Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Grahamstown, and Back Again

So it seems that Grahamstown is strangely void of internet, except at the KFC on one of the main streets, which I unfortunately did not have the inclination to visit.

In any case, we are back in sunny warm Durban, after a wonderful, chilly week at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.  Very early last week we met at the Playhouse in Durban and sleepily piled into a large bus that would take us to the airport.  A flight and a two hour drive later we arrived in the tiny college town of Grahamstown, and donned our coats, hats, scarves, and gloves (and for me several layers of leggings) since the weather there is hardly the picturesque Durban Beach weather - it rained quite a bit and temperatures were in the low 40s, if not colder at night.  The trip was quite an experience - since there are simply no hotels in Grahamstown (if you're wondering where the 100s if not 1000s of people stay when they come to this festival, I cannot tell you; I am wondering the same thing...) the entire orchestra was housed in a dormitory of Rhodes College, one of the premiere Universities in South Africa.  I met some people from other African countries, too - Zimbabwe (or Zim as natives call it, highlighting Africans' propensity to shorten everything to the utmost) and Ghana as well.  The dorm (or "res") was very typical, and I found it amazing that everyone seemed to more or less go about their business, bundling up in blankets while sipping sherry at night, and utilizing the one bathroom per floor as little as possible because it was, as you might expect, not amazingly comfortable and somewhat drafty.  An entire symphony orchestra housed in little quaint dorm rooms, sharing bathrooms, hanging out in the "top common" at night, drinking loads of tea all day to keep warm, hot water bottles under the sheets at night - I think more than anything else I got to know the personalities of the orchestra, which are varied and quite fascinating.  I was happy to have the chance to do so, and once the Wimbledon matches were over for the day, there was little else to do but hear all of these musicians' stories, drink their whisky, and come up with a few stories of my own.

I got to know a bit where people were staying and expected to see certain faces in the hallyway, at the dining room for breakfast (although my coffee needs seemed to surpass what was served there - I got up early and walked the five blocks to town for my double cappuccinos daily.)  We found a few consistent restaurants that were reasonably close to the dorm, our favorite being The Rat and Parrot, which as you can expect was a great dark paneled drinking pub with its own microbrewery and great pizzas and burgers.  For coffee there was haricots with amazing huge muffins, and for bigger breakfasts there was Cafe D'Vine, which humbly offered up a pretty atmosphere, white wood and white tables, ham, eggs, and croissants. 

When the festival started, we really had our work cut out for us, since many orchestra musicians were playing something like seven shows in three or four days; luckily my responsibilities included three Swan Lake shows and one opening symphony concert, both of which were housed in a hug theater on a hilltop.  The theater was so cold that I wore every black thing I owned every time I went into it, since I have trouble staying warm anyway.  We rubbed our fingers constantly to maintain some warmth in them and we even went on an expedition to buy fingerless gloves that I learned to play in expertly well during those mammoth ballet rehearsals and concerts.  Thankfully I love rooibos tea which was on hand at intermissions to warm us up, and as we huddled around the hot water jug we looked out upon the many crazily attired dancers that were running around the backstage area with makeup and feathers and capes and worn toe shoes.  We laughed a lot, about anything, about everything, and I am sure it got us through.  Tough conditions can really help you get to know people.  I am pretty sure that I am now best friends with the violinist that sits directly behind me, but she speaks no English, only Bulgarian, and kept taking my picture in the pit, completely drowning in scarves and hats and fingerless gloves.

When the festival started I didn't have much free time to see all the shows happening, and there were hundreds!  I did make it to the huge marketplace, where artisans were selling all kinds of beautiful clothing, jewelry, scarves, woodwork, antiques, food, and traditional crafts.  People were everywhere and the spirit was so interesting - cold but so busy.  I'd never seen such a huge festival in such cold drizzly weather.  But once I was in a cafe drinking my doppio when I overheard a South African woman say on the phone, "Yes, it is terrible that I am sick!  Just when we got to the festival, since it is so cold here!  But, you know, it just feels like Grahamstown..."  I began to understand the pride people have in this country and for this event.  We did make it also to a spellbinding magic show.  The young man performing was beautifully slick with his hands, and ran the full gamut tricks, without a miss.  Coins, cards, mind-reading and volunteers filled our happy minds for over an hour, and we left mystified.  Just a tiny show in a tiny blackbox theater and the quality was stupendous.

When we gathered our belongings to leave, the rain was falling again, and we piled once more onto the bus that would drive us the two hours from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth from where we'd fly to Durban.  We were all ready to go, but I was realizing that if we'd been in Durban the whole time we would not have found out such things about each other, and I believe I am happier for it.  If I ever go back to Grahamstown, I will personally bring the entire city some heaters at no charge.

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