Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Cape Town

There's only one thing better than travelling, and that's going home again.  And the second best thing to going home?  Ending your travels with a visit to family, which is - provided you get on with your family - as near as dammit to home.

I arrived in Cape Town late on Saturday evening and have been staying with my aunt Jenny and uncle Michael since then.  Sunday was a whirlwind of family visits and new introductions, meeting Jenny's family at an afternoon braai (BBQ) and spending time with my 92 year old granny and my cousin Caroline.  Cape Town is where my mum grew up, and it was the place she was most keen for me to see on my first trip back to South Africa. On that visit I never really fell in love with the place, but it has well and truly captured my heart this time around. 
Yesterday, Jenny played hooky from work and we basked in sunshine (I really cannot believe my luck on this trip, the winter weather has been fantastic) in Kalk Bay, watching seals play in the harbour and doing all the best kind of shopping: vintage goodies, wine tasting, browsing in Kalk Bay Books and, finally, shopping for fabric.  I went into raptures over the glorious African prints on offer at Mnandi Textiles and came out with as much as I could carry.  I can't wait to get sewing.

I have four more days to enjoy here, and then I pack my bags for an overnight train journey to Johannesburg, where I will stay with another cousin before leaving for the UK a week today.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Africa time

I wrote this post 2 days ago, but had a bugger of a time trying to upload the photos.  Now I'm sitting in a rainy Port Elizabeth, at 6am, waiting for my next bus.

There’s a clock at the hostel I’m staying in: labelled Africa time, it shows segments of  the day under headings that include “later”, “in a while” and “tomorrow”.  It’s taken me a few days to adjust to Africa time but I’m definitely there now, because when someone asked me earlier what I’d been up to today, I replied that I’d been pretty busy, “walked to the beach, read a book, washed my hair”.  That’s what passes for a jam-packed day here on the Eastern Cape.

This region of South Africa is diverse and beautiful, incorporating mountain ranges, wild bushveld, indigenous rainforest and sweeping golden beaches.  It is also one of the poorest regions of the country and, not coincidentally, one of the regions with the largest black population.  It is here that the apartheid government constructed a separate black state, the Transkei, now fully reintegrated into South Africa

The Eastern Cape was my favourite place on my 2001 trip, when I stayed at an amazing hostel in Port St Johns called Amapondo.  The highlights of that visit, which extended from the intended 3 days to almost 10, included watching the resident dog playing with monkeys on the veranda and sitting on said veranda one night watching an almighty thunderstorm over the Indian Ocean.  The best moment, though, was being taken by the owners of the hostel to a Sangoma (or ‘medicine man’) ceremony.  In a small village of traditional thatched mud rondavels (round houses), we watched a cow being slain and the Sangoma drenched in its blood as a purifying ritual.  We sat in a hut filled with smoke and wild drumming, watching the dancing.  Finally, we shared pieces of the expertly butchered and cooked cow, the freshest steak I’ve ever eaten.

If this visit to the Eastern Cape has lacked a ‘wow’ moment like the Sangoma ceremony, it certainly hasn’t been lacking in excitement.  I decided to start my trip in Coffee Bay, a tiny and impoverished village two hours drive from the main road and right on the beach.  The hostel, Coffee Shack, has a reputation as a party place and it more than lived up to that (although I failed miserably to keep up, going to bed before 11pm both nights).  The locals are involved with running the hostel, and I enjoyed knowing that my money was going directly to help the community.  It was here, during a surfing lesson on the stunning beach, that I came rather too close to a Great White Shark for my comfort.

From Coffee Bay I came to Cintsa, further down the coast and into the more developed part of the Eastern Cape.  I’m staying at Buccaneers and as you can see from the photographs, it’s an incredible place.  A collection of cottages nestled on a wooded hillside, it overlooks a lagoon, miles of pristine beach and the turquoise blue ocean.  My days have been spent reading, walking on the beach and sitting in the sun, and my evenings spent in the bar sitting by the fire (it is, after all, winter here, and the bitterly cold nights remind me of that fact even while I nurse mosquito bites or sunburn). 

