While we were reading Lonely Planet and researching this trip, we came across an interesting experience opportunity: spending the night in a township. For some reason, we decided to give it a try. Lonely Planet said “It just might be the highlight of your Garden Route experience” (Lisa: we should really learn how to read – *might*). Maybe I’m being a bit unfair from the get go here, it certainly was an experience . . . but let me back up a bit.
We had emailed ahead to book our township tour and the nights stay, and Emil, the owner of Eco Afrika Tours, had promised us it would be the experience of a lifetime, without really giving us many of the details we had asked for: where are we staying, what should we bring/not bring in terms of clothing, bedding, etc. Oooo K. Cool. In the dark then.
We got to Knysna in time for a fantastic grilled calamari and chips lunch at the renowned 34° South, a fantastic seafood restaurant right in the harbour. Further baked by the sun, and with yet another layer of sunscreen applied, we met Cynthia Gobeni, tour guide and hostess for the evening at 2pm sharp for our tour.
The township of Concordia, where Cynthia lives, looks a bit different from other townships that one may see in SA, as it is built primarily of wood from the surrounding fynbos, as opposed to the many tin and metal structures one might otherwise see. Cynthia explained to us the differences between the formal and informal townships. Formal townships have running water and electricity, and you have the right to land and to build there. If you make less than R3000/month ($450CAD) you are eligible to apply and wait (sometimes a very long time) for a government house, which will consist of a kitchen, living and dining room, a bathroom and two bedrooms. Informal townships have no electricity or running water, and the people who live in these settlements just take up residence wherever they choose. We saw many examples of both kinds, with some pretty incredible examples of human habitation in little more than the most basic kind of wooden shack.
We visited a shebeen and had some local children (oooooh my goodness they were so cute!) hitch a ride with us to the next stop, which was an orphanage for abused and abandoned children. We showed up just as movie time was ending, and the younger children, who clearly were not interested in The Karate Kid, came up and just lifted their hands up to us: child mime for “I want a hug” pretty much anywhere in the world. So Lisa and I lifted up and held as many as we could, going to each child in turn, hoping that a few moments in our arms would make them feel a little bit happy. We crouched down and let them sit on us, climb on us – a temporary human jungle gym. They were so precious, such little people who have already been through so much and their journey is still just beginning.
We left the orphanage and drove around the rest of the township, dropped off the van and took our car back to Cynthia’s house. For the afternoon we sat in her living room, while a few of her friends kept dropping by to say hello to us. Lisa and I kind of got the feeling that we were the latest attraction in town, and that part of what drew people in was our car. A shiny, silver 4-door Honda Civic Hatchback parked in front of a house built of bits of wood where the owners combined do not make R3000, thereby making Cynthia and her husband Patrick eligible and already on the waiting list for a government house, would be something to take a look at.
We felt more than a little awkward . . . sort of like zoo animals, the way people would come to the door and peer in to see where the car came from and see the white visitors that had arrived in it. We also felt very unsure about our decision to stay the night; partly because we were sticky and smelly and gross from our morning at the beach, and partly because we had absolutely no control over our situation. We were in the hands of a very nice woman we had just met, but also in a place where the very colour of our skin, the clothes we wore, and the car we drove marked us as outsiders. More than a few times we debated reneging on our decision to stay the night and just driving down the hill back into the first world, full of comforts and running hot water. Eventually though, we decided to stay, or rather just not to leave, and ended up having a pretty good evening.
When Patrick got home from work, we headed to the local shebeen (unlicensed (ie illegal) bar) and proceeded to drink and even dance with the locals. It was a very cool experience, and perhaps more of what Lonely Planet and Emil were talking about in terms of unforgettable. There would be no other way that Lisa and I could have experienced that part of a culture. We had a great night chatting with some of the shebeen’s patrons (some of whom had absolutely no idea where Canada was) and just enjoyed ourselves and the evening. There was a juke box where R2 got you two songs, and we probably heard the same 4 songs on repeat in various cycles for the 3 hours we were there – they were clearly the favourites, and no one else seemed to mind that we’d already heard the Shakira Fifa World Cup song 12 times already.
Mom was supposed to call me, so I spent about a half hour waiting outside and talking to Patrick. He told me about his life, how he and Cynthia had been together for 20 years, and had their first child when Cynthia was only 15. But they had made it work, and 18 years and two more children later, were happily married and had grand plans for a sort of B&B/homestay of their own, once they got their government house. A trained registered nurse, he worked at the featherbed company instead, because it paid more, and had previously held Cynthia’s job with the tour agency, but left it so she could work as well. As we chatted, I couldn’t help but notice the clarity of the stars. Knysna is a small town, and since we were about 5kms away on a hill, in a village that had no streetlights and inconsistent other lighting, the stars seemed to pop out of the sky, a brilliant blanket of pinpricks of light.
Eventually it was time to leave the shebeen and head back to Cynthia’s. Her daughter had to go to school in the morning (she patiently waited in the car while her parents and the newcomers drank, poor girl!), and at 10pm, we still hadn’t eaten dinner. Nicknamed ‘African Stew’, it was the same pap, or cooked ground corn from Lesotho, this time served with sour milk. The drinking was coming in handy, the alcohol would help to protect our stomachs and sop up the sour milk. Lisa and I truly gave it our best shot, and tried to finish our portion as best we could.
At around 10:30 we headed to bed, in our bedroom where the light didn’t turn off – it didn’t have a switch. Earplugs and eyecovers it is! At 2:30 the rooster started crowing, every 15 minutes, to be answered by the other roosters that lived around the neighbourhood, and joined by the endless barking dogs.
Lisa: “You awake?”
Michelle: “Yup. Wanna get up?”
Lisa: “Heck yes, let’s go.”
And so we said goodbye to Cynthia and Patrick, our adventure over, and drove back down the hill.
Highlight? Maybe not, but definitely the experience of a lifetime, and one that will not soon be forgotten.