The Back Side
Warren and I were having breakfast at Morgan Bay restaurant. It was June, the middle of winter, and Warren, who was my boyfriend, offered to visit his parents in Eastern Cape earlier that week. His parents retired not so long ago and relocated to their holiday house permanently. It was my fourth trip to Morgan Bay — a small town by the ocean just outside of East London. Both of us were excited — for Warren, each trip was a coming home journey, and for me, it was an adventure.
“Did I take you to Transkei before?” he asked.
“Nope,” I replied finishing my French toast with bacon.
“Let’s go today,” he suggested, “It is extremely beautiful. Plus, we get to cross Kei River on a ferry.”
It was more than seven years since I relocated to South Africa from Belarus. By then I called Johannesburg my home, had a cat, opened a pension fund, and paid my taxes in South African rands, the local currency.
I even scored a local boyfriend, who ran a successful mobile application development company. We spent most of our time in either Cape Town or Johannesburg — the cities that embraced globalization and offered all experiences of modern megalopolises, from Starbucks to private jets. But South Africa itself was a country of diversity, and this diversity often brought inequality. The nation hosted the world’s biggest businesses together with Africa’s poorest refugees. A premier airport neighbored a squatter camp. But these realms of poor and wealthy hardly interacted; they peacefully co-existed separated by barbed wires, electric fences, and one of the world’s biggest security industry.
Our flexible schedule allowed us to travel at any time, and when Johannesburg got too busy or too cold, we flew to Warren’s parents. Morgan Bay was one of the dozens of holiday towns scattered along the shoreline of the Indian Ocean. Most of the town’s land was owned by wealthy white farmers, executives, and business people from East London. In fact, most occupants were white, and the town resembled a Mediterranean settlement.
But today’s trip was different. The other side of Kei River was a former Bantustan — a territory set aside for black people during the time of apartheid. I was about to see the area which was not advertised to foreign tourists — the true Wild Coast.
We packed a couple of beers, some chips, bananas and set on our way.
In our car, we quickly passed Kei Mouth golf course. The sign proclaimed “Hungry Thirsty Country Club.” A couple of players, all white male, clearly past their sixties, drove by in their golf cart — wealthy residents of the province often spent their weekends here. This nine-hole golf course was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. Slightly up on a hill, it had an open view of the ocean and delivered unbelievable sunsets for many years. But this time, we drove past the golf course and the small town, which received its name from the river delta it was bordering. We arrived on the other side of Kei Mouth right by the water. The quickest way to cross the river was by ferry, as the closest bridge was hundred and fifty kilometers up north.
There was no ferry on our side — it was disembarking on the opposite bank of the river. We had to wait for a couple of minutes for it return. I looked around and saw the boat house which was ornamented in voting posters — the municipal elections were less than two months away. All three main parties were present: the yellow of ANC, current ruling party, the blue of DA, the official opposition, and the red of EFF, a suitable color for their revolutionary spirit. I shifted my glance to the right and saw that another ferry, completely identical to the one we were about to take, was moored a couple of meters away from the boat house.
“In December they operate both ferries at the same time,” said Warren.
December was the high season for the area. For about a month families from crowded cities flocked to the seaside to spent their holidays here. In South Africa, the last month of the year was a holiday season for two reasons: it was Christmas and New Year, but also it was summer. In winter, however, the temperature hardly reached twenty degrees Celsius and, we were forced to wear jerseys or jackets. At that time, Morgan Bay was barely occupied.
Next to the second ferry was a rusty pontoon with its name written on its side — “Fish Eagle II.” The boat was mainly used in high season to take tourists up the river. The vessel looked like it was time for “Fish Eagle III.”
A group of teenagers was launching their boat nearby. Their boat looked new, with a shiny black Yamaha motor attached to it. I noticed the boys’ white skin was still golden from the summer sun. The children of wealthy farmers and business owners spent their weekends in Morgan Bay escaping the routine of private schools and universities. I envied them — they were the new generation free from apartheid guilt, but their families still enjoyed their accumulated wealth.
