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.

Birthday Weekend

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