Thursday, November 24, 2016

Many Roads: Highway 61 Visited, Not Re-visited

Many roads. That much is certain. What is it now? The first few thousand kilometres of African highway. Theatres, clubs, juke joints, cows, goats, sheep, taxis, pot holes, speed bumps as big as my car, the horizon always teasing. These roads are posted fast. Slightly less hectic now. Less populated than the north-east, capital district. The open countryside is more relaxed. Fewer barb wire fences. Fewer people walking the roadside. A man in rags, barefoot, makes me drive around him. I've seen two bodies on the roadside in less than a week. Some of these people have arrived from other lands. Walking. They are tired. Or sometimes, high. They don't seem to understand the speed of the road. Or maybe they are beyond caring, beyond worrying about such simple things. Sometimes they run. Maybe they freeze in the headlights at night. I don't know. Maybe they just don't think. Don't think about the speed. Too tired for that. I wonder if there is, at some level, a disconnect from the power, the strain, the danger of the road. These two worlds. Symbiotic. Close. But far apart.

Some walk beside the highway. Some run. Some are going to work somewhere in the pre-dawn light. Others are just going. Going on from somewhere with nothing to some other place with nothing. Africa is nothing, if not busy. It's walking and picking stuff up. It's trying to flag a ride. It's about not having and having. To have and have not. It's a first world and a third world standing shoulder to shoulder, face to face. Here, under barbed wire and palms. Under Zulu skies, things are complicated. I'm in the first world with my blues tour. My worries are different worries. Much different. The shanty towns built next to the highway. The trash poured out into the ditch. The home-made speed bumps. The traffic lights that don't work because some squatters have figured out how to steal the power. Dark at night. One doesn't stop for red lights. You open the gate to the electric fence, and quickly drive inside.

But now my Google is messing up again. I'm driving around and around Bloemfontein. I'm talking on the phone to a guy who is giving me instructions I can't seem to grasp. This is a first world problem. Maybe it's my accent. Maybe it's his accent. Clearly there is a communications failure going on here. Planets may be in the wrong places. Who knows? Two hours later, I find the place. It's not in Bloem. It's near Bloem. On a highway near another highway. Easy if you know where it is! The Aasvoel Klub turns out to be quite cool...

Hein built this place. An authentic, African juke joint. Nothing is wasted here! It looks great in the daytime. It looks wild at night. It is wild at night. A great gig, and a good crowd in spite of it being a Monday show.

Big drive day. I'm taking some smaller roads east, and then south into Kwa Zulu Natal...

Caladdi, at Lidgetton, in the midlands of KZN.

Nova-May Challinor runs a picturesque resort in the KZN midlands.

Down to Eshowe, in the heart of Zululand. In fact, I play The House at Zululand. Outside, I admire their giant, purple-blue lillies. I wonder if they would grow in my Canadian garden? It is an interesting drive into Eshowe from the big road. Cane being harvested by hand just beyond the ditches. A twisted, narrow highway up into the hills. Small houses and farms cut into, and clinging to the slopes. The clouds hanging overhead. I wanted to drive a series of back roads, but the folks in the midlands talked me out of it. I still don't have a spare tire. "If you break down out there, you'll lose everything," I'm told. I don't know if that's true. But I've got a car full of gear, and I don't plan on finding out. I make the highway drive through Durban, backtracking the next morning.

The Indian Ocean. Mine for the first time. Like an old pirate, I anchor my land ship in a parking lot, pace down through the sand, across the roaring wind, to dip my foot in this warm water. It's a different ocean from the others I have experienced. How could you leave an ocean like this one? I'm on the KZN South Coast. The venue I was to play has lost it's presentation licence and had to close suddenly, so some local musicians have scrambled to set up a replacement show for me. I'm here hours early, so I snooze in my car and listen to the murmur of the waves.

A pleasant evening with local singer-songwriter John Skuy. Sugar cane, pineapples, the soft crash of the ocean. Red wine in buckets. Very nice.

And now: Highway 61. An African Highway 61. Not so different than the old 61 road I used to ride south out of Memphis in the early 1970s. Well, maybe this road is rougher than that one was. Tougher. This one I'm riding from Ramsgate to Port St. Johns. It crawls, it stops, it waits, it passes, reckless and wild. It's a blues highway from KwaZulu-Natal to the Eastern Cape. It's my route to the Wild Coast. Cattle crowd the highway. Goats. One of the taxi-vans flies past, gets smashed at the top of a hill, and plunges off the steep bank.

It's market day in the little villages, and the streets throng with people. Speakers blasting, walking into traffic, riding in open bakkies. Pot holes. Too fast. Too slow. There's not much shoulder next to the pavement. If you drop a wheel off the crumbled blacktop you could roll your car. I almost do that. I'm ok. I'm ok. Now I'll hug that centre line like everyone else. I'll take whatever road is available and use it for my own. It all could of ended here, quickly, at the twist of a wheel. A little bit of luck, and a little bit of skill. Sooner or later you run out of one or the other.

Little houses everywhere. Corrugated tin roofs. Rocks on top to hold them down. More goats, lying in the road. People walking. Walking everywhere. Talking on cell phones. Sitting by the wayside, in small groups, drinking. It's Saturday. Speed bump. Speed bump. Speed bump. If you hit one of these above a certain speed you will destroy your car. Gouges in the road serve as rumble strips. Tame this highway? I don't think so. Climbing, climbing, climbing. Twisting. Every hill a mass of neatly cut terraces. How could these frail houses cling to these steep slopes? These villages are not on my maps. The occasional town is. This gives me hope. I'm still on 61. I'm not lost in this land of no signs.

Highway 61. Trying to flag a ride. That could of been Robert Johnson, standing at the crossroads back there, or up ahead of me. Arms outstretched, fingers open. And the whole world seems to be walking, as if flagging a ride were only a dream. Inexplicably, two men in fitted, black suits stride purposefully along the broken shoulder. Walking. The world is mostly walking. Dressed neat. Balancing bags on heads. Babies on backs. Trying to flag a ride. Trying to sell me fruit, water, pop at every slow corner of the road.

The sugar cane fields come and go. Teams of people are working these by hand. The road twists. I am alone. I'm not alone, but I feel alone. A white man in a sea of black faces. I could be drowning in this sea, or I could be swimming. I have no idea. I do know that I have entered into a type of relationship with the world that I have never experienced before. Not in this way. I am first world, a white beacon recklessly moving through this land of broken roads alone, without a spare tire. In a breakdown, my privileged world could disappear in a hundred directions: into the corrugated homes, mud brick structures, behind the burning rubbish, into wanting hands. Or not. Today these hands are waving at me, and teaching me. I'm not sure exactly what. But they remind me that there are many things I don't know or understand in this world. Yet. But these are lessons, gathering in my mind as I navigate new roads, and new places of the heart.

Highway 61. It brings me back now to the comforting roar of the Indian Ocean. Here, behind locked gates, I'll play a show tonight. This is good. The location, that is. The Wild Coast. They grow dope here. That's the root economy. Dope and beaches. It's a young, mixed race crowd of travellers and backpackers. They're in the mood to party and– indeed– after my show, the party continues all night. It reminds me of Tofino, on Vancouver Island. From my bed, I can see the moon sliding across the ocean. I fall asleep with the booming of Jimmy Cliff in the distance.

I take my down day here, and go for a long run on the coastal trail. Ok, I walked quite a bit, too. And then swam in some tidal pools. You can get sucked out to sea, or eaten by sharks along this coast. The great, warm, welcoming roar of the water has persuaded many to such fate. The shore pools were everything I needed. I bet you could also disappear in these hills, if you ran into the wrong company. I didn't run into anybody at all, and had a good long trail expedition. Without a brimmed hat, my face took more sun than I would have wished for. You'll see me red-faced for the next couple of days!

This ass came into the bar and ate my breakfast toast. I didn't want the wheat bread, anyway. Even the cats beg on the Wild Coast. This one followed me for two days, and got nothing. I'm not really sure what it wanted. Beer? Do cats drink beer? Maybe this one did advance work for the donkey. Never mind.

I rode 61 Highway out, and much of the way to East London. A bigger town, a bigger venue. And one of the most interesting radio interviews I have ever given took place before the show. A freewheeling, but well thought out series of questions about music, politics, race and culture. I was challenged, and thrilled to meet these questions and the woman behind them at Coast Radio. This is the kind of discussion I'd like to have more often. These are the kinds of ideas that float in my green rooms, my car, my study. Now, I'm thinking about participating in the walk from Cape Town to Cairo next year... Reminded once more of how ordinary people like ourselves can change the world.

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