One of the most common questions people ask us is: ‘what is your favourite country in Africa?’. Or, as the South-Africans say, ‘Where Is The Most Lekker?’ The reply always stuns. It is not South Africa, and it may make no sense to you, but let us explain why it’s not.
I sit at the dinner with John and our hosts at one of the ubiquitous sushi/thai/chinese joints. This peculiar concept of all-in-one asian style restaurant is a Cape Town speciality, and one that conspicuously fails to deliver. All posh on the surface, nice helvetica signage. The kinds of places you order sushi and they bring you embellishments of crispy rice and mayo manicured by the chinese (chinese making sushi!) chef to mimc the japanese style. Throw in a beer (nothing fancier than Castle or Lion) and you’re spending enough to buy a Congolese family of five meals for a whole day. I find it hard to pick something from the menu, pondering how much is that over our budget. I feel sorry for myself, and I look at the others. I should just relax and enjoy myself, instead of figuring out a way to reduce our spending all the time.
But since arriving in Cape Town, it harder than ever.
First, the place is to die for: it enjoys the most gorgeous coastline, great drives, stunning beaches and great hiking trails up an iconic mountain. The Long Street is lined with lively pubs and discos. And it has those awesome waves and winds that draw the kite-surfing crowds in search of that endless summer. But this can only frustrate us. We are budget travelers, we cannot accommodate such distractions in our daily existence. Our adventure into the world has separated us from such a busy schedule, immersing into the profuse peace of being one with nature. We unplugged our careers and traded ‘normality’ for vagabonding. Of course, thoughts of settling somewhere have resurfaced during the past 2 months; our stint in Cape Town only added to the pressure. The branded stylish clothes, the hip good looking people, the expensive gear, the gadgetry. The Moebius cycle of money: make it to give it in return for stuff you couldn’t possible need. With its laid-back appearance, it is easy to fall for this place, but scratch a little the superficial glamour and it is just another version for the rat race. It may be geographically stunning, like Rio or Hong Kong, but it wasn’t the reason why we have driven over 32,000 km. To quote from a Capetonian magazine: “all those wonderful things that draw us to the most breathtaking city in Africa come at a price. Maybe one day, when I’m rich, I’ll come and live there, but I’ll never get there if I move there now.”
The Urban Paradigm
But there is also something quite scary about the posh neighborhoods, the Hout Bay and Clifton good-life: the minimalist villas perched on the cliff, the spotless retro cars parked in front on the perfectly mown lawn, the luxuriant gardens, the immaculate golf courses, the vast shopping malls, the chic restaurants, the self-indulging joggers and cyclists dressed from head to toe in state-of-the-art athletic gear.
Here black people are only seen wiping windscreen and selling marijuana at cross roads. Their neighborhoods are called ‘townships’ or ‘settlements’ (implying a temporary nuisance). And street vendors are called ‘hawkers’, most if the available spots bearing already signs that forbid such business. The white society though, is doing fine and dandy.
The money trickles down everywhere, from safari tour operators to realtors, Michelin star restaurants and upscale hotels, they all get a share of the pie. While luring, this consumerist society has brought back from memory that heavy feeling of what it takes to survive and thrive inside the gut of a metropolis, and how one must change in the process. We suddenly feel that instead of working to build our financial future we have been wasting our time traveling. Hmmmm…
VW Golf Mk1 chassis with Mk 5 interior!
During our long hours of riding, not speaking to each other and cruising across barren landscapes, we have been living for many months the life of nomads. A shallow existence in itself, because we have to carry everything, we cannot keep a kitchen of foods, a cupboard of clothes or a shelf of books. We also cannot become specialized or develop interest in something, because we need to be competent and ready for anything. Our business has been survival: finding food, looking for shelter. If only we could capture and bring home the intensity of simple life of the open road, every fresh vegetable or fruit would be a source of joy, every hot shower a miracle. Unfortunately, that is the doom of familiarity. Back in a sophisticated city environment, we are slowly induced into taking everything for granted again. Rain has become a nuisance, and to the city dweller, nature mixed with rain is ‘dirt’, even if that is one of the finest white sands in existence.
