Memory lane

Last night the BFG showed me this interactive site set up by the band Arcade Fire: The Wilderness Downtown. It is awesome, you should try it out. You will need headphones if you are at work.

Watching it made me think of where I grew up (why will be obvious if you watch the video).

When I was in school I dreamt of getting out of Durban. I felt like the city was strangling me. Well, to be more specific, since I hardly spent any time in the city, I felt like the suburb of Westville was slowly sucking the life out of me. When I left to go to University in Cape Town, I felt like I had escaped a death sentence.

I never once missed Durban, in fact I was relieved to be leaving when holiday time was over. I never missed my family. The air in Durban choked me. I used to think I felt a darkness there, that the place was cursed. Everyone I knew had dark secrets, had something terrible happen to them. The life I lived in Cape Town was full of light and happy (wealthy) people. Sometimes I imagined that the area I grew up  in was possessed, like in the movies.

How strange that now when I think of home, my mind returns more and more to a place that I haven’t thought of as home for 12 years. A place that I couldn’t wait to escape. Now that I have had some distance, it is easier for me to remember all the good and wonderful things of my childhood. Ha actually now it seems like paradise.

One thing I love (and slightly fear) about Durban is that seething organic force of life. Durban is a place where you really are reminded of the brief and fragile existence we humans lead. You can feel the plants bursting out of the brick walls, threatening to reclaim the land at the slightest chance. In Durban you must always fight the foliage for your right to live there.

My first memory of our house when we arrived from Botswana is me bawling my eyes out because our new house terrified me. It was raining that day, of course, and there were snails and mosquitos and bugs everywhere, and everything was saturated in damp plant life. It seemed to be alive, breathing, and that really scared me. I think it never really stopped scaring me. Raw life forces are scary things.

I have always had mixed memories of Durban but for today I want a trip down memory lane to appreciate the things from my childhood that I miss, and can never get back:

  • In Durban I was part of a family. All of my mom’s family lived nearbye, as did my dad’s parents.  My grandparents (mom’s side) were like my second parents. We spent all our holidays and free time all together at their place, just down the road from us. It seemed like the other end of the earth back then. Then one aunt moved to Cape Town, then I left too. Then people died. After that it all fell apart. Now we are scattered all over the world. We will never all be together for holidays again. That is incredibly sad. Family is more wonderful than you think when you are 18.
  • As I said, Durban is wild. The coast can be breathtakingly beautiful and the sea is violent. There are sharks. There are snakes. The humidity is intense. You can’t escape it or the bugs that go with it. The grass grows fast like a jungle. The rain is relentless and the thunder voluble.  It’s a dangerous place. People get shot, whether in the suburbs or in the townships. It reminds you that you are alive every day.
  • People there live lives that may seem small (even small-minded) to outsiders but their lives are huge in heart. They are so kind and friendly. I really miss that friendliness, that openness.
  • Durban is a place where you can bring out the dark sides of life that you hid in front of other people, because Durbanites have all been there, and seen the dark side too, no matter how rich or poor they are.
  • Durban is a true cultural  and racial melting pot. I won’t pretend that the different colours in that pot mix seamlessly into a unified shade, or that they ever did, but Durban slips and slides and oozes along, somehow working despite the impression that anarchy should reign. It has a lot of flaws in that regard but it is a place where you really cannot hide from it even if you try.

It’s a humble, crumbling, prejudiced, small-town place that I can’t see appealing to many outsiders. I can’t imagine ever living there again. But right now it feels like the only real place I have ever known, a place where life is unashamedly real.

I miss it so much.


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Damaria Senne
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 08:20:53

    Thank you for helping me appreciate Durban. My sister lives in Pinetown and it’s one of my favourite cities. And many times I have experienced that warmth from the residents that you talk about.

    BTW, you forgot the monkeys. The ones that live behind my sister’s house and occassionally try to come visit us. Their cute in the zoo or game park; rather scary when you realise a measley little fence stands between you and them, and they look like they want in:-)


  2. Po
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 08:46:09

    Damaria: I could never forget the monkeys! The monkeys were one of my favourite things about Durban. They used to come and forage in our garden and eat the palm nuts. The moms used to walk along the telephone wires with the babies clinging to their tummies. It was sooo cute. And they used to gallop over our roof, it was an overpowering sound, like horses.
    They used to make the dogs angry, which scared me, and apparently after I moved away from home they astarted breaking into the house. I think this coincided with my cat becoming old and not defending his territory any more. Otherwise, maybe I was really scary!


  3. tiah
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 10:06:50

    I have those twinges from time to time, too. Hugs.


  4. poractacuscotts
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 14:40:09

    you’ve touched on something that I have wanted to write about for a while. The way you just wrote about your memories…they were so vivid and real. It’s like the person speaking to me then was not you remembering, but the past-you telling me about something as if it was happening right now.

    I think we’ll always miss the things we remember, particularly if the memory is as strong as that.


  5. Po
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 15:19:17

    tiah: I hope you will write a post about the place you grew up one day, I would love to read it!
    Poractacuscotts: that is quite a name you have there! Thank you for your kind words. I found that the music video plus the song I mentioned in my post really zapped me right into the memories, it was quite a powerful site they put together. I loved it.


  6. Alison
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 23:23:18

    We lived in Westville for the first 7 years of our married life. Moved up from East London, lived in Pinetown, Cowies Hill and bought our first house in Westville. We had loads of monkeys steal our paw paws, we had gecko’s living on our front verandah, so many that I was terrified to leave the house because they used to plop on the floor around me! We had a huuuuuuuge snake in our dining room the one time, and we were terrified. I called the police for help and they came round, shooed it out the window and shot it – ‘just in case’!! We spent every weekend beating back the immense growth in our wonderful jungle of a garden, and never seemed to get anywhere. We bought one of the original farm houses in the Westville area, it was built in the early 30’s and we bought it off the original owner. It had never been decorated since the day it was built. It was like time had stood still inside. It was THE most amazing house, and I miss it, dream about it and regret selling it to this day. Durbanites are strange people when you first move from a dorp like East London, but they grew on us and we still have friendships there that we will never lose, despite now living in the UK for 11 years. As much as I thought I hated Durban, looking back we actually had an amazing time and with hindsight perhaps wasn’t as bad as we thought it was. You’ve brought back so many memories, good ones, that I’m feeling very tearful! But in a good way :-)


  7. Po
    Sep 02, 2010 @ 23:29:58

    Alison: oh the geckos! How could I not mention them, mating and fighting and shitting everywhere. Good grief. One landed on my head once while I was showering, I felt so bad for the poor scalded thing. And the snakes, my dad used to shoot them too, which made me sad, but what could we do, put them in the neighbour’s garden?
    The monkeys used to eat our paw-paws too, haha. And someone always had an avo tree, and each year we would be given more massive avos then anyone could ever eat. And litchis. Man I hated litchis. Yuck. Your comment just sparked off a whole lot memories for me too!


  8. Rachel
    Sep 03, 2010 @ 11:06:26

    Damaria how can the monkeys be scary, I love them so much, we have sooooo many in our area, the other day I walked right past one and he didnt budge, it was so cool, so then I went and got him some bread and put it down for him and he just went over n got it with me there, wasnt scared of me at all. And a few weeks ago one came through the kitchen window and took a banana, soooo cute, lol. I think they are so precious and we’re so lucky in Durban to have so many of them, especially on the Bluff theres loads.

    Po I know what you are saying about the air here, for me it is all the pollution in the air that bugs me. And the litter everywhere, its awful, Cape Town is a much cleaner city.

    I like that in Durban it is a relatively short drive to anywhere you need to go. But on the other hand there is so much crime, I’ve seen so much shit go down where I work. And I find it hard to make friends here.


  9. Po
    Sep 03, 2010 @ 11:25:04

    Rachel: the monkeys used to scare me when the dogs and them were having showdowns. Other than that they were CUTE. I can imagine making friends as an outsider must be flipping impossible, there is no ‘city’ culture as such, everyone is ferreted away in their suburbs. How do new people even meet anyone there? Nightmare. If you are born there and grow up with everyone you become really close to everyone else. Durban is like one big family, but to break into that family as an adult seems horribly daunting. Maybe you need a mallet to break in. Ja and the crime. Saw so much shit too, and heard too much. Argh. But that video, it brough back the good stuff. Of being small in an urban jungle.


  10. Paula
    Sep 04, 2010 @ 10:49:56

    There are monkey’s in Durban? Here I was reading your lovely words and got ditracted in the comments section. It’s their butts that are scary… not so much the monkeys in an of themselves.
    I’m gunna check out that site.
    I have a raging fear of sharks but wanna see some up close. Kim said we would go shark cage diving to beat the fear. And then we were gunna go bungee jumping to face her fear.
    I wanna go to Durban to see the life thing you referred to in your post. Sounds poetic and interesting to note. It’s just the way people always complain about the humidity that puts me off….


  11. Po
    Sep 04, 2010 @ 11:41:03

    Paula: you should go in winter! Well, April is a good time, the humidity is over. It is sunny and nice then. You won’t get the bursting sense of life taking over then though. I think February and March are best for those times, but then the humidity is so heavy it is hard to move.


  12. Tamara
    Sep 13, 2010 @ 14:41:49

    I heart Durban. I too found Westville / Cowies Hill stifling as a teen, but I love the lush vegetarion, the wet heat and the salt-of-the-earth people.

    My mom used to get into our avo tree and shake all the avos loose so the monkeys couldn’t get them. My brother and I had to stand underneath with a sheet and try to catch them as they fell.

    I remember having geckos fly out of our old unused airconditioning shafts. One landed on my dad’s bald head once.

    My best memories… I loved freewheeling down the hills in Cowies Hill on my bike, eating juicy mangoes on the steps of the swimming pool with all the neighbourhood kids and hanging out at the dodgy old ice rink.

    We’d take the Mynah buses from school and laugh nervously when the lunatic drivers refused to let us get off at our stop. During the holidays, we’d nag our folks to stop at the side of the road and brave the possibility of cane rats to cut some fresh sugar cane to chew on, and we’d rollerblade up and down the beach promenade on weekends, picking up cheap crap at the same flea market stalls that have been trading there since forever.

    I think it was an awesome place to grow up.


  13. Po
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 15:52:28

    Tamara:ow! Avos are hard, did you not get pelted by them? I used to hang out at the icerink too, alot! I loved ice skating. Who knows maybe you were there when I was… although I am much older, ha! I never used to take buses though, weird! The only time I took a bus in Durbs was when my dad’s car was broken and we had to get back from Durban, or when the BFG and i went to the beach one time.


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