Valentine's week, 2004
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Each evening, Bernie and I sit chatting on the veranda overlooking the river with the far, sheer wall of the canyon as backdrop. Sometimes we are joined by one neighbor or another, who wander in through the woods for a ritual smoke, complaining of monkeys eating their cat food or pythons eating their cat or extolling the beauty of the valley untainted by electric light. There are no lights at the hostel this week. Nobody knows where the faulty wiring might be.
Each night as the darkness gets thick, Bernie lights a row of the 100-hour candles I bought for her, then sits back down in the easy chair by the overstuffed ashtray. She rolls a few joints, smokes one and then rolls a few more. For every four she rolls for herself, she'll roll a "special" one for me, with no tobacco mixed in.
I had been warned: along the coast of the Region Formerly Known As The Transkei, grows a contagious syndrome called Pondo Fever, named after the local Xhosa tribal "kingdom" of the Pondos. It's the dagga that causes it.
Dagga sprouts up everywhere in Pondoland, they say, especially in gardens. Dagga is marijuana in Afrikaans (the double-g pronounced as the 'ch' in Bach). The potent combination of the land's natural beauty, unconcern about the inevitable passage of time, and the wide availability of dagga conspire to create a very slow-paced culture.
For example, the spliff-smoking crew at Umtam Backpackers Hostel devote a week to digging up all the electric lines, rather than check the fuse box, because the fuse box is way down at the end of the drive, and besides, so what if the hostel guests have to live by candlelight for a while—I'm the only guest, and I bought the candles.
To be fair, Totelozi is the only one who chain-smokes marijuana cigars. But it was the decision of the floaty proprietor to proceed with the infinite digging plan, in consultations between fragrant puffs with her employees.
Yes, even famously broke Bernie has servants—four of them—to do the work of her struggling business. The ten bed hostel is held together on the charm and scrappiness of our cosmic Bernie, and perpetuated through the dedication of the revered Totelozi, who lives on Bernie's land upslope on the near side of the canyon behind Bernie's house. Doktar commutes on foot from across the river, as do the two maids.
Pondo Fever is defined in Coast To Coast, the bible of South Africa's hopping backpacker's scene, as "the tendency to sit around for long periods of time doing nothing; often associated with smoking dagga."
Day after day, the fever holds. By midweek, I've accumulated a dozen or so extra joints to quietly give away later, having utterly failed to convince Bernie to reduce her output of "specials." As an unseasoned pot smoker, I do my best to stick to a maximum of half a joint a day. I'm willing to try the local culture for one lazy vacation week, to recover from the traumas of Cape Town.
Somehow, for me, it isn't having the prescribed effect. The more I indulge, the more energetic I feel. My original plan to laze around, and maybe join in the digging, gives way to a far-ranging action plan. Walking among trees, which I use back home as my form of meditation, becomes my priority for the week. To calm my stretched and pummeled heart, still aching from the foregoing six weeks of urban economic, moral and political tension, I chart out a walk schedule.
Tuesday I'll run more errands in Port Edward, over the hill, and take a hike in the lower stretch of the nearby nature reserve. Wednesday, I'll cross the river, hike the coast and swim in the Indian Ocean. The rest of the week I'll kayak and hike the upper Reserve and on the weekend I'll tile the half-completed hostel shower, or dig ditches with the crew, if they are still at it.
Tuesday morning, on my way up the road, I notice a skiff tied in the trees on the far side of the river where there are no houses, nor room for any. As I ponder this, a woman appears out of some brush and climbs in. As she rows the slow waters of the Umtamvuna toward the riverbank in front of the hostel, I scan the cliff with new eyes. I finally spy a rough trail cutting down the steep canyon bluff: the shortcut for commuters from the Xhosa villages where the servants live.
As I stand staring, an old stationwagon comes grinding up the dirt slope toward me. "Headed into town?" I get in.
Tuesday evening on the veranda Bernie hears my river crossing plan. She advises me to instead take the high and beautiful bridge across the Umtamvuna River.
"A right turn after the tree full of monkeys will take you to the hill top, then along the canyon rim pepper farm, through the Red Desert. Cross the bridge and you're at the Casino."
The route she describes sounds wonderful, the red desert in particular. How can there be a desert in the middle of the jungle?
In the morning I head toward the bridge. From home, I take the dirt road by the river, under the yellowwood trees. When I come to a tree full of annoyed monkey mothers and their adorable babies, I toss a banana at the base of the tree, causing a screaming panic. They run and leap off into distant branches many trees away, and disappear. I pick the banana up and put it back into my lunch bag.
I go past the flapping house of the batik tablecloth artist and on up the hill. Walking just below, and then along the cliff rim, I find myself above a strange sculpted property belonging to the eccentric pepper farmer I had heard about. At first, I wonder if this isn't the Red Desert, with succulents planted along its perimeter walls. Each pepper plantation tract is marked out by a different style of cartoony adobe walls painted bright red and fronted by desert plantings.
The walls have, at regular intervals, punctuating features the size of a human and topped with melting blobby, red pepper heads. The unfortunate effect is an eerie parade of hooded Grand Wizards haunting this land just freed from Apartheid.
A few minutes farther along, at the end of the road, past the gate of the Eden Crest resort community, I find the "real" desert. A dirt trail takes me through some grassy fields and over a hill and suddenly into an area of red rock and dirt hills, with not a thing growing. I later read that titanium in the soil, not lack of moisture, causes the absence of life, but the locals still call it The Red Desert.
The red, muddy trail turns brown and green again just as abruptly at the far edge of twenty acres. I make my way through more meadows along this well worn trail. The trail and I meander through a small patch of woods and I find myself at the paved road to the bridge.
