Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Is this the real South Africa?

Arrive in Clarens and you are in a different world. We've got used to a South African experience which includes sometimes sullen, dispirited and resentful black faces, high spiked metal fences, fierce dogs… and the third of the population that is unemployed loitering and clustering outside the cheaper shops and by the minibus ranks. You get used to it and, from what I see, eventually inured to it. 

Though I have to say it is very difficult to 'read' the attitudes and faces of people with a very different cultural background from one's own, and there are white people living in the 'black townships' just as there are blacks in the posh and mainly white areas. Also, seeing crowds of black kids coming out of school bright, cheerful and immaculately turned out in their school uniforms, you do feel there has to be hope for the future if this spirit can be be carried forward into their adulthood. I hope so anyway.  

But this is different. You drive through the black township to get to the town proper (it was a black resident of the 'black township' at Ladybrand who used that precise term when we talked) and the houses are much as we have seen elsewhere, despite the fact thay we are 6000 feet up here and winter temperatures can fall to -17°C, at which point some of the literally tumbledown wattle and daub and stone dwellings on the unsheltered hillside would appear to be barely habitable, not to mention morally indefensible in a country of such extremes of wealth. (The lovely houses in the 'white' quarter are surrounded by trees and beautiful gardens that are a delight to the eye and nourishment to the spirit.)

But setting all that aside, if you can comfortably do so, Clarens proves to be a leafy and comfortable and relaxed village (pop. 4500) where we walked the kilometre home from the restaurant in total peace, framed by the constant buzzing of countless crickets. Most of the houses have only token - if any - fences and not a single dog barked at us. Not one!! You suddenly realise that here is a place where the (white) population does not live in a state of perpetual fear, behind a defensive palisade and (usually several) dogs. Read up on what it's like to stay in, say, Cape Town or travel the so-called Garden Route and you realise that Clarens is almost certainly not the real South Africa in anyone's book, but perhaps for that very reason it's an extremely nice and warm and pleasant place to stay. Fear is not endemic. 

Here is the view from our B&B this morning:

For the record, supper in one of very few restaurants open here on a Monday night comprised two really scrummy vegetarian platters including spinach, mushrooms, carrots, a baked potato with sour cream, grilled halloumi and more worked into some lovely tasty dishes, plus two generous glasses of house wine — and came to a total of about £7 each including tip. A pint of local beer earlier had cost a little over £1. 

When we asked what were the herbs chopped onto the carrots, the owner said she would check with 'the kitchen'. How different from the average English pub where the honest answer would be "I'll ask the person in the kitchen who snips the corners off the boil-in-the-bag/microwaveable carrots to check the ingredients for you." (The answer, by the way, was oregano. A recommended addition to your next bowl of carrots.)

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