Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Vryheid, Newcastle, Ladysmith, etc

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, March 15, 2007 | Category: |

So I haven’t written about my recent experiences in Northern KwaZulu Natal. It’s all be fairly mundane in terms of work. Mostly I have been pent up in offices with various people trying to find specific files in folders several volumes long. All I need are 3 files within these larger files – the PIRs, Designation Memos and List of Beneficiaries. Don’t worry about what that means, or why they’re relevant to me.

In Vryheid I had the wonderful experience of arriving and basically spending three hours trying to get one random admin person to understand what I needed and why and yes I had communicated with his superiors and yes this is a copy of the emails and could he just help me! Communication was strange, I had to ask him to repeat things office because his accent was thick. We had one conversation in which he wanted to ask me how much money I made ‘in theh pryvaat sectah’. I explained carefully (again) that I wasn’t in the private sector. But he didn’t seem to get it and asked how much money I was being paid in my ‘pryvaat sectah johb’. I didn’t tell him how much, just simply said that it was decent. He wants to go into the private sector and build a business rather than be in government. He likes the idea of his spawn (my word, not his) taking over a company he has built from scratch. ‘You cahn’t hev femilly coming into johbs when you ah in govennment.’ Well, at least he’s not a sponsor for corruption. That day and the next were very long. And I haven’t even mentioned that they were having their offices re-carpeted and consequently I spent most of those two days high (relatively speaking) on glue fumes.

Other highlights in Vryheid:

Being the only white person in the KFC – I found out later that most white people went to ‘the other KFC’. I found that very funny and had to do my best not to laugh.

Running the main road in Vryheid, dead pigeon, beer bottles, so much littering the grass you’d think you were in Greenpoint after a concert in the stadium. Very odd.

The odd people in the bar. A trio of bikers. A trio of Americans, one of whom was a woman with ‘blonde’ hair, and who swore in every sentence. Her commentary on fishing and the nuances of the taste of fish (“No, that one’s really shitty”, or “Shit I wouldn’t eat that”, or “That one’s fucking good eatin”). Several regulars. A middle-aged/post-menopausal (you have to have post-something) couple who were getting drunk together, both of them were rosy-nosed and you could see this was ritualized, mutual reinforcing alcoholism. They were very friendly.

The lady at the reception of my B&B (really a hotel), the Shonalanga Lodge, who was definitely a poppie-waiting-for-a-man-to-take-her-away. For some reason her hair was grown down to beneath her bottom – almost like she was hoping to be an Afrikaan Rapunzel about to catch some city man with her hair and her odd (khaki stripes, navy with stripes, etc) suits.

I had to get up at 5:30 the next morning to be at meetings in New Castle starting at 7:45. That was fun. The drive was uneventful, although occasionally misty.

Poignant moment: children walking to school in groups, looking about 6/7 and older, to ensure that they get to school on time. Skipping through the mist.

New Castle was way more efficient than Vryheid. Thankfully. However, almost all of the staff had to be at meetings at 10am which meant that my ‘interviews’ had to be done at hyperspeed. Again got some information. Very useful. Marveled at the Zulu/Xhosa/Nguni generally tradition of referring to people with a ‘u’ prefix– you know uMandela, uSimon and so on. Marveled also at the number of employees who have passed away (not of old age, I didn’t ask further questions). Which brought to light the massive problem that this is in South Africa, with the death of people their knowledge of projects, institutions, and so many other things vanishes. Sucks. This is purely the Econ-Simon talking, not the emotional one who is like ‘My Word! Their families…’ but we won’t get into that.

Left New Castle and made my way to Ladysmith. Ahh yes, Ladysmith of the Battlegrounds. The Battlegrounds seem to be what Northern KZN is famous for, I drove past several routes to Blood River and many signs for ‘Battleground B&B’ or ‘Battleground Camping’. Hmm… So very pleasant, let’s celebrate war! Yay! Mutual Killing of Brits, Boers and Zulus, Yay! WTF? Don’t get it.

I was surprised by the number of strange toad-women I encountered in Ladysmith, receptionists, administrators, cooks and the like. I call them toad-women because of their, well, surprising similarity in form and shape to toads. They all seem to have this odd propensity to be quite capably vast (i.e. they expand their waists with incredible capability), not only that but they spread out in such a way that it makes it look as though they would leap at you and squash you in their capacious bosoms at the drop of a suitably alluring cupcake (or some such), but also because they have this strange wobbling, squatting walk. Toad-women. However, this image can be suddenly shattered when you hear one of them talk, if it is a high-pitched, accented, squeal of a voice then the juxtaposition of the frog image on this vocal oddity can be quite scary. Terrifying in fact.

