Saturday, May 17, 2014

Deconstructing Durban

"There is nothing more Durban than going to The Cube and eating Bunny chow from Johnny's Rotis!"

Our fabulous host in Durban, Shaun, got really excited when he came up with this idea for a local experience.  We had heard about Bunny chow previously from some Durbanites we'd met in Zanzibar, who told us it was a specialty of the town.  But Shaun helped the identify the best (cheapest?) place to buy it, and the most scenic place to eat it.

You can't get more cubist than this.  The bunny is an end of a bread loaf, hollowed and filled with Indian food.  (Josh got mutton, I got kebab, and Shaun got chicken.). You are supposed to eat it with your hands.  Tear off a corner of the bread and scoop out the gravy and meat.  But it is very tempting to bring it to your face and just chew off chunks.  High marks on flavor, fun, and value!

Behind us, a metal cube overlooked the town.  Local art students paint the cube from time to time, but not when we were there.  Nearby us, a couple sat having an argument, which got Shaun even more excited.  Free local drama!  The Mabhida football stadium, a relic from the 2010 World Cup, dominated our view.  We did not go inside the stadium but you can take a little cable car up and bungee jump from the top.  As we finished our bunnies, a sightseeing bus called the "Ricksha" unloaded a gaggle of tourists into the park so they, too, could ogle the skyline and take photos.

All of these things paint a fun and resort-like picture of Durban.  It is the biggest port in South Africa and apparently a favorite beach getaway for Johannesburgers, who call it "Durbs" and even "Dibs."  But what about all the stuff we learned about South Africa in school and in the news?  What about apartheid and crime?

Well no one we talked to denied that segregation is still a reality.  The townships that were created for Black people to live in are still there - Umlazi, KwaMusha, etc.  (But now the Durban tourism board helps organize Township Tours!)  The Indians have their area and their shops.  Eat at the little beachside "Circus Circus Cafe" on a Thursday afternoon and all the waiters are Black, while almost none of the customers are.  (Being there felt like we were interrupting the Ladies Who Lunch.)  I stopped counting the number of commercial buildings with signs that stated, "Right of Admission Reserved." 

Indeed, for me Durban showed how South Africa is still very much a part of Africa, with the "formal" and "informal" economies creating a striking blend.   The Warwick Triangle is a warren of market stalls just on the edge of the city center's parks and skyscrapers, where hundreds if not thousands of shopkeepers were selling clothes, electronics, and most unusual for me, "traditional" medicines and remedies.

As for crime, a guidebook told us to be careful of our valuables and belongings if we walked through this area.  But nothing happened.  It was only when we walked back to the city center that we were targeted.  Walking on a busy sidewalk, I saw an arm reach over my shoulder.  The kid behind me grabbed this Nexus tablet I was holding and tried to pull it away.  But my grip was stronger than his.  It happened really quickly and left my heart racing.  I turned around and gave the kid a pissed-off look and hoped he was embarrassed.  Of course his attempt seemed brazen to me, but I felt it was pointless to make a scene in that context.

If Bunny Chow and the Cube are Durban, so are inequality and and tension, as well as community.  And unusually expansive Constitutional rights.  If you haven't heard, the South African Constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.  I guess they are proud of it.  I saw it celebrated in street murals and mentioned on TV.  In fact, we were playing a South African board game called 30 Seconds which is similar to Catchphrase, and one of the words was "The Constitution."  Well good - if they've got it, why not flaunt it?  Now it is time to see how the Constitution will make a difference.  Will all those rights turn South Africa into a melting pot, or a tossed salad, or just a Durban Bunny Chow with a white bread surface and a gooey spicy interior?  I think that may be the worst food metaphor I have ever made. 

I will end this unusually long post by saying Thank You Again to our host with the most, Shaun, and the crowd at Jackrabbit's bar in Morningside - we'll sing "Be Our Guest" at your Karaoke night any time you want!

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