South Africa, Cape Town, 1961.
“Goodbye… so long… farewell.”
My first time in Cape Town came not long after I had met my wife. For many of us it was our first time overseas and for me the first experience flying. I had only travelled by boat when my family migrated and the restraints of a plane were enough to make me a madman. As we lugged our bags through the foreign neighborhoods, I imagined my self a bum hopping off freight and surveying his new town for the nearest store to buy wine, sardines, and a little bread for night.
My first movements in any country felt like blundering filament bulbs but really we just became another citizen to the people, a piece of their surroundings in the form of mirrors. I am gladder to be able to fuse into my habitats, and I would never forget that it was in South Africa where we began our life on the road. Which was the life that so many young folk of our generation across the continents were living in some way or another, following each other in search of meaning and freedom, myself with a bottle of wine and a packet of sardines. We were just lucky to make our living from it and in the end I guess some of us couldn’t let it go. It took me a while too. But art is not eternal, right?
Janet had her eyes closed and fists clenched to the armrests as we flew over the jungle. I thought it was one of the greatest sights I ever witnessed. It is a strange thing to look out and feel yourself floating while your stomach wanders thousands of feet below in a mushrooming green amazon with the lions. Theirs wasn’t like the trees back home, all dull and domesticated from drought and heat. These trees had a voice and spirit of their own like the people of Africa, the ones whose souls wept and praised their heartland. It was a while before I met those people. I felt my heart rate rise when I looked down. Just like every time I felt that sense of something new, like listening to jazz, a jolt of electricity shooting through my nerves and making me want to pop, brake, run, and roar. We were all high on that feeling of the new and foreign and how we kept that addiction going I cannot possibly know.
I noticed the cracks of white showing through Jan’s shoes already. She painted them black since she didn’t own any black formal shoes, just part of the job, and she brought the paint with her. We would be willing to do anything for them really. When you’re young and have nowhere else to be, why wouldn’t you listen to the seductions of adventure when the famous Coca-Cola passes you a yo-yo to promote. The last few months went like a monumental flick of the wrist for me and I hadn’t been able to just lie down and think about it all.
I met my wife at Flinders Station and I was stone-broke, unemployed, and sharing a flat with ten other young men. All I possessed was a useless dental degree in my canvas bag and a couple of outlet books. But didn’t the dreamers say the poor owned everything? We were two of an arranged double date but were partnered with the wrong one. She was young, thin-hipped and blue-eyed, and on the outside Janet listened with the face of a boarding school graduate but really she was mad, mad with a rebellion to get further than her parents and her friends, to see more and to make them jealous of her satisfactions. She actually did go to a boarding school but ran away, moved to Melbourne, then never spoke of it again.
We were two opposites really, but we had the same impassioned spirit and need to get away from simply repeating parentages. She drank pearl barley herbal tea and her wide eye stare of a sweet little girl hurled me into torrents of promises like any young lovers. I took her to St Kilda and bought us both glazed pastries and creampuffs when I told her about my new job and how she had to decide whether to join me within days. She didn’t belong here; she was too pretty to be the nurse who settled down and mothered young. In the end we really were made for each other.
Everyone came to the local bar that night, even David, our boss and a South African local. His lineage to a Coca-Cola executive gave him the chance to turn his favourite hobby into a twenty-year tour across the world. He wasn’t the kind of manager I expected, a stout man with big glasses, he never missed a party and I doubt I ever saw him angry in all the time I knew him. Clive Collins called him ‘Odd Job’ and the name stuck for the rest of his life. We had spent the first day with meetings and formalities and now we wanted to get to know our group, to not only enter the surroundings but descend, like Dante, into its depths. We met at a place called Bonita Bo-Kaap near the city centre and David shouted us all a glass of Cuban rum and some spicy Cape Malay chicken. Janet was drinking gin and her uneasiness amongst strangers faded after the fourth or fifth. We all sat drinking and shouting to the music “It was an itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini.”
Dick would pop back and forth between goofing at the jukebox and making the local girls giggle and fawn at the big foreigner. Dick was the loud, voracious type, a Canadian and previously a mechanic. His skill with his hands made him good at the job but his innocent enthusiasm made him even better amongst the kids, even if he was a little dimwitted.
“Hey Jose, seevarso means beer right?”
“Cerverza. You may hear engañar too when we visit my country.”
Dick would bob and nod his head like a sportsman at the coach pep talk when he tried to look like he understood, an occurrence we soon saw through.
“It means fool,” the Spanish speakers laughed and everyone joined in.
We had a group of seven, more would come later, but we were the originals. Janet and myself were from Australia, though I said New Zealand to sound interesting, Dick, Jose from Mexico, Clive Collins from London, Adrian from Argentina, and Luis of Chile. We danced and had a great night drinking, smoking, pulling wrists, and sharing stories. People clapped and shadows dallied against the dim light on teal painted walls. Everything was painted colourful here. Jazz played louder and louder and we did the twist and lindy hops in our group and amongst locals, “two, three, four, tell the people what she wore.”
I was glad to hug someone close in the darkness, in this new scene of urban wilderness and desires, free from any higher belief, notion, or ideology. We had all left behind our own depressions, our jobs, our rationing, struggles, and the trials endured by our parents with the First and Second World War. But the world was different now and we figured misery was something belonging in history books. Countries were now united for the freedom of their young. And we were it right now. Now with rum soaking our skins and cigarette smoke clinging to our shirts. When I looked at the people around the table I knew these would be the family and refuge in our liberation. We were the beginning of the sixties as Coca-Cola was the beginning of the yo-yo.
Luis, a twenty-four year old hailing from Santiago, knew the most English of the others and he and I found solace instantly. I could see us as brothers in another life who wore overalls and drove Hudson’s on prairies, on the family farm in Oklahoma as our ma’ called us in for apple pie with cream and we shared our cherry pickings and whistled by the river. He had lost his father at fourteen. I had lost my younger brother in my hometown England. He was thin, like me, and wasn’t always a yo-yo player. But there was a haze in his eyes I felt was much more matured and tough than myself. He seemed hardened as though he had fought in a war while I had only wrestled with the alley cats. He had a thin face and his dark eyes and brow matched his slicked black hair and mind, his soul rooted in humanism and thoughts I definitely wouldn’t understand. Luis spoke to me alone that night, asking for English lessons even though he would most likely better teach me. He was a brooding type of intellectual. Sometimes he would become oblivious to everything around him, vowing silence until he reached the stage of a primary school and told Spanish-speaking children,
“Now don’t play the yo-yo in school or your teacher will take it and play with the toy at her home.”
“And don’t play it riding your bicycle either. I tried and … it will not work.”
And kids would laugh and he would laugh and then he would be silent again when the show finished. Luis was in search for some greater truth that life would give him, and I never did ask him if he found it. I was the saddest to see him go in the end, Luis taught me the value of patience and family.
It was unseasonably hot in Cape Town and we all felt the heaviness of that night, even in our thinnest blouses and slacks. Janet and I were unfazed by humidity but the sweat made some uncomfortable, not ready to leave their old climates behind. And from the jukebox Larry Verne wailed dully in our ears as the heat finally pressed everyone down to leave, “Hey, Mr. Custer, please don’t make me go, I had a dream last night about the comin’ fight, Somebody yelled attack! And there I stood with a arrow in my back.”
The group staggered back to the apartment as sunrise crept over from northeast and its direction threw me briefly. With Janet leaning on my shoulder as I walked with Luis, we noticed how the streets were quiet now. No tension. No order. The bay was innocent and transparent for a while. The pavement became thinner as we went further out of the main district to our apartment, the road turning to grass without our perceptions recognizing it. I noticed some young Negro males working on train tracks; I didn’t think laborers had this early a morning shift. They moved like phantoms, familiar to the disposition of the inner eyes of those who refused to see them. The thought gave me a feeling like something stuck in my throat, which made me feel suddenly visible to the people like a bursting filament bulb.