Just as I spot the road, I also notice a large tree unaccountably spitting small flames, smoldering inside its half-consumed base. I use my water to stop the glowing advance of the coals, but my bottle runs dry just before finishing the task. I decide the place is wet enough and populated enough to escape spreading, so I leave it and cross the bridge.
The Umtamvuna canyon looks domestic and under control from the high bridge. The Casino, on the other hand, looks eerie and out of place. I descend through the lonely and empty resort. Their business is suffering now that gambling is allowed just about anywhere by the new government, where it's former just-across-the-state-line position was once its lifeblood. On the far side of the Casino is the start of the five-day remote coastal hike to Port St. Johns.
Half an hour takes me to the Casino resort's horse riding stables near the ocean, where I refill my drinking water. It's here that I make the big mistake of the day. Chatting with the riding instructor, a young white woman, subverts my peaceful state of mind completely. She is worried that I am walking alone.
I find myself suddenly tossed into frenzy by yet another South African warning from a white person not to go someplace, and to make things worse, that someplace is a beach. I have been carefully ignoring all warnings about such things, enjoying my best days of the two month trip in places I was implored not to go—and only getting mugged when I went to a "safe" tourist beach. How am I to reconcile this new warning with the reality that this is, I am realizing, yet another tourist beach?The beach was not deserted, as I had expected from reading descriptions of this "wild" stretch of coast. The sand was sparsely occupied by four demographic groups: black women leaning over tide pools gathering "crayfi", black men balancing fishing poles among rocks that bordered the tide pools, black teenage boys in small clusters, and one white family at work on a sand castle.
The latter two groups were paying no attention to one another. As a white person, I was being gradually brainwashed to distrust black teens, and after having been mugged by a couple of them on Noordhoek Beach near Cape Town, I looked from the white family to the black teens and back expectantly. They continued to ignore one another.
Since they refused to panic, I took up the task for them. I sat in the sand for a minute, attempting to calm myself on some deep breaths of sweet ocean air. I then devised a plan to avoid a repetition of my earlier beach disaster.
I decided that the prudent course of action was to eat lunch now and leave my pack well hidden under a fallen tree near the stables. I could carry my water bottle along with me on the beach and not feel or look like a target. Second, I plucked a large, red-tinged and menacing-looking giant aloe frond, about four feet long, to carry in the other hand, though it was flaccid and useless as a weapon and I am useless as a weapon-wielder. But I thought the strangeness of carrying it might help keep trouble at bay.
My plan became a three point plan suddenly when two of the teen boys came walking towards me on the beach. I launched a frisbee toss with them, which immediately alleviated my irrational fear of them as potential muggers. They immediately took to this new sport, if tentatively at first. To their great surprise, I gave them the disk after we had played for a while. I watched them go off down the beach practicing their throws. One of them was quite good, the other passable but never quite getting the hang of catching it.
With my hope invigorated and my courage reinforced, I attempted a calm meander down one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. The coastal "trail" was just the sand itself, as it turned out, and the remote wilderness was a mix of shallow coastal jungles and inland grassy hills, dotted, just out of sight of the beach, with the round thatched huts of the Xhosa-speaking Pondoland people.
One stretch of the coast was rimmed by a short cliff pocked by waterfalls and grottoes which gaped dark and beautiful beneath tufts of hanging ice plant vines (called sour fig, in South Africa). The presence of ice plant felt like a personal welcome: It is abundant in my hometown of San Francisco, as in many port cities, where it took root after being strewn from crates sent around the world in the days when produce shipments were unloaded right at the dock. South Africa, ice plant's ancestral home, has lately received our packing technology, styrofoam "peanuts," scattered upon their landscape in exchange.
I waded and swam across the mouth of the next wide, gentle river I encountered. I walked and wandered and watched the tide pools disappear under the rising but gentle surf. I watched groups of women with crayfish bundles on their heads making their way home over the hills after the morning's pickings. I swam in the blue blue clear blue sea. I walked far past the farthest fisherman and sat entirely alone in the shelly sand for an eternity, thinking about the world upside-down. I counted out one hundred grains from the endless pink mounds of "sand" to bring home as souvenirs: each was a perfect, shiny spiral white shell, a millimeter across, with pink dots in delicate cascading patterns.
On the return walk, tide full height, I helped a stranded fishing couple find the shallowest place to cross the deepened river, communicating with a universal gesture language along with our own cryptic linguistic vocalizations. All the fishing and gathering had ended as the tide rose, leaving me by myself in the last bay toward the Casino.
When I got back to the fallen tree and recovered my pack, I took out the binoculars and scanned the vacated beach. I climbed a hill and peered over to the next cove toward the Umtamvuna, where I could see dots of movement through the sea mist. Those dots resolved themselves as a cluster of a dozen people: The teenage boys had gathered into one crowd and were now throwing a white, circular object floatingly through the air to one another.
The walk home included a stop at the smoldering tree, to complete the job with my knife and more water. While I was occupied in that task, a young man stopped and asked me in pidgin English if I could employ him tomorrow. I regretted not to have any task to hire him to and he went on.
The trail was now full of evening foot traffic. All the dozens of servants from the Umtamvuna Valley and Port Edward were making their long trek home across the river, along with the unemployed who had waited since dawn at the one signal light in the region, hoping for a day job with some passerby. If they earned a day's pay, they piled into one of the (even rurally ubiquitous) minivan taxis to get home. If not, they walked the five kilometers to the river, plus the distance home, up the long hill, on the other side.
I never saw a free ride offered to any of the foot commuters. Yet, every time I walked the road, a white driver stopped and offered me a ride, often going as much as ten kilometers (and once sixty kilometers) out of their way to get me safely to where I was going, back to another mellow, candle-lit evening, dodging Pondo Fever in the Vuna Valley.
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