Thursday, May 5, 2011

Walking in My Shoes - a trip and a loss.

Right now, in a tiny fishing village on South Africa’s arid West Coast called Doringbaai, my favourite shoes are living an entirely new life.

With the affection others reserve for beloved pets, loyal and by your side through thick and thin, I regarded my little black flats. They have literally toured the world with me. I confess that I can’t remember what country I bought them in originally, but I quickly discovered that they were more comfortable than slippers, yet worked in almost any scenario. And being flat and pliable, they packed so well too!

I have always had a difficult relationship with shoes. My wide feet and painful hereditary bunions (what a word), (thanks for that mom), have always meant that I’ve had to respect function before fashion. Most heels are excruciating and dainty shoes with thin straps across the foot are OUT in my world.

Then I found THE SHOES. Made by Nike – but never to be found again, despite searching in every mall ever since – they were crafted from real soft leather, flat, chinese slipper style, with a solid, athletic hidden sole. They were my saviour in so many situations. My comfort on long walks, in shopping malls, on rough trails, on my feet for hours at trade shows, dinners, cocktails, long plane rides across continents, office hours, party hours, market jaunts across Africa. How many shoes can say the same?!

So naturally I took them along (as always) on my latest trip – a meeting in Johannesburg, followed by a tack-on, sanity restoring, leisurely holiday to Cape Town.

We decided once in Cape Town, that having toured most of the Southern Cape, it would be a new adventure to travel northward up the west coast. It was a great trip. Unlike the touristy garden route and numerous wine routes, the west coast is dotted with genuine, hard working fishing villages.

The roads out to the coast from the main highway, branch like spindles on a spiders web, each country road opening up to the raging waves of the Atlantic, with a small settlement at each, clinging to the history of fishing that has been their livelihood and defined them all forever. It was quaint, and sometimes beautiful. It was small wooden brightly painted boats and toothless smiles. It was Afrikaans signposts and tiny galleries, small local restaurants and a persistent mist that blanketed the area each evening by 5.

We walked and walked, we shivered basked in the sun, and investigated all the corners we could. We met some great locals. We ate some fresh calamari. We saw the sets of seasonal campers from local inland towns, come to the coast for their seaside holidays.
My little black flats accompanied us everywhere (there they were below, on one of our last days together).

And then we came to Strandfontein.

The northern most stop on our trip, before the 5 hour journey back down the main highway to Cape Town. It was a sterile little town, built up a sloping hill, populated by a mosaic of modern guest houses and holiday retreats. The beach was long and flat and gorgeous. We knocked on some doors, inquired about accommodation for one night, found a friendly flat manager and booked in to a full little apartment.

We asked of restaurants and discovered there were none. We were told that 5km down the road, in the ‘coloured village’ of Doringbaai, there was a great little seafood place, run by an Afrikaans ‘tannie’ (aunty) and we should head over to book. We took a drive over to have a look. It was a tiny, non-descript village, built on the small fishing industry, and teeming with workers from the next town.

South Africa’s history, as we all know, is uncomfortable to say the least, when it comes to races and race relations. All over the Cape, there are coloured towns and villages. These people are truly a mixed group, each carrying blood from the original Kung San, Afrikaans whites, Malay, Indian, black and others. Despite the fact that the wide mixes mean that everyone looks so different, they are a distinct group with a certain accent, culture and community. They refer to themselves as coloured, so I had to overcome my North American hesitation, given the history of the word on our side of the world!

The fact is, that the coloured communities remain relatively poor, despite apartheid ending close to two decades ago. Laws can change overnight, but societies take a lot longer!

The small, majority coloured community of Doringbaai, are mostly fishermen and many work as domestics in the houses down the road in Strandfontein.

As we arrived for check-in, we met two of them. Both were maids, taking a no doubt well deserved break, after a day of cleaning. We greeted them, put down our things and headed out. The next morning we saw them padding along the road to start work as we left, and waved. Little did I know I’d left a piece of myself behind in that bedroom, that would link us forever. My favourite shoes.

I’m of course assuming here, that anyone would want my old beaten up shoes, as people’s forgotten gems are surely part of the job perks of being a maid in Strandfontein. I can only hope that they were in fact discovered, scooped up and brought home, the 5km stretch down the dirt road, to a little block house, full of life and chatter, and that someone has their soft reassurance under foot, even now.

My shoes will never see another continent again. They will not tread long arrival halls in Toronto or Dubai. They will not find themselves tucked into a suitcase, off on another adventure, ready to hit the streets of a new city somewhere else.

They are home forever in South Africa’s West Coast. They will see harder times and more work, will be filled with sand and the scent of the ocean, and hopefully they will be a soft comfort.

They live in Doringbaai now.

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MissBuckle said...

Beautifully written, and a great spin on the loss of ones favourite shoes. I truly believe someone is walking around enjoying your broken in black flats.

The pale observer said...

Thanks Miss Buckle! :)

Catherine Denton said...

It sounds like an amazing trip but I'm sorry about your shoes.
My Blog

Anonymous said...

** sigh ** I haven't been to the West Coast for yonks - perhaps I should plan a trip and see if I can catch up with your flats for an update. No way they would have been consigned to the trash!

Lovely part of the country to walk out their last days


Mireille said...

Too bad for your beloved shoes Holly!! But your trip was fun!

The pale observer said...

Thanks ladies - it's true, I paid for a great trip, with my shoes! :)

M said...

As another canadian expat - I appreciate your blog! Maybe I can help - I just discovered that the fancy shoe company Cole Haan is owned by Nike and has put Nike Air in its shoes. I bought and wore an impossibly high heel recently and love them! They also do flats... and I thought of this post of yours!!! Happy shoe ordering! Here's a sample...

good luck!

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