Should You Go Back?

A virtual ode to missed opportunities but fond memories; and loves lost but not forgotten.

Last week I went on a brief jaunt up to KwaZulu Natal. It is about as far away as you can get from Cape Town, both in terms of literal distance and in style of living. For six months in 2010 I lived and worked in Manguzi, which is, quite literally, the end of the road as far as South Africa goes. Bounded on one side by the most fantastic beaches, another by the border with Mozambique, farmland and nature reserves, all roads lead South, to the wetlands and reserves of the Zululand region and then further down to Durban, and beyond. Once you reach the end of the road it’s more than slightly difficult to leave.

Life was simple whilst I lived there. You couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee for love nor money (at one point we resorted to using a mosquito net as a makeshift filter), the classrooms I taught in were little more than shacks in a sandpit, and our idea of weekend entertainment was sitting around a campfire with a few beers, and some steaks balance precariously on the flames. But I had a few fantastic friends, even more acquaintances, and I felt a part of the community. An oddly shaped, funny coloured part, but a part none the less.

Here in Cape Town it’s a veritable mash-up of colours, castes and religions. Walking down the street it’s natural to hear up to three or four languages, sometimes coming from the same gossiping group of commuters. I’ve had a couple of hilarious incidents in communal taxi cabs where I have sat in a state of bemused awe as a conversation with waves of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa has washed over me.

I think it is this disparate sense of community that makes it so hard to penetrate. In Manguzi I was quite obviously an outsider, and although I would never have become a fully fledged member of the community (not even if I had learnt and become fluent in IsiZulu) I did feel that I at least had some kind of small role to play.

It was this, rose-coloured, memory of my time there that made me so keen to return given half the chance. When one of the domestic airlines here had a flash sale, I bit the bullet. Two weeks, 1500 miles, and 12 solid hours of travelling later I found myself back in my old room, in my old house, at 9.30 on a Friday night, wondering what I on earth I had done.

My weekend did get a lot better, we visited a lake, ate barbecued chicken and pap in someone’s back room at the Mozambique border post, and I re-claimed my position in the maptuland lodge to watch several hours of Rugby and drink a few beers . The fat and happy 9 month old son of my friend Nonto has turned into a stubbornly independent but adorable toddler. There are more shops and franchises, cars and smartphones about, but at the end of the day it is still a bit of a frontier town, rough round the edges, inhabited by people who were born there, or seem to have wound up there and carved a place for themselves out of nothing.

It wasn’t the same though, in fact it felt a bit like a parallel universe. Things mostly looked how I remembered them, there were familiar faces, and yet somehow it was wrong. My two best friends whilst I was living there had long since moved on to the bright lights of far off cities When I visited the school people kept asking me, politely, what the hell I was doing back in Manguzi, and I had to wonder at the thinking behind it myself.

There’s no big revelation or bombshell here folks. The completely unoriginal hypothesis that I came up with after revisiting the shadows of my past was that it really doesn’t matter where you are, it’s about who you share it with. For me, going back to Manguzi was like opening the flood gates on a tumult of memories and emotions that I had spent the last year trying to box up and file away. It was a bitter-sweet, strangely cathartic experience to walk the same routes and stand in the same rooms that I had spent so many months of what now feels like a different life. If the same people had still been there it would have been an altogether different experience. Ultimately that place for me will always be wrapped up with those people and a specific time in my life.

Oh and should you go back? Once maybe… just for old times sake.

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