A Frugal Bohemia

South Africa: Home of the Lost Souls” is the original, shorter version published by WeSaidGoTravel.com

Where the ley lines meet, there is a place saturated with absurdist meaning

 

There’s a boar’s head on the wall. From each of its tusks, there hangs a bra.

“They call this the center of the universe because of the ley line running through Bathurst. That’s why everyone’s so nuts. There’s a dungeon under the dining room floor of the Pig & Whistle, you know? I removed the floorboard myself and saw the steps leading down…”

Says the ex-military South African Police Colonel, the kind that was in service during the Apartheid years. He’s drinking because he heard that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a warrant out for his arrest. What did he do? Do I even want to know? I do. I have to ask.

“I did what I was told to do,” came the infuriating answer, bleeding with pathos.

The ex-Colonel lightens the mood quickly, somewhat desperately,

“I have a young wife. Still get breakfast in bed. She still wants to shower with me. She still wants to get naughty even though I can’t. I just get heartburn.”

A mini-ladder in the bar drops suddenly and the rigid Colonel jumps out of his skin, nearly falling off his chair like he’s just heard a close-range bullet soar past. PTSD.

“Very strong ley lines here,” Colonel says to me, dark beret pulled low over his head, “There’s a ley line going right though this bar.”

I shuffle in my barstool. I haven’t even been in this town for an hour yet. Ley lines?

“So hold onto your stuff because some crazy shit goes down here.”

What kind of shit, Colonel? I wonder.

“I mean it’s a town with one Stop Street and five bars. There’s gotta be something suspect.”

His smiling wrinkles deepen the creases around his mouth, “So, welcome to Bathurst. You look like you belong here.”

Relics, veterans and hippies

Relics, veterans and hippies

I’m in pineapple country. I drove 20km/h behind a cow on a road of geckos and chameleons to get here. Fast was not an option in travel. I find myself sitting next to some resident drunken Socrates in the next bar, who, in all his tweaked extravagance, welcomes me with a very straightforward:

“I’ll take it for granted you are my friend.”

The old man has a bald patch with long white hair flowing around it, a laugh as robust as his thick thighs spread apart on a bar stool that barely carries his weight. He cuts right to the chase,

“So what you wanna do one day? Find a husband? Settle down? Buy a VW? Be woken up when it breaks down?”

He smiles, “Do you want money?”

He waits for my answer. I don’t reply. I know this is a trick. He continues,

“I have nothing, you can have half.”

He roars with intoxicated laughter. I wait to hear the note of insincerity – that bitterness that accompanies having nothing. It doesn’t come.

Where am I? Very, very far from the rat race. A steel string reverbs from a tortured hippie in the corner, no stage, on this warm Sunday night.

“Do you paint?” I venture, looking at his stained clothes.

“Yes,” he says, “Do you?”

I give him a dismal smile, reflecting on my failed attempt at being an artist, remembering the countless paintings I left back home. I don’t answer.

“Aaah,” he sighs, “I can see it in the smile. We get to the apex of things, you know, so we… We’re really the Bosses.”

Ain’t that the truth.

The bohemians eke out an existence

The bohemians eke out an existence

The wise-cracking old man is an artist who refuses to reveal his work, explains Shannon, the poet. Just how many artists are there in this town? I wonder, sitting between Shannon (the poet) and the boozing painter.

“So you a writer too?” asks Shannon.

“Yes, I guess.”

“Well that depends on how dedicated you are to your craft.”

No answer from me.

“What’s the colour of your silence?”

Right in the deep end, he shoves me. Like I should know this immediately. I can’t answer the poet’s question. But the balding, bulging artist jumps in. He knows the colour of his silence,

“Predominantly white with touches of gun metal.” – without even thinking about it.

“Bathurst seems to attract lost souls,” says Shannon, eyeing me like he knows.

Does he know? Could he possibly know? Just how aimless, forlorn, raw and depleted I am? Shall I unveil my buffet of vulnerability?

