don't drink or risk going to a very dodgy 'off-lisence' (that isn't licensed). I chose to go to bed early. Checking to make sure I'd taken all things I came across 2 flavoured condoms in the bedside table... the African Gideons? The drive back was a long 6 hour trip, but it was fun to get out and see the country in a car with friends. My time here is nearly over, unless I can get my 4 month visa renewed. I'll be making a trip into Durban to try and get that done so that I can stay and continue on my South African journey. We shall see - my future is in the hands of the Immigration office, which is not a positive thought!

Sunset over the city of Johannesburg..

Sunset over The Valley of 1000 Hills.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Heart Of Zululand

A truly beautiful sight - The beautiful Valley of 1000 Hills.

My favourite cow - 1 up, 1 down.
View from my room.
My four months of volunteering at the NGO here in Isithumba, in the heart of the Valley of a 1000 Hills, is nearly over – time has really flown! Time can move slowly here though, at a very different pace to the ‘outside world.’ The area I’m is quite rural – very different from where my friends live in Pietermaritzburg (which is actually the administrative capital of KwaZulu Natal) and Hilton. I will never forget the first moment I laid my eyes on The Valley – I was being driven down to my host family for the first time and it was nearing sunset. Coming off the main highway and along back roads, you don’t get to see The Valley until you hit the Hammersdale interchange, called The Old Main Road which served traffic between Durban and Maritzburg before the motorway, and sits right on top of a hill. The view you get from that vantage point is incredible and for me it was breathtaking! This is where I would be living for some time and I was glad that it looked even more beautiful than any picture I’d seen on Google images. A single, paved road winds it’s way down along kilometres into the heart of Zululand, where tens of thousands of people live a simpler, more traditional way of life. All the other roads that lead off the main one here are unpaved, so it’s hard to get lost, and so we headed down, deep into Zulu territory, and arrived 10kms later at the Isithumba Tourism Office. The drive was interesting too, I’m sure my mouth was half open in wonder and maybe a little worry. The houses looked very basic to me, which although I had been expecting, this was the moment that it really hit me. Goats wandered across the road, right alongside big, African cows and people as well. Small stores supply the people with the basics – there isn’t much else here but houses, no supermarkets, parks, shops or any amenities that you would get in any other town or village. Welcome to the Valley of 1000 Hills.

Zulu sunset.

I call this cow 'The Boss.'

Wildlife everywhere.
The sun was setting off the traditional round houses which populated the rolling hills, cacti and acacia trees marked the boundaries between villages and the Umngeni river popped in and out of view as we wound our way down. Children waved and greeted us from the side of the road – they don’t get many white people down here, let alone foreigners. I was getting more and more nervous, thinking about where I would be living and how I would be living. Once I got to the house of my host family, I was greeted by their very friendly dog, aptly called “Dog.” The family live in a small cluster of buildings – a round house serves to greet people and for large gatherings, there is a kitchen building for cooking and where I take my breakfast and the main house where the living room is and the bedrooms. My room sits just off these buildings, and my ‘bathroom’ just around the corner – a flushing toilet, compared to the long-drops most other people have, is a slight luxury but you still have to venture out into the dark night and get rained on during the trip. The family also run a creche for children, and around 50 little kids, all under the age of 6, run around at lunch time and sing during class time. The view from my room is quite something too – a few small houses sit across the tiny, dry river, the main behind them, and then, behind that, the hills take over and you can see the other villages across the river, colourful points on the hills during the day and twinkling lights at night. There aren’t many sounds around here – no traffic or general city noise – just the calling of baby goats to their mothers, a few cows mooing in the distance and the croaking of the frogs on the river at night. The sounds of nature – peaceful indeed.

My morning alarm clock!

I love chilling by the river.

