Thankfully, my last day in Malawi was minus any mishaps, bloody shins or the need for further stitches. It was quite dull actually, which was a welcome relief to be honest. The day was spent doing exciting activities such as drinking coffee, packing my bags and buying biscuits. Told you it was dull. Despite some of the setbacks I have had along the way, I would have to say that Malawi was one of the friendliest, safest and most enjoyable countries I have been to. Certainly worth a visit. Just make sure you bring sun cream, don’t drink their boxed wine and watch yourself as you disembark public transport.
New Year’s Eve made its annual appearance and I hopped onto a plane back to Johannesburg to say adios to 2016 and hola to 2017. In many ways, 2016 has been the most difficult of years for me but being back in South Africa seemed a fitting way to exorcise those demons and have renewed positivity for the 12 months ahead. I decided to check into a fairly nice hotel in Sandton as a reward for staying in relatively basic accommodation for the past few weeks in Malawi. Opening the door to my 7th floor room, I was in heaven when I realised the room had hot running water, tea and coffee-making facilities, a double bed, Wi-Fi, constant electricity and, the cherry on top of the cake, a flat screen TV. I was in heaven sat next to John Lennon, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix when I realised that the TV also had 7 dedicated sports channels. In the afternoon, I joined some friends to party in the New Year in the traditional, boozy fashion that we have all become accustomed to. 2017 started with a massive hangover, gorging on junk food and watching Premier League football all day on my TV. I suspect many of you had similar experiences on 1st January.
The next few days and nights were spent in Johannesburg without doing many wild or crazy things. The most adventurous activity I did was watch the new Star Wars movie in 3D and then treat myself to an ice cream. Led Zeppelin could only dream of the extravagant and outrageous lifestyle I was living. At night, I would often wander down to the hotel bar to sit and nurse a few drinks, chat to some of the other patrons and people watch. On one occasion, I happened to notice an older guy at the bar on his own sipping a whiskey on the rocks. Moments later, a middle-aged woman approached the bar dressed in the tightest clothes, wearing looped earrings so large a dolphin could have jumped through them and a face that had so much make up, you would think it had been applied by a bricklayer’s trowel. Not to mention the Tina Turner-esque hairstyle that sprouted from her head and the pungent perfume that could have floored an elephant. She went straight up to the older guy, looked at him with a blank, professional stare and within seconds, he had necked his Johnny Walker and they disappeared into the elevator. Now, I used my Sherlock Holmes powers and deduced that she may not have been his wife or partner. My hunch was confirmed when I saw the older guy the following morning welcome his real wife and young son in the hotel lobby. What a creep. Apparently, this is a common occurrence here, the barman told me. Who needs a TV in their room when you have these types of nightly episodes to watch?
On my final day in Johannesburg, I had to remove the stitch from my shin. It seemed to be healing well. But with no proper medical training to my name, I couldn’t really be sure. However, it looked fine despite the purple and black bruising that was now on show around the wound. In true backpacker, budget traveller style, I would try to take out the stitch myself armed with a pair of tweezers and nasal scissors. The tea and coffee making facilities came in handy as I boiled the kettle and sterilized my ad hoc, surgical implements in a mug of hot water. Now for the fun part. Using instructions I had seen online, I began the process. I braced myself for a painful extraction as I delicately used the miniature tools to pull, hoist and cut the stitch. Here it goes. Snip. I pulled the stitch out and held it with the tweezers. Painless. What an anti-climax. I anticipated having to go through the pain barrier and, as a result of my brave self-surgery, see a long thread covered in goo and blood. Yet I barely felt a thing, the stitch was about the length of a staple and quite clean for being housed in my shin for a week. To stop this from happening again, I will be more aware of the very real dangers to my body when getting off a public mini-bus. Perhaps, in future, I should wear shin pads when travelling on these vehicles.
Next port of call on my journey was Durban; the city where my mum was born and spent her early school years. I flew down and met up with one of my cousins, and her husband from the UK who happened to be in town at the same time. Upon arrival, the heat and humidity hit me. This was my first taste of sunshine and warmth in Durban as the last time I was here it rained and rained. My accommodation was a nice hostel in an old colonial building with a pink-painted façade. Despite the welcoming pastel coloured walls, it was located in a decidedly, dodgy part of town. Even the hostel staff informed me that walking in the area with your mobile phone in daylight hours was a risky pursuit. Clearly I should have done more research but what’s done is done. With my mobile safely back in the room, I walked along the beachfront to join my cousin at her hotel for dinner. We met, hugged and had a pre-dinner drink. I also had the pleasure of meeting other local family members whom I hadn’t met before. Together, we all shared the most gargantuan of gargantuan buffet dinners. I wouldn’t need an Uber back to my hostel after the meal; I needed to be airlifted out of the restaurant and returned on the back of a flatbed truck.
