10 January 2014

Ending with a big bang, see you soon again South Africa

My last day in South Africa, for this trip. I am in love with this country, I am sure I'll be back ASAP.

Breakfast with smoked haddock, fresh fruits, omelette and cereals. My last hyper-protein full international breakfast this time around in South Africa. I am going to miss it. Petrus is free this morning, every one else went shopping at the Waterfront. He kindly offers to take me around town. So I have a 30-seater bus all for myself for one last round of exploration.

He has been much more than a good driver. He gave good advice and feedback and offered good insight into the new South Africa. He told me he remembers the days of apartheid, when he was brought up to look down upon his black and colored mates, it was normal then. What changed his views was service in the army, where he had a black sergeant giving him orders, and especially work, where he could see how white, black and colored drivers would work well together, support each other and really had much more that bound them together than a different skin color.

I ask him to go and see something that could give me a bit of a view of how ordinary Capetonians live. He proposes a couple of markets, which I think is a great idea. Whenever I travel I put markets at the top of my list of priorities.

We first head to the Greenmarket square. It's a huge square with many souvenir stands and some interesting flea market sellers. I am looking for a Springbok T-shirt and find a few that fit and are reasonably priced, but Petrus has a sharp eye and spots some defects in the shirts, better buy somewhere else.

We then move to Grand parade square, famous for it is here that Mandela spoke to the crowds after his liberation in 1990. Many day laborers hang around hoping for a job. Unemployment in South Africa is high but somehow the country still need foreign labor for the most menial jobs. Unskilled workers from Zimbabwe keep making their way to this country in hope for a better future.

I later walk into a supermarket to look at local cost of living: 1 kg minced beef 50r, 1kg pork chops 45r, 500g pack of pasta 9 r, 1kg premium chicken 32 r, cheap for me, not so much for an average local salary.

I notice a pick-up truck with a trailer trailer full of glass, apparently there is money to be made in collecting empty glass bottles he sells for recycling.

Later to the Springbok experience, where fans can buy all kinds of paraphernalia of the famous rugby team.  A life-zide simulater even allows to simulate passes. This time I can shop for real green and yellow jerseys. Petrus confirm still true as before that rugby is mostly white and soccer mostly black. he says this is not because of any discrimination, but simply because whites are better at rugby while blacks are the best soccer players. The important thing should be that South Africe fields the best team in each sport, no matter the color of the players' skin. Other blacks I have talked to told me they think rugby still a racist sport and told me that the youth league has lots of blacks but rhen only whites selected for national team.  Hard for me to verify.

At noon, Petrus is kind enough to drive me to the noon gun again, and this time I can prepare myself and get the perfect shot of the shot!

Sunny day for a farewell and it is time to drive to the airport. Petrus has a day off tomorrow.  He plans to spend it with his daughter who lives wirh hia ex wife. Perhaps he'll take her to Hermanus to see the colony of seals.He is going to spoil her, and I can see his eyes shining with anticipation.

Good bye South Africa, see you soon again!

09 January 2014

Cape Town slaves, cannons and music

Wake up leisurly and after another my usual dose of fruits, eggs and toast at the hotel buffet I join the others on our bus for one more day of touring. First stop is the Cape Malay quarter, Bokaap. It's the former malay quarter, really, as it has now blended almost completely with the rest of the city. Only a couple of streets remain true to the original colorful patterns and a mosque testifies to the islamic background of the immigrants taken here by the Dutch from their colony in Indonesia.

Debora is trying to take pictures without cars in them. I don't understand why. There are cars in Bokaap today. She is trying to take pictures of the way Bokaap was fifty years ago, or perhaps one hundred. But they one should edit out power lines, water hydrants, paved roads, electric doorbells, TV antennas, and of course tourists. All tourists try to take pictures without tourists. Real photographers, who want to document the reality of the places they visit, do not try to paint a romanticized image of what those places might have looked like in the past, but try to convey their view of the current situation to their viewers.

It may sound trite, and it probably is, but my favorite spot for the day is Signal Hill, where the noon gun salutes each midday in Cape Town. It's a sunny day and a crowd of about one hundred people begins to assemble around the site at about 11:30. An officer is at hand to explain all about the history of the gun, which has been in operation since 1902 and has been fired about 65,000 times. I position myself to try and get a shot of the gun just a split second after firing, so as to show the white smoke plume coming out of the barrel. In doing so I fail to notice that a number of people are getting ready to video the firing, and to my regret I block their view. I am punished by some African divinity when my pictures of the firing are not as sharp and well timed as I had hoped :(

My shot of the shot is followed by a pic nic on the higher grounds of Signal Hill. From here there is a great view of Cape Town, I think better than from the top of Table Mountain because one is not as far and it is possible to make out many more details and individual buildings. A conifer forest frames the view and provides a superb setting for our lunch break.

After lunch, I notice a group of colorful veils and dresses flapping near the railing of an observation platform:  some elegant women are taking pictures of each other and their guide. They look Somali and indeed, when I introduce myself and ask, the more loquacious of them confirms they are on holiday from Mogadishu. I think it's the first time I meet a Somali tourist. For some reason it's hard to imagine well-to-do Somali traveling the world while their country has been a shambles for most of the last half a century. Anyway they are happy to share pictures: I am particularly attracted by the henna on their hands. They are not on Facebook but agree to exchange Whatsapp contact numbers.