One of the nice things about travelling in South Africa is that the majority of backpackers follow a very well-worn path between Durban and Cape Town, meaning that you bump into familiar faces at every stop.  When travelling alone, there is nothing nicer than walking into the bar of a new hostel and being greeted with the smiling faces of the guys you surfed with up the coast, or the girl you chatted to on the bus five days ago.  Of course, the flipside of this is that a loner misanthrope such as myself has to – shock horror – socialise all the time.  And on that note, I’m being summoned away from staring at my laptop to go to the beach for sundowner cocktails.  It’s a hard life here on Africa time.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Fear & loathing in KwaZulu-Natal

Durban beachfront at dusk

A plaintive question from my cousin’s children, “Do houses in England have security walls?” gets me thinking about the sorry lot of many white South Africans, particularly those who live in the urban areas that, like Durban, have become more violent and unpredictable over the last twenty years.  What must it be like to live always in fear?  To be ever watchful and suspicious?  To be on the beachfront in Durban on a beautiful, warm July night and look around the bar and not see – as I do – a cosmopolitan crowd enjoying Friday evening drinks, but an invasion.  My cousin turns to me and comments, “when we were growing up, this was a white hangout,” apparently blind to the fact that in the 80s, when she was growing up, there were nothing but white hangouts here in the centre of Durban, it being illegal for black people to live or work in the city (apart from as servants).
I’m reading a book I picked up at Ike’s in Durban, Midlands by Jonny Steinberg, author of one of my favourite non-fiction books of recent years, Three Letter Plague.  It’s a book I struggled to find in the UK and was pleased to get hold of, but it’s a bleak read.  Dealing with the tension of the years immediately post-apartheid, it focuses on the story of the murder of a young white South African farmer.  What is even more bleak is the realisation that KwaZulu-Natal is still riven with tension, even 18 years after the first democratic elections; and if there is not exactly loathing here, there is plenty of fear. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

Murtaugh moments

It's been a while since I've seen Lethal Weapon, but Roger Murtaugh's (played by Danny Glover) oft-repeated phrase, "I'm too old for this sh*t" is referenced in a favourite episode of How I Met Your Mother.  And it's a phrase that has been circling my head over the past few days, as I wonder what possessed me to backpack around South Africa at the decrepit age of 34.  Don't get me wrong, I'm having a fabulous time, but I am definitely too old for this sh*t...

- having to scramble during a surf lesson because there's a Great White shark circling just off the beach;
- drumming circles around a campfire;
- partying until 4am when I have to be up at 6am;
- drinking games with Australian men;
- sitting on a cramped minibus for 12 hours;
- slathering myself in insect repellent and still ending up covered in mozzie bites.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Winter in Durban

I'm writing this while sitting on a sunny terrace, basking in the 26c sunshine and wearing flip flops and shorts.  This is my kind of winter!  After a couple of days with my aunt and uncle just outside of Durban I'm hanging out in a hostel, waiting to go out with my cousin this evening before heading down the coast on my own tomorrow.

The joy of staying with family instead of backpacking (although I am doing a bit of both this holiday) is that you can get a local’s insight into the interesting places to go.  The ‘Midlands Meander’ – an arts and crafts tourist route up into the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains – garners only one line in the Rough Guide, but we had a wonderful day driving in the warm winter sunshine earlier this week.  My favourite spot was the small town of Howick.

Howick is home to Howick Falls, spectacular even in this dry weather, with the Umgeni River reduced to a mere shadow of itself.  I also found an amazing store in Howick with the loveliest proprietors.  Rollin’ Vintage was full of gorgeous bits and pieces, most crafted from recycled and upcycled materials.  I came away a good few Rand lighter but wishing that I could have carried more in my rucksack.  Hopefully they'll open an online store soon, as I will be first in the queue to buy more goodies.  I'm also fully intending to nick this wonderful idea of using vintage suitcases as shelving units.

