Durban: Life’s A Beach

You know you’ve hit Durban when the air has a flavour and the radio is playing Mike & The Mechanics on a Friday afternoon as if it’s something normal. Usually you can also recognize South Africa’s most humid holiday hotspot by the jungles of greenery that strangle every roadside hill. This year, however, and in mid-September too, the Brother City could easily have been mistaken for the Highveld. The usual lush flora was near absent in most parts of the city, frosted instead by a sour yellow grass; the kind that dogs eat to make themselves throw up.

Despite the fact that I come from the place I refer to as “Service Hell”, and groan at the thought of going back there, I had to be in Durban during September for a wedding. My cousin, the youngest of never-have-been-married female ones, was getting hitched to a guy whose family lived in one of those one horse/street towns just north of the City That Never Sweeps. So I had to be there, and I was determined to enjoy myself even though I know it’s something of a task down thataway.

There are things to do in Durban, I’m sure, but my weekend wasn’t exactly overflowing with time or resources. My only mission statement for the free Saturday my cousin rewarded all her Jo’burg familials with was to make sure that I swam in the ocean. I managed to do that and get pizza: Huzzah!

We stayed in Umdloti. It’s the closest Durban will ever come to recreating heaven, except with more people in shorts and slops.

Like I said above, I’m from Durban. I was born there. I lived almost ten years there without realizing anything was amiss. But whenever I go back there with my (often regrettably) more mature outlook on life, I tend to notice how depressing it is. It’s like watching a good movie for the eleventh time and starting to pick apart plot holes and editing errors.

The service at any place in Durban is often shockingly bad. While the people are arguably more friendly since they’re not locked into patterns of ever more aggressive expansion like us big city dwellers of Jo’burg, they seem to assume that that means they can get away with doing half as much so long as they smile and say sorry afterwards. It’s a nice contrast to Cape Town’s disdainful waiters and store clerks, who find themselves at odds with their job descriptions at the best of times, but it’s still bad service. Food is delivered slowly and deliberately, but without any additional care you might expect from that sort of negative pacing. Waiters never consider returning to tables for more than four occasions (Drinks? Meals? Serving. The Bill.) and even the preparation of coffee from a machine designed to do nothing but that takes half an hour.

If I was going to truly enjoy this experience, Durban would have to be about something else for me this year. And so it was. It became about family. It became about hanging out with cousins, seeing people I hadn’t talked to in a while, reconnecting but at the same time making connections in a way I maybe never had before. I love my family, even for all its “Days Of Our Lives” style drama, but I never really feel like I’m doing anything new with them. In Durban, many of my cousins met up for dinner and we sat together and joked around like we really were the family we’re supposed to be.

Between only half of my cousins, we filled up Milky Lane’s booths and seats, ordering and eating from each others’ desserts. Even though the service was slow and the waitresses seemed almost uneasy about having customers in their store, this was still probably the touchstone moment for me, going back to Durban.

Sure, the air tastes like musty sewage, the water has little grains of something in it, and no matter how far you walk from the beach you can’t find a gutter that doesn’t look like a beach in Mini Town. Sure the guys behind the counters cringe when you give them your money in exchange for things, and the old Indian aunties think they can slip by you at the counter because you’re probably of the same race as them…
But my return to Durban did, momentarily at least, bring me together with the rest of my family.

Plus, you know, swimming in the ocean is far better than any pool you’ve ever been in.

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