As we drive back to town on the Strand the driver explains this used to be the Cape Town Waterfront before reclaimed land pushed it further out where it is today. He points to two bridges, pedestrian overpasses to cross the busy road.  One is covered, protecting pedestrians from the elements, and one open. Petrus explains that until 1994 the first was reserved for whites and the second, you guessed, was for non whites to get wet during the rainy season.

Last afternnon in Cape Town, I decide to give my zebra skin hunting one more chance. Against all expectations I find the best price in a posh store at the Waterfront, 13,250 Rand including a springbok skin. It was not an easy negotiation. Betty, the (black) ebullient saleswoman hugs me when I strike a deal over the phone with the (white) cold sounding shop owner. The saleswoman makes   a good commission on her sales but is not authorized to give discounts except for small items. For that the owner wants her to call her at home or wherever she is to approve. Betty said January started well while December and the Xmas season were slow.

Betty is so happy, she can't stop repeating: "You made my day"! When I ask for directions to another store where I need to buy a trolley for the zebra skin she is more than happy to personally walk me there.

I always wanted a zebra skin. I find zebras not only beautiful but most intriguing and mysterious. They look all so similar at a superficial glance and yet each of their pattern is unique.  No two zebras are alike. This one, Betty explained, has some beige between the black and white stripes, indicating it comes from Namibia. I have no idea of course. In a way I am a bit sorry because I wanted one from South Africa. But on the other hand I have been to Namibia seventeen years ago and this will bring back memories, it will be a sign of continuity in my African experience. Also, I like the beige streaks in the blackand white pattern a lot.

I am not what I will do with it. Maybe I'll put it down on the floor, in my attic where I am usually alone or with few friends and no one is allowed to wear shoes.  But i don't like the idea of walking on this noble animal. Maybe I'll hang it on a wall. But I don't like the idea of just looking at it. I want to have it somewhere where I can communicate with it, by touching it, by smelling it, by turning it around. Maybe I'll put it on my dining table.  Not to use it as table cloth of course but as decoration when I am not dining on my dining table. But I feel it would be demeaning for the zebra to take it away from the table just when my friends and I are sitting down to make merry. Maybe I'll use it as a spread over my couch. But I am afraid it might be damaged by people constantly sitting and rubbing on it.

Meet Sabelo again at 6:30 pm in my hotel's parking lot. Valentina and I are going for one more final township tour, this time to visit the home of Blackey Tempi, a well knows trumpetist who has become an iconic representative of local music.

On the way, Sabelo tells us a bit about music in South Africa. We learn about Toyi toyi protest music, used during apartheid but also later to protest against the current government's policies.

He also explains tu us the meaning of the 2  January carnival: when slavery was the law of the land, slave owners would celebrate New year on 1 January like the rest of the world, but would allow the following day free to their slaves, so as to let steam off. This music has had strong influence in South Africa jazz.

Paradoxically, Sabelo laments that there was more jazz during apartheid because jazz venues were used as surrogate for political protest. Sympathetic owners would let artists use them for free. Now they want payment and fewer and fewer musicians can afford it. For most clubs, it is cheaper to hire a dj than musicians.

We also learn the incredible story of Tiyo Soga who in the 1880s started music schools for black. That's where most black musicians learned music and it was a milestone in the country's musical heritage. Tiyo is alive and kicking a century and a half later.

I also learn about the life of the composer of South African national anthem "God bless Africa". Enoch Sontonga was an obscure musician born sometime around 1873. He composed "Nkosi Sikelele Afrika" and no one would remember him had the ANC not chose to adopt his composition as its anthme as far back as 1925. Since 1994 it is part of the multilingual national anthem of South Africa.We also learn about the Cape jazz tradition and its analogies with the much more well know American kind.

Much of the musical tradition developed in the Shebeens, unlicensed Irish pubs where musicians could gather more or less undisturbed. Often musicians would end up stayin all night because curfew laws did not allow them return home and they had to wait for dawn.

When we arrive at  Blackey's we are welcomed at door by him, a friend and his wife Sheila. The house is simple and small but dignified. All windows and the door are pretty heavily protected from intruders. Blackey plays initially with mute.  Then without the mute, and the sound comes out full and powerful. His friend accompanies with a guitar. At some point, after dinner, an exhuberant lady, Zami, a niece of Blackey, pops in and joins the duo with her explosive voice to provide a perfect ending to a memorable performance.

For dinner Blackey's wife Sheila prepares gratin potatoes cabbage, spinach, beans and chicken "à la sheila". How do you do it? I dare to ask... It's a secret recipe, she says with a smile... We drink home made a kind of alcohol-free ginger beer. And some good South Africa Shiraz which goes very well with Sheila's secret chicken!

Before leaving, as Valentina breaks out in tears for the warm welcome we have been honored to receive, I buy Blackey's CD, 120 Rand well spent. It's been an unforgettable human experience first, and a musical one as well, and the evening is only half-way through.