We had a week to spare before the tour officially began and I still had some money left from my courier days so Janet, Luis, and myself planned to hike our way to Table Mountain while the others explored the city. With nothing but a Kodak and some cash in our pockets, we hurled our way across landscapes in the mad rush of an inexperienced traveller.
Of course we didn’t know we would return to South Africa and Cape Town many times later in our travels and on some occasions wishing we hadn’t. The train passed the rugged coastline and here we saw the beauty of South Africa, the untouched spine of Cape Town and it felt good to get closer to the land and away from the judging eyes of civilization. Our window became a changing post card, rugged mountains pressing against unruly water, blue skies, and highflying birds. Such grandeur landscapes can spur such eloquent silences and the three of us did our best to remember it.
Between the end of the line and the cable car we found ourselves at a farmer’s markets in Simon’s Town. The market appeared to be an in-between place in itself. It was the first time we saw the other side of South Africa, the forgotten ones who lingered on the border between designated Flats and stolen homes. There was a mix of coloured people here and the air was strange but not hostile. An older Negro woman in a patterned dress and handmade beads caught my eye. She was selling watercolours for 82 rands, almost ten Australian dollars. I bought one painting of three women and rolled it up carefully into my knapsack, thanking her and smiling. She nodded. Some student protestors at the tourist entrance held Luis’ attention. A young Negro male was leading the group, calling:
“Verwoerd is a villain.”
“Stop racial discrimination now.”
“We demand decent housing… jobs… we march.”
His charisma was drawing mild curiosity and I was unwillingly jerked out of my thoughts when he put a microphone to an analogue reel-recorder and played my favourite musician Louis Armstrong,
What did I do
To be so black
I didn’t like to think too deeply about music, it spoiled the rhythm for me. We hustled on foot until the cable car, with flimsy wooden floorboards, took us to the sheer peak and boy, oh boy, what a sight that was. We scrambled up ridges, gulping, as every step it seemed we were going higher up a terrifying elevator while Africa stretched into immense vistas, valleys and plateaus. Luis pushed us on with long eager strides,
“It’s getting late, so we should hurry.”
“It’s too high,” I groaned at this adventurous maniac from behind.
But I was glad to have conquered this mountain, with sweat on my face and scratches on my palms. We were high in the clouds and could see the entire Peninsula. I could see Robben Island and the meeting of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean. We had a small picnic with the food we bought at the markets and once the Kodak ran dry and clouds were settling we took the same track home twice as fast feeling twice as light.
Jose’s family was incredibly poor and this profession was his only escape from that fate, which was quite the opposite of Clive, a London academic with a scathing wit and handsome face. Jose came from Mexico but he told us he had African heritage. He and Adrian spoke little English and so I came to know them much later on. And we found out Jose’s descent much later too, in one of his brutally honest announcements. His matter-of-factness made me uneasy but Luis admired it. Adrian and Jose had both played yo-yos since they were little niños and so were the experts among us. They were also the first to go.
Our team all reached Cape Town, the final destination by different routes and hard work and we said goodbye to the people’s path like we did friends at the airport, “Goodbye… so long… farewell… good friend… I’ll miss you… take care… old man… go easy… see you soon.” And then we turned our backs and put our hands in pockets to take a different path. None of us were poets or artists and none of us came to become revolutionaries. We were all far too insignificant to be spokesmen of any noble causes. Yet we were the Don Quixotes, the Gullivers, the Odysseus’s, as we came to encounter new frontiers, hear new anthems, eat new fruits and I guess we all figured somewhere along the line we would find solidarity from solitude with visions of pearls and pleasures in our eyes and nothing more. Maybe that’s what life should be and I hope to God I don’t forget it.
(Novel and Memoir – Chapter – 2012)