A few miles out of town is the Mandela capture site where, in 1962, he was stopped by police as he drove from Durban to Johannesberg and arrested, beginning the incarceration that was to last 27 years.  The site itself is marked by a simple roadside plaque, but just across the road is a fantastic free exhibition and Nelson Mandela's life and work. 

Here in Durban I managed to stumble upon one of the loveliest bookshops it has ever been my pleasure to visit.  Ike's Books and Collectables is stuffed full of fiction and non-fiction, with a strong focus on Africana but what made it special was that amongst the tomes were wonderful vintage bits and pieces, including typewriters that had my fingers itching.  When I visited it was staffed by a woman from Nottingham who's been living here for 12 years: small world!

Welcome to the Rainbow Nation

My parents were immigrants to the UK, arriving from South Africa by boat in September 1977, just in time to ‘enjoy’ an English winter. Driven out of the country by the violence that marred the apartheid years - and more specifically by the threats against my mother’s family by the Security Services, her father being a prominent anti-apartheid activist – they had decided early in their marriage that they didn’t want to bring their children up in South Africa. I was born 10 months after they moved to England.

For years we were unable to go back; my grandfather had escaped the country (in the boot of a diplomat’s car!) shortly after I was born in 1978, and there were warrants out for his arrest. Nevertheless, I grew up in a house filled with African artifacts, with paintings of this strange and faraway country on the walls, and being told endless stories of my parents’ South African childhoods and my grandparents’ involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. Then, in 1991, apartheid was dismantled. But it was to be 1999 before my parents could afford to visit (separately, having long divorced), 22 years after first setting sail. And it wasn’t until 2001 that I was able to ‘return’ to a homeland I had never seen.

That first visit was fraught with emotion; on the plane over I didn’t sleep a wink, too excited and daunted by the prospect of finally seeing South Africa. My various relatives still in the country indulged my desire to see all the places my parents had lived, worked, studied, met, married… and my wonderful mum and dad had both sent me with a pack of written reminisces, so that as I stood outside their old homes or schools, I could read their stories of skinned knees, family parties and childhood friends as if they were standing next to me. By the end of my journey I felt as if some missing pieces of the puzzle that make up me had been found and slotted into place.

Since my first trip I have been back only once, for a few days in July 2004 to attend the funeral of my beloved grandpa. This summer’s trip has been both long-planned (and long-overdue) and rather rushed. After all, I should have been on a plane to America right about now! So far I have found the country greatly changed compared to 2001, when the legacy of apartheid was still ever-present. Now, there is a visible black middle class in Durban, and crowds of multi-ethnic school children in neat uniforms bring a tear to my eye. But the old divisions remain, and biting my tongue when South African relatives raise the topic of race takes a spectacular amount of self-control. But South Africa is a complex, beautiful, fascinating country that I am always glad to visit.  

Friday, 13 July 2012

School's out for the summer...

...and I'm packing my rucksack for just over 3 weeks away in South Africa!  I'll be blogging as I go, but am likely to find my access to wifi more limited than I did last year in America.  See you in a few weeks!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Stuff I love

Generally, I find people (and I include myself in this) are quick to moan - about bad customer service, about poor quality consumer goods - but not quite so quick to recognise when things go right.  Recently I have been really impressed with a few random things and I thought I'd share them with you.
1. I discovered Burt's Bees products in the States last summer (where they are a budget line, costing less in dollars than they do in pounds, which makes me ragey).  Their Orange Blossom facial cleanser is an absolute wonder, leaving my skin feeling squeaky clean and moisturised, but not greasy. 

