This is ‘Spingo, Marms

I can’t quite recall what I was saying but the person I was talking to said, “That’s because you’re a ‘Spingo stekkie,” and strangely enough, instead of me thinking he had had a stroke, hearing him say those words cemented our friendship. There’s something to be said about shared meaning, about the ease of which that is known to both parties that makes for easy dialogue and communication but, of course, I can’t start a blog about ’Spingo and ramble on to deeper things and musings about how shared meaning comes about. No, no, I must, as with all stories, start at the beginning.

That the Durban International Airport was housed in Isipingo sort of made me feel like all roads lead to Isipingo

First some clarification for the uneducated reader. ‘Spingo is actually a town called Isipingo found in Kwa-Zulu Natal, but the only time you’d refer to it as such is if you were taking to a white person, or if you grew up somewhere fancier and were trying to act like a white person (and no, growing up in Umhlatuzana does not make you fancy). I’m pretty sure I’m making it too fancy by my reckless apostrophe before the “s” and that I’m going to lose street cred by constantly referring to it as Isipingo, but you’ll forgive me.  Right, where was I? Yes, the great town of Isipingo.  That the Durban International Airport was housed in Isipingo sort of made me feel like all roads lead to Isipingo, you could always find a road sign pointing you home. Man, were we proud of our proximity to the airport. Not only could anyone coming to Isipingo easily find us (all roads lead to ‘spingo remember?), but we also had a restaurant in the airport. Yes, one entire restaurant. Hey, don’t judge, we only went to that airport restaurant for the non-important occasions, for birthdays and dates we’d usually brave the drive to Toti to marvel at the white people. It was only testament to our wiliness and ingenuity that we used the airport not only as a means of travel, but also as a way to give direction, provide entertainment and sustenance.

According to me, there were three parts to Isipingo- they were easy to identify because they started with the word “Isipingo”- Isipingo Beach, Isipingo Rail and Isipingo Hills.  Isipingo Rail was named as such because to live there meant you “lived on the wrong side of the tracks”, trust me I spent a good few years learning how to make mud cakes and ride my pink BMX there, it was rough, proper ghetto. Not only was “The Rails” a buzzing commercial hub that warranted a KFC and later a Chicken Licken, it was also home to The Isipingo Temple. I’ve seen many temples around the world, and I can say with all honesty, that none compare to the Isipingo Temple. Every year, around Easter, Hindus from all parts of Durban would make a pilgrimage to the temple. I was always a bit of strange child with an overactive imagination, and my relationship with organised religion, is and always has been, complicated. Despite that, I enjoyed my first experience at this temple. Well at least I did, at first. It was an unusual treat to walk beside my grandfather; the ground was warm beneath my bare feet and I had the special honour of carrying the camphor, which we would pause to throw into the flames as we circled the temple. The smell of camphor in my hands and the pleasure of having my grandfather all to myself seemed too good to be true. And it was, because as we completed the last circle around the temple it would seem as though we descended into the last circle of hell. I want to say that I saw a chicken flying over the temple roof in a graceful arc, but there was nothing graceful about the mad squawking and the hysteria that ensued and that’s saying nothing about how the chicken reacted. I also want to say that I was upset because this constituted violence towards animals, but in truth, I was more savage then, and I was more concerned about a wasted opportunity to eat that chicken.  I became convinced that the “Chicken Temple” was a satanic temple and that one day I too would be captured for Voodoo magic rituals (do Satanists do Voodoo rituals?). To make it worse, everyone from all over Durban came to this temple and this is how they saw the ‘Spingo members, no wonder everyone thought we were shambies.