Moving away from terror, but extending the animal imagery, the restaurant manager at the hotel provided me with another interesting animal to consider. He looked rather like an overgrown and overplump pug dog. It was almost as if his father had repeatedly dropped him on his face as a child, or alternatively if he had repeatedly met with fights at school. Either of these would suffice to result in the squashed flat visage with which I was so frighteningly provided. Moreover, the moustache on his top lip and curling slightly around his mouth helped to cement the image, making him look even squishier and pug-like. Odd. Moreover it solidified the sensation of terror that seemed so pervasive in Ladysmith.

So I slept in Ladysmith in ‘The Royal Hotel’. I think that the ‘Royal’ was meant to be some insistence by the progenitors of the establishment to insist that Ladysmith and its neighbour Harrismith were linked to British royalty, or at least its nobility. The owners also showed their willingness to extend this by using decorations in the mode of the ‘British Pub’ (monolithic concept that it is). So there were numerous dimly lit areas, wood was pervasive and poorly patterned carpeting and curtains were the requisite ‘final touch’. Ahhh feels like… um… poor taste. The bed was bad. However, there is a redeeming feature. Personally, I judge establishments, hotels/b&bs specifically, by their showers. If they have piddling showers that have no pressure and drip as incessantly as an incontinent octogenarian, then they are relegated to the ‘unsalvageable’ category. However, if they have potent, virile, pressured, striking, get the dirt off of rugby-player showers, then they are redeemed (if they were in the dog box prior to that), or they are further lauded (if they are already to my satisfaction). So yes, this hotel was partly redeemed because of its wonderful shower.

Oh yes, at dinner, being bitten by fleas leaping onto my unsuspecting legs from their abodes in the carpet did not stir up my loyalty. Silly them for allowing a hotbed of fleas to develop in their kitschly chosen ‘Brit-pub’ carpet.

Sleep = arb. Heard squeaky bed next door late at night. Heard boere-bakkies (they are a special breed that make more noise than any other bakkies in existence) churning oil and chuckling out smoke at about 5am, probably the valiant steeds of boeres looking to be on farms early in the morning. Woke me way earlier than I would have liked.

As a result of seeing some women at breakfast a question begged itself of me. Why do highlights seem so incredibly out of place in a black woman’s hair? The vision: her hair relaxed, then dyed-highlighted, the shaped with mousse. The problem: it looks rather like a bush buck’s tail with the remnants of excrement staining bottom half, and the top half golden or white. But all of this had somehow made its way to the head rather than the arse hole on this specimen of womanhood. Ho hum.

I had my fresh fruit and my yoghurt with muesli. A note: it requires incredible self-discipline not to have the eggs/bacon/sausage thing that hotels offer for breakfast. Even when you know it isn’t going to be as good as you yourself would cook, simply because it is there, often in the company of stodgy muffins or scones and tomatoes that have lost their red, you feel the urge to consume them. I have resisted it! I didn’t have it on this trip. I did on my previous one to Port Shepstone and it was a bad decision, but I managed to resist the urge this time.

One of my last experiences on the trip was the Virgin Active gym in Durban. I managed to get myself in free of charge and have a work-out, something I had been craving for the past few days. Jogs, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, etc have nothing on a good cycle followed by an upper body work out and a decent shower and KAUAI! Wow it felt great to do good exercise and eat good food. I felt restored. My parents would be proud.

Right now I am in Durban International Airport. I tried to master my map and find a route to the airport. It took longer than expected and at least a few U-turns. They were quite thrilling – U-turns in the face of oncoming traffic at high speed. Lots of fun!

I decided to treat myself to a waffle and ice-cream at the coffee shop here as I had arrived far too early to go past the gates. However this treat has been more like an attack of ignorance about what waffles are meant to be like. It is not hot. I had to send it back because it didn’t have ice-cream. I then had to ask for syrup/honey/something to do the waffle-thing. Oh well. Moral of the story? Waffle is bad. I shouldn’t have gone on as long as I have.

Love you all and can’t wait to be home.

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