I am off next week to Morocco. Casablanca, if you read between the lines of Lonely Planet, is twinned with the lavatories of Hades, whose list of redeeming features includes only the road out of it – which we shall be taking, south to the Sahara, which sounds almost as vintage Hollywood – Lawrence of Arabia, say, instead of Bogart. But it got me thinking …
The promise of a journey tempts like little else, the lies of the past too easily forgiven in the presence of its roguish charms. I try not to judge myself too harshly. I live in the on the banks of the E.coli-infested Jukskei river, behind the C-Max prison walls of my Tuscan-Zen-with-Provençal-feel estate in the midst of the vast tundra of cookie-cutter clusters in Fourways interspersed with construction sites, from which the snarl and whine of mechanical beasts never ceases. Whenever I venture beyond the boom to jerk spasmodically down the William Nicol to the pumpkin-orange strip mall that is Fourways Crossing, I must first navigate the pile-up of battered minibuses at every intersection. Rubbish from the hawkers selling packets of Cheese Curls and single cigarettes and charred mielies from smoking oil drums huddled below the concrete trunks of billboards and cellular masts dribbles through the wiry Highveld weeds sprouting from the stubble of illegally dumped rubble and into the stagnant ponds of sewerage seeping into the potholes. Finally, I enter a traffic circle – where the only rule is kill or be killed – passing the exit for Plastic Land and the hulk of corrugated sheeting that is Builders Warehouse, before taking the one below the drive-thru KFC in order to arrive for shopping or dining at a restaurant that sports a jumping castle and a view of the basalt Gulag of the car park.
Which brings me to the lure of escape. Panama, Java, Mozambique … the names alone so redolent of cinnamon and romance. It goes a long way back with me, my affair with the afar. To grow up in South Africa in the eighties was to grow up in the last bastion of conservatism marooned in the past. A scramble of cultural echoes did reach the termite-bitten lawns of the suburbs: mostly Dallas and Who’s the Boss?, though Cat Stevens did sneak into the odd LP collection and there were a few winkle-pickers circling the pool tables at the Sunnyside Park Hotel. Barney Simon tried hard but, basically, South Africa missed the second half of the twentieth century. By the time I finally boarded the SAL flight to London clutching the address for the OVC youth hostel in Earl’s Court, I was desperate to find out what that was.
I sought homelessness at first, tried to make my way as a nomad through the full-moon parties in India, later Turkey, Egypt. But in the end, I found myself draping the reed walls of my shack on the beach in Dahab with my batik sarongs, arranging little bottles of perfume oils bought in the bazaars of Jerusalem on a low dressing table. Travel is full of irony.
Last year I found myself in Ibo Island in the Quirimbas archipelago in northern Mozambique. It struck me as I trailed through the Moorish fort and the gangrenous ruins of the colonial town that there is a poetry to the fact that I journey often to places so terrible the natives try to escape through lion and hyena infested wilderness to get to Joburg.