Through rainbow-tinted glasses

2010-07-26 00:00

WE set off into an advancing cold front, the bakkie jibbing against squalls that attacked at every turn. Cape Town was a long way away, and the trip seemed ominous.

As always, heading out on the road aroused as much foreboding as excitement. There was discussion about which route to take. The Mthatha way is scenic, but random animals, stopped-dead buses and long-haul minibus taxis-and-trailers raise the anxiety levels. The Bloemfontein way is swifter, but those straight-as-a-die stretches that woo the accelerator to push down can be fatal too. Why not go via Matat and Queenstown and then on through Port Elizabeth, suggested a friend. On his assurance that this byway was sound, we set off on a road we’d never travelled.

And so a routine trip offered us, on this Sunday of the World Cup final, a fresh view, superficial and sweeping perhaps, like that of a tourist, but for local eyes a treat nonetheless.

We found ourselves, from Elliot on, chasing rainbows. One would materialise over the hood, flirt with us for a while, then flit away, only to be replaced within kilometres by another. Near Cala, there were two, one arching over the whole sky, and a smaller one tucked in under it like a calf. And as they hopped and skipped ahead and away from us, the rain and creeping cold made way in our minds for the wonder of the world through which we were passing.

By journey’s end, we had been through wind and snow, droughtlands and green valleys; through places whose names evoked England and wars with Boers and Brits and Xhosas, and ones like KwaNongqongqwana, which we wondered how the Dutch football fans might have pronounced.

Passing through these small towns often arouses a sense of desolate endings, of handscrabble lives launched with hope before being ground down into history. Big-city eyes seek order, cohesion, suburbs softened by trees and gardens and fresh coats of paint. But a lack of picturesqueness doesn’t automatically signal terminal decline. Look closely and there’s building going on everywhere. In every village bricks and blocks are being shaped into houses. Some tin shacks too. Some new RDP settlements are vast, ugly still in their newness, but there they are. Why they haven’t been built as suburbs, and why they’re way out of town, and why they have to have concentration camp lights to light up the streets are all good questions, but they’re homes. They’re there.

Often we scorn the humble as we reach for the best. One of the treasures of this trip I stumbled across in Cape Town, away from the juj boutiques and bistros that make the city so wonderfully cosmopolitan and yet so tediously trendy. “Won’t you pick up some coffee on the way,’’ my friend Dirk asked as I set off to trawl the bookshops. “Go to Anthony’s. Ethiopian.”

Anthony’s turned out to be Anthony’s Golden Cup Coffee Shop. And Anthony himself used to be a lift operator at Garlick’s who, when Nelson Mandela said after 1994 “your destiny is in your hands’’, decided that one day he would have his own coffee shop. Despite the grandiose name, it’s a hole-in-the-wall place with three little canteen-style tables, one street up from Long. At one sat three women chatting the morning away as if on their own stoep. They could have been cleaners or hawkers judging from their dress. Behind me sat an old man reading the morning paper, which when he’d finished he reached over and offered to me. No Gucci or Armani or Louis Vuitton in sight, but the air was as richly aromatic as the most exclusive emporium frequented by Comrade Blade Nzimande or Minister Siphiwe Nyanda.

Maybe the rose from the rainbows got stuck to my glasses along the way, but if there’s a better cup of coffee to be had anywhere I’d like to know.

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