Our ferry finally reached the river berth. We waited for a few moments for the passengers and cars to disembark, and then slowly drove our Range Rover onto the boat. Warren stopped the engine, and we got out of the car. A couple of passengers — mostly elder black women — were still boarding the ferry. Every woman was carrying a multitude of bags: traveler bags, duffel bags, plastic bags, totes; most of them had a rucksack on their shoulders; two women were carrying a bag on their heads. From what I could make out, their bags were full of food: loaves of bread, cartons of milk, boxes of Mielie Meal, bottles of Tropika dairy fruit mix, string bags of oranges, and packets of potatoes. I figured the women were returning from East London where they worked during the week. It was easier for them to find a job in the city as domestic workers cleaning houses for the middle and upper-class families. They often stayed with those families during the week. But it was Friday, and the women received their weekly pay and returned to their husbands and children who remained in the village.
The walking passengers took the seats on the other side of the ferry and carried on with their conversations. They spoke loudly and looked happy to be on their way back to their families. Warren hugged me. Two young white couples emerged from another car. The joined our side of the ferry without paying attention to any of the passengers, including us. It amused me that no one cared about two gay guys on the boat, but everyone naturally segregated to their side of the ferry — the black side and the white side.
I was born in Eastern Europe, and I still felt uncomfortable allowing people around me to know that I was gay. But not even the black ferryman looked at us. He was navigating with precision, but his face was emotionless. I tried calculating how many times he made the trip a day.
“When is the first ferry?” I asked Warren.
“About 7 in the morning, I think,” he replied.
“And when is the last one?” I asked him another question.
“Around 5:30 in the evening,” he replied again.
It took about ten minutes for a one-way trip. The ferryman was making about thirty round trips daily I thought. No wonder he was so impartial to anything that was going on with our journey. I looked back at the side of the river we came from. The boys finally launched the boat and sent it flying up the stream. The waves from the boat reached our ferry and started to rock it softly from side to side.
“Let’s get back to the car,” said Warren as the ferry began turning to connect its platform to the river berth.
The cars disembarked first. And as Warren carried on driving away from the ferry, I looked back. The women left the boat and started scaling the truck which was parked nearby. I guessed, one of the women’s husbands came to fetch all of them and give them a lift back to the village. At least they didn’t need to carry their bags all the way, I thought briefly.
We reached one of the most rural parts of the country (Eastern Cape was the poorest province of South Africa). A herd of cows was the first to meet us in Transkei. The cows were roaming freely on the road and its sides, lazily chewing yellow grass. Not a single one of them paid any attention to our Range Rover. We had to slow down to almost a halt, as the animals were blocking the way. I smiled. Warren, with a bit of irritation, started maneuvering around them. They continued holding their positions, occasionally jerking their ears. I wondered if they did it on purpose. While we slowly navigated around the animals, I was trying to examine the cows’ hair, looking for ticks.
The day before, over dinner, Warren’s father told us about the state of the neighborhood farming.
“Those new black post-apartheid farmers don’t care for their cattle, all they want is money,” his voice had notes of bitterness on that night. Then he looked at Warren, “I remember on your grandfather’s farm dipping was a ritual — every month the whole herd was taken to the dipping station. They cleansed everything: cows, sheep, horses.”
I figured he was talking about plunge dipping which helped to rid of ticks, mites, lice, and other parasites. But I could not spot any ticks on the cows we were passing. Could it be that the parasites were under the cow’s hair? Eventually, I concluded that those cows and the black farmers were alright. I reached to grab a bottle of beer from the back seat.
In two hundred meters we had to stop again. This time, it was a flock of white goats. Their fur coat was so bright that it reflected the sunlight. I noticed that they all looked clean and healthy, something I wasn’t expecting after our conversation the day before. The goats were wandering on the road and by its edges. Some of them scaled the hill on the right side from us, reaching for the succulent leaves of nearby shrubs, but none of them paid attention to our car. A baby buck stretched out for a high branch, sticking its tiny tongue out in an attempt to copy the adults, but after a couple of unsuccessful tries, it launched itself into the air, springing on all fours to the other side of the road. He almost ran into a bushpig — a group of them were digging out roots. All black, the wild pigs didn’t object the presence of our car either.
There was not a sign of a human in sight. The goats and cows looked like they had an owner, but no one was herding the animals. Someone could steal a goat easily — just stop your car, catch one, put it in the back of your truck, and be gone. I guessed animal poaching wasn’t a concern in the area.
