by Dorina Bonatti
To give a little perspective on why this was so irresistible to me, I must say that I was born in South Africa, left and then returned during that crucial time we call teenage years… to never return again.
Getting there is a little odyssey in and of itself, as it takes 16 hours of solid flight (from Atlanta) all the time flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
The first morning we stepped onto the Johannesburg streets, all my preconceived memories of South Africa came crashing down. As if something I could not stop had gotten hold of me, my mind unleashed tons of things I had barely thought about in years. The sensations, the smells and the sights (those deep blue South African skies, with a Sun that seems larger than at any other place) brought about even things I didn’t know were there. I realized I really needed to understand the reasons my mother and father had had for choosing South Africa as the country in which to have us and make us grow.
The long flight itself took a different dimension as it unexpectedly made me realize how much the world has changed since the end of the great war, of which we were very much the product: it was then an enormous world and it often took weeks to cover distances what I had now covered in mere hours.
Yes, as could be expected, I mostly found myself constantly thinking about my mom and my dad.
I found that modern-day South Africa exudes life and a great optimism that things will work out.
Most of the infrastructure that stands today was built by whites, but modern-day South Africans, which are mostly black, take loving care of it to keep everything running. I find this especially surprising, given that they could just as easily have chosen to ignore or neglect it as part of a painful and unjust past.
I surprised myself remembering how, many years ago (many would say in another life), my teenage self awoke one morning unexpectedly finding itself living in a foreign country (South Africa). I can now see how much of a formative experience that was, but at the time I was mostly confused and unappreciative, both because of my age and because I had been violently uprooted from everything I had known before. Even though I was born in South Africa, I had left when I was too young (2) to remember it, having spent my childhood in Monterrey, Mexico. My mind was now full of the things I had heard often as a child which, for the first time, began making sense.
My mother had arrived there as a young immigrant and found herself, quite by serendipity, living in the house of a very prominent South African family: the Moerdijks. He was a widely-known architect who, among other things, designed and built a famous Afrikaner landmark: the Voortrekker (Pioneer) monument. A long list of regulars at the Moerdijks’ table were very prominent, among which Daniel François Malan, a nationalist leader who was to become the country’s president (and one of the creators of the terrible system of apartheid).
I couldn’t help but wondering now what my mother’s sensations would have been, coming as she did from a very simple background.
I also thought about my father, who ended in South Africa in a very different way (he had first arrived as POW and ended returning after the war to work for another very prominent family: the Millers, owners of what would eventually become one of the world’s largest breweries.)
I found myself thinking how their improbable meeting ended up resulting in my own life.
On my second day, I was able to visit my old house on 5th. Avenue. I had trouble recognizing it, on account that a tall wall had been built around it. It was especially emotional for me, not only because of the many memories (both good and bad) that it brought, but mainly because it has been abandoned for some years. The garden is gone, the pool is half empty and full of dark, stagnating water. Still, it was able to kick up all kinds of memories and names of old friends: Nicolò, Joao, Lele, Serena, Dale, my old schoolmates of more than 30 years ago.
I made it a point of visiting my old school: Sandown High School, built in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg (for whites only then, multi-racial now). I went into the offices, explained who I was and the school officials devoted a very generous amount of time to me, showing me my old records, very moved themselves because the records show that my older sister Alessandra belonged to the first generation ever to graduate from that school.
Coming out, I was reminded of my routine in old Johannesburg: we often visited the Rizzoli bookstore and attended Italian language courses at the Dante Alighieri, often ending at the Wimpy’s bar for a hamburger which, much to my amazement, we were supposed to eat with a knife and fork!
The job I had been hired to do then took me to Durban, with a stop at the marvelous Nambiti Game Reserve. The lodge we stayed at had a subdued elegance and exquisite service and food. It provided the ideal backdrop to a privileged view of the extraordinary African wildlife. (Ewert, our knowledgeable and infinitely patient ranger who was our driver and guide had to put up with the endless stream of questions I fired at him, as I wanted to know what everything was that we were driving by in the open truck.)
Durban itself is a magnificent port city and our hotel offered a breathless view of the Indian Ocean.
The first day, we unknowingly wandered into a not very recommendable area, on account of insecurity. Asking for directions, we were strenuously advised by an employee of a gas station to leave the area at once. These reality checks are still very much the contrasts of the country I vaguely remembered.
We were fortunate to find the beachfront soon enough, where I could not believe I was able to recognize the Balmoral Hotel where so many years ago my family and I spent a whole month while my dad was setting up a bottling plant in town. From there, I had no difficulty (to my own amazement) in finding the ice-skating rink (Durban Ice Rink) that my sister and I used to frequent. After all these years, it continues to be exactly as I remembered it.
Durban has long been noted for its large Indian population and continues to be like that. (Gandhi lived and studied there before moving back to India.) I found myself remembering how curries were always a frequent appearance at my mother’s table. I cannot think now of any other explanation but that she picked it up while staying in Durban.
As the cherry-on-the-pie to this rich journey, on my way back to Johannesburg I was at last able to find a book (Bush Vet) by my childhood friend Clay Wilson (whose own life is very much a parallel of mine in many ways). It is a memory of his lifelong love for African wildlife and his efforts to bring his veterinary skills and knowledge to the care of these magnificent beings. The book, which I have now read from cover to cover, goes from the anecdotal to the often unpleasant experiences he has had to undergo in trying to stem the destructive forces that have collided head-on with habitats and creatures.
I was there barely a month ago, but my sensations (stirred some more by Clay’s book) are still waiting to settle down. I know it in my heart that I will continue to dredge many things from a life I very much lived and about which I had either chosen not to remember much or remembered in a very different way.
In closing, I must make an essential acknowledgement: this trip was made possible and enriched by the company and understanding of my friends Frances, Gonzalo and Carlos, who enabled and encouraged my curiosity with their enthusiasm, willingness to listen and unfailingly cheerful company at the beginning and closing of every day of this unforgettable trip.