2. I was always a bit scared about trying red lipstick, and previous attempts had left me resembling a drag queen, but then I read a recommendation for Mac Ruby Woo and decided to try it.  I love it!  Matte, extremely hard to shift (even after eating and drinking it only needs a little top-up) and flattering; when I wore it on Friday, Kirsty asked me if I'd had my teeth whitened: result!  It's relatively pricey (£14) but totally worth it.

3. Bravissimo's customer service is one of the main reasons I don't begrudge paying a millionty pounds for my bras.  They really came into their own, though, when one of my beloved Alana bras developed a fault recently.  Despite the bra being a few months old, they immediately sprung into action, replacing the bra with effusive apologies. 

4. I never thought I would love a pair of jeans like I love these Dorothy Perkins skinnies.  And the best news?  They cost just £15 (or two pairs for £25!).  Super-flattering, super-comfortable, and the perfect combination of skinny but not too tight, I own them in black and indigo and sing their praises at every opportunity.

5. When I read on Ladybird Likes' blog that business was slow I decided to wander over to take a look at her Etsy shop, where I spied these gorgeous map brooches.  Well, you know how I love a good map.  When I contacted Zoe to ask if she could make some custom brooches, she couldn't have been more helpful, and they are such a bargain at just £3 each. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

10 things

I really enjoyed reading Laura's post, Ten Things About Me, on Make Do And Mend last week, and it got me thinking about the things I choose to share on this blog.  You will have noticed that I have little compunction blogging about everything from the mundane details of my life to bigger issues such as abortion or fat acceptance.  I tend to be more honest with strangers than I am with anyone I know; and by extension, the closer I get to someone, the less I feel able to open up.  I infuriate some friends because they want me to share and I just can't.  But get me on the internet or writing a fanzine?  Hey, anyone is welcome to come along and read about me!  So these 10 things are probably superfluous; if you're a regular reader you very possibly know more about me than the people I work with.  But I like lists, so...

  1. The first album I ever bought was The Bangles’ Greatest Hits, on cassette from Our Price in Bradford.
  2. My favourite place in the whole world is my bed. 
  3. I still know all the words to the theme tune from Fresh Prince Of Bel Air.
  4. I don’t feel comfortable in a room which doesn’t have books in it; every room in my house has at least one bookshelf.
  5. I’m an atheist now but was a regular churchgoer as a child.  I was even at church camp when Kurt Cobain died; rock and roll, eh?
  6. When I was 16 I wanted nothing more than to marry Leonardo Di Caprio. 
  7. My favourite film of all time is Dazed & Confused.  I saw it for the first time at the Picturehouse Cinema in Bradford, on a cold and dark winter Sunday, and it changed my life by suggesting that perhaps there was more to being a teenager than working hard and being the good kid.
  8. I think it's a miracle that I now have good relationships with my brothers, because I was a horrible big sister growing up, either ignoring them or bossing them around officiously. 
  9. I own far too many recipe books, but usually cook and bake from memory (with a dash of making it up as I go along).
  10. My dream is to live and work in London, but I feel too old to make the move.
Where do you stand on opening up to people: are you an open book or do you keep a lot hidden? 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Music Monday: Coal Chamber

This song - Big Truck, by long-forgotten metal band Coal Chamber - basically consists of the lead singer growling "big truck" into the mic ad infinitum, and if you value your eardrums I would suggest you don't click on the link.  However, for some reason, in 1997-98  it became something of a theme tune for me and my best friend Kirsty.  We'd met while working behind the bar at the local rock dive, Alcatraz, and quickly bonded over a mutual love of skater boys and body piercing.  Kirsty seemed to me to be infinitely cool, self-assured and confident.  I was astounded when she chose me to be her friend, but choose me she did, and we proceeded to get up to many alcohol-fuelled adventures over the next few years.

Me (red bits in Bjork-inspired twists) and Kirsty (80s crimped hair) at a gig in 1997.  The pre-Bravissimo years were not kind to us well-endowed girls.

