Wondering & wandering

Why I love small towns

The NG Kerk in Alexandria, Eastern Cape.

The NG Kerk in Alexandria, Eastern Cape.

Beavers Pies in Port Alfred, Eastern Cape.

Beavers Pies in Port Alfred, Eastern Cape.

A dust cloud near Riviersonderend, Western Cape.

A dust cloud near Riviersonderend, Western Cape.

Almost past J-Bay, Jeffreys Bay, Eastern Cape.

Almost past J-Bay, Jeffreys Bay, Eastern Cape.

A beat up surfer van, Gonubie Beach, Eastern Cape.

A beat up surfer van, Gonubie Beach, Eastern Cape.

Aloes and the Indian Ocean

Aloes and the Indian Ocean

For those who have grown up in the stifling confines of small town life and escaped to the freedom of the Big City, a return to barefoot roots can be abhorrent.

There’s the gossip, the lies, the eyes watching everyone and everything’s business. Because, as you know (and so does everyone else), small towns have big secrets. And the greatest irony of all? They’re a slippery spider web that’s ensnared us all. Nobody who lives within the stifling borders can claim to be untouched by any of it. You live here, you’ve got a story. And I bet you a surfer burger and two Shamrock pies that you’re not the only body who knows it.

Take my home town, the aptly-named Slumtown that I grew up hating but have grown to appreciate. There’s a strange space between the realities of lives lived here and the sensationalism that grows on them like mould; a cloud of static in which a casual chat in the Kwik Spar could ignite a full-blown skandaal.

Which is where the loyalty to my own small city of origin, this strange border town with its heady mixture of billionaires (yes – really) and street children and filthy pavements and Hummer-driving rugby moms and salty surfers and machismo-fueled brawls and cocaine-sparked rampages and friendly smiles and R20 movies, has grown.

It is a beautiful incubator for a writer, with a climate perfect for creating storybook characters, its own peppering the streets with intrigue, horror and eccentricity.

There’s fifty-something year old Babe, a flower power child resplendent in bell bottoms and tie-dye, who walks Slums flat handing out flowers and happily proclaiming her message of peace and love. I grew up thinking Babe was an absolute nutter, a throwback from the 60s whom I couldn’t help but love every time she stomped past in Devereaux Avenue, handing plastic Mr Price daisies to my friends and I while we waited outside school for a lift home. The whispers that grew thick and fervent when she turned a corner, out of earshot and oblivious, spoke of sex changes and drugs and a nervous breakdown and a cardboard home under a bridge. I never knew the truth, happily unconcerned and satisfied by the rumour mill that always had a reason for everything and a label for everyone. A few years later, the Daily Dispatch ran a story on the wonderful woman, which cleared up all manner of things with a swift paragraph or two. Emotive, uplifting and revealing though it was, the facts slipped out my mind the second I read the story, and the legend that is Babe in my mind attached itself to her once again.

Then there is ‘Moses’ — kids who went to Hudson will remember him — a hunkering mountain of a man dressed in blankets and coats and bags no matter the weather, who walked slowly up and down Beach Road all day, muttering to himself and chasing people visible only to him. In high school I heard that he had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia, which explained his incessant chattering to nobody but himself, but not the forty layers of coats in mid-day summer. To passers-by he is just an installation of life in Nahoon, a piece of the strange puzzle that is our funny little town, but this man is woven into the fabric of our lives, a street-dwelling human being nicknamed only for his appearance. I don’t think anybody has ever bothered to ask his real one.

And who could forget Max the car guard, who ran the dopest car wash Gonubie Hotel has ever seen. Stationed in the car park next to the boardwalk, this pioneering gent took full advantage of the sea spray and made a small killing washing vaalies and locals’ cars. Sadly, Max met his end in the back of a police car, when he drank an entire bottle of neat cane and died of alcohol poisoning. One day he was there, scrubbing the usual salty muck off Nissan, Toyota and Merc, and the next, he wasn’t. Maybe his death was just another rumour, a little poison leaked out of the story factory. Maybe Max is still sunning himself in Rainbow Valley, chilling with a fishing rod and a bottle of booze. I like to think so anyway.

I have to confess to once driving this town’s name into the dirt. I hated it. I lived for the day I’d skip across the border to another province and say good bye for good. Lyrics penned by Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill did this feeling justice, and the song, Talihina Sky, was oft-quoted by my friends and me:

“But everybody says this place is beautiful
And you’d be so crazy to say goodbye
But everything’s the same, this town is pitiful
And I’ll be gettin’ out as soon as I can fly”

But here I am, reminiscent, a little home sick, hungry for the gritty realness of it all. If I was there right now, there’d be the ice-cream man jingling his bike up the street, or a lady I’ve known my whole life telling me exactly why so-and-so is getting divorced and why this one is having that one’s baby and did you know that this one’s son is in rehab again. And I think I would listen this time. If only to feel connected to them all.






5 comments on “Why I love small towns

  1. dad
    October 8, 2013

    WOW!!!! what an eye opener of a place we all take for granted and complain about, without seeing the beauty around us. All I can add is …WOW!!!!… again.

  2. David Viaene (@safrikaan)
    October 9, 2013

    Slummies is a terrible name to give East London. It certainly does not deserve that name. Its like fondly calling your mom a bitch. It has a massive negative impact on tourism. We dont have any more slums or bad areas than most towns and in many ways EL is far better.

    I know people use it as a term of affection, but to people who have not been to EL. They dont come because there is the incorrect impression that it is full of slums.

    You are just hurting the town by using that name.

    • megandthewaves
      October 9, 2013

      Point taken, David. I agree with you that the nickname and its negative connotation does not do the town justice — East London is a beautiful city with the most extraordinary beaches and wildlife and climate. If this was a press release or journalism garnered towards generating publicity for the town, I would happily refrain from using it, but in the context of an opinion piece that crosses the line between fiction and fact at times, I do feel comfortable making use of it, especially since this is the nickname I grew up using when I lived there.

  3. David Viaene (@safrikaan)
    October 9, 2013

    Oh yeah, and the bum that walks down Beach Rd is known as Coat King 🙂

    • megandthewaves
      October 9, 2013

      From Moses to Coat King… I would love to do this man justice and find out his story (and his real name!).

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