But the musical night is not over: next stop in no less than St. Goerge's Cathedral, in downtown Cape Town. The mythical church from where Desmond Tutu preached against apartheid. But the old priest is not around tonight. In fact the church is closed. So why are we going there? To walk a few steps down to the Crypt!

Sabelo explains that the church needed money and could not raise enough from donations and public subsidies. So they decided to put their basement to work for profit. Churches are supposed to always have their doors oped for pilgrims and the poor, and the Crypt does too, but they offer cocktails, wine, beer and a wide variety of food, for a price.

Here we are welcomed by Mtehetho, a smiling waiter in his early twenties who leads Sabelo, Valentina and me to share a table with another couple. An American sax player is on the stage and fills the air with a mellow tune from the sixties, accompanied by a pianist who sits discretely in a corner. The Crypt is dark, as a crypt should be, and the spotlight make for a true jazz bar experience.

After a while they take a brake but the stage does not remain empty for long. Mteheto takes a position behind the microphone and starts singing Italian opera! Afterwords, I ask him and he says he always had this passion, is largely selftaught but would like an opportunity to study and become a professional singer. I am very happy to put a couple of bills in his tip money glass on the counter. This guy can go places if he gets a chance.

08 January 2014

Cape Town wine tasting and Langa, Khayelitsha and Gugulethu townships

Morning drive to Hout Bay. It is windy and drizzling, but the view of the costline is impressive nonetheless. In a somber, austere way.

On the way the driver stops at a viewpoint and I notice, not far away, a crew of about 15 workers, about half men and half women, huddling under the roof of a delapidated house. It looks like it has been hit by the weather for years, abandoned and now filled with sand.  Wet sand now: it looks like it's been soaking rain for a few hours at least.

It's an eerie but somehow attractive scene, it could be the stage for a movie by Sergio Leone, were it not for the fact that it does not rain much in his movies. I approach and ask them what they are up to and if I can photograph. They are there to cleare the scene of sand and debris, but can't work under the rain. The light rain is not so intimidating to me but they have no raincoats. We chat for a while, I snap a few shots of their green overalls against the red bricks of the house and the white sand, and off I go.

On the way back to Cape Town it occurs to me that we are close to the Groot Constantia winery, the oldest in South Africa. We have to stop and go for a tasting. As we approach, we drive by the Pollsmoor prison, where Mandela was held after his Robben island years until he was finally freed in 1990.

The tasting is fun: for a small fee you can taste five of their wines, and for a little extra cash you get a small cheese platter, nicely served on a small wooden board with a small wooden knife. A white lady and a black man operate two serving stations in the huge tasting room. Lots of tables in the middle allow wine lovers to mingle and take their time as they get the various wines poured into their glasses.

We take our time but I keep an eye on my watch: it's not far from town but we don't want to be late to what promises to be the highlight of the day: a township tour with Sabelo, the bright young tour leader who took me and Yan for a music evening last month. I called him yesterday to organize another musical evening (we'll do that tomorrow) and mentioned in passing whether he also organized some visit of townships surrounding the Cape Town. Of course!

He is at our hotel at 14:00 hours, punctual as a Swiss watch, with a small van and Daniel, a jovial driver who will be at the wheel for the afternoon while Sabelo explains and shares his vast knowledge of the townhips.  He actually does not live here but in another township, which however he does not think is safe to visit, even in his company.

The first townships we visit is Langa. It means "Sun" and was built in the 1920s to host blacks evicted from other neighborhoods such as Ndabeni that were too close to rich white areas for comfort. All this decades before apartheid was even formally the law of the land.

First stop at Cape Town tourism center in Langa, this township is not as well known as Soweto but it is trying to find its way in the tourism business. Some artists display their paintings and sculptures, musicians who demonstrate traditional music, students study in a reading room.  We are kindly offered a music lesson by a drummer.

Ladies by the gate, not particularly busy with anything, fun to talk to anyway.I snap some pics of a lady by a wall mosaic and she seems to appreciate the attention. With them, a security guard is listening to some music from the radio. He wears a loose khaki uniform and a red tie, with a badge on his arm that reads "Security - Distinctive Choice". Somehow I find myself in agreement with the general thrust of the idea.

Just by the entrance two men in their thirties are exchanging banter and I join them for a few minutes. After the usual questions about Italian football, Totti etc, they tell me a bit about their life. In a nutshell, their message is that they have a normal life, Langa is a normal place with its good and bad, dos and don'ts, happy and sad. Maybe that is the main point I will come away with at the end of the day. Townships are becoming "normal" places, normal for South Africa anyway.

Outside the visitor center a man with no feet sits quietly in a wheelchair. He does not beg for money, does not reciprocate my greetings and does not bat an eyelid when I ask him to take a photograph. He hardly seems alive. Maybe that is the saddest condition of all, having lost the desire to live.

On the contrary, the people I meet as we proceed to walk around the township are anything but. At first I am a bit hesitant, I do feel some emotional pressure as this is the first "real" township I visit, it's not tourist-filled Soweto. But the ice is easily broken. Most people are happy to chat and all kids are elated to have their pictures taken. Some adolescent girls are clearly flattered and offer flirting poses to my lens. Lots of kids play music of some sort, and I am attracted to an especially photogenic girl with a drum, who plays on the sidewalk surrounded by a couple of dozen children.  It's still the school holidays so they are free even though it is a weekday.