My view.
A beautiful starling
Something everyone has to do when they come to the village of Isithumba is meet the chief. He has a complex at the beginning of the village on the road, a cluster of round houses and pens for animals. The first thing you notice upon approaching are the huge hunting dogs that he keeps – large, greyhound-looking mutts, but far bulkier than the run-of-the-mill dish-lickers that people love to bet on. His name is Mr Shelembe, and although he doesn’t speak English, we got on just fine. If you’re looking to buy some land in the village, or marry a local girl, you need to come to Mr Shelembe first and ask permission. Marrying isn’t as easy as asking the Chief either, it takes several cows to buy a wife, and cows aren’t cheap – they start at around 8000 Rand ($735 AU! I wonder if I could start with a few chickens or maybe a goat. Apart from the local ‘mall’ as it’s called, there isn’t much to do here in Isithumba. The Mall, my local drinking hole, is run by the coolest guy in the village – I don't know his name but just call him “Boss,” which he’s cool with of course. He sells quarts of beer for 16 rand ($1.50 AU) which he kindly opens for you with another bottle (an artform I haven’t yet mastered), sells cigarettes loose and even lets you use his lighter for them. The store stocks nearly everything you can think of, from drinks (both alcoholic and soft) and snacks to headache tables and band-aids, as well as an assortment of hardware and farming equipment. The Boss also has chickens (which share the outside benches when it’s raining) and cows that graze the grass behind the building. Although it’s not a pub, and no women hang out there, only drunk old guys, I still like it and regularly pop down for a bottle of Castle or Hansa.

The houses of Isithumba.

The Chief's complex.

Going for a walk in the village.
The view of the Umngeni River from Isithumba Mountain.
Very early on, I decided that I was going to do a lot of hiking. It reminded me of the time I was living in Scotland, in a place called Lochgoilhead, where I lived and worked in a hotel on my Working Holiday Visa. The hotel was in a small valley, with a lake (or Loch) in middle, surrounded by mountains. Whenever I had time, I would hike up a mountain, picking one at random and just do it. Behind my new house looms Isithumba Mountain, a huge granite dome that seems to stand guard over the village. In fact, a local man told me that back when local tribes were fighting and the British were also invading, Zulu warriors would stand guard just near the mountain, and when enemy soldiers tried to march through the pass between the river and Isithumba Mountain, they would sally out from the forest and ambush them – it’s a very defensible position, the mountain, a narrow stretch of land, the river and another steep mountain on the other side. This doesn’t happen anything thankfully, so I’m free to roam wherever I like – the people are very friendly here and there is nothing to worry about! The locals do fear for me when I go wandering, telling me of snakes and things, but being Australian this is not something that will deter me. The first time I went up I was supposed to go with a guy from the organisation, but he failed to turn up, and I couldn’t reach him by phone, I decided to head up myself. 35 minutes of some fairly heavy duty walking and it’d reached the top – and the views made the sweat and scratches from the sharp plants all worth it! I had panoramic views of the hills, I could see the townships that spread out on the slopes and dotted the Umngeni River. I’ve been up here at least half a dozen times and I’ve never seen anyone there, apart from a few goats, some adventurous cows and birds of prey soaring above me. It’s a great place to relax, think, get some sun and also mobile reception for Instagram! It is definitely my chill-out place.

The village of Isithumba from across the river.

The Valley of 1000 Hills from Isithumba Mountain.