Isipingo Beach was a place where you could lose your life, quite literally. Being an “Indian area” during the time of The Group Areas Act, the government decided that if the brown people wanted to get in the water, then we could also brave the sharks (do sharks like spicy food?). And, if the sharks didn’t get you, there was always the notorious “Beach Boys” to deal with. To be clear, I have no idea what it meant to be a “Beach Boy”, who these boys were or how the title was even bestowed upon a worthy subject, but I was told that they were fierce and fearsome. These guys were sort of like the Loch Ness of ‘Spingo for me, there would always be claims of sightings, some people would even have grainy photographic evidence, but they would always remain elusive, creatures never to be caught in broad daylight.  Isipingo Beach was also home to “Daddy’s” Supermarket and the most epic bakery next door, many a birthday would be graced by a cake from there. It was Isipingo Beach where I first ventured into the water, where I caught my first fish (a stick floating in a polystyrene cup) and where as children, the only thing wilder than our imaginations were ourselves.

Man, did I think I was fancy living in Isipingo Hills. I grew up watching Beverly Hills 90210, and even though I didn’t understand any of it- it was screened in Afrikaans and we could get the English version if we switched on the radio while turning down the volume of our TV- I knew that those rich people lived the life. I believe it was the apartheid government’s way of making us believe Afrikaans was cool, so advanced were their methods of brainwashing that I was actually surprised and somewhat disappointed to find out Kelly, Brandon and the gang were actually Americans who spoke English. I was convinced that Isipingo Hills would be similar to Beverly Hills 90210 and the fact that our telephone numbers all started with the numbers “902” added to my confidence. When we moved to “The Hills”, I imagined that our lives would be drastically different and even though high school was sort of like a soap opera, Isipingo Hills was more Little House on the Prairie than Beverly Hills 90210. Seriously, you’d easily find a herd of cattle crossing the road or a random goat meandering around. The Hills would be the place that shaped my high school years, from walking down the street to house parties, to swimming at the public pool all year long (and trying to avoid the lifeguard’s office adorned with nudie pics), to being entertained after school at Jeena’s. Jeena’s, if it still exists, should be a historical landmark. That so many high school students met there while waiting to be fetched by their parents meant that on any given day something would happen worth talking about the next day. The remark “meet you after school at Jeena’s” could be taken in one of two ways depending on the tone. If said in anger, it’s a challenge to a fight, and probably not one you can easily escape or win. Once these words are said, in that particular way, it is usually a witness or two who will turn to their friends and say in a non-threating manner, “meet you after school at Jeena’s” as an invitation to get a ringside view of the flight. I know it sounds simple enough, but I once confused the two versions and found myself slap bang in the middle of a fight, luckily, I escaped with neither a slap nor a bang, but it was a close call.

I can hardly believe that all I’ve done is scratch the surface here. Maybe there’s a great book to be written about ‘Spingo and the members, the marms, ‘Spingo Dingos but for now, this will have to do. ‘Spingo Dingo out

Green mangoes for the soul

Green mangoes. I almost want to capitalise the words. GREEN MANGOES. There, that feels more indicative of my feelings. There are very few other things that are so strongly evocative of my childhood (of course there is MacGyver but I’m still smarting from my unrequited love so we’ll exclude him for the moment). Green mangoes are an assault on my senses. The sight, a happy, glistening, gleaming green, is a symbol of promise and excitement. It is a signal to the warmer weather approaching. The smell is fresh and young and to touch the sometimes sticky, unwashed skin takes me right back to climbing a tree in search of the illicit bounty. The crunchy sourness of the young, firm flesh moistens my mouth and lifts my spirits. I have a relationship I cannot explain with unripe mangoes.