After a half hour of walking I run into a team of ladies who are busy cooking a whole pile of sheep heads. Yes sheep heads. They sit on a chair and each have a not-so-small fire next to them. They protect the skin of their faces from the heat with some special cream,  The heads are cooked and then placed on a large table by the roadside, presumably for sale though I am the only one who comes forward and buys one. I have to try! Well it's good, tender meat, the cheeks expecially. No one else wants to try. Too bad (for them).

Next stop is Khayelitsha, a large township of 400.000 people that lies 22 kilometers to the East down the N2 road. The first place we visit is the rather grandly named "Department of Coffee" coffee shop, just next to the large railway station. A micro enterprise by Wongama, a former fire guard and two friends of his who decided to open this shop when they realized there was no place to get a warm drink for the thousands of people using the railway every day and saw an opportunity. They say at first people were sceptical but now business is briks and they are thinking of opening another shop. "CAPPUCCINO" for 8.5 Rand is at the top of their red menu board hanging from the wall of their small bar.

Our second stop in the township is at the Velokhaya cycling academy. The word Velokhaya is derived from the French word for cycling (velo) and the Xhosa word for home (khaya) – as such, we’re regarded as the ‘home of cycling’ in Khayelitsha. A school of cycling but also of life, where kids from the townships are offered a chance to develop a skill but also, and perhaps more importantly, personal discipline and a sense of purpose. Co-founder Glyn Broomberg explains in this video. And the other co-founder Amos Ziqubu gives his story. Unfortunately we are still in school holidays so there are no kids training here.

You can understand more about Khayelitsha township in the video "My mother built this house" on housing problems here. See a trailer for the film "A wooden camera" on this township here.

The third and final township of the day is Gugulethu. Here out target is Mzoli's, a butcher who had the idea of not only selling meat but also setting up a huge grill and serving his streaks and sausages to customers who wanted to eat there. His humble restaurant has become increasingly popular with locals and increasingly with tourists, both South African and foreign. Prices are cheap, the meat is excellent and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

Music is loud but pleasant in the terrace next to the shop where simple tables are continuously filled with trays of hot meat, but no cutlery or napkins, so I am soon in dire straits trying to juggle sausages and lenses without making a mess of either. No alcohol can be served but Mr. Mzoli has no objections if we buy it next door and take it in. After a while most locals, seeminly regular patrons, are dancing, soon to be joined by the ladies in my group!

After such an intense day, what would otherwise have been a pleasant walk and dinner becomes a pretty insignificant evening at the Waterfront.

07 January 2014

Hermanus to Cape Town via Good Hope

First stop of the day is at the penguins colony of Boulder Park. Home of the small endemic South African penguin. A small animal, not really much bigger than a large chicken or perhaps a small turkey. It's a chilly and windy day, and thousands of them huddle together to share body heat. It's a curious and intriguing sight, if not really an awsome one. But worth a brief stopover on the way to the Cape.

Ours ends up not being so brief actually, because our bus has broken down again. This time it is apparently a problem with the electric system, and Petrus has called headquarters to try and summon a mechanic.

Things are sorted out by the early afternoon and we drive without further inconvenience to the Cape of Good Hope, which we reach by four o'clock or so. Petrus idles the bus at the bottom of the long stairway that leads from the parking lot to the rock that Bartolomeu Dias doubled from west to east in 1488, undoubtedly with great anxiety and for the uncertain waters that opened in front of him.

He must have had lots of hope to keep going against all odds, but it was not him who called this rock "Good Hope". Rather it was King John II of Portugal who did, as beyond the Cape lied his hopes to reach India, and history would prove him right. To Bartolomeu this was just the "Cape of Storms", and just looking out into the blue today it is not hard to imagine why.

It it really very very windy, it is even hard to take pictures as I must hold on to my hat with both hands to preventi it from flying off to Anctartica.

Evening at Cape Town, dinner at a pub by the Waterfront. Very English, dark wood paneling and fish and chips.

06 January 2014

31. - 6 Jan.: Mossel Bay to Hermanus

In the morning I realize that yesterday I forgot my kangaroo leather hat at the Bartolomeu Dias museum. It would sadden me highly to lose it, I have grown very accustomed to it, it fits my head perfectly, it folds easily in any backpack and it contributes considerably to building up my image of an Indiana Jones lookalike. however the museum is in town, to the east, and today we have to drive to Cape Town, to the west. I am not sure I can reasonably expect everyone to delay the day's program for a hat. Luckily, Paola suggests I would be very sad to lose the hat, as it is a gift from my Chinese girlfriend. It is not, and I am not sure where she got the idea, maybe he made it up to help. But I don't contradict her as this strengthen my negotiation powers considerably, at least with the ladies, and it is swiftly agreed that we will go and pick it up, assuming it's still there. Stefano laughs and says surely some cleaner found it and took it home. Or found it and gave it to the ticket lady at the entrance, who surely took it to her home. Well, as soon as we get there it looked as if they were waiting for me: the hat is there! Some cleaner did find it and left it at the ticket office for me. Phew...! My Indiana Jones look is saved. My sense of guilt for making everyone waste at least half an hour is for all this is alleviated when everyone decides to visit the museum after all. 