Isithumba Mountain - or Instagram Mountain if you like.
The village across the river seen from my room.
Apart from hiking and walking, the valley is a quiet place where everything stays the same. If you want to hit the nearest town or Durban, you’ll need to catch a ‘taxi.’ They are called Taxis here but they are more of a bus – Toyota Hiace mini-vans run around, in various states of disrepair and dodginess, carrying as many people as they can get (sometimes more than 16), picking up and dropping off wherever along their route. They are cheap but not reliable nor safe, but my only option living here right now. The shortest trip to get a supermarket or some WiFi (or real coffee!) is to Pinetown, 35 off kilometres away. This trip costs me 20 Rand ($1.80) and takes about 45 minutes, depending on how long you have to wait for a taxi to come along. Although I try not to go too often, for work and personal reasons, It tends to be once or twice a week – the novelty of catching transport with the locals wears off pretty darn quickly. Pinetown is colloquially called ‘Crimetown,’ but although it looks rough and ready, very dirty and noisy as well, I’ve never had a problem here. As the only white guy on the local taxis, I rarely even get a second look (that I notice anyway), and when I get off at the depot in town, amid the chaos of music pumping out of some car, people with their shopping, a car riding a shopping trolley at full tilt down the busy road, nobody sees me. Suits me just fine. I don’t have any photos of Pinetown, as there’s not much to snap, but the vibe and impression you get when you reach that depot is one I’ll never forget – one that I will need to remember with my mind, as I don’t want to get my camera out and put the nickname to the test. The way back to Isithumba is never boring – apart from the cows and goats on the road, you have people taking home their weekly, or even monthly shopping home with them. I’ve seen someone’s shopping take up the whole front row of seats – huge 25kg sacks of maize meal, 10kg bags of rice and potatoes as well as an assortment of corn, flours and anything else you can think of. Sometimes I’ve had to help an old lady with unloading her shopping, hefting the maize meal isn’t easy, but just think how she’s going to take it all the way home from the side of the road. Occasionally the family come out to help carry the load, and sometimes even with wheelbarrows!

The boys just chilling with their friends.

Some of the amazing kids I'm working with.

Boys just want photos!
Lively and active kids.
At the small group of buildings where I'm living, there is a creche for the younger kids. Some days I help out with meal times or taking them home, but to be honest, I'm more of a distraction that an aid - one little girl cries every time she sees me, most of the though are cool but get very over-excited when they see me and want to give the the 'African High-Five.' This is light a handshake for kids, which involves you linking fingers and pressing thumbs together - like you were about to have a 'thumb war.' The adult version of this handshake is a normal grip, then slid your hand up to grab your friend's thumb with your grip, then back again - the 'African Handshake!' These kids are so cute and friendly, even though they can't understand a word I say (or visa-versa), and have stopped calling me Lungu (white man) and instead now call me Melume (uncle). The kids I get to work with at the organisation ICDM are also great. They vary from Primary School age all the way up to young adults out of school. All of them are extremely sweet and friendly, also very active and athletic - they never seen to stop running! We play football (or soccer as they call it here, just like Australia and the US), use the trampoline, indoor games like chess and Uno, but since coming here I have introduced some new sports - cricket, kick-ball (which is my name for a baseball style game where you kick the ball instead) and the big-time favourite - dodge ball! The kids love photos being taken of them, they aren't shy at all, and also love doing some of the shooting themselves - some very good ones actually! Such a pleasure to work with these kids, active, outgoing, self-motivated and not addicted to phones and the internet like most other places!

Two cheeky boys from the creche run by my Host Family.

Kids from the creche.

Watching the day's performances.
The high kick involved in Zulu dancing.
I've done a lot of work with ICDM, not just helping out with the kids, but also business things such as photography, getting them more on-line and helping them organise big events like Heritage Day and Sports Day in the village. I work with some great people here - everyone is friendly and very welcoming! Something that I've managed to set up is a 'digital pen-pal' programme between the local public school and a school in Spain. I'm working with a good friend and fellow teacher who works at the Mare del Divi Pastor school in Sabadell, just outside of Barcelona, to connect these two groups of English learners to help them learn more about each other's culture, traditions, family-life and environment. So far I've recorded short introductions with the Grade 6 class here, working with them to make sure they tell plenty about themselves when the videos are sent to their counterpart on the other side of the World. The kids loved this activity, taking to it with enthusiasm, not getting too nervous during the recording and they are very excited to get their reply! Please take a look at both Blog, for ICDM (the organisation that I volunteer for) and Collegi MDP (the sister-school in Sabadell) by following the below links:

The kids got all dressed up for Heritage Day.

Beautiful costumes on Heritage Day.

My time in The Valley is not up yet and there are still visits to Durban to talk about, as well as up-coming trips to the capital city of Johannesburg. South Africa is an amazing country, full of culture, music, animals and people. There are many 'bad things' about the country, such as the poverty and inequality that still lingers, but there are many good things too - the people themselves and how nature's hold here is still very strong. More from me soon.

Zulu dancing.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...