Having had our temporary fill of the mountains in Hogsback, we headed yet again for the coast to a backpackers’ called Wild Lubanzi. Yes, this is the third place we’ve stayed whose name starts with the word “wild”, but this backpackers is perhaps the only one where the adjective is 100% spot on. It is owned and run by Aidan, the son of the owners of the Wild Spirit in Nature’s Valley, and Ola, his sister (the one who gave me a haircut), recommended we stay here if we made it to the Wild Coast. This area of South Africa, also called the Transkei, is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and is often referred to as the best example of “real” South Africa. Indeed, I would say this description is accurate. As we drove into the Wild Coast from Hogsback (a 5 hour drive), we started to see why. As soon as turned off the N2 (the main highway) toward Coffee Bay, the roads suddenly became an obstacle course: cows, sheep, goats, dogs, and people were all criss-crossing in front of us. Luckily Nick was driving, but I wasn’t sure whether to put my co-pilot efforts toward looking out for wandering bulls, children playing too close to the street, or gigantic potholes that made DC’s streets look well-kept, so mostly I just held on tight and kept telling myself it’s only a rental car anyway, but let’s try to avoid hitting any children. When we were able to take a deep breath and actually enjoy the scenery outside the window, we marveled at beautiful green rolling hills dotted with traditional rondavels: the round, colorfully painted, and thatched-roofed houses where Xhosa people live. We parked in a small hospital’s parking lot, and Rahel, Aidan’s wife, came to pick us up because the 5 km road to their backpackers is unpaved and not suitable for anything but a truck.
Wild Lubanzi is the only backpackers for miles. The closest thing to an address that it has is calling itself “in the Hole In The Wall area” (“Hole In The Wall” being the next “town” north toward Coffee Bay, the main town in this area). It is perched atop a grassy hill next to the ocean, with a gorgeous little bay suitable for swimming directly down the hill. As if the setting wasn’t enough, we quickly learned that their two female cats (who are sisters and relatives of the orange cats I was in love with at Wild Spirit) had each had a litter of kittens with in the last few weeks. This meant that NINE ORANGE KITTENS THE SIZE OF MY HAND were on the premises. Swoon.
One of the best things about this backpackers is that it is adjacent to a spread-out Xhosa village, as well as being deeply connected to the local community, so as far as the eye can see are pink, yellow, and green rondavels on the green hills. Aidan and Rahel are friends with a young man who lives in the village, Prince, who offers vilage tours, which we took part in on our first morning there. We spent the morning walking around the area and visiting with villagers in their houses while Prince explained Xhosa culture to us. Before we set off, I was afraid the tour would perhaps be a bit touristy or forced, but I was happily surprised that it wasn’t at all.
As we walked around the spread-out and loosely-defined village, we were welcomed into several houses where Prince explained how his people live. Without exception, the people were warm, friendly, and welcoming, and seemed genuinely interested in us, and happy that we were interested in learning more about them. When we communicated (through Prince) to an older woman that we had flown to South Africa by airplane her eyes lit up and she mimicked the path of a plane through the sky. We realized that her experience with flight was so limited, planes might as well be spaceships: she was awed. Later on, we dropped in on another house where a party was taking place to celebrate the end of the host’s one-year mourning period for her husband’s death. We sat on the floor and observed the mirthful atmosphere, and were offered some of the celebratory meat they were eating. While we were honored by the extremely generous gesture, our Western palates did not take kindly to the spoiled-smelling bits of offal on the plate. We each took a bite to be polite, and hopefully didn’t offend anyone by putting the rest back; thankfully Prince ate up all the pieces we couldn’t. Hopefully we earned back some points when a few of the women asked us to help them put together some furniture that the widow had been given in honor of the one-year mark. We were able to at least tell them how the pieces fit together, but they didn’t have any screws handy so we couldn’t finish the job for them!
Our last stop was at the village’s shebeen, a sort of neighborhood pub where Prince emphasized that it was important to act honorably and respectfully. While here, we got to sample the drink of choice, a fermented sorghum beer served in the quart-sized cardboard containers we use for milk. We took swigs all around and found it sour and tasting a bit like a curdled milk and cider vinegar shake. It wasn’t repulsive, but we couldn’t finish it, and we’re not going to give up our regular beer any time soon. Maybe it’s just an acquired taste.
We learned a few other interesting tidbits during our visit as well. For instance, owls are considered bad luck, and therefore you’ll never see a tall tree in a Xhosa village because it could attract an owl. Regarding marriage, men must pay ten cows to a woman’s family if they’d like to marry her; nine of the cows are to sort of guarantee that the woman will bear three children (three cows per child) and one extra “for negotiation” (however, Prince told us that if the woman does not end up having at least three children she doesn’t hae to pay any cows back, and chances are she’ll have way more than three). Boys, at the age of 16, undergo a circumcision ceremony to during which they must not show or express any pain; otherwise they are not considered ready for manhood. Prince told us how painful the ordeal was, but that it was also incredibly special as well: during the multi-day affair the teenagers were celebrated and spent time with many of the elder men in the village who tell stories and experiences of manhood. One especially excrusciating tidbit he shared with us is that after the circumcision, their wounds are wrapped up with a thorny plant that is supposed to help the healing process, but the thorns are also very painful. Ouch!
Back at the backpackers’, we found ourselves with two much-needed rest days, which happened to coincide with Aidan’s birthday celebration. A few dozen of the owners’ closest friends showed up, and we found ourselves in the middle of the biggest party we’ve probably attended thus far on the trip. The extended party reminded us of the holiday weekends we spend with our friends back home: waking up late, playing cards or going for walks during the day, then making big communal dinners and drinking, talking, and listening to music into the wee hours. Even though we’re halfway around the world, it was great to spend this time with such open, welcoming people; we really found a small sense of home here on the road.