I’m in Durban South Africa, I leave today for a photo safari to see the lions, giraffes and about a gazillion birds. For the past few days I have been in the third largest city in the country, in the state of Kwa-Zulu Natal. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, lush, subtropical state. The humidity is mild, the countryside is very green, and it is on the east coast abutting the Indian Ocean, I think it is the second largest harbor in the country.
This city is a bit of a mash up of Santa Monica, with a heavy emphasis on the tourist experience, a solid dose of Long Beach/San Pedro with its long shipping history of import/export and a heavy, heavy dose of inner city poverty.
The hotel I’m staying in is called Quarters (http://www.quarters.co.za) and it’s a lovely campus of four old Victorian buildings that have been renovated to accommodate guests. Originally built in the early 1900s they possess the quaintness and charm of old world grace. The black and white tiled bath is like a step back to the 20s – I’m in heaven. From the moment of my first phone call to confirm that someone would be available to let me in, I have been enrobed in a polished and professional standard of care that thinks deeply about the guest experience. From the personalized, hand signed welcome letter of the hotel manager in my room to the black ribbon that surrounds the facecloth in the bath to make sure it stays folded properly, nothing has been overlooked here.
Ryan is the duty manager I have had the most interaction with, and his soothing South African accented (to my ears) voice is simply the most reassuringly positive experience of this exciting country. He was the one who confirmed for me that he will be checking me in when I arrive. He is the one who has provided much needed guidance about where to walk and what to see. He is the insightful guide who warned me off those areas that are not tourist safe. In short he has been the local host that we all want when traveling.
We would describe this hotel as a boutique hotel. It’s a lovely change from the corporate monoliths that say they do customer service, but fall short on a regular basis of making one feel welcome. I’ve been called “Sir” and “Mr. Pisarra” more here in the last four days than probably the last ten years combined.
This is a beach city, and so of course I had to walk the promenade. At one end is the Ushaka Marine World and tourist experience. More than a dozen shops offer everything from a wide assortment of spices which caters to the heavy Indian population in this multi-cultural city, to the classic rip-off of American hamburger fast food restaurants, called WIMPY. Yes, like in the Popeye cartoons…There’s the reptile exhibit, I didn’t partake, and a theme restaurant called the Cargo Hold which used to be an actual working ship, that’s been relocated and turned into a semi-fine dining experience.
Walking along the Golden Mile here is like strolling from the Santa Monica Pier to the Venice pier. There’s the usual array of beach barkers selling trinkets and ice cream, but also some very talented sand artists who are homeless youth, trained by the city to do art, so they can provide for themselves a bit. The tourists like me, take pictures and then donate a few Rand to the artists. It’s nice to know that the entrepreneurial spirit thrives globally, even in the most destitute, perhaps because of their desperation, of places.
Then there is the overwhelming feeling of sadness at the poverty and I wondered how so many people could be lifted out of it into a world of better living conditions. I thought of the programs and support that the City of Santa Monica provides and yet we still have tremendous homeless and poor population. I compare the destitute in Los Angeles with the destitute in Durban and question which is better? Maybe neither. Maybe the truth is that there will always be poor, and there will always be those who work to pull themselves up and those who can’t, won’t or don’t.
My brother is with me, and we went today to the Nelson Mandela Museum that was erected where he was arrested. It’s a soul expanding experience when you see the history of Apartheid laid out, with his life interwoven. The cruelty that was perpetrated is astounding. The tools of the oppressors from segregation, even at the beaches, the blacks had theirs, the Indians and coloureds each had a beach and of course the whites. The controlling whites used “pass papers” to control the movements of those they dominated. It made me question what is happening in my own country as we move to a “Real ID” system that is necessary to travel interstate on the airlines. Is this the start of the next phase of control?
My friend Anne says that travel is the “graduate school of life”, she’s right. It is by traveling that we get to see the commonalities of life, the human potential that exists across all lands and the basic humanity that actually unites us, once we get past the artificial “differences” of skin color, politics, and money.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at email@example.com or 310/664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra