Sunday, October 2, 2011

Down to the Crossroads

Two and-a-half weeks into my six months in South Africa and I am feeling unsettled. This is at least partly due to the fact that I am still living out of a suitcase, as long-term accommodation has proven harder to come by than anticipated, and until this past weekend I was sleeping in a hostel. And of course there are massive cultural adjustments that have to be made, regardless of how “westernized” the community where I'm living is. But unsettled doesn't necessarily mean unhappy, and a few early highlights have proved, if nothing else, to be welcome diversions from the decidedly unromantic drudgery of getting my bearings.

A few such hours of diversion happened last Friday night, when our new friend Tina - a warm and social 28 year-old Namibian who, when she is not running safaris, works at the hostel we were living out of - invited Sarah and I to see some live music. We didn't need to hear who was playing before we accepted the invite, but for the record it was a performance by Karen Zoid, the reigning goddess of Afrikaaner rock. Her music could rather accurately be described by a lazy critic as a cross between Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette, except almost entirely in Afrikaans (that Dutch offshoot being the dominant language around here). She was backed by three local guys with some serious blues chops.

We had anticipated an indoor, soft-seated venue, so were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to find the show happening in an entirely open-air courtyard with bleachers at one end, an elaborate stage at the other and a bar along one side. We set up shop at a picnic table near the bleachers, under a persistent musky charcoal cloud being churned out by the braii (barbecue) that was a few feet away. The man operating the barbecue and selling the sausages cooked thereon was a friend of Tina's, so introductions were made promptly upon our arrival. When he said "nice to meet you" in Afrikaans, I thought he was telling me what his long and complicated name was.

"Sorry, what's your name?" I asked, seeking clarification.

"Barney," he said, looking rather like a Barney, with his patchy beard, and cigarette dangling from his lip. The chatter of the night out had started to pick up, so I wasn't sure I had heard him right.

"Did you say Barney?"

"Yeah, Barney," he offered, taking a long, slow drag off his cigarette, "like the purple f***ing dinosaur." He provided this nugget of clarification with the defeated disgust of a man who has long since accepted that the best way to get people to remember his name is by aligning himself with the twentieth century's most grating children's character (with all due respect to Sponge Bob).

The music began shortly thereafter, and was really quite good. Tina and her friend Lise - the owner of the hostel - had introduced us around to their friends, and we were quick to join the team towards the front of the crowd, off to one side of the stage, dancing on the grass and even on top of a picnic table as the night wore on. The band rocked hard, but with a measured intensity that left plenty of room to impress, and Karen had the crowd in the palm of her hand. I followed the cues and cheered and laughed at the between-song banter along with the crowd, even though most of it was Afrikaans and went a little deeper than my burgeoning six-word vocabulary (thank you, you're welcome and tractor-trailer).

The company was great, the music entertaining and the wine flowed like beer. As we were bulk-buying, we went with it by the bottle, which is rather cost effective when you are in the heart of wine country. By the time I made my way up for the final round, the bartender apologized that all she had left was the expensive stuff, which would run me about R85 (85 rand). I decided to suck it up and fork over what is the equivalent of twelve Canadian dollars for their top shelf bottle of red, and happily accepted the unexplained free shot of Jagermeister that came with it. (I should note here that wine is the only thing I've noticed so far that is fill-your-suitcase cheap. Most other food, services and consumer goods are comparable to typical Canadian prices).

When it came time for the perfunctory encore, the evening's star gracefully retreated from the spotlight and let her backing band shine as they ripped their way through what was really a cover of a cover: their rendition of Cream's Crossroads, which is itself a reworking of the great Robert Johnson's Cross Road Blues. It didn't quite fit musically with the rest of the night, but was my favourite tune of the evening, and in title alone has served as a theme song over the past week as I have navigated the geographical, personal, professional and cultural intersections at which I find myself.

The music over and the last bottle drained (I made sure not to waste any), we retreated, stopping for milkshakes before heading home. As we pulled up to the hostel – greeted by the unwavering enthusiasm of Lonwabo, the 22 year-old local who works the night shift – there was a touch of a premature come-down mixed in with the usual warm glow that follows one home after a successful night out. Our hosts at our accommodations had certainly been good to us, but by that night we were well past the point of “just a few days while we find something else,” and a return to the hostel was a reminder that a weekend of full-time home-hunting – likely with a headache for at least one of the days – awaited. I make no bones about how settled in one can get in just a few months, but it's hard to move significantly in that direction without a place to live.

Stable housing has since been secured, but still I remain unsure of what shape these six months will take. I am grateful for this uncertainty, for if I felt totally settled in by this point - contentedly in sync with the customs, climate and currency of this faraway land, and decidedly headed in one particular direction - then it would mean either that I was being disingenuous in my assessment of my situation, or that my South African experience wasn't shaping up to be as far outside of my comfort zone as I had hoped. Since, however, I am still finding my way through a sort of transitional fog, I can be certain that I have travelled far, and hopeful that there are great things around the bend.

The new accommodation is a one-room cottage on a pseudo-farm outside of town. More on that to follow.


Anonymous said...

Thank You Heart for the wonderful bed time story. Although I didn't read the entire discription of "Barney" to the girls. Caroline wanted a real book with pages but listened intently. Abigail thought you were such a good writer, you should write a book. I told a blog is like a book in progress. Good luck on your adventure and discovering what's around the bend.

I have a little adventure coming up myself as my Dad and I leave for Istandul on October 23rd.

Abigail is also wondering about the food.

Nicole, Abigail and Caroline.

Rod MacIvor/Photographer said...

are you following the music or is the music following you :).

enjoy your new world !

Hart Shouldice said...

A little bit of both, Rod. Hoping to find some more traditional music sometime soon.

And Nicole, I'm glad the post went over well as a bedtime story. Please give my best to your girls, and I look forward to hearing about Istanbul.

Rachel SQF said...

Love it! But -- how do you say tractor-trailer in Afrikaans?

Hart Shouldice said...

I've been waiting for somebody to ask. It's spelled "vragmotor," but the phonetic English spelling would probably be FRACH-motore, with the "ach" sound coming from deep in the throat. I learned it when I borrowed the reading material of a co-worker's three-year-old last week, and I've been trying to work it into conversations ever since. It's a fun word, and I think I'm going to start using it to swear.

mchen said...

Ha ha, you answered my question about how to say tractor-trailer — nice! Sounds like you've got your work cut out for you... absolutely amazing experiences will be presenting themselves to you in the weeks and days to come, and I'm looking forward to reading about them. You've got a way with words, Hart. If this law thing doesn't pan out, you could always turn to writing.