Nothing more promising that a bowl of green mangoes

Of course, had you grown up in the hot, sticky east coast of our country and had your family been of Indian descent, you would probably recognise my brand of madness as your own. People who look and sound like me and who were born and bred in the same area as I was, have a propensity to pickle and curry things that many other people may find odd. Green mangoes are no exception for pickling and ripe mangoes are no exception for curry making. Mango pickle, homemade mango pickle with just the right amount of crunch and heat is undoubtedly the unsung hero of my childhood. It seems to me that the grandparents of my generation had many a pickling secret and I am fearful that we may have lost something through the progression of time. My paternal grandfather had a special talent for preserving the green beauties so as to retain their youthful crunch (who likes a soggy mango in their pickle?) and he would often sneak me pieces of the pickled treasure when my mother was not watching. On my maternal side, I would find all sorts of other treasures, like the grated mango, green chilli and salt concoction (we call it Kutchla, although no one outside my family is aware of the strange sounding word). When the grandchild count was an unfulfilled four, my cousins and I would spend the majority of our summer holidays trying to outwit my grandmother to enable the unfolding of ill formed plans of mango theft. Upon sending the older of the grandchildren up into the biggest tree in the yard (it was at that stage, an unparalleled honour to be asked by a grown up to climb a tree), my grandmother would wash and cut the young mangoes before salting them. So, and the process of pickling and grandmother deception were set in motion. Once salted, the mangoes would be arranged neatly in rows on newspaper on the veranda, like polite uniformed students waiting to be addressed at assembly. The heady vision of these polite mangoes would prove an enticement too great for us and the oldest of the grandchildren, as if age bestowed him some superiority, would sketch out our action plan using a thin stick in the sand under the shade of the generous mango tree. Part of his cunning plan, which I only realised later in life, was to use me as a distraction so that the three older children could steal the mangoes, mix up some chilli powder and salt and enjoy their spoils behind the large sofa in the lounge.

When we were children, it was a simpler time, it was a time when children spent their school holidays climbing trees, making swings and stealing mangoes with their cousins. There were no cell phones and TV was limited to a certain part of the day. Times have changed, sometimes unbelievably so, but one thing that has not is the treasure that is green mangoes, chilli powder and salt. We may be adults, too big to fit behind the lounge sofa but we’ll always be children trying to find our way to a treasure we cannot not forget.

“The food’s not bad for a furniture shop”

I love going back to the city I was born in, every time I am “home” there is something new to learn, something new to experience, even though this is the city that shaped my life. This last trip was no exception. Like most South African’s I associate my home town with the infamous and weirdly named “bunny chow” and aromatic, flavourful Durban curry. For those who have never heard of a “bunny chow”, first let me assure you of the fact that no rabbits are harmed during the production of a “bunny chow”. Secondly, eating a “bunny” (chow) is kind of like one of the great wonders of the world, if it does not feature on your bucket list, please rectify that oversight immediately. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it. As many mere mortals, I have neither the skills or eloquence to adequately capture the glorious sensation of eating a “bunny”, it is quite simply something one must experience and I will not sully it with my ineffective words. For now, it shall suffice that you know that a “bunny” is created by hollowing out soft, fresh white unsliced bread and filling the space created with a curry of your choice. The soft plumes of white bread are placed on top of the curry and eating this dish with cutlery is almost sacrilegious.

It’s a given that when you visit Durban, you need to eat a “bunny” and for the most part I have broken this tradition. Before you gasp in horror and ask me what kind of a charou I am, allow me to placate you with the knowledge that I did eat a bunny during my last trip (look I even dropped the quotation marks around the word bunny so you would know I’m talking to you). And I must admit, I have had many bunnies in my time but none that I have bought from a furniture store. Yes, that is what I said, I bought food from a furniture store and even better, I ate food from a furniture store. Apparently back in Durban, these things are not uncommon, my surprise at going to a furniture store for lunch just served to cement my uncool status. I had to marvel at the ingenuity of the thing, a curry place in a furniture store. And if my surprise was not enough of an assault on my street cred, you bet I did not make things anything better when I walked into the store eyes wide and with my phone poised to take pictures. The lady behind the counter told me what the specials were twice and then started speaking much slower when my only response was a frown and mild panic. Luckily my work colleague saved me by placing his order, a quarter mutton bunny and I quickly said I would have the same. If I think about this really long and hard, I’m sure that I will discover that this was actually the first time in my life I had ever ordered a bunny (I am privileged enough to make these at home) so even if I was just jumping on the bandwagon it was an achievement! When our order is ready, I delicately carry my treasure back to the office and all feelings of embarrassment and lack of coordination are lost the moment I take a bite. Of course, it’s the not the first bite that’s a problem, it’s all the bites thereafter and I am a lazy, unproductive employee post bunny, drunk on curry and a quarter loaf of white bread. I spend the rest of the day content and grateful for the stretchiness of my dress and to the furniture store that sells bunnies.