“Look! Fish eagle!” shouted Warren pointing to the upper left corner of the windscreen. I had to bend to gaze up jerking my head toward the glass. Low in the sky, an eagle was flying by. The bird’s body was white, but its fully open wings were brown. The wings were a good couple of meters wide. Every few seconds it flapped them to stay high in the air. It was heading toward the river. “Fish Eagle II” was named after these birds which had their nests up the stream. Spotting their feeding time was one of the main attractions of the river cruise.
The eagle soon disappeared from our sight, as we carried on driving. Shortly, the first houses started to come into our view. Some of them were in the shape of long rectangles, and some of them were hexagonal, having six corners. Looking at the size of the buildings, I imagined that all of the houses consisted of a single room. Next to each group of the buildings was a smaller structure. It was no more than a half a square meter — a toilet. Obviously, the houses didn’t have any running water, and the toilets had to be outside. Clotheslines completed the picture by connecting the buildings together with their assortment of colorful clothes drying in the sun.
I imagined the lack of privacy the occupants of such houses were dealing with. For just four of us, our Morgan Bay home offered five bedrooms and three running water bathrooms.
The village was empty apart from three young boys who were wandering aimlessly by the road. As soon as the sound of the engine reached them, they turned their heads. The boys followed us with their gaze until the point on the road where the car’s bumper was within their reach, then each of them extended their hand and started to run alongside shouting in their high voices “Sweets! Sweets!”
“What do they want?” I asked Warren. Johannesburg’s beggars always asked for money.
“They just want something sugary, like candy or chocolate,” he replied, “Passers-by often give the kids treats.”
“Well, we only have beer and chips,” I made a joke.
The boys figured they were in no luck and returned to their previous business. We continued on the route for another fifteen minutes. The landscape stayed the same: dirt road, cows, goats, an occasional village, and a glimpse of the ocean now and then. Soon, we turned left off the road, and only two tracks of indented soil continued to guide us on our way — Warren wanted to show me Gxara Falls. After a bit of shaking on the uneven path and a brief use of the off-road features of our car, we finally arrived.
“We can’t go further. It is too steep even for the Range Rover,” said Warren. He grabbed his beer; I grabbed mine, and we started to descend the rocky hill. I could hear water roaring close by. Suddenly, two black teenage boys appeared out of the bush. They were locals. We exchanged a quick glance with the boys without saying hello. Warren looked alarmed, but in a couple of moments the boys passed us moving in the direction we came from. We went through the same bush, followed a couple of steps made in the ground, and reached the rocky side of the waterfall.
The view was liberating. A small river behind us hit a series of rocky steps, slipping through stone and making pools of muddy water along its way until it stalled itself in a large circular pond. As gallons of water continuously arrived from one side, the river pushed still water on the other one, plunging itself onto the wet rocks at the bottom. I went closer to the edge of the waterfall, trying to look down. It was about hundred meters high. The sides of the waterfall were black and damp; the places that water could not reach were dry and yellow. My head started to spin. Afraid that I could lose my balance, I pull myself back. Then I figured out the way to get there — I went on my knees, extended my legs, and hung them from the edge. I looked over again. The water was crashing at the bottom of the fall, raising a cloud of cold mist.
“I think I am going to go back to the car,” said Warren.
“Why?” I was surprised, as I wanted to share the memorable moment together. In fact, I wanted to spend the next half an hour kissing.
“I am not sure it is safe to leave the Range Rover when the guys we saw are wandering around there. Last time we were here, someone broke into the car and stole a cellphone. But you can stay for a bit longer. I will wait in the car.”
“Oh. Ok. I’ll be quick,” I replied disappointed.
I had a sip of my beer and turned back to face the river below. Petty theft was widespread everywhere in the country, not only Transkei. Most of the cars had to have smash-and-grab tint, an extra layer which was put on each car window to prevent it from shattering easily. Otherwise, everything went: cell phones, laptops, sunglasses, car radios. Once, I heard that someone had their window smashed for an empty lunchbox — the thief thought that it had some food in it. Needless to say, that the cost of repairs was often higher than the value of stolen items. I was puzzled by the fact that a goat or a cow might cost more than a cellphone, but no one was guarding the animals. Perhaps, it was something to do with who you were stealing from. With that thought, I gazed at the waterfall for the final time, trying to memorize the sensation, pulled my legs back, and made my way to the car.
