Thursday, July 15, 2010

Durban: Beach Capital of South Africa

Located in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, Durban is a coastal city full of great food, friendly people and gorgeous beaches. My two week stay here could not have been more perfect, with the exception of a few cold days when we first arrived. Since it's winter in South Africa, most of the country is relatively cold, with temperatures ranging 35-50 degrees; but Durban is the warmest place we could be, and they were proud to announce that throughout the city. The coldest day we had was probably the day we arrived, when it was at a brisk 60 degrees. But a majority of the time we had beautiful, sunny weather, and I only needed to wear a light jacket in the evenings when we went out. But enough about the weather, cause who really wants to hear about that?

On the day of our arrival, we anxiously awaited our luggage and picked up our World Cup tickets at the airport. With only some slight issues, we made it to the car rental and picked up our vehicles. Little did we know that South Africa was one of the few countries where people drive on the other side of the road. This was no problem for my dad, being from England and all, but my mom was not so thrilled. I had the lovely honor of navigating her into the city, keeping a close eye on that left-hand side as it inched close to curbs and other obstacles on the highway. After about 15 close calls and 8 heart attacks, we arrived at our destination, our humble abode for the remainder of the trip.

Our home for two weeks was a self-serve villa in the Sydenham neighborhood. It sat cozily on a hill bordered by quaint little homes, all barricaded by thick concrete walls and remote controlled gates. Signs for "Armed Response" hung near the entrances, warning any who may try to invade. Butterflies built in my stomach. Were we in a safe place? It didn't help that no one was around to greet us when we arrived, there were no instructions on what to do, how to get in. My mom and I, being overly cautious, wouldn't allow my boyfriend, Steve, to talk to anyone who happened to walk by. We were completely out of our element. Luckily, a woman from the little hotel across the street came to let us in, giving us the key and showing us the complex. The fear passed, excitement grew.

After settling in, purchasing food for the kitchen, getting unpacked, we headed out to explore Durban.
As mentioned, the beaches in Durban are incredible. I could have spent days just lounging at one of the many coastal cafes, sipping a cocktail and enjoying the breeze off the Indian Ocean. Luckily, our schedule allowed me to spend a lot of time near the water, and I definitely appreciated the peaceful moments of relaxation. And there weren't many thanks to the massive crowds of soccer fans that bombarded the fan center to watch every game broadcast on a big screen. But the atmosphere was electric, making the experience even more enjoyable.

As much as I would like to tell you that animals roamed freely around the city and we had to fight off monkeys so they wouldn't take our food at restaurants and bars, that was not the case at all. Durban is a very modern and westernized city, with malls and apartment buildings and event centers. It's not the image you think of when you hear Africa. To get that, you have to drive a few hours outside the city center--which we did get to do when we went on a safari, but that's another entry entirely.

Durban is a resort city, and people from all over Africa and the world come here to relax. Because of the high volume of tourists, there are countless restaurants and delicious cuisine options to choose from. We tried everything from Italian and Indian eateries, to traditional African barbeque and bunny chow. That's right, bunny chow. It's basically the South African version of a chili bowl. You pick your protein--beef, chicken, prawns, lamb--and then they spice it up with a yummy curry sauce and place it all in a loaf of bread. Then you enjoy!

The day we tried South African barbeque, our friend Lynette--who is a local from Durban--took us out to one of the townships. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive at first. You hear all these rumors about the townships in Africa, the poverty and the crime and how dangerous it can be to visit them. But since Lynette was with us, along with three guys over 6 feet tall, I figured we were pretty safe. When we pulled up to the restaurant and hopped out of the car, we received quite a few stares. And it was to be expected, we were the only white people there. But they didn't stare at us out of hate, but rather out of shock and curiosity. It was intimidating. We stepped inside and peered through the glass case that held all the uncooked meat. Lynette told us to pick what we wanted and she would tell the women our order. So we picked four large cuts of beef, figuring that would suffice. Then she took it into her own hands to order us a liver, kidney and heart as well. My stomach started to churn.

After salting and seasoning the meat, and cooking it over an open flame for what felt like forever, our lunch was served to us on a large wooden plank with piles of salt sitting next to the slabs of beef. A styrofoam box came with the food, which I figured was where we placed any bones or leftovers. But when I glanced inside there was a potato-like substance inside. Lynette told me it was mashed grains that they heated and solidified into blocks. Pretty much like a version of mashed potatoes, but this you can eat with a toothpick. In fact, we ate everything with toothpicks. The meat was cooked until it was moist and tender, just right for my palate. The guys dove right into the good stuff, but I was hesitant to touch anything that resided within the cow's ribcage. Before I got my courage up, the heart was gone. So I tried a small sliver the of the kidney and liver. I'm happy to report it tasted pretty good, thanks to the extra salt and sauce I dipped it in. The biggest thing to get past is the texture--and the knowledge of what you're eating.

Since I was on this trip with my brother and his friends, I got a pretty decent look at the Durban night life. One of our favorite hangouts was a place on the beach called Joe Cool's. It's pretty much a sports bar, but it has different levels you can access by ramps or stairs, a large dance floor in the main room, tons of patio space and three bar areas to order copious amounts of alcohol, which we did with pleasure. We soon discovered that Florida Street is the place to go in Durban for restaurants, bars and clubs. And it definitely has a wide variety of options to choose from. A walk down this street doesn't disappoint. There were a number of dance clubs that Lynette took us to, but I'm not much of a clubber, so unfortunately I cannot report accurately the quality of these places. But if it helps, the guys seemed to have a pretty good time.

After two short weeks in Durban, we reluctantly packed our things, locked up the villa and headed to the airport to embark on the long journey home. As much as I was ready to get back to Chicago and my real life, I was sad to leave this city I had grown so attached to. It will forever hold the memories of our World Cup trip, and I won't soon forget the times we had there. I can honestly mark this South Africa trip as one of the best vacations I have ever had, and I definitely intend on returning in the future.

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