It's still grey and drizzling when we finally move west at around 11:00 am. Our next stop is Cape Agulhas the tip of Africa, where the Indian ocean we have seen so far meets the Atlantic. It's nothing much really, but one does feel the mightiness of the two great masses of water clashing in what has been a nightmare for mariners ever since Bartolomeu Dias got here.

At our hotel the view is somber: dark grey clouds merge at the horizon with big foamy waves of the same color. The hotel's walls are crowded with paitings and photographs of whales: from May through December, the humpbacks come right here in good numbers and the hotel is a prime position from which to spot them. We are late, by several weeks.

I ask the young bell boy for a recommendation for a good restaurant. He has no hesitation: "Lapeentoula! Good food, especially fresh fish." So come evening we'll have dinner at "La Pentola" a fusion Italian restaurant about a kilometer away. The owner's wife is of Italian descent which explains the origins of the establishment's name but the food is not really Italian. I tried the springbok carpaccio and fillet of ostrich flambé, either of which you would be hard pressed to find in an Italian restaurant. Both very good though!

It's pitch black tonight, windy and raining after dinner. The walk back to the hotel is an opportunity to lit up one of my cigars. A small one tonight, a Toscanello, but it's enough to create the illusion of being a sea-wolf in port, waiting for the ship to be resupplied of fresh water before setting sail again toward the east, around Cape Agulhas, into the unknown. Dias did not have cigars on his ship, tobacco had not yet been imported from the Americas. I feel sorry for him, having to fight nature and a reluctant crew and no cigars. Or maybe I just had one glass of South African Chardonnay too many.

05 January 2014

30. - 5 Jan.: Bartolomeu Dias, Indian food and vintage music at Mossel Bay

In the morning we head down to town. It's a grey, cloudy Sunday morning, and Mossel Bay is virtually deserted. It is drizzling at times,  and not a little windy. Not a great time for walking around. A few shops that sell souvenirs for tourists are sadly lacking visitors. To me this is ideal museum time: happily, the Bartolomeu Dias is at hand.

We all know the history of Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to sail beyond the southernmost tip of Africa in 1488. He landed at Mossel bay to load water and move on but before long he was persuaded by an exhausted crew that enough was enough and returned to Lisbon.

What I did not know, and discover today, is that exactly 500 years later the Portuguese decided to celebrate Bartolomeu's feat by replicating his adventure on an exact copy of his ship. Well, almost exact, the new ship had electric power, a galley and toilets! It was the Portuguese community of South Africa that financed the trip. In the late eighties Portugal had just lost its last colonies and, with them, the dream of a worldwide community of Portuguese-speaking countries. This was a welcome effort to revive the old glory of Portugues exploration and the government supported it wholeheartedly.

The ship itself is housed in a building that was partially built around it. All around, artifacts from the glorious time of exploration, maps, paintings and pictures. A Chinese girl and her mother walk around the nearly empty museum with me and are surprised when I greet them in Chinese. The girl wants to take a picture with me.

It's lunch time by the time I am done with the Dias, but I am not so hungry. Look for a snack and run into an eatery of real Punjabi food, which is certified by the fact that I am welcomed by the owner who wears a white Sikh turban. I am the only patron and when I tell him that I like his wife's pakhora he sits down with me for a chat. I ask him how did he come all the way from Punjab to open a restaurant in South Africa. He replies he didn't.

His grandfather was a railway engineer in India in the 1870s and was asked by the British to go and build a railroad in China. He was offered a good fee and a British passport. Then another railroad in British Columbia. And yet one more in then British ruled Kenya after that. Granpa ended up settling in Kenya where dad was born and he in his turn. The Indian community in east Africa is a large one.

Then in 2006 he was vacationing in South Africa with his family. They liked it, especially the weather, much more pleasantly temperate than the hot tropical climate of Kenya, and decided to move. So now he sells Punjabi food (but also pizza) to the visitors of the museum.

After lunch I walk around a bit: it's still rather cool and grey. I stumble upon a shop of bric a brac. Military helmets, a bunch of carpenter's planes and assorted tea pots of various styles keep company to a pile of LPs and countless tableware strewn around in no particular order. The owner sits in a corner, silent, not even a nod to people walking in and out of his shop. This could be the den of a child of the flowers, or the pad of a single middle aged man who inherited his dad's collection and does not what to do with them. Maybe it is. Very fittingly, 1970s rock music plays in the background.I am always tempted to buy something in this kind of shop. I almost feel I have to. So much of this stuff would look great in my own home. Which is why I hardly have any room left in my home. This time I am strong, and resist. I walk out empty handed, though am must make a special effort not to buy a collection of big old iron keys, maybe half a kilo each, that are laying invitingly by the door.