Warren and the car were safe. I jumped in, saying a mental goodbye to Gxara Falls, and we headed toward the ocean. Soon we found our way to the dirt road again, and a new village appeared. This village was bigger than the others we saw before. It had more than twenty households spread across both sides of the road. I noticed an old black man in dirty clothes who was sitting under a utility pole. He appeared to be dozing. Above him, on the pole was a big voting poster. It bore a slightly different message to the ones we saw on the boat house. In large font, it was calling to vote for a party promising economic freedom to the citizens. I started to look around — in a couple of meters, on another pole, a blue poster was promising the delivery of basic services for all. Each political party worked hard to engage the electorate even in this remote location.
In ten minutes we reached Seagulls Beach Hotel. Along the coastal line of the Indian Ocean, each piece of a flat sandy beach was occupied by either a hotel or resort. This one looked like it was built many decades ago, but the owner maintained the property well. Among the affordable motel-like accommodation were a cut lawn and two crystal blue pools with white plastic sunbeds. On the lawn, by the entrance to the hotel, three black women were lying on the grass next to the blankets with merchandise. Their improvised displays showed a colorful variety of qashelas — hand beaded bracelets, necklaces, collars, and dolls. Two of the women were stringing beads together for a new item to replenish their stock. The third one was on a lunch break — she was spreading butter on a piece of bread, making a sandwich.
The restaurant was open but empty. We walked through the narrow room to reach the terrace on the other side of the restaurant. The walls of the establishment were decorated with old photographs on fishermen and their trophies. In two corners, big flat-screen TVs broadcasted a cricket match. The terrace opened up to the sea, and small steps were leading to a lawn which separated from the beach by a low stick-fence. All of the restaurant’s patrons were on the terrace enjoying the warmth of the sun. There were no empty tables outside, so we had to share a long wooden bench. The kitchen hours at this place were strict: 8 a.m. –10 a.m. for breakfast; 12 p.m. — 2 p.m. for lunch; 5 p.m. — 7 p.m. for dinner. Otherwise, the customer could only expect to be served beverages. We had to hurry as the kitchen was closing in ten minutes.
“What do you want for lunch?” Warren asked me.
I ran my eyes through the five options: steak and egg, chicken burger, fish and chips, calamari and chips, and cajun fish salad.
“Calamari and chips, and a bottle of sparkling water, please,” I picked one of the options.
“Don’t you want another beer?” asked Warren.
“No, thanks. I’ve already had two — don’t want to get drunk,” I replied.
Warren went to order from the bar to make sure that we got our food in time before the kitchen closed. I looked around. Three white couples were occupying the terrace. All of them were at different stages of their lunch. I noticed that one couple, in their late thirties, had finished their food and were now enjoying a lazy afternoon. They were looking toward the ocean where two boys and a girl were digging something out of a dune. Beside the younger children, two adolescent boys played a game of beach tennis on the lawn. I started concentrating on their game. The younger boy was not good at it, and the older one was punishing him for his lack of skill, finishing almost every strike with a laugh.
Warren came back with the drinks. I poured some of my water into a glass and grabbed my phone to take a picture for Instagram. As I was taking it, one of the younger boys found something in the dune and, excited about his discovery, ran toward his parents. He quickly jumped up the wooden stairs leaving a trail of sand. When he finally reached the bench, he presented his trophy to his mom — it was a piece of aluminum wire. The boy’s white skin was turning slightly pink from the sun and the hard work he put into digging. He took a sip of juice and ran back to his excavating colleagues. The parents smiled. The mom put the piece of the wire away from the plates to the edge of the table. I noticed that the father was wearing a corporate t-shirt with the logo of one of the big South African banks. The family, perhaps, came down for the weekend from Johannesburg as well.
The food arrived late. By that time, the couple at our table left, the teenage boys finished their game and went to the pool for a swim, and I successfully uploaded a photo of the ocean to Instagram and collected ten likes. Warren and I spent the next half an hour enjoying the fresh seafood lunch.
“What do you think of upcoming elections?” I asked Warren.
“You know, people here still believe that they vote for Mandela,” he replied. Nelson Mandela died in 2013, but he retired from politics ten years before his passing. Mandela was a genuine hero for the country, and ANC, the political party he represented, continued to exploit his image for all upcoming elections.