15 years is a long time and our lives have changed enormously.  She left Leicester, met her husband-to-be fairly soon after, and I was honoured to be their bridesmaid in 2004.  As my teaching career was taking off, Kirsty had the first of her two children.  On the surface of it, we have little in common nowadays, but our friendship is the kind that allows us to pick up exactly where we left off; to always have something to talk about; to always be able to laugh together. 
Better coiffed, if a little windswept, 8 years later at Kirsty's wedding.

Kirsty, bless her, endured 4 hours of traffic and torrential rain on Friday, to come to Leicester for a party I was holding.  I was immensely touched that she made the effort to come all the way from Manchester, but as she rightly said, "you drove to France for my wedding, you've been to two christenings for my kids, the least I can do is travel down the M1 for a night out."  We ended the night in a dark, dingy club - one not unlike Alcatraz - and it was as if the years melted away and we were 19 again. 

Somewhere, in a box in the cupboard under the stairs, I still have the original 'big truck': a plastic toy given to me for Christmas one year with a note that just said "BIG TRUCK!".  Life changes; people change, but dodgy metal songs and plastic trucks endure.

Friday, 6 July 2012

More bookish delights


I will never tire of things made from books, and have fallen quite in love with these gorgeous brooches from House of Ismay via Folksy. 

Each brooch is made from a page of an old and damaged book, pasted onto recycled board or MDF and then given multiple coats of varnish.  The bird-shaped To Kill A Mockingbird one is so adorable, it might even convince me to finally read the book, and the Pride & Prejudice heart brooch would make a lovely Valentines gift for the book lover in your life (yes I know it's July, but I like to plan ahead).

Thursday, 5 July 2012

What should I put on my wall?

I have a large wall in my living room that I want to fill with new prints and I am thinking that typography is the way to go.  One small problem though... there are so many lovely prints out there that I don't know which to choose.  Any suggestions?
I love this 'Bake more cake' letterpress print, from Print for Love of Wood via Folksy.  The muted green is particularly pretty, but I wonder if it belongs in a kitchen rather than a living room.

I like the simplicity of this design, by Graphic Anthology via Etsy.  Definitely top of the list.

This 'Happiness Manifesto' makes me very, well, happy.  Full of advice that I would do well to take note of, it's from Sugar Rush UK via Etsy.  I love it very much, but it's perhaps too similar to the Aardvark manifesto that I already have gracing my living room wall.
Finally, I saw this 'Just be' framed print in the window of Oliver Bonas in Cambridge and fell instantly in love.  It's £60 though... gulp.

One annoying thing is that, although the prints above all match each other very nicely, none of them go with my living room, which is presently dominated by a large purple sofa and red cushions.  I'm wondering if it's time to change the colour theme as well as the pictures.  Or is it ridiculous to decorate a room around what I put on the wall?!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

To-do list

So things haven't quite gone to plan recently.  I was devastated when I learnt that my one year teaching exchange to America had fallen through, but I was also quick to think about the many positives.  Not having to leave my family was a big one: I am very close to my mum and brother, and would have hated not seeing my five year old niece for 12 months.  I've also busied myself by making a 'to-do' list, to help make my life here in England more engaging; more worth staying for, I suppose.  Some list items are small and some will take more of a commitment - financially, timewise, or otherwise - but hopefully they are all do-able.

1. Appreciate and enjoy my city.  When I was trying to 'sell' Leicester to the teacher due to come here from the US, it made me really appreciate the good things about my adopted city.  From great independent shops, to an amazing arthouse cinema and cutting edge theatre, to lovely countryside a short journey away, I am resolved to take advantage of the many things Leicester has to offer (and stop moaning about the bad things).

2. Appreciate and enjoy my country.  I picked up The Rough Guide To Great Britain the other day, and it made me realise how many amazing places there are in the UK that I've never been to.  Some day trips and weekend jaunts are in order, and top of my list are Brighton, Winchester, Totnes and Dartmoor. 