04 January 2014

29. - 4 Jan.: Knysna township

Easy drive to Knysna. As we get closer, I remember how my first impression of the town was its township on 13 December. This time I'd really like to go there: it does not make sense to spend a month and a half in South Africa and not go to a township. However our driver, predictably, does not want to get anywhwere near there. He says it's not safe and he is responsible for us, for the bus, as well as of course for his own good health. I am quite disappointed, but what to do?

Right, what to do? Well you can read and browse the web, that's what you can do. And that's what Valentina and I start doing. She hands me a copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook, which makes reference to an association that organizes tours of the township. It's called Emzini and there is a phone number. One minute later I am talking to Penny, who at first sounds a bit surprised hear me asking for a tour of the township for the afternoon. She asks if she can call me back in five minutes. Five minutes later she is back on the phone and, much to the surprise of our driver, we are on. I'd like to add some  We agree to meet at noon by the big clock tower at the Knysna waterfront.

Penny is with Ella, a young black lady who lives in the township and is behind the idea of Emzini. She grew up without much education during apartheid and later thought that she could start a business by making it possible for tourists to become acquainted with the reality of the townships. She met Penny in church and together they started Emzini.

Ella tells us that until recently this was mostly an area of "informal" housing (slum) with no toilets, no running water or electric power. Now there are real homes 
in the township people get a free house from the government if they meet three conditions: a) be South African citizen; b) have children and c) earn less 4000 Rand per month.

With 20,000 inhabitants, this is one of smallest townships in the country. Most residents are Khosa and colored. In addition, several thousand dogs call this home, says Ella with a smile.

It's a pretty exceptional day today: there is a "manhood ceremony" going on. These usually take place in December and January and mark the rite of passage of young boys to adulthood. Men and women in different rooms of the house. Boy under a blanket in a corner. Dances liquor.

Then we move to Ella's home for some food and music. She makes fried cakes with cheese and jam. Mkhokoqo white corn flour with milk. Tea. We meet her adopted children. One boy, the youngest, is sleeping, while the others play with us. Grandma manages to sleep in the same bedroom as the little boy, totally oblivious to what is going on.

On the way out we walk along one street of the township. It's three o'clock and 30 degrees. I am quite thirsty. There is a drink seller working out of a container with a small cut out window protected by a strong metal grid. It looks more like a bunker than a bar. A large (440cl) can of Coke costs only 7 Rand, just 50 euro cents. But maybe here the "just" would not apply to the locals.

Very few people in the streets, but quite a number of dogs. At some point a donkey appears, trots down the street and vanishes behind a row of houses. Reluctantly, we board our bus again and head to the watefront. We still have quite a way to drive today.

It's been an intense few hours in the township, but it's time to move on. We bid farewell to Ella and Penny under the same clock tower where we met, and we are back on our big bus, where Petrus has been patiently waiting for us. It's a balmy afternoon in Knysna, we are tempted to stop and have a beer by the waterfront. Tourists and locals blend in a polished environment of boutiques, restaurants and souvenire shops. The contrast could not be starker between here and the rugged houses of the township we just left.

Drive to Mossel bay. This time we stay at a rather posh hotel near a big casino. In the evening we drive to town for dinner, again at the "Ocean Basket". Usual noisy and crowded place, like all other Ocean Basket restaurants, but very popular and we have to wait over half an hour to get a table. Stefano, Stefania and I go for a beer at a nearby bar,  and kill time chatting with the bartender about beer in South Africa.

When we head back to the restaurant our table is ready: my kinglip fish is very good. It's been another long day to remember.

03 January 2014

28. - 3 Jan.: Port Elizabeth - Seaview - Jeffrey bay

Depart 8.30 am from Port Elizabeth. First stop is at "Seaview", a lunar landscape spot to take pictures of some funny rock formations shaped by wind and waves. Before embarking on the perilous trip on the slippery rocks to take some pictures, I stop to breath in the fresh breeze and have a chat with a few guys who are drinking beer in the shadow of their pick-up truck. They ask about my country of origin and when they hear Italy the first workds that come to their slightly intoxicated minds are ''bella donna: that's all that you need in life". Well one might argue with that, especially if you are a heterosexual woman, or if you are a believer in equal gender rights, but I am not going to. Anyway I like their answer, at least it's not the usual refrain about soccer players and mafia, the references most commonly associated with my Bel Paese when traveling abroad.

So I agree, a bella donna is really all you need in life. I thought this would be it and we would switch topics, and tackle the weather or Mandela or beer perhaps, but no. One of them asks if I am married to a beautful woman. No, I am not, unfortunately. Do I have kids? So many kids are born out of wedlock in South Africa (some 60%) that, from their point of view, it would be perfectly normal if I did. No, I don't, is again my answer. Why? Well, that's a tough one. So I decide to tell them I actually have a girlfriend who is molto bella but unfortunately she can not be with me for this trip.

After a few minutes I see that Pasquale is coming forward and it is he who now attracts the attention of the three men in the pick-up truck, who let off the pressure on me. I take the chance on the fly, wave them a warm good-bye and head down the rocks to find the perfect seascape angles for my wide-angle lens.

