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South Africa

Port Elizabeth, South Africa: The travel is in the details

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Photo: Falco on Pixabay

A haircut, Iron Brew, and biltong in Port Elizabeth

It was raining still. Watery pellets pounded the windshield of our rental Volkswagen minivan as Pieter, our tour guide and professional hunter, searched the streets of Port Elizabeth for a barber shop.

“I need a haircut,” he had told us that morning when we left our lodge in Storms River. He rubbed his stubby fingers across his already short crew. “Yes, I need a haircut.”

After driving for an hour and a half, we had arrived in Port Elizabeth, a city of 312, 000 smack in the center of the South African coast. Back then in 2012, using GPS on a cellphone wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today, and driving up and down the streets of Port Elizabeth’s central business district was the more efficient way, apparently, of locating a barber.

Pieter peered left then right from the driver’s seat, pivoting his huge hunched shoulders back and forth. “I know there’s one here somewhere,” he muttered, careening around another corner. With each turn, my right knee pressed painfully again a white-and-blue striped plastic cooler wedged between the driver’s and front passenger seats. An empty can of Iron Brew soda rolled behind my ankle and into the well alongside the van’s sliding door.

“There she is,” Pieter purred seductively. “At last.” He pulled up to a dimly lit blonde-brick salon. A simple white sign hung squarely above the front door. A black curvy font in capital letters read: The Hairline. “At last we meet,” he shouted. The sudden burst of energy shocked my mother- and father-in-law, husband, daughter, son, and me to attention. It had been a long morning of driving in the mists of a typical South African winter, and we needed to get out.

An establishment called The Hairline was sure to offer a basic haircut, Pieter assured us, as he tossed my father-in-law the keys to the van. “Back in thirty minutes,” he called.

Through the foggy windows of the van, my husband noticed a drugstore five doors down.

“They’ll have a Sudafed equivalent, don’t ya’ think?” my daughter asked. There was only one way to find out, so we left my in-laws behind and ventured into the icy, blowing mist.

After purchasing our “Sudafed,” we lingered in the drugstore to peruse the variety of non-drug products: sunglasses, Cadbury chocolate, umbrellas, magazines, souvenir key chains, magnets. We analyzed a minuscule selection of locally-made biltong, a jerky-like snack, arranged in a red wicker basket on the cashier’s counter. The biltong seemed as out of place in a pharmacy as I felt on the side streets of a South African industrial port city, I thought.

I checked my watch. “It’s been thirty minutes,” I said, motioning that it was time to head for the van. Sure enough, Pieter and about three thousand very short hairs were waiting on us.

That was the last time I would see Port Elizabeth, perched along the very southern edge of the African continent. It was not an eventful visit, but it was memorable. After all, we should not underestimate the power of details, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

I’m sure many will scoff at our scant, all-too-brief encounter with the city now known as Nelson Mandela City. To be sure, there are many deserving and fascinating sights to see there.

As we left the city in the dim, rainy morning of middle June, I watched the ships, barges, and freighters skim over the whitecaps of the distant bay. The vessels resembled tiny dashes and dots. A bright white Morse Code against the waves, the vessels sailed steadily to their next destination.


This post was originally published last spring on Medium.com. Somehow, I never cross-posted it to this blog. Our trip to South Africa happened in 2012; it’s just now that I’m documenting some of our memories—both the memorable and the more forgettable ones—on my blog. Check out my South Africa category for more stories from this trip.

By marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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