Culture curry mix

Durban kickoff

Culture curry mix

The Moses Mabhida StadiumOh! Your Indian flag seems to be missing.” Our Durban companion sounded almost apologetic as if she was denying her guests a special request. She was referring to the flags of the qualifying teams for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in South Africa which were displayed at the centre court of the Sun Coast Casino & Entertainment, a cool destination for Durbanites. On stage, an emcee with two attractive helpers, was entertaining the crowd that had collected for what looked like a game of tambola, one of the many events being organised around the international football matches that South Africans are eagerly awaiting. 

“Well, don’t worry,” I said. “We have not qualified for the tournament,” I added, almost as quickly, matching her embarrassment. “Aw, I guess we just managed because we are hosting the tournament,” she attempted to justify and let the matter rest.

Like most other big cities in this Rainbow Nation, Durban is undergoing an intense makeover ahead of the tournament kicking off in June 2010. The new Moses Mabhida Stadium is almost complete, way ahead of its schedule, and stands impressively — spanned by an iconic arch — near the beach. Visitors will be able to travel to the top of that arch on a ‘sky car’ to glimpse some breathtaking views. It is also rumoured to offer an opportunity to bungee-jump off the arch from 80 metres up.

Spring cleaning

Hotels are being spruced up, transport upgraded and public parks landscaped to welcome football fans from around the world. The entire city is on an overdrive from government offices to the tourist market to make the most of FIFA. The power point presentation of officials at the Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) Premiers’ office in St Petermaritzburg speaks confidently, among other things, of the meticulous planning that will take the infrastructural and social reforms to the local people even after the games are over.

Though like our Durban companion, no one’s talking much about their green-and-gold clad national team, afraid that even the plastic vuvuzelas (a blowing horn that is part of the South African football culture) may not create enough noise to boost the out-of-form team. But unlike us Indians, the South Africans more than make up for this lack in their singleminded approach to showcase their country to the world. This year’s IPL should be able to say much about the South African zeal for organising mega events.

Durban definitely seems to be in a hurry to catch up with Jo’burg (that’s how the locals refer to Johannesburg) and Cape Town — two must-see stops in SA.

Sun Coast Casino. Photo by  authorUntil recently, Durban with its subtropical climate was a haven for domestic tourists. Climate being the major draw. It is warm here when the rest of the country is cold. However, of late you can see more western visitors plus a sizeable mix of Indian tourists as well.

Because of its colonial past and Indian influence that began when the colonisers brought ship loads of “coolies” to work as indentured labour in their sugarcane fields,  Durban has the feel of an Indian city. Though this could be reason enough for many Indian tourists to give it a miss. Who wants to see more Indians while travelling “abroad”!

Worth a chance

But give Durban a chance for even the “Indian” experience will be a foreign one as we realised while in the city for three days. Post apartheid, Umhlanga in the north of the city and its surrounding area, that was formerly sugarcane fields, is now making way for the rich and famous. Earmarked as an upmarket area that houses designer offices, shopping malls, and modern boutique hotels — including the Royal Palm Hotel, where we stayed — Umhlanga does seem posh.

But as we drove past the malls and out of the picturesque neighbourhood towards downtown Durban things became slightly familiar, especially the shanty town of the Phoenix Settlement, a multiracial commune founded by Gandhi. It has since been overrun by a black squatter camp and is now popularly known as Bambayi.

Further along the way, there were other discoveries of the ingenious ways of the local people. Huge cargo containers that are found around ports and dockyards were being used as temporary shelters and in some cases even converted into shops.

In theory, these may seem like eyesores on the beautiful landscape, however, one cannot but marvel at this invention born out of necessity. The sculptures erected out of waste on the roadsides using car silencers and scrap and beer bottles tell more about man’s need to look beyond just basic survival.

Talking of survival, the ‘Little India’, that spread quick and fast around the Grey Street Mosque, the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere, is a fine example of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian people. As one wise old South African of Indian descent pointed out the reason for India’s absence from the international football scene: “Give a corner to an Indian and he’ll open a shop.”

The Grey Street neighbourhood and the Victoria Market do justice to the hustle bustle of any Indian market. All manners of spices, masala, silk sarees, salwar kameez and Bollywood video stores cater to the largest population of Indians anywhere in South Africa. The story of their landing here around the mid 1800s, their incarceration at the hands of the colonial rulers and their subsequent uprising make for another good story. But that’s for later.

Durban is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world, swollen by a migration of rural Zulus to the shanty towns around the city. Work on the Golden Mile on the beachfront is at a fast pace and it will soon have a Miami feel to it. Along the beachfront, modern apartments blocks — with neat burglar alarm systems at the entrance — are homes to a mix of cultural races. But it seems it is still not enough to invite a sense of security. We were warned to leave our bags and cameras behind when we went to check out the crafts shops along the beach. Crime is a big concern and foreign tourists come pre-warned not to venture out alone after six in the evening.

Fifteen years since apartheid was lifted, a lot has changed but a lot remains the same. The black people are now being seen as the ‘Black Diamond’, an attempt by the government to value their contribution to nation building. Youngsters Shameel Deeplaul and Kavith Harrilall feel that in the “new South Africa” different communities and races are integrating at a more rapid pace. “I believe that younger people especially those in schools, colleges and universities are leading the way,” says Kavith, a business editor at the ‘The Witness’, a St Peretmaritzburg-based newspaper.

The right mixture

Shameel, who recently moved from Jo’burg to Durban, is happy he made the move to Ethekwini, an endearing Zulu name for Durban. “There is a deep sense of brotherhood and kinship among all races within KwaZulu Natal. Inter-racial marriages are frequent as also friendships that portray a break in the old racial stigmas. Post-apartheid from what I recall, I was allowed into the white schools, was allowed to hang out at white places and did not experience the hardships that others had experienced. The only way I can relate to apartheid is from speaking to my family. We now own a place on the beach, and I recently asked my aunt why they never brought me to this beach when I was younger. She replied that this beach was for white people only. From speaking to people now, I found that businesses, banks, post offices and shops had separate entrances for whites and non-whites,” he recalls.

Calling race relations an “unfinished business”, Rich Mkhondo, a writer and chief communications officer for FIFA, says, “White people think black people have made enormous progress since 1994. They don’t want to feel guilty anymore.”

But the culture curry that Durban is can best be illustrated with a curry dish, the Bunny Chow. An ingenious invention for a take-away in the late 1800s, probably by the Indians, Bunny Chow is simply a loaf of bread that is hollowed out, the pulp mixed in gravy with beans, vegetables or meat and poured into the hollow loaf.

San Francisco-based author and activist Minal Hajratwala writes in her new book, Leaving India: My family’s journey from five villages to five continents, “At the modern bunny chow joint, Africans of all color can be seen chowing down. Watching them, black, brown and white, it is easy to forget that the bunny chow was born of segregation — South Africa’s extreme and relentless version of it.”

Travel tips

*Emirates Airlines has started several direct flights from Oct 1 from major Indian cities, including Bangalore, to Durban.

*While in Durban don’t miss: uShaka Marine World where you can walk barefeet with sting rays, watch dolphins dance and feed the sharks. You may bump into 12-year-old Ryan who is best friends with all the marine life there. Stick to him and he will give you an amusing guided tour for free.

*Beachfront shopping for African crafts.

*Casinos are a major draw. Try your luck at Sun Cost Casino & Entertainment. If not, then sample a range of cuisines from Indian to Hawaii.

*Try and sneak into an Indian wedding. If you are lucky like us you can walk right up to the couple and congratulate them. A note: The South African weddings are much quieter.

*Night life rocks, but stay away from the roads after dark. 

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