As we keep driving west we stop at Jeffrey bay. It's nothing special really but this could become an interesting twist in my trip because our driver gets lost in a township. I always wanted to try and visit a township but so far all our (white) drivers have steadfastly refused to venture there. And today is no different. Petrus wants to get out as fast as possible. Anyway it's drizzling and windy, it would not be so pleasant to walk around, I tell myself. And the light is not right for pictures, either. So be it. At least for now.

However it takes Petrus a good fifteen minutes to find his way out, during which I can take a good look at the place. The people of Jeffrey Bay are obviously poor but not desperate. Their small houses are neatly aligned and seem well maintained. High walls all around most of them prevent me from seeing inside their gardens. No electrified barbed wire though.

In is early afternoon when we reach Tsitsikamma. There would be a lot to do here. I opt for a long walk up and down the steep slopes that are home for abundant wildlife and lush vegetation all the way to the water's edge. It's cloudy, awful light for photography.

Toward the end of my walk there is a suspension bridge, at the head of which a padlock has been securely latched. It bears the name of two lovers. A habit that seems to have spread around the world.

In the evening I can finally satisfy my curiosity for Kudu steak. Hard to come by these days it seems. Last time I had it was in Namibia, over fifteen years ago, and have been missing it ever since. It is hard to get kudu in South Africa, there are not as many of the beasts in the wild and as far as I know they are not farmed. I order it rare. I like all red meat rare, or raw, to do justice to its unique organolectic characteristics. But it nevertheless comes well done. No: way way well done. Taste and send back. I tell them to serve it RAW. After ten minutes they bring me a new steak, nice and juicy, rare. Seems it's common to overcook meat in South Africa. Totally forgettable shiraz.

After dinner I take a short stroll around the hotel and run into a very unique restaurant/bar: there are table outside, and in fact it seems to be fully booked for the evening. But inside the large neon-lit room there are only antique motor vehicles. Motorcycles, mostly, but also one large American car from the 1950s with a sign on the windshield: "You are welcome to lay down on the bonnet if you are female, under forty and naked."

02 January 2014

27. - 2 Jan.: Drive to Durban and flight to Port Elizabeth

Very unusual breakfast with chicken liver and omelette. Good and hearty, enough proteins to carry me through to dinner time. My trip mates look at me with a mixture of disgust and disquiet. Yes it's not what Italians are used to eat for breakfast, but the strangeness of it all and their a priori rejection of anything new makes the food more tasty and the whole experience, if one can call a breakfast an experience, more satisfying.

At about 10:00 am we hit the road toward Durban, which unfortunately we won't have time to visit. Our friendly driver drops us off at the airport, and probably sighs of relief as he managed to complete his tour without driving into any black township. Maybe he is right. Again the disturbing sight of everyone wrapping their checked-in bags in plastic. Just after I spend 60 Rand on mine I read a sign that our airline would have provided this service for free. Apparently it costs them less to pay for the wrap than to follow up on complaints from passengers about nags being pifered by the handlers.

Uneventful flight along the Indian ocean coast of South Africa. Looks beautiful from up here, too bad we don't have time to drive along it. It's apparently very lush and not yet invaded by mass tourism operations or luxury hotels. So it must be quite enjoyable for those willing to accept some lack of comfort in exchange for a more direct contact with the people and nature of South Africa. Maybe next time...

In Port Elizabeth we are picked up by Petrus, an outsize Afrikaan with a warm and direct personality. Drop our bags at the hotel and off to the beach. I've been here a few weeks ago but it's a great pleasure to have a chance to walk along the beach in the late afternoon, waiting for the sun to settle. Best for pictures anyway.

I ask to be dropped off at the far Western edge of town, by the water. It is here that a long walkway starts, all wooden planks and railings. It is like a long snake, several kilometers long, and it zig-zags up and down the dunes that separate the ocean from the town of Port Elizabeth. Just inland of the walkway, by the first road that runs parallel to the water, not a few groups of friends and families have set up temporary camps and braai. It's not really a camping site, though it does look like quite a few people spent a night or two here. I asked a friendly guy who wanted to share a beer and he said they are just here for the holidays. I suppose they are sufficiently well off to afford a trip from their township and meat on the grill, but not so well off to patronize hotels and restaurants in town.

It's still holiday time, and thousands of people crowd the beach. On the western side, away from town, the holiday makers are all black. They are all, as usual, quite friendly and in an excellent holiday mood. Again a few new Facebook "friends" are added to my list and this time it's quieter than at the St Lucia beach so I can actually make contact on my phone and exchange pics very smoothly. One big guy of Indian origins is fishing with a rod that must be six meters long, and explains the trick is to drop the bait into a hole that's about forty meters offshore, let it sink, and wait. A group of three ladies has had one too many to drink but they do love to pose anyway.

As I move east, toward the commercial center of town, it gets more mixed. Almost all the whites seem to stick to the more central part, just a stone throw from the Boardwalk. Same beach, same setting sun. But somehow the atmosphere is not the same. As the color of the skin of the sunbathers becomes fairer, so the warmth and smiles cool down and die out. Funny isn't it?

Dinner is at the Boardwalk, a Disneyland-type melee of casinos, restaurants, sound-and-lights displays, shops and pubs.

