The End

I was delighted to be asked by the editor of the newspaper in Nieu Bethesda to write a piece for the paper. I have combined excerpts from this blog, with some new stuff, to make a – rather long – piece, but I thought I’d stick it here too, as an end to this blog. It’s my first draft, so may be a bit rough. Comments welcomed.

I plan to open another blog, I’m just stuck for a name at the moment, and a little overwhelmed by work and the city, but when I do, I’ll post a link here. I hope it’ll document my plans to return, amongst other me-me-me things!

Thank you for hanging with me.

Here it is:

“Seven weeks?” he asked, looking flummoxed by the idea of someone going to Nieu Bethesda for a break of that length.

My heart did a cartwheel at the thought, my ducks finally all in a row (if a somewhat chaotic one) after a year of planning. Having visited Bethesda numerous times over the last five years I knew it was where I wanted to spend my carefully gathered seven weeks of holiday. The first time I drove around that bend in the road and saw Nieu Bethesda nestled in its valley, my heart swelled and I felt like I was home.

I have a long history with the Eastern Cape. I’m a descendent of the 1820 Settlers, my great-great-great grandfather was the lawyer in Cradock and his bones still reside in the Anglican churchyard there. Slightly more recently, in the 1970’s, my parents bought a beach cottage in Port Alfred and I spent each December holiday there in salty-skinned, sandy-footed bliss as a child. My grandparents met while studying at Rhodes University, as did my parents and I, too, studied there. While I will admit to having a few romantic liaisons while there, I didn’t marry any of them, halting that family tradition in its tracks. The Eastern Cape creeps into one’s being.

As we drove into the Nieu Bethesda valley we watched flashes of lightening crash from ominously dark clouds. The donkeys (my absolute favourite animal) were there, at the entrance to the village, looking slightly bedraggled as huge drops of rain fell, dulling the dust of the road and accentuating the new green spring leaves of the trees.

I opened the window to let in the smell of fresh rain, through crisp, clear air, onto dust roads. Utterly delicious. Later, all unpacked and settled in Elke’s house which soon felt like home, we listened to the sound of birds twittering in the trees in garden, the rain falling on the roof and looked out of the doors to the mountains that encircled us. And so my love story with Bethesda began, with a thunderstorm and a cup of rooibos tea.

Over my seven weeks in the village I became more and more entranced, fell deeper in love and became friends with the wonderful people who call it home. The layers of city fell from me and the stillness settled, sharpening the senses. Sometimes it’s just so nice to do nothing, to watch the sky, the plants, the birds. To close one’s eyes and listen. To smell the rain.

The light of the Karoo is like an ever-changing character in a play. In the morning, it’s silvery and light, turning the dew drops on the grass iridescent, the spring leaves of the trees sparkle. The Kompasberg in the distance looks grey, magical.

It changes slowly to bright and yellow at midday. The flowers open to it and stretch their flowery hands up to the sky, worshipping, while us humanoid types retreat into the shade of the wisteria. As the afternoon wanders in lazily, the shadows stretch and the light turns to orange, then pink, embarrassing the Kompasberg and surrounding hills, making them blush. I wonder if it tells them dirty jokes? The trees put on their sun downer frocks, golden and frilly until the sun sinks behind the hills, leaving only the Kompasberg still bathed in pink.

And then, that blue of dusk, the one I find impossible to describe other than to say that it makes my heart squelch and squeeze with its beauty. Deep dark blue, like the finest silk, I want to wrap myself in its coolth and just be still. After that, the breathtaking silvery light of the stars.

During my stay, I was struck by how loud the silence is. Other than the fluttering bird’s noises, the trees talk. There is often a blustery wind and the trees chat loudly, a game of Broken Telephone passing the secrets of the village from the poplars that line the road in, to the willow trees that whisper and wave and on through the fir trees, their pine cones rattling at the scandalous stories, to the huge old gum tree who nods, his long grey leaves whooshing and stopping the scandals, passing on, instead, age old wisdoms to the young peach and quince trees in the orchards who giggle and wriggle and sometimes don’t pay any attention. It was spring, after all, and they were all looking oh-so-pretty dancing about in their new leaves.

When I wasn’t listening to the symphonies of silence, I flirted with Radio Algoa, first thinking I’d stumbled on 80’s Revival Day and then realising that was just their usual play list. Like most things in the Eastern Cape, it’s honest, it’s real, it’s unapologetic. You’ve got to love it for that. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with songs you can sing along to and what bliss to hear local news about places that hold such lovely memories for me – Grahamstown, Port Alfred, Bathurst, Kenton, Alexandria, Salem.

My family explore, we always have. If there’s a little road to take instead of the main route, we’ll take it. Needless to say, we explored all the roads around Bethesda, marvelling at the vast sky opening up (who would think it could get even bigger?) and the hilly landscape which spat us out into valley after valley that stretched to the end of the world. The clouds mass and shine and tease and play. I could watch them for hours. The sense of freedom one gets is precious. Driving unknown roads, watching dust rise in the side view mirrors, feeling like you’re discovering places nobody has seen before.

Arriving mid-October and leaving early December I was privileged to watch the seasons change. From torrential rain and mud puddles (much to the delight of my 3-year old twin nephews and their wellington boots when they visited) to summer shaking her tail feathers. The blistering heat at the start of November, combined with the vast quantities of rain from previous weeks brought the entire village into a riotous whirligig of colour.

The gardens of Bethesda are loved and tended, but not manicured in most instances. They look like something out of a fairy story. They’re wild, free-range, strangely ‘English Countryside’ in their contents – larkspurs mingle with hollyhocks, bramble roses climb over walls, roses hide their thorns behind gorgeous scarlet blooms that smell like roses used to smell. Like roses should smell. Sitting in the garden of Elke’s house as the sky turned pink and the clouds looked like candy floss I thought I might dissolve with joy at the vastness, the beauty.

The Owl House has to be mentioned in any Bethesda story. It’s one of those places that claws its way into your very being. No matter how many times I go there, I am overwhelmed by it, each and every time. It changes with the time of day, the time of year, just because. In some corners I find myself wanting to grin like a loon – the quirky, the eccentric, the beautiful, the happy – and in others I find myself pushing through a fog of despair that threatens to choke me. That house is a living creature.

And then the people of Bethesda, a motley crew of delight who made me fall in love even more with the village. From the farmers in the pub to the artists and writers, the Tennis Club on Saturdays, the bring-and-braai at The Pub on Fridays, pizza at Bruno’s, braais at people’s houses, I felt welcome.

Everyone has a story of how they came to be there. They’re all different, but there’s a golden thread going through them, a thread that I have never encountered elsewhere. They have all chosen to be there. They are not there because this is where the money is, where the corporate headquarters force them to be, where somebody told them they had to stay.

I must admit, though, that this comes from my gold-tinted view of a place that, for me, is a paradise. I’m not foolish enough to believe that everyone is extraordinarily happy and life is just one blissful moment after the next but, after having many conversations with many of the people who live in that magical place, it is an inarguable truth that, in the majority, they’ve chosen to be there, carefully and lovingly.

And there is the unavoidable fact that there, up on the hill, where the coloured population were moved during the dark days of Apartheid, there is unemployment, poverty, an alcohol problem that threatens to eat the place alive. The people who have been there for generation after generation. I was privileged to hear those stories, too. Fabulous, happy ones and tragic ones all intermingled and intertwined, all told with an honesty I have never seen in the city. A history with no smoothed edges, dealt with, with unprecedented dignity and wonderful humour. That golden thread is here too. These are people who have moved to Die Baai (Port Elizabeth) or Die Kaap (Cape Town) in search of work, only to return, to the place they feel safe, the place they can sleep with their doors open, the place that holds their hearts. .And what a treat to go to the primary school’s Debutante Ball, to be welcomed there.

How to conclude this, a love letter to a place that has settled in my soul? How do you sign off to a place that allowed you to attend a book launch preceded by a Currie Cup Rugby Final; a place that has no petrol station or ATM but has my favourite book shop on earth (and two of my favourite people inside it); a place where beer is drunk out of quarts bought from Boetie who is like everybody’s favourite uncle; a place where the ‘manne’ welcomed me with my Scrabble board in their pub; a place where Kida, the dog, lolled in the leiwater and was still welcomed inside, dripping, by Katrin, Ian cooking his delicious potjies; a place with too many lovely people to list each one.

You don’t. You can’t sign off on that. Instead, you say thank you Nieu Bethesda.

Then you start planning, start herding those ducks, the ones that got you there in the first place. Watch this space.

Saturday in The City

“If we carry on driving, we can be there in time for the Tennis Club braai,” I said to Gouni-Mae as we drove up the N1 to Bothasig to pick something up this morning. She looked at me and then back to the road ahead and I could see she wanted to, and almost did.

Instead, we picked up the thing, got some other things, went for lunch in the garden of one of my oldest friends in the bowl of the city, with comfortable conversation and delicious food. Then we headed around the mountain, into windswept Salt River and to a hall filled with stories and storytellers for the Cape Town launch of Mikey’s poetry book.

It’s always strange to meet up with people from one context, in another. Helen was there, Mikey was there, both characters in my Nieu Bethesda story, both in the city. What a pleasure to hear Mikey read his poems to (yet another) appreciative audience, to chat to Helen, to reminisce about that magical place, to be told by a real writer, a wise old man – James Matthews – that the trick is to ‘just keep on writing’. What a privilege.

And to reinforce the plans that are percolating in my head.

I keep thinking I must write the final post on this blog. I think there may just be one more after this, a final spewing of words, before I shut this one up, and open up the next, because, if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that I’m not done with this blogging thing. I was always told to obey my elders, so I must ‘keep on writing’.

