Alive in South Africa: When an expat goes ‘home’
Alive! The word pops into my head as we enter Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport. Ironic really, isn’t it, for a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world. Yet I feel it. Sense it. Am reminded of a friend who says he comes alive every time he returns – feels boring, bland and disconnected for weeks in his new country, Australia every time he goes back.
“An electricity in the air” is how another friend describes it. People seem to laugh more, live more.
These thoughts resonate as my daughter and I arrive jaded yet expectant. We collect cling-wrapped suitcases and plastic piping containing an art canvas painstakingly painted by my mother in law for my niece’s wedding gift and embark on our flight to Durban.
On arrival in Durban, we load luggage onto trolley, relieved and mildly surprised everything is still intact. We meet my precious parents who are so, so happy to see us. It seems like yesterday yet it is years since our last visit. My friend’s Italian in-laws are there too — collecting gifts and a watch needing repair from the bowels of my cling-wrapped suitcase.
In the commotion of unwrapping suitcase, embracing parents and searching for gifts, I leave the plastic piping carrying painting in the middle of Arrivals. I remember my concentration lapse halfway to my parent’s home. The joy of arriving is tainted by the concern that I will never see the painting again.
Surprise! Euphoria! They have found the painting. Early the next morning, my dad and I brave the hour’s journey back to the airport to claim my “ama-pipeline” containing painting. I acknowledge the piping looks like a bazooka and marvel no-one called the bomb squad.
We repeat the hair-raising journey back home to my parent’s picturesque little retirement village lined with neat homes and colorful gardens.
Broccoli, red pepperdews and pink dahlias
The views are sensational. I marvel at how green and lush everything looks. Plants grow fast. There is broccoli in the garden, a prolific crop of bright red pepperdews (which my dad later bottles for me), green peppers are ready for picking and a profusion of pink dahlias bloom in the front garden. My mother carelessly tosses seeds into a flower bed of rich, dark soil and they sprout within days. I learn the bright orange flowers that joyfully spill over a trellis in the backyard are Black-eyed Susans. I wonder if they’ll grow in my dry shale garden back home.
I photograph old oak trees and magnificent liquid amber’s dressed in their bright red autumn wardrobe. We take a walk within an extensive boundary of electric fencing and encounter impala, blesbok and zebra. The grass smells sweet. I am reminded of my youngest son who when asked what he loved most about South Africa, thought for a moment and then said: “The smell.” At the time a more cynical me wondered what he meant. I now understand.
A warm, friendly neighbor delivers freshly baked carrot muffins and says she’ll leave cheese puffs at the front door early on Sunday morning. Random acts of kindness are a hallmark of this little village.
Green rolling mountains. The Howick Falls — gaily decorated with colorful, newly washed blankets at its summit. Where else in the world?
Everywhere are political posters marking April’s elections. Zuma is pasted on the town’s pillars and posts — his beaming face even covers an entire electricity box like Zuma wallpaper.
“Vote for the Tiger”
My daughter is amused by a “Vote for the Tiger” poster and takes a photograph to show her brothers back home. “He looks far too friendly to be a tiger,” she says of a grinning Rajbanzi.
We travel deep into KZN for my niece’s nuptials. I meet my beautiful sisters, my nephews and nieces. Everything is warm and fuzzy.
The wedding scene is breathtaking. A stark white marquee has a backdrop of imposing mountains, a dam complete with ducks and a green field of inquisitive cows. The local tight-knit farming community pitches in to help — arranges flowers, helps set out tables and an all-important dance floor. A garden arch is transformed with foliage and baby’s breath. The marquee is bedecked with white drapes, fairy lights and chandeliers. Generous urns of flowers spill out from corners, green hydrangeas, roses and soft pink proteas add subtle splashes of color to crisp white table settings. My daughter and I help tie sage green chiffon sashes around smartly dressed white chairs.
The day arrives and the weather is perfect. An exquisite bride and handsome groom exchange vows under a fabric festooned arch. The bride sobs when it comes to say “I do” and we all cry with her.
Photographs are taken under an old oak tree. A three-layered dense, dark chocolate cake decorated with golden spun sugar and chocolate cup cakes is cut out in the afternoon sunshine on the edge of the dam. A herd of curious cows offer their congratulations.
My daughter is enraptured. She learns what it means to party country style and later dances the night away in her flower girl champagne silk dress and Ugg boots. It is 1 a.m. before she finally gives in and falls into an exhausted heap. The country revelers party on.
In a sober moment, I chat to my nephews about leaving South Africa. Would they? They all say no, never. Bright, young and highly educated, they are prepared to work abroad but actually leave forever? Leave surfing in Llandudno? Their friends? Their unique lifestyle?
Not possible. They are optimistic, realistic — full of life and hope. They claim most of their friends are too. Yet they acknowledge the road ahead is tough. “White, male and bottom of the pile,” they laugh. So they simply study longer and harder, confident this will give them the edge in a biased job market. I so want them to succeed and believe strongly that they will.
The elderly appear more pragmatic, slightly less optimistic. A sage farmer tells me, “If you live here, you can’t complain, you stand in queues if you have to. You adapt.”
The next day my brother-in-law shows me the foundations for his new home in the foothills of Mt Curry. I gasp at the stunning views of mountains and grassland. The plans are in his head, not on paper. Finding a builder was easy. He sought out a builder who had built his last farmhouse at least 18 years ago.
“I put word out in the Transkei that I wanted to build a house and he arrived at my front door five days later.” No council stipulations or regulations.
I remember the rigmarole in getting our own building plans passed through council, the red tape and petty formalities. The “fauna spotter catcher” a neighbor was required to hire so he could scout for animals in gum trees before allowing clearance for a building envelope. The fact that we require an expensive permit every time we want to burn anything at all. And yet, through it all, I am grateful everything works like a well oiled, predictable yet efficient machine.
“Mom sobbed again”
I leave the wedding venue full and saturated with family. My daughter writes in her journal that “mom sobbed again”.
We stop at an Underberg farm stall to buy mazavaroo and a grainy loaf of home-baked bread. The village is brimming with scraggly Splashy Fen revelers in need of a greasy breakfast and a hot shower.
At a local mall, I later discover Mr. Price Home. I almost buy two over-sized cushions but sanity prevails and I purchase two vases instead — one a deep red, one white. They are both made in South Africa, not China.
I re-introduce my daughter to Nik-Naks, Frito’s and Big Korn Bites. We load up on old favorites to take back to her brothers and father.
I’m in a happy bubble, an impenetrable and nostalgic laager. Yet every now and then something dark and sinister invades — tragic accidents caused by overcrowded buses, over-tired drivers and erratic driving. A news story reveals the intruders that killed a six year old boy and left his mother in a coma have been sentenced to life imprisonment. So too have iconic musician Lucky Dube’s killers. The jails must be full to overflowing, I ponder.
The crime is insidious, evil — a deadly viper that heedlessly invades the beauty, peace and serenity. It unsettles me.
My dear friend drives an hour to visit. She hasn’t aged a bit — still gorgeous after all these years. We chat as though we saw each other yesterday. I show her my photographs saturated with scenery shots.
“The countryside is achingly beautiful,” I dramatize. Then I am slightly embarrassed by her bemused and vaguely amused expression.
“I suppose we take it for granted,” she kindly acknowledges.
I chat to a dear old Cape Town friend for an hour on the phone — I long to see her in person, to see the expressions on her face. Maybe next time.
I visit a precious old school friend — comfortingly the same. She still has the same gracious home and enviable garden — a warm and generous husband and two beautiful children. They are off to boarding school — he’s loving life, his sport — she lives for her horses.
Too soon we have to return home. The drive to the airport seems even more hair-raising than the last. The truck strike is over so all the heavy weights are on the road. A 20-ton truck thunders past — we’re doing 120 km an hour so heaven knows how fast he’s traveling. I am slightly fearful we will not make it.
We arrive safely. I try not to cry. I remind my tearful mother that we are so fortunate we are not refugees fleeing our country without hope of ever seeing family again. “We’re actually really lucky,” I convince us both. “We’ll come back soon,” I add optimistically. It works, sort of.
This time I am tearful but not sobbing. We have barely passed through security when my daughter is apprehended and her hand luggage searched. She has mistakenly put Gran’s pinking shears in her pencil case. Customs kindly allow us to return them to Gran. I am grateful for the lighter moment. Later in Jo’burg I too am forced to hand over my booty — pickled pepperdews lovingly bottled by my dad are confiscated. I vow to squeeze them into my suitcase next time.
Flight back to Brisbane
The flight back to Brisbane via Singapore is interminably long.
My sons and husband meet us at the airport — we are embraced, feel loved, missed. In the weeks we’ve been away my teenage son has grown taller than me. His younger brother has almost learned how to whistle.
We return to our home among the gum trees. I step out onto our veranda; breathe the fresh night air, thankful for the heralding of cooler weather. It has rained while I was gone and in the light of the moon, I see that the grass is uncharacteristically green. The imposing ghost gums surrounding our home like sentinels are stripped of their bark. It is a different, still unfamiliar beauty, I muse.
I stroke our faithful golden retriever’s downy ears — and note she doesn’t appear to have realized we left at all. The guinea pigs have survived.
I notice my husband has folded all the washing. “We even cleaned out your car,” says my son.
Home. Yet the yearning remains. A little piece of me forever missing.