It is the sun-drenched space that strikes me first in the car. There seems to be so much of it. Almost immediately I fall in love with the green rolling hills descending into what seems valley upon valley. I’m visiting family (my mother’s sister Magda, her husband Ernest and two daughters Desmonda and Delicia). My Johannesburg cousins and Aunt Caroline are travelling with me by car from Johannesburg. The open road made me feel free traveller, independent adventurer with nothing standing in the way of the ascending sky and forest descending. I found myself in Swaziland, scribbling away in a journal and wanted to return years later as successful novelist and published poet living a dream life, in a dream world, and perhaps investing in a flat.
It is Swaziland where I learn to eat corn barbecued over hot coals. Talk to boys without wearing my glasses. I have my first Irish coffee here at a Spur. I ride Delicia’s bicycle on the dirt roads near the house. We go swimming in the hotel pool while the adults visit the casino. Us kids play the slot machines. This green universe is like an open book to me. During the day we visit market places, buy trinkets that I know I will treasure forever. I find I admire the statures, my eyes lingering on the stuff I know I can’t afford. I’m envious of the European tourists with their leather sandals. The American bubblegum-twanging women wearing cut-off denim shorts that I was never brave enough to venture outside in.
At night we barbecue or try-out out of the way restaurants. We eat pizza like cavemen. The other patrons of the restaurant, young people dance to the music of a lounge singer singing covers while I sip my vodka and orange juice. I visit a bookstore and buy my first gay book (Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson). I think of this huge world I find myself in. How I found it strange at first, but how it also accepted my own strangeness. I pick avocadoes and mangoes pulling them off the trees. Discover I’m happier here than I’ve ever been in my entire life. The people are Swazi-angels. There’s no crime on the one channel at night like there is in South Africa. Here, life it seems can’t break or forsake me. I realise travel, journeying inward or outward can and will change you in ways you can’t even imagine.
I excelled at being free in Swaziland, and each morning I woke up to the smell of fresh mountain air. I am a plain mermaid in the water. I am floating on my back in the hotel swimming pool, turn over onto my stomach with a belly flop, swallow some water and then spit it out again. I tell myself I never want to leave this place. I want to stay here forever. There’s an OK Bazaars where we shop for our weekly groceries. I listen to Blur and the Manic Street Preachers latest albums on CD at the CNA. I eat the ripened butter-flesh of the mangoes growing in my aunt and uncle’s backyard. The juice drips down my chin where I catch it with my hand. At night we (me and the cousins) ate bowls of vanilla ice cream.
The humid weather turned my hair into a mass of fragile curls. That year I saw all that Swaziland had to offer. I visited a casino, mall, expensive hotel, glass and candle-making factory that was world-famous, and the international zipper company that my uncle worked for. I had a good steak at Spur. I did my hair for Christmas at a fancy salon. Read Nabokov’s Lolita while the hairdresser washed my hair at a basin. Whenever it rained, which was frequently, the rain it seemed, seemed to wash away the dirt in the streets, all of my sins, renewing the vigour and energy in my soul. Then there were the hailstorms. Like tiny pebbles spitting and hitting you on every part of you. Some people love to travel. Love to experience a new town, new newspaper headlines, new food, and new chocolate and biscuit wrappers. They want to feel a sense of urgency when they get out on a bus to elsewhere, but that feeling left me in my twenties.
We all watch videos on the VCR. Watch riveting soap operas and The X-Files in the evening on the only television channel that there is in this country. During the day I sit in the family room and read old copies of YOU magazine. I page mostly to the back to read the celebrity gossip until my eyes get tired. The people here are warm and friendly. Even the cows seemed warm and friendly. I think that eating ribs on a Friday night with my family makes this country a magical place. Brown faces, olive-skinned faces, men who have dark brows, men with blonde hair pass me by. The dark-skinned weave-wearing women are beautiful. I find that here I’m a dreamer with new eyes. Swaziland turned me into a beautiful queen in my one-piece swimming costume. I haven’t discovered Hemingway, Woolf, Gillian Slovo and Updike yet.
When there is doubt and I think to myself perhaps now I will venture out again to a new country. Whenever I think that perhaps I will explore the rest of what Africa has to offer I think of my battered suitcase. I think of the suitcase that went to London University with my dad that I inherited. I think of all my Swazi-inspired dreams, fleeting now. One day during the holiday we all tumbled into my uncle’s spacious sedan. We all went for a long drive to the glass and candle-making factory and all I thought of was this. Everywhere I found myself felt so remote. I felt the loneliness of the lost-in-a-crowd at the mall buying caramel stockings. It seemed as if Mbabane-city both rejected and accepted me. When I felt bored I smoked menthol cigarettes on the sly outside on the patio or upstairs when the grownups slept soundly.
It was Joe Abercrombie in Last Argument of Kings that said, “Travel brings wisdom only to the wise. It renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever.” I think of the wisdom that Swaziland brought to me. It transformed something of me into a brighter, shinier personality that was less flawed, less weakling and more warrior. Perhaps it will haunt me for all of my remaining days in this world. Now when I think of Swaziland I think of family, of laughter, of bloody steak, and Irish coffee, Christmas and the annual traipsing off to visit to the hair salon for the perfect hairdo for the holidays. I look at that holiday fondly; think of my second mother, my aunt Magda who has since passed away, how the more things seem to change around a person, in nature, the more things stay the same. I think that travelling makes gurus out of all of us, and then I think of the horizon, if it is everlasting, or does it change from country to country.
The lights in Swaziland often went out in the evenings but came back on minutes later. We’d eat sticky ribs and chow mein around romantic candle light. My aunt and her oldest, Desmonda drove a Volkswagen Beetle to the shops, to return the videos we hired, to friends, on long drives, to the market place. Boxing Day we went to swim in a river, and had a fish braai. My uncle disappeared behind a wall made of stone to sleep the sherry off. There were fireworks New Year’s, and resolutions that were meant to be broken. Now I am always finding Swaziland wherever I found myself in the world. I dream of Africa, not France, Mexico, and the Far East. I need only look at a photograph or postcard with palm trees of all things. Or drive past the airport, that’s all it takes to take me back to green plateau and pasture, green landscape, and rolling hills. That year I learnt that every journey is part-survival guide and part destination. Swaziland was ruled by nobility. The landlocked country was ruled by a young king who had the aura of more of a handsome prince looking for his Cinderella than King. Swaziland was the country that time forgot. What I’ve learnt about travel is this. It makes you thirst for knowledge until you’re sated, it makes you grow intensely, you are forced to make strangers newfound friends, and you gain illuminating perspective, and forge new experiences. And then it hit me with a shock. I would always be writing poetry to the people of this isolated, magical, and tranquil country. When you read a poem, you become part of that poet’s dream, and travelling is proof that you’re alive. It changes everything about you. It changes your life experience, your expectations, and even your hair becomes lost in the translation while I lived it up for a brief moment amongst the good vibes of this novel country.