In the city everywhere there are signs urging us to ‘STOP’, BUY’, ‘LOAN’, ‘TRY NOW’, ‘CALL’. Contrary, our daily routine on the road has been regulated by the sun. With sometimes less than 5-6 hours of sleep, we have witnessed sunsets and dawns on regular basis – the crisp energy of day’s most earliest hours, the calmness of the evening. We have been part of the cosmic miracle for months, just glad to be alive. We have been enjoying the thrill of looking for a fresh spot to camp every night, piling the firewood, boiling porridge on our small cooking stove. There is pleasure and sense of freedom in wild camping, and unfortunately in our ‘civilized’ countries one cannot easily do that anymore. We have managed to stay ‘wild’ in Namibia, but in South Africa that may be a more problematic venture. Almost every square km is owned, fenced. There seem to vast areas of lost countryside, where an experienced nomad could disappear without causing offense. But tourists largely book at designated campsites. If all we require is a patch of earth to pitch our tent, may we humbly object to being lined sub-urban style in a numbered row with facilities?
Since re-entering the world of municipal sounds, facing the prospect of sourcing our food from supermarkets, we had felt our stomach in knots. Every time I pour some soy sauce on my food, I’m more accurately adding ‘sugar, water, caramel color (May be Genetically Modified – GM), glucose, soybean, salt, wheat flour, citric acid, acidity regulator, xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate and calcium disodium EDTA (antioxidant)’. Since Zambia the food (many South African brands) has been increasingly deceptive: designed to be seduce and tantalize, a sinister victory of appearance over flavor. The local fresh produce markets have long been extinct. Food shopping happens at the neighborhood mall. Most products have a list of ingredients that leaves no letter of the alphabet unused. For the kids there is vividly colored food on offer, branded with their favorite TV celebrity. Many products have the word ‘REAL’ printed on the package: ‘real milk’, ‘real cheese’, even ‘hand grated real cheese’. Where’s the ‘real food’?
Even a small town like Springbok offers everything the model consumer wants: the supermarket network, fast foods and lottery.
But there is also great food to be had: the wines are excellent. The beef cuts are world class, served with a side of spicy squash or creamed spinach. The locals stews (like potje) are inspired from the indian curry and eaten with the African staple pap (maize polenta). But the best is the biltong, cured beef or game meat for which almost every family has developed their own secret recipe.
The vestiges of apartheid still shape South African politics and society: branded ‘The Rainbow Nation’ it may be, but there is much security, economical and racial divide. While the history is yet to be accepted and understood, the present offers a lot of reverse discrimination along with the solid hope for a better tomorrow. And there is much paranoia involved: electric fencing and protective bars, armed response and vigilantes not to mentions lots of anonymous guns speak of a nation under siege. But in reality the criminality rates are dropping and many of the crimes are black on black. The police is not so competent and tribal violence has been absorbed as the prevalent mean of regulating domestic conflicts. HIV is rampant, with misinformed officials having to resign after publicly advising childish, if not dangerous practices like showering after sex, raping minors or eating veggies as legitimate means of preventing/ fighting the disease.
Now what are we doing here? Blinded by the city lights, will we forget about the stars? We begun our trip to liberate from the routine, the material and a predetermined destiny. Aspiring to reach beyond our ‘Romanian’ limitations and to live out a dream – to travel and experience real adventure around the world. We don’t have any particular athletic skills, we do our independent trip on a shoestring budget, trying to explore the area we are in, to engage the locals and learn their customs. Learning about other cultures help us see others as real persons, rather than characters in the news bulletin. But we are also in it to to resharpen dull wits and hopefully to regain perspective. For us South Africa may enjoy a diverse and cosmopolite society and a stunning wild natural environment, but its best assets are the people. Some find opportunities to explore their hidden talents and to become better. Some chose to live in hatred and fear of others, and ultimately fail, as citizens, as parents and as human beings. Most raise beyond such petty things and show the most astonishing friendliness. We have met and made many friends here. And no worries, people. Because South Africans are very often on the take, but – in the final analysis – the most hospitable and warm people you’ll ever meet. South Africa has it all. Struggle to be indifferent, and wake up the next day deeply in love with it. That’s how we stayed, for almost 2 months.