Beside that, I’ve become a navel-gazer of note, which is what blogging is all about, isn’t it?

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Meeting James Matthews. What a treat.
[8 December 2012. Cape Town]

Tomorrow, Tomorrow!

Having spent a lovely couple of hours with one of my best friends; having met the most delicious baby boy of of another, who entered this world while I was away there, I now sit, watching the sky over the city turn that blue – you know the one – and I contemplate my return to my Real Job tomorrow, back up into The Ivory Tower.

Last night I woke, repeatedly, first unsure, then unsettled. The window was on the wrong side, the curtains were closed. I couldn’t see the stars, the Kompasberg wasn’t there. Instead, the neighbour’s alarm went off, shrilly, adrenaline pumping.

Before that, though, we ambled down the street, past people we knew, pleased to see us, and us them. And over the concrete footprint in my road, the one I wished upon, the one I will wish upon again. Just because I can.

Maybe it’ll work again. I certainly hope it will.

Make a Wish.[2 December 2012. Cape Town]

Make a Wish.
[2 December 2012. Cape Town]

Heading Home

Leaving Nieu Bethesda yesterday morning, we found the road blocked by a large branch that had fallen from a Weeping Willow during the delicious storms in the night.

“It’s a sign,”  I said to Gouni-Mae. “We can’t get past it. We’ll have to stay.”

“Urm,” she said, pointing to the fact that the branch really only reached halfway across the road and there was plenty of space to drive around it. “You have to leave, in order to come back.” This she had to repeat ad nauseum, all the way back to Cape Town, poor dear, as I fluctuated between sobs and various ingenious plans to return. She really has the patience of a saint.

So, this blog was a record of seven weeks. That’s all it was meant to be. But now I’m back and I’m thinking about how much I enjoyed writing it, and how I wrote about such a tiny proportion of what I saw, felt, heard. How that magical place is filled with stories.

Saying goodbye to everyone on Saturday night, Sunday morning, I was overwhelmed by their warmth. Not surprised, mind, I’ve got to know those people in a surprisingly short time. They are, above all, warm – even the most difficult of them, even the ‘manne’. Hugs and kisses all around, making me love them all more.

Back at my desk at home, the pile of window envelopes glare at me, and I glare back. Instead I look to the left of the envelopes, to the pile of books from Victoria and Nico’s magical book shop, to the fabulous witchy book Victoria gave me, which I read instead of watching TV last night; to Albert’s paintbrush, signed and sealed; to Thea’s card with her e-mail address on it so I can write to her and remind myself that dreams can, indeed, come true; to the torn piece of toothpaste box with Tutti’s e-mail address on it so that I can write the something she asked for for the local paper (me! published!) and then to The Big Black Dog, asleep on the floor next to me, dreaming of Leiwater and Gump.

And then I start looking at the photos and seeing all the others, all the people that turn that magical place into, well, magic. And the animals. All those kindred spirits that make me want to get all gushy. Oh, wait, I already did, didn’t I?

I think I’ll just do that a little while more. The letters can wait. And I think I may just have a story or two still left in me, from those seven weeks. This blog will have to stay open just a little bit longer.

Heading home with long teeth.[2 December 2012. N1]

Heading home with long teeth.
[2 December 2012. N1]

Boys in Blue

***Writing about people is what I love most. I also have a thing about privacy, so these stories about the people of this magic place are based on real stories I’ve heard, but they’re a fictional version. See here for longer explanation. I have altered things, used some poetic licence, to protect people’s privacy. The core is real, though. Starkly, tragically and triumphantly real. I hope I do that justice.

“They come for a couple of months only, then they go back to the town, back to their wives, some of them. Then others come,” she said, explaining the ever-changing population of policemen at the tiny police station here.

The men that come to protect the people of this place.

“Often it’s the same girls who go with them. They’re young, pretty. Lots of them are sick.” By ‘sick’, she uses the common euphemism for HIV, a disease that deserves no euphemism. A disease that is known here, but still carries with it a stigma. A stigma that’ll destroy and kill.

“Why do they keep doing it?” I ask. “Do the men buy them clothes? Cell phones?” I’ve seen this elsewhere, in my Real Work. Young impoverished girls, old men with pretty clothes, shiny cell phones like lollipops to a toddler.

“No,” she says. “They just get them drunk.”

Unstoppable Tears

I thought I’d be sad. Okay, I knew I’d be sad, but the sadness I felt, the throat choking, tears flowing, can’t breathe sadness I felt as I kissed and hugged those people goodbye, I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to be ‘brave’, to wait until I walked down the road, as the sky cried from beautiful, gathering clouds, to cry. Like a baby.

Tomorrow, I leave. And I don’t want to.

Really. Really.

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The view from the window.
[1 December 2012, Nieu Bethesda]