While my cousin and I were in Durban, we arranged to visit the school that her dad and my mum attended some 60 years ago. We were greeted by the vice-principal and taken on a brief tour around the facilities and classrooms. Bouncing from one room to another, we met some great teachers and pupils who treated us to a few songs that they sang beautifully in unison. As I was wearing my Manchester United jersey, there was plenty of banter too, especially with the Year 1 teacher who supported Liverpool. Not sure if she appreciated seeing me kiss the badge on my shirt as I left the classroom. But it was a very humble experience to walk around the school where my mum spent her early years. From the school, we made our way to see the house where my mum’s family lived many years ago. It was still standing and the current owners were very friendly and allowed us to come onto their property for a better look. Though I didn’t get to have a very close inspection, as the family Labrador was more interested in attacking my groin. Still, it was wonderful to see the building for myself with my own eyes and think of the memories housed inside these walls. Strange to imagine my mum in her primary school years playing in this same garden with her siblings.
A new day dawned and I was back on my own again as my cousin and her husband flew back to a slightly less sunny England. The sun was beaming again today, so I took a walk along the beachfront promenade, passing the skateboard park, the public outdoor swimming pools and a few amusement parks for the many people out and about to enjoy. I reached the end and plonked myself down on the sand to read, listen to music, relax and nod off to sleep. This was the perfect way to waste away a Sunday morning. That was until the children, playing with the sand, lobbed a handful in my direction and woke me up. After a couple of hours, the sun was scorching my skin. So, before I burst into flames, I picked up my belongings and trudged back along the beach towards my hostel and purchased a much-needed ice cream. For the first time, I was aware of the somewhat undignified, and unsavoury, characters hanging around outside my hostel. Nearby hotels offering hourly rates was the first clue. Then, the slew of scantily clad women loitering around on the pavement was the second, cryptic clue. The slowing cars, driven by solitary males, crawling along the curb were the final pieces of the puzzle. Ignoring the calls for my attention, I kept on walking whilst enjoying my vanilla cone. I know an older guy in a Sandton hotel who would have responded differently.
Due to personal reasons, I had to fly back to London. The following week, I was back on my travels and back for a few nights in Johannesburg. I avoided the same hotel/whorehouse in Sandton and plumped for an Air BnB accommodation in the Paulshof area of the city instead. The grounds were lovely and the room was, what you would call, quaint. But getting a working signal to log into the Wi-Fi was a struggle. In fact, I had to sit on a garden wall to check my Facebook and Whatsapp messages. Breakfast was served in the nearby laundry room as it rained each morning I was there. The table and chairs outside of my room had no shelter, so I bit into my toast and ate my cereal as the buzzing whir of the washing machine entered its final rinse and spin cycle. One morning, I made the mistake of resting my tea on the washing machine whilst it was in operation. The cup hopped up and down on the appliance resulting in the majority of its contents ending up on the laundry room floor.
After my short stay, I boarded a plane heading back down to Durban. The next morning, I went back to my mum’s old school to give them some pens and pencils I had brought from London. A small gesture but was told that they were much-needed for some of the poorer students in attendance. A couple of days later, I got a ticket to watch South Africa play Sri Lanka in a one-day international cricket match. Being in possession of a lawn ticket with no designated seating and unsure how crowded the event would be, I arrived 3 hours before the match was due to commence. I need not have been so worried as I was the first person in line. Carrying a bag full of drinks and snacks, I made my way inside the stadium and headed for one of shaded parts of the stadium on the grass. As soon as I sat down, I realised I had made a big mistake. Everyone else behind me was loaded with chairs, blankets, duvets and pillows to lie on the hard ground and cushion their bottoms. I had no such things and this would be a long day sat in the field for me. Brilliant sunshine greeted the two teams as they came out to play. South Africa batted first and smacked the ball all over the park with 2 of their players getting fabulous centuries. They both received a standing ovation, which allowed me the opportunity to get off my numb bum and stand up for a few moments. Every time the ball got belted for 6 runs, there were big cheers and spilled beers. Sri Lanka went into bat chasing a big total to win and lost 4 quick wickets. At 7.30pm, with the sun going down and almost 8 hours sat on my poor arse, I had had enough. While South Africa were cruising, I was bruising. I left the stadium happy to have witnessed my first international cricket match and, having been in the shade for the majority of the day, with minimal sunburn. Upon returning to the hostel, I shared a few drinks with some Aussie guys and reflected upon another fine day spent in sunny Durban. The added bonus was finally being able to sit down on one of the bar’s comfortable, padded seats. Sheer bliss.