“Do you think DA has a chance this year?” I liked their economic policies, but I knew that they were perceived as the party for whites.
“Maybe they will do better because they changed their leader to be a black guy now. I don’t remember his name,” he paused, “but I don’t think people here will vote for him. He is a coconut.” Warren called coconuts people who were black but had a white person’s lifestyle.
Soon we were done with our lunch, and as we were walking out the restaurant after we paid our bill, I noticed a drunk black man sleeping on the grass under the trees. He was barefoot but wore a blue t-shirt with the branding of one of the political parties. His back was calling for “Change!” — the politicians always tried to ramp up their support by giving away food parcels and t-shirts in rural areas. I was glad that the man found a good use for the “gift.”
I turned to face the exit and saw a big sign advertising the new Seagulls real estate development. Twenty-four new full title deed plots were for sale. Most of them had a sea view and would be perfect for luxury holiday homes. Indeed, the change was coming to Seagulls, but not for the people who needed it most.
On our way back we stopped for coffee at Trennerys. It was a family vacation resort with stand-alone cottages and a caravan park. At its entrance, right under the words “Welcome!” was a picture of a groom and bride. The place was great to have a wedding: stunning scenery, away from the city, and affordable accommodation with cheap catering. We followed the signs for the restaurant.
Our waiter, a black middle-aged woman, greeted us with, “I am sorry, but our kitchen is closed.”
“We just want to have some coffee, please,” Warren replied.
“Alright then,” she pulled up her notepad and pen to take our order.
“Do you only have instant coffee?” asked Warren.
“No. We have a new machine now. I can make black coffee and that other one,” she forgot the name of the other option. “Uuuuh! Eish! Capachyna!” she remembered after a couple of seconds.
A few minutes later our order arrived. Warren has got his coffee, but my cup looked a bit different. My cappuccino was completely white, and after two sips, I realized it was just frothed milk. I laughed. It was logical. The coffee machine was new. The owner probably showed his staff briefly how to use it, but they never paid much attention. Back in Johannesburg I often get lost between the different options. Secretly, I was still unsure of the differences between a cappuccino, macchiato and flat white. Also, back in Johannesburg, this cup would be sent back to the kitchen, as I know that any of the options should contain at least a bit of coffee in it. But here I could not blame them for it.
I kept thinking of drinking it, as I didn’t want to offend our waiter. She made my cappuccino in the best way she knew, without any bad intentions. I felt that I was ungrateful. I took a few more sips, but the taste was revolting. I tried adding sugar — no help. I took Warren’s cup and added a bit of his coffee into mine. It didn’t make any difference — his coffee was watery. Finally, I gave up. I moved the cup away from me and just waited for Warren to finish his. When the waiter came back to us, we paid our bill adding a good tip. She never took notice of my hardly touched coffee as she cleaned the table.
Trennerys was our final stop, and we started our drive back to Morgan Bay. We took a slightly different route this time — the waterfall was a detour. We went on a freshly built tar road. It didn’t even have demarcation yet. I started thinking that the new property development in Seagulls was picking up in its price because of the new infrastructure, but soon the tar road was over. As we were getting off the road and making a small circle around the construction site toward the adjacent dirt path, we passed a group of road workers. They were digging a trench on the side of the new surface. I was surprised to see that the half of the workers were young women, perhaps, no older than twenty. They looked at us, smiled, and shouted:
“Sorry. I don’t have any,” he showed his empty hands to the women.
As the construction workers disappeared from the view, Warren’s face changed to show disappointment.
“These people are so poor here. They are stuck,” he exclaimed, “they are stuck because they are isolated and abandoned. But the government does nothing for them. They only visit these places every two or three years, six months ahead of big elections. They come and install toilets. This is how they win.”
I looked at those small restrooms again and noticed that some of them looked new. The toilets were the paradox of our country. Building a restroom was enough to win a poll because nineteen million citizens were still living in the rural parts of South Africa. A free t-shirt was another valuable add-on to your political power. At the same time, we, people from the guarded suburbs living in big cities, fooled ourselves that we were separate. We, wealthy and poor, all shared the same destiny, which was decided by the same toilets.
“It was a good trip,” I said to Warren, “We should do it again.”