01 January 2014

26. - 1 January 2014: New Year's day at Saint Lucia

Morning spent walking leisurly in town. Several ladies sell a bit of everything along the road: the same stand will have fruits and vegetables by the roadside and also sell curios on the sidewalk. Some graceful paintings and some tacky T-shirts, all mixed together with the inevitable Mandela paraphernalia. Just behind the displays, I can barely see simple small houses where they live, I think.

Not far, next to the pumps of a gas station, a half dozen teenagers are celebrating the new year in the street, dancing, singing and performing some remarkable acrobatic rap dance. They are most excited when I stop to take pictures and quite happy to adjust their routines so I can take my best shots.

This started as a cloudy day but by noon the sun is high in the sky and it's rather hot. Decide to skip lunch and spend the rest of the morning by the pool of our hotel. No one is around and it would be very peaceful were it not for the manager of the adjacent restaurant who is yelling at a waitress because she has not tidied up properly after breakfast. He is actually doing the cleaning himself now but keeps screaming that this is not the manager's job. She sits in a corner, silent, motionless, looking straight ahead of herself into a bush.

In the afternoon we all take a cruise n the estuary to see hippos and crocs, plus a lot of other wildlife.The eight hundred hippos who live here, we are told, eat 40kg of grass every day each. Actually every night as they spend the day in the water, whence they come out after sunset to graze the fields. All together they produce some 32 metric tons of dung per day! Which is apparently the favorite food of prawns, a local specialty. Well now I know what's in my plate when I order delicious South African prawns.

Just thinking as I disembark from the crowded ship and make my way to the pier: hippos are the biggest killer of humans in Africa, more than any other big fierce animal like lions or leopards, and second only to malaria carrying mosquitos. And now they turn out to be a major feeder of humans, if an indirect one. Who would have guessed?

After the cruise, Valentina, Luca, Rosella and I head to the beach. We've been told there is a huge party there every year on New Year's day. I've seen some packed vans driving around yesterday and today, but there do not seem to be more people in the streets that one would expect during a holiday. Talk of understimating...

We need to walk for about 2 km from downtown S. Lucia to the beach. It's about 4pm and the sun is already beginning to set behind out backs. As I hold my two cameras, I can see thousands of people who are walking away from the beach we are heading to, and beging to snap away at their cheerful and satisfied expression. Their party is over and they are heading home. I try and walk faster to reach the beach while there is still good light to photograph and the people are partying. I am afraid I am late, party must be over with so many thousands leaving, but hopefully some stragglers will still be there.

But I need not have worried at all. As I approach the beach, and can actually see the blue horizon in the distance, the long line of people leaving continues, but the source of the flow is an infinite crowd that strolls to and fro, swims, eats, drinks (no alcohol is allowed though) and makes merry. Everyone I meet is happy to chat, exchange happy new year wishes, take pictures together and exchange Facebook friendship on our cell phones.

I have never seen so many people together in my whole life, and probably never will again. Unless I come back for another new year celebration at the Saint Lucia beach, that is. Hundreds of thousands of people as far as the eye can see, for kilometers on either side of the spot where we reach the water's edge. All are blacks except my three fellow photographers, a few albinos and me. I can't of course be sure there were no other whites, but I won't see any for the following three hours.

A few policeman and policewomen patrol leisurly but no sense od tension or conflict. The only exception is three drunk guys holding beer cans who talk to me with a clearly hostile attitude while I am exchanging Facebook nicknames with a lady I have photograped. It is strictly forbidden to take any alcohol to the beach today, I have seen several signposts to that effect, but how do you check hundreds of thousands of partying youths?

She insists on typing her name on my Facebook app and they give up. Then another small man maybe twenty years-old wearing red and yellow sunglasses comes forward and asks if everything is OK.

Everyone is quite happy at being photographed. Many ask for it. Several offer their Facebook address to receive their photos. Only the three or four albinos I meet don't want their pictures taken. Maybe they are ashamed, maybe they fear that circulating their images might put them in harm's way. Though not as bad as in other parts of Africa, superstitions on the powers of albino body parts exist in South AFrica as well.

On the way back to town I notice many people with large jars, maybe 5 liters, full of sea water and some sand. I ask why they take sea water away and the disarmiblgy simple answer is that they mix with tap water and make salt bath at home!

Dinner time: it's hard to find a restaurant, many are closed and those which are not are booked solid and often have a long line of people waiting outside. Even the restaurant of our own hotel is overbooked, the kitchen closes early and there is no way then can feed us.

Consider going to a fast food in the township of Matubatuba, some 25 km away. Not sure it's open. Make several phone calls. Our driver who last night had supported my hypothesis that it would be safe to visit a black township as a group, bulks at the idea of taking us there. He says it's not Soweto. It's not welcoming, crime is high. He fears for our safety and the car's. This makes me curious to go so he calls the company headquarters and the answer is no. So much for the township experience But we still need to eat. In the end we eat at the Reef and Dunes restaurant. butter fish excellent! 

At night I can hear the grunt of several hippos that have walked ashore. They can be dangerous. Several signposts in the streets and in the garden of my hotel warn everyone to be careful with hippos. And with monkeys who roam around private property abs grab anything that strikes their fancy.