3. Appreciate and enjoy Europe.  It's been years since I took advantage of England's proximity to the continent, so instead of dreaming about the travelling I could have been doing in America, I'm going to start planning trips to the cities and countries on my doorstep.

4. Get my house in order.  Y'know all those niggly little jobs that need doing around the house?  The ones you live with, but that really bug you when you look too hard?  I'm going to sort them out.  Shelves will be put up, front doors painted, kitchen worktops replaced... if I can only find the number of the handyman.

5. Buy a bike and ride it.  Self-explanatory, this one.

6. Take more photographs.  Stop feeling so self-conscious about taking photos in public.  Accept that, at first, they will be crap but that I will get better.  Persevere.

7. Work less, live more.  I've already made moves to sort this one out; I've asked to reduce my hours at work, taking one day a fortnight off.  Hopefully the small reduction in salary will be more than made up for by the extra time to do what I please.

8. Be a better teacher.  I really hope that reducing my hours slightly will give me energy to have fewer of the lazy, "let's make a poster," lessons and more of the good ones. 

9. Get a new tattoo.  I've been talking about adding to my collection for a year now, and although I'm still somewhat lacking in inspiration (I liked Richard's suggestion of having a polka dot sleeve tattooed on, but am a little worried about what would happen when/if I go off polka dots!) I'm determined to decide on a design soon.

10. Try and work out where to go next.  In a metaphorical rather than physical sense.  I am uncomfortably aware that, at 34, this is the point where I need to start making decisions.  Do I want to settle down and find the man or woman of my dreams?  Do I want to pursue the idea of working abroad?  Do I want babies at some point?  Do I want to study more?  At the moment, my answer to all of these is, "yeah, kinda... I'm not sure... maybe?".  I need to spend some time deciding on my priorities and making them happen.

Wish me luck as I pursue my ten things to do.  What would be on your list?

Monday, 2 July 2012

Music Monday: Basement Jaxx

I'm having great fun compiling a very long and varied playlist for Friday's party.  There are a lot of people coming from work, and I'm somewhat worried that my rather niche music tastes will confuse them!  So far, the playlist goes roughly like this:
First hour = my favourite obscure indie songs, cos I'll be the only one there to hear them;
Second hour = Northern Soul, dance and hip hop, to get the party started;
Third hour = indie dancefloor hits: Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines all feature heavily;
Fourth hour = 90s classics: Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Bluetones and the like, because by then everyone will be drunk and nostalgic.

In that second hour, I've had to stop myself including every Basement Jaxx song ever recorded.  I love them!  From their first album in 1999 (I think?) to their recent records, I adore everything they've released.  You just can't listen to Basement Jaxx and feel unhappy; at a very wet V Festival a few years back, they got a field full of cold and miserable people dancing away and grinning like loons, so they are guaranteed to add to the party atmosphere on Friday.  BUT I have a dilemma: which track to include?  My choices are the three videos below: Jump 'n' Shout, Romeo, or Cish Cash.  Which one would make your playlist?

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Busy busy

Phew, what a busy week!  Since I got back from the school camping trip I don't seem to have stopped, and my diary continues to look packed until the end of term. 

I have...

... visited Cambridge with some lovely year 9 students;
... baked hundreds of bright pink macaroon shells ready for a party I'm having on Friday;
... made metres and metres of paper book bunting;
... spent far too much money on CDs in Fopp;
... seen good friends for cinema trips and pizza (plus free birthday Prosecco, yum);
... finally finished sewing my first ever homemade skirt (navy polka dot, naturally);
... painted and weather-proofed my garden fence (I can hardly bear the excitement that is my life);
... planted lots of pretty pots for my back yard;
... booked my flights and bus travel for this summer's trip - three weeks in South Africa!  I leave two weeks tomorrow and have SO much still to organise.  Plus this party to throw (originally my 'leaving for America' party, now a 'yay! I'm staying!' party) on Friday, friends staying at the weekend, hectic end-of-term madness at school... oh my, I better stop writing and get to work.