“So you’ve just finished a novel. You have something in your hand. And now you’re left with this pregnant space. It’s terrifying and beautiful,” Shannon pauses, “Write another.”

“Can’t. No money.”

“How much of yourself did you put into that novel?”

“Everything.”

“So what do you have left?”
“Nothing.”

So then, you have nothing left to lose.”

“Yes.”

“Write the first line of your next one.”

“Can’t.”

The poet pauses.

“You can try and guess who others think you should be. You might be wrong. And wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Be brutally yourself.”

One broke writer consoling another in the Bathurst Arms Pub, in a tiny 1820’s town steeped in a turbulent military history. Twelve kilometers inland in the economically destitute Eastern Cape Province of South Africa: Nowhere. His words should have no bearing. They should hold no gravitas. He’s just a big city outcast, like me. In a place filled with big city outcasts, like me. Home, so nice to finally have met you. So sad that I cannot stay.

21 Vintage tractors at the Agricultural Museum which I browsed with a draft of beer in my hand

21 Vintage tractors at the Agricultural Museum which I browsed with a draft of beer in my hand

I’m sojourning at the Pig & Whistle, the oldest pub (doubling as a Bed and Breakfast) in South Africa, also penetrated by this infamous ley line they all speak of. After a soak in the Pig & Whistle’s bathtub on feet, I venture out again. Just downstairs, to the pub (yes, another pub).

Well, I need a bottle of Stuyvesant and a packet of gin. Or maybe I just need Bathurst. Never to leave Bathurst. Where it’s all okay. Where the ley lines cross and the bohemians gather to eke out an existence and live for their craft in the middle of nowhere, drinking rainwater from tanks on the roof, surrounded by antiques, twenty-one vintage tractors, reading used books, not flushing when you pee – did you know it takes 9 liters of water to flush your 500ml of pee? Found out from a local today at the toposcope on the town’s highest point.

Copper and bronze plaques on Bathurst’s toposcope name the important 1820’s Settlers, their ships and their original land (Holland). Of course, at least half of these bronze and copper plaques have already been stolen and resold by people in the surrounding slums. The slightest karma, I guess: The poor destroying the memory of the colonizers.

Bronze plaques stolen from the toposcope. Slums VS  Colonizers.

Bronze plaques stolen from the toposcope. Slums VS Colonizers.

“There seems to be a hole in your glass. Let me fix that for you.” Says Tony, the Pig &Whistle barman. This is where I hear about the biggest drama in the town. John, the regular, sits on the bar stool in his leather jacket with his dogs.

“I only get voluble about certain things,” says John, a soft-spoken chap, “But I told him to have decorum. And still, he got into a fight.”

My ears prick up. Who got into a fight? When? Where? John continues,

“Dunno why he gets himself into these situations. – And over a girl!”

A fight. Over a girl. In this town? I’m astonished.

Tony nods at John, agreeing with him: Yes, the silly bloke, fighting over a girl.

“He was hurt quite badly too. Bleeding all over the place.”

It was only half an hour later that I realized they were speaking about a dog. More dogs than people in this pub sometimes, I hear.

A local, John and his dog, at the Pig & Whistle. Oldest pub in South Africa. A barstool is always reserved for the canine.

A local, John and his dog, at the Pig & Whistle. Oldest pub in South Africa. A barstool is always reserved for the canine.

Towards the end of the night, a dread-locked blonde hands me a ticket to Far-Away. I drive with a dark-haired blues-singer to a house where the wise-cracking artist sits laughing like a lunatic, seven happy dogs laze about and a girl with a Tracy Chapman voice hands me a lovely ceramic cup. Here, I enjoy the most glorious clay cup of hot marijuana-rooibos tea with organic milk.

Before I leave Pineapple country, I go to the Big Pineapple building – 16.7m tall – overlooking the pineapple fields, the hippies, the poets, the ex-Colonels, the dogs, the artists… the lost souls of a frugal bohemia.

On clear days, the 360degree view includes the sight of the Indian Ocean. Why go to the Big Apple when you can go to the Big Pineapple?

