Small Towns

There’s not much to a small town. Probably because it’s small. And while they all look a little different, they are pretty much the same. And I’ve been to a few of them lately. I’ve spent the past three weekends in tiny places on the arse end of nowhere.

The road into a small town.

For example, every small town I have been to has a bar. If it’s a tourist trap or some hamlet servicing a farming community, there will ALWAYS be a bar. And it will be a proper, old-school bar that smells of cigarette smoke that never clears and stale beer. The counter will always be dark wood and the barman will always be on duty.

Every small town has a butchery. Some of the bigger small towns will be able to sell you vegetables, but meat is standard fair, three times a day in a little community. And the butcher will be buddies with the locals and sell the bad biltong to the visitors. Unless you know the password, and the password is Klipdrift.

The will be a church. And it will be a big one. And everyone from miles around will gather there on a Sunday morning. After the service they will either go home for Sunday lunch or meet at the bar.

The minister will have the house across from the church. And he will have at least two neighbours (usually the entire population of the town), or in a bigger small town, he will have three neighbours, but will live within 200m from the other five people in the village.

At the petrol station you will be able to purchase Camel Plain cigarettes, matches, fire-lighters and diesel. Depending on how badly lost the truck with the petrol is, you can get your un-leaded fuel next Tuesday or three months from your visit.

The golden rules for visiting a small town are the following:

  1. Avoid the bar. Despite its popularity, all there is on offer is Castle Draught, cheap brandy and coke. Never ask for water, you will be thrown out.
  2. Take plenty of fruit with you or you will get scurvy. Over time the locals have developed the ability to synthesise vitamin C from the meat. This takes years to develop, so be prepared.
  3. The steak in a small town is first rate. If you do nothing else, have a little steak.
  4. Do not drive through a small town on a Sunday morning. There will be traffic. Just like back home in the city, on a Friday afternoon in Sandton.
  5. Get there with a full tank of fuel or you won’t be leaving any time soon.

    In a small town, your food will come to find you.

True story. Small towns can be scary places. But most of the locals are okay. In fact, they are so bored they will be really nice to you if you chat to them a little and share news from outside. But there will always be a few standard characters.

  1. The drunk guy. He has the keys to the bar and a perpetual tab. Everyone knows not to drive on the only main road between 14:00 and 15:00, because he’s just had a pub lunch and a few strong drinks to wash it down. The drunk guy is pretty harmless. You’ll be able to identify him from his red nose and the smell of brandy. And you shouldn’t take it personally when you need to introduce yourself three times on one day. Unless you met him at the bar, he’s not going to remember you.
  2. The scandalous couple.  Some guy will always steal some girl in a small town. Or some girl will allow herself to be knocked up by some guy and will then marry her high school teacher. Or the poor man who lands the rich woman  and everyone knows it has nothing to do with her double D’s.
  3. The man of the earth. He’s got a farm outside of town, and he’s wholesome and knows about cold fronts and can smell the rain. He’s tanned and speaks slowly and deliberately. 80% of the time he can double up as a vet and 20% of all the children were delivered by him.
  4. The busy-body lady. She runs the entire town and can be considered the unofficial mayor. She knows every residents ID number and personal business. She’s also the one that throws together the annual event of whatever nature the annual event is. You can recognise her by her walk – like a mother hen, waddling and shooing her chicks into the appropriate spot.
  5. The city person turned country bumpkin. Some people really do give up Gucci for hemp clothes, stilettos for crocs and a loft apartment for a caravan. The only problem is that they try to turn large animals (like cattle) into pets, forgetting that in about eight months Daisy needs to be dinner.

Small towns are culture shock. But there are few weekends away that can provide as much entertainment as observing the locals and the laid back pace of life.

Small Towns

A Night in the ‘Burg

I went out of town this weekend. Not too far out, but it felt like another planet.

The town of my destination: Boksburg

I used to party in the East Rand a lot. But it was a long time ago and I have vague memories of those times because I was constantly drunk. That was seven years ago. Not much has changed: they still know how to put away a few out there. The only difference is that I’m not so good at that anymore.

But I wanted to spend time with Mad Laura and I promised I would, so I trekked through the maze that is the Gauteng highway system on a rainy Saturday. Laura is awesome, her family rock and meeting them and the usual small talk was very pleasant. But I wasn’t there to bond with her family, I was there to party. And Laura, freshly single, was up for it too.

Being close to the airport, you are allowed to start drinking at any time, because the Boeings do their thing all day long. And you can’t really be uncertain about it because they come in so low, tall people can touch them. But Laura at least works in Johannesburg so she can wait until the sun sets.

The venue of our night out: Cool Runnings, right on the border or Benoni and Boksburg, so I was deep in the East.

This branch was hosting some Afrikaans band. The direct translation is either ‘Sun Stroke’ or ‘Sun Shag’. So it was packed. Laura did an amazing parking manouver (confirmed: some women can park) and we battled our way in to find a table. But it was a rugby night too, so there was no space anywhere. Eventually we found a counter that was available and sat on that. Savage: but when in Rome and all of that.

