“Catch Me in Durban If You’re Quick”
By Wanda Hennig
Spud Hilton, when I quizzed him a couple of years back during the annual Book Passages travel writers conference on possibly submitting a story on Durban to the SF Chron travel section (I never did), made the point that the articles of writers, when writing about a place they live, often lack the element of surprise, discovery and wonder he’s after.
When Karen Misuraca suggested I write a little piece on my “ex-pat life” back here in Durban “to share with fellow BATW members what’s up in my part of the world,” I said sure. Then drew a blank. What to share?
Some of you will know I came back to deal with family issues and have been here for some time. The spectacles were more rose-hued when I was freer to come and go. And it’s not so easy, for sure, to see a very familiar place with “new” eyes. “Crime and grime city,” a lot of locals call it, with justification in pockets.
But this is also a pretty exotic little hot-spot.
So let me put on my “welcome to Durban” cap and proffer some of what I’d share if you came to visit. And I will hot-link to some old stories for those keen on more depth…
The clichéd “melting pot” might well have been coined for this sprawling sub-tropical Indian Ocean port — and resort — city with its British colonial roots; where first and third worlds intersect; and where Zulu (Durban is the biggest city in the Zulu-stronghold province of KwaZulu-Natal), Indian and European cultures collide, dissect and blend.
Bet you didn’t know that we in KwaZulu-Natal have a king (Goodwill Zwelithini). As polygamy is a custom, he, same as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, who is also a Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal, has several wives. Both the king and the president sometimes wear skins; at other times a suit.
The city’s single largest population group are the descendants of the Indians from India who came as indentured laborers to work on the sugar plantations more than 100 years ago. Mosques and temples plus spices and curries are among the rich legacy. While I wouldn’t suggest you go overboard trying to find a bunny chow, often written about as Durban’s signature dish, we do have some pretty fab Indian restaurants (ask me for names) and also some delicious “colonial Portuguese” establishments, the latter a legacy of Mozambique, which country we border, having been a Portuguese colony.
As you might have figured, this being Africa, there is huge poverty and unemployment. Beggars at traffic lights cross the racial divide. People, most of them hard-working and trying to earn an honest buck, live under cardboard and in plastic make-shift homes that cling to the hills close to Durban and also in informal settlements wherever there is space. All this makes it hard not to feel heartsore — and grateful — often.
If you park you car you pay a car guard to keep an eye on it. I do volunteer teaching, of English as a second language, with a nonprofit. Many of the students are economic refugees from Congo. Some are very well educated. Some work as car guards.
Heritage tour options offer access to both historic (for example, where Nelson Mandela voted in the country’s first free elections) and lifestyle “happenings” like the Bovine Head Market and shisa nyama (“hot meat”) feasts at township taverns, where you select your raw cuts to be grilled barbecue-style over open fires.
As often as I can, same as when I’m in the Bay Area, I head off to wherever I can. It was London in August. Just before that, I had a quickie bush experience in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, which is KwaZulu-Natal’s answer to Kruger, a drive of about three hours north. I’ve been doing copy editing shifts on a daily newspaper, recently teaching English to three young Turkish-speaking women, and, naturally, freelancing.
Writing-wise I am also in the process of indie-publishing my first book (Cravings) with a lot of inspired input from erstwhile Bay Area magazine colleagues/friends. It came into being at the San Francisco Zen Center, was reshaped during a trip to Portugal — and I was inspired to finish it during my most recent trip to Poland. Jim Shubin, Suzie Rodriguez and Lee Foster all offered valuable tips at the start of this publishing journey, which has been more of a challenging adventure than I anticipated.
Back to Durban, the city’s best attribute is — I would say unarguably — it’s beachfront. In fact there are several beaches, strung together, running past the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium with its distinctive arch and skycar for city-viewing, built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The city was recently chosen to host the 2022 edition of the Commonwealth Games after Edmonton, the only other place in the running, pulled out.
Most weeks you will find me on at least four mornings at the beach at around 6:30. Sometimes I pound the promenade (the alliteration has more oomph than the action); or more often, run and walk barefoot along the shoreline and then swim at best-for-swimming Vetch’s beach.
Durban’s beachfront is a hang-out for surfers, kayakers, stand-up paddlers, swimmers, strollers, runners, sun-worshippers, Muslim women in their head-to-toe garb and running shoes, a huge park-run contingent on Saturday mornings, seine-net fishermen and usually at the weekend, robed African priests who arrive early to conduct services that usually involve dunking the faithful under the waves. The occasional chicken brought for sacrificial slaughter has been known to escape. My artist friend Sam, who lives in a high-rise across from the stretch of beach bush they find refuge in, along with some vervet monkeys (troops of which swoop around the city) and a couple of stray cats, does a daily Facebook report on these.
The swimming beaches are protected by shark nets and tourist attractions include booking a seat on the KwaZulu-Natal Shark’s Board viewing boat. You get to watch the nets get serviced plus good views of dolphins, the city and the sunrise.
We have a great Botanic Gardens — the oldest in Africa — and if you come to visit, I’ll take you to what I think of as Durban’s answer to Oakland’s Yoshi’s and one of my favorite city venues. It’s a jazz bar called The Chairman built in the most derelict part of the city. Great music. Great vibe. In a sense depicting the essence of the best of this city’s dichotomous face. Cheers!