Why go to the Big Apple when you can go to the Big Pineapple?

Why go to the Big Apple when you can go to the Big Pineapple?

Original, shorter version published on We Said Go Travel at the following link: http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/south-africa-home-lost-souls

People of the Clouds

People of the Clouds

By Mia Arderne

 

Remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous?

These are the words printed on the Men’s bathroom of 43 Air School in Port Alfred. Port Alfred is a South African coastal town situated between Port Elizabeth and East London, home to a choice school for professional pilots.

Pilots, I was soon to discover, are a special breed of professional. Balancing rigorous training, regimented lifestyles and relentless pressure, these men and women need to let go, unwind and de-stress. When they do, they sound something like this:

“They changed the SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] and I was like well fuck, this isn’t the way I learnt, but it’s fine. I’m on full approach for a crosswind landing. So I correct the plane for the crosswind, and the landing – listen, the landing was doof doof doof!

The pilot recounts, slamming his hand on the wooden table, splashing his drink, reliving the moment,

“Could’ve been better. But at least the approach was stable.”

He takes a huge swig of what looks like brandy and then continues recounting his last flight, only to be interrupted by another pilot,

“Can we stop talking about flying and start talking about vaginas!”

I find myself at The Wright Place, the pilots’ bar at 43, which you can only visit if accompanied by a cadet. Visitors must be out by 21:00 PM. But that is enough time to get a taste of the pilot’s downtime. I’m here visiting my brother (21-year old pilot) who is all too pleased to introduce me to his world. And right now, his world is dancing on the tables, collectively singing in perfect off-key unison,

“Don’t you worry, don’t you worry, child!” under a ceiling covered in dangling ties, each one representing a licensed solo flier who has had his tie snipped off as part of the ceremony. Strange folk, I think to myself.

The bar-counter and bar tables are made of plane wings, massive old propellers serve as décor, and all around me, a hundred thirsty pilots want their drinks immediately. The bar lady loses her cool and slams the bar counter, punctuating every syllable with her fists, screaming:

“I can’t get to everybody at the same time, please just calm down!”

There is one particularly tall, particularly charismatic Kenyan pilot that has conquered my attention. I am still pondering his appeal when he elegantly slides into the chair next to me and says in deep, measured timbre,

“From the minute you walked in here, I could tell that you find me so attractive,” he pauses,

“I just thought I’d sit down next to you here and tell you to relax – put you in your place and tell you not to worry. You’ll get your turn.”

Flawed, I have no response. And I’m not one who easily suffers a lack of words. Suddenly the appeal becomes clear to me: It’s the confidence. There’s a certain confidence about pilots. A confidence that comes with the ability to control an aircraft at 1000kmh, 41000ft off the ground. Self-doubt rolls off them like water. There’s no space for that kind of thing here.

Biceps, stylish, tall, flamboyant, ripped, smooth, suave guy next to me drinks his vodka clean in a plastic glass with a bottle of Sprite in his other hand, slugging the spirit, then chasing it down. He goes on to take my hand to his muscle-cut abdomen and touches my fingers to a tiny metallic ball on his chest. Nipple ring. Eight-pack. I get up to go and find my brother.

We proceed in my brother’s car to the two decent watering holes in Port Alfred. One is overwhelmingly White. The other is overwhelmingly ghetto. And, in true South African style, they are situated right next to each other: Guido’s (upper class, Pop-Rock and Dubstep) and Slots (lower class, House and R&B). Driving down the hill to the entrance, I am told that we are now at “4000ft altitude,” driving further down the hill, “3000 ft, 2000 ft altitude”, all the way down the hill to the club.

“Do you know what the most powerful jet engine in the world is?”

“No, I say.” Genuinely interested.

The pilot in the backseat points to his groin.

Eight ciders and three shots later, I am getting twerked on by a hot female pilot in training, except that unlike Miley Cyrus, she has an ass and the rhythm to carry it.

Hearing another pilot describe his flight through the Fish River Canyon – which he could quite literally fly into due to unrestricted airspace, I come to understand that I am dancing with people who have their offices in the clouds. And they have long abandoned the mundane.

As the pilots throw their inhibition to the wind, it occurs to me that I often entrust my life to these guys every time I travel. Like he’s read my mind, my brother says to me,

“It’s eight hours from bottle to throttle. See these guys in the cockpit and they’re completely different people. Focussed. Level. They have to let go of all that stress. That’s just the pilot’s life. Work hard but play just as hard.”

For pilots, this philosophy may be a perquisite of sanity. But one thing is for sure: They bring the party.

My Hometown Downtown Cape Town

The Other Side of the Mother CityMy Hometown, Downtown Cape Town,

By Mia Arderne

The drug lord twists around in his wheelchair with sudden and violent fervor. I can barely breathe. Around his neck are two gold chains thick enough to whack someone dead. I’m in the grimy Northern Suburbs of Cape Town.

I’ve come here for cheap booze after hours. In Cape Town, retailers cannot legally sell alcohol after 6 p.m. and pubs cannot legally sell alcohol after 2 a.m. It is 2:35 a.m. on the Thursday of one shitty week, and so the tavern is my only refuge right now.

Smokkies. Taverns. Yaardts. These are illegal establishments selling illegally acquired alcohol in every dubious suburb, should you venture beyond that line of privilege. The goddam privileged little cushion of central Cape Town is the reason I’m here in the first place. I can’t afford the CBD anymore.

All Hail Cape Town’s Uptown cosmopolitan CBD, the wine-farms and the sea. Table Mountain. Long Street. Beach Road. High-heeled glamour sluts, young Black Economic Empowerment executives, old money hipsters, Maserati-driving retirees, botoxed cougar moms and shore-dwelling cocktail-sippers…

I’ve lived here for twenty-four years and I tell you that Cape Town is what I like to think of as the Third World Bourgeoisie. A place so pretentious, I can’t afford a drink because a drink requires posh boutique clothing and an exorbitant entry fee.

So, here I sit, in downtown Cape Town, in a nameless tavern – All the good ones are nameless. The dingy, rickety building in the declining suburb is identifiable only by the string of expensive cars outside – Mustangs, Hummers, Audi R8’s and even a Ferrari or two. There are similar smokkies in Delft, a few in Ravensmead, a couple more in Belhar – don’t bother with the big, infamous one in Gugulethu – that one was specially designed for tourists.

Rough laughter erupts from the alcohol-soaked. The regulars hold their glasses of brandy while they recline on loose car seats scattered in the yard. Their decor is broken fenders and shattered glass. I watch the drug lord’s potbelly jiggle. I see the three Alsatians follow him around. Mercenaries. At the click of his fingers, three of my limbs could find their way into a different hound’s snout.

The brandy slides down my throat. I consider: What’s the best thing about this place? I don’t have to make conversation about marketing with a hipster wearing a Ramones T-shirt, ordering a R60 Mojito in a club that costs me R50 to walk in.

The kingpin is speaking to a customer. He slams his drink down so hard, I brace myself for the glass to smash and splinter into pieces. It doesn’t

His bubbling emphysema laugh reverberates through the yaardt and seizes everyone’s attention. The drinkers burst out laughing with him. At nothing. Because, in downtown Cape Town, you learn to laugh, genuinely laugh, at nothing.

A Taxonomy of Youth Culture in Cape Town

This piece deciphers the Mothers City’s Cliques, analyzing the Yuppies, the Hipsters, the Poppies and the Zef riffraff, so you may know where to place yourself – or not to place yourself.

“A Taxonomy of Youth Culture in Cape Town” is formerly known as my “Cape Town Cliques, A battle of sub-cultures” – and you may find it all at the bottom of this blog.

It has since been published by Matador Network.

Here is the Link:

http://matadornetwork.com/life/a-taxonomy-of-youth-culture-in-cape-town/

Cape Town Cliques

Cape Town Cliques