And just like back in the day, there were young things everywhere, drinking heavily. They are even younger now. I know that some of the kids I saw were only about 14. But no one asks for ID in the East. And no one stops you from smoking inside the building either.

At some point someone brought me a shooter that was disgusting, strong and a major contributer to today’s hangover. A bit later there was tequila. At that point I was flirting with a young thing and he gave me advice on how to take it. In what universe does a 21 year old know more about drinking tequila than retired pro? In the freaking East Rand is where.

I lost interest in Jail Bait shortly after. At 21, men are still very silly and have no idea how to work a woman. But I guess men are actually really silly and have no idea how to work a woman. But to all the boys out there, if you are lucky enough to have a woman pay attention to you, don’t tell her about all the numbers you collected so far that week. And if you’re lucky enough to have a shot with an older woman, don’t tell her how to drink tequila.

I got pretty hammered and I did have fun. I’ve been invited back – but I’ll have to get over this tour first.

While driving back to civilisation I couldn’t help notice how the East Rand feels a lot like Free State towns. Advertising consists of notices on shop windows and company names painted on walls. There are no billboards, and if I wasn’t enjoying my Billy Idol CD so much, I probably would have found that there is no radio either. It even looks a lot like a Free State town. Until you get to the mall. That looks urban. The East Rand does not have many trees.  The ones that stand around look too deliberate and awkward. There are a lot of 4×4’s, but unlike those in Sandton, these look like they have been used. And I saw Toyota Hilux’s, the signature car of the Free State – so for a moment I felt confused because I could have been driving through Frankfort.

I was delighted to see the Bingo hall is still in business. And all of a sudden I was in familiar territory and felt nostalgic until I remembered my head hurt. The clubs are still in the same places, the businesses haven’t moved. It looks exactly the way it did in 2003. And that’s how life moves in the East. You club as a youngster and play Bingo when you age. Oh yeah, they know how to live it up back there.

It’s good to be back in the city.

A Night in the ‘Burg

A Weekend in ‘The States’

The Free State is a very special place. It’s always pretty and the air is fresh. Just because I don’t live there anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still think of it as home. And things happen there that just aren’t possible anywhere else. And a lot of unusual things can happen in just a few days.

For example, I went to the bank. This could happen anywhere in the world. But only in a small Free State town do they let you take out your phone and use it. While waiting in line, I checked and responded to my e-mails, then I logged on to Facebook and spent about five minutes doing pointless social networking and no one stopped me. In fact, most people were doing the same thing to pass time. Some guy even called two of his friends to arrange a braai for that evening.

This is why they should provide reading material in banks. Braai could be code for “there’s an old lady with 10k leaving now, mug her” or “the security guard is outside smoking, bring in the guns”. But besides the obvious security risks, waiting in line is boring. So to all bank managers out there – buy some magazines. To the bank managers in the Free State, there are magazines besides Farmers Weekly and the Afrikaans version.

And just like that, the world will be a happier place. Women can learn how to cook awesome meals and men can learn sex tips. Or women can read about the specs on a VW Golf and men can catch up on the latest fashion. The point is, banking could also become a learning experience and men and women would have more to talk about and more to do. Aggression and frustration levels will go down because we’ll all agitate less waiting to make a deposit. Once this catches on, we’ll talk about seating. Seriously, I already have a flawless system in place.

Also, in Bethlehem, they still have parking meters and I always forget to drop a coin in. I was sitting in my car, writing out a shopping list, when a traffic official walked by. He stopped at my meter and looked at the flashing screen. He then looked up and saw me sitting in my car, gave me a smile and waved. He then continued on his leisurely stroll, looking a meters and not writing out tickets. I drove past him again later in the morning, he was still just being a nice guy and I got another wave.

Of course, not all encounters with traffic officers are pleasant in the Free State. I was pulled over once and the cop wouldn’t return my licence to me until I agreed to have dinner with him. And I’m often asked if I’m transporting drugs. My best friend has been chased by the police because they thought she was a dealer (Yvette, I keep telling you, short girls in big cars arouse suspicion – but don’t sell the Hilux, it’s just too convenient).

And in the Free State you can sometimes just get really lucky. Really randomly lucky. On my return to civilisation I had some car trouble. The battery light came on, making me panic, so I stopped at the nearest garage in a one horse town 10km down the road. I asked the petrol attendant to have a look at my engine, because men just know these things.

He suggested my alternator was broken which made my heart stop. Then he looked around a little bit more and told me that I no longer had a fanbelt.

It was a public holiday. I had work the next day. I anticipated a crisis.

But no, around the corner was a shop that sold spares. And fresh milk in coke bottles. But more importantly, brand new fanbelts on a public holiday. So I returned to my car and asked my new friend, Joseph, if he could fix it. He said no, he didn’t have tools, but he got straight on to his phone and called Lucky who was there in ten minutes. Another ten minutes later and I was on my way back to the city. The whole thing cost me R50.

The Free State is lovely. In small doses. The food is good and it’s quiet even if nothing really exciting ever happens there, it’s a great place to get away from it all and it is entertaining. And there are men called Joseph who will help you out simply because they can.

Check it out some time. But take a book. Unless you like walking or heavy drinking you may find yourself at a loose end.

A Weekend in ‘The States’