When I left for Cape Town I was curious and eager. It was January 2007, and I was nineteen. I had cornrows because they were still a thing (I have since cut my hair and repented—I now preach the gospel of Number 1s and Number 2s); I was tall and lithe, the result of years spent on the high school basketball court; I was young; I was undefeated–life played against me on many occasions and came off second best. My ego was fat with the invincibility of youth.
I did not know what was waiting for me on the other end of the 22-hour bus ride to South Africa’s Mother City. But I was confident that it was going to be good; I had dreamed of going to study at the University Of Cape Town (UCT) since I was a stripling in eighth grade. Finally, five years later, it was happening. I was heading to Cape Town. I was leaving Windhoek, Namibia (small, predictable, constricting, one library, one bookshop) for Cape Town, South Africa (big, unexplored, open, more of everything).
I was like that high school sports star with the five o’clock Greyhound ticket to the Big City. The newspapers said I was The Next Big Thing.
In my young mind the road was straight and simple: Cape Town, party, engineering degree, life.
And I came to Cape Town. I saw. I did not conquer. Not that first year. Academically I stumbled through my first year (Microeconomics and Macroeconomics are not subjects fit for human consumption); for the better part of 2007 I gorged myself on Cape Town’s nightlife and UCT’s social life, putting minimum effort into my studies to pass but going all-out when a party was around the corner. I was not enjoying what I was studying, and my straight road started to curve just a little. Not too much, just a little. The invincibility armour got a few scratches on it that year, but it kept its lustre. It still deflected life with impunity.
I slowly began to fall in love with Cape Town (big, unexplored, sun, sea, mountain, forests, shops, parties, more of everything). I loved it better than Windhoek (small, predictable, hot, dusty, slow, constricting, one library, one bookshop).
I was curious and eager. I was nineteen.
The world spun, the sun rose and set. And in 2008, I was a twenty-year-old on a mission. Despite my slow start at university I was still the high school athlete with the five o’clock bus ticket for the Big City. The newspapers said I was just suffering from rookie nerves. When I settled down, they said, I would be The Next Big Thing.
By mutual agreement I was traded by the Engineering Faculty to the Humanities. I changed degrees (numbers for words, BSc for BA), I put my social life on a diet, and I committed to winning. My first season might not have gone according to the plan, but I still had my armour and I planned to put it to good use. I was curious, eager, and determined.
By accident, or by divine design, I stumbled into Varsity, UCT’s official student newspaper, a wonderful world populated by words, pictures, and sharp minds. Oh! What heaven. Wit was the currency of Varsityland, hard work was its national identity, and student journalism was approaching its golden era in Cape Town.
I began my writing career as a staff writer. I did not know much but I was a fast learner. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote all kinds of things. News, features, opinions, and sports articles—if there was a story I pursued it. I started my blog/website thingy where I published my prose and poetry. I learned how to take photos, and learned how to design a whole newspaper, and how to sit in an office for twelve hours a day talking about politics, media, and life, sharing a portion of chips (drowning in mayo and Dhania sauce) with some of the funniest and brightest people I have met. My best friends were fonts and every night I went home to literature. It was bliss.
I began to settle into Cape Town (3.7 million people, big, unexplored, bookshops, seaside, mountain, cafés, friends). Windhoek (268 000 people, small, predictable, constricting, one library, one bookshop, annoying family) was the last thing on my mind.
And I prospered. The road straightened out and things made sense once more: Cape Town, study, BA, Varsity, life.
The world lapped around the sun and it was 2009. I was 21, writing more than I slept, chasing every outdoor adventure, reading everything. I was on fire. I was that high school athlete with the five o’clock ticket for the Big City. I had settled in; I attended practices; I put in the work. I was playoff material.
“It might have taken a while but he really will be The Next Big Thing,” the newspapers said. “You need to watch out for this kid. He’s got a target and he is heading straight towards it.”
And Cape Town was everything. It was big. I was exploring it. I hit the bookshops and cafés regularly; I had been up the mountain a couple of times; and, I was at the seaside when time and weather permitted. I attended some parties every once in a while, but I was nothing like the stupid, night-hungry, small-town boy I was in 2007.
I thoroughly loved being in UCT. To me, the place was perfection: the diversity, the intellectual and social stimulation; and, the buzz. It was everything I had thought it would be when I was younger. I did not see myself leaving UCT or Cape Town. Like, ever.
Ah, Cape Town. What a place. The night drives, the weekend adventures with friends, something new happening every second of every day. What a place, what a time. What was Windhoek but a small dust ball where nothing really happened? It was painfully predictably, unbearably constricting. It was the place I went to when I absolutely had to (for the semester holidays—twice a year). But, always, I had that five o-clock ticket back to the Big City; I never stayed in Windhoek longer than I had to. The game was always afoot and when it called I answered.
Straight roads and clear horizons were all that lay before me. Life played second fiddle to me.
And I liked it that way.
The world, as usual, did its calendar thing and it was 2010. I was 22. I looked at blank pages and words appeared of their own volition. I snatched pictures out of the fabric of reality with ease. I was the editor of Varsity; I was a writer; I was a photographer; I was a graphic designer; I was all of this and more. Most of all, I was that high school athlete with the five o’clock flight headed for the Big City, Cape Town (big, boundless, bookshops, restaurants, cafés, museums, clubs, mountain, variety, diversity, and my upcoming graduation). Everything the light touched was my kingdom. It was definitely a far cry from Windhoek (small, predictable, constricting, family, heat, dust, boredom).
Slowly, at first, and then quickly, the awards came rolling in, one after the other. Best This, Best That, Runner Up Here, Most Of Everything—I did it all and I won it all. And the thing I had waited for the longest time, the goal that had been my North Star since 2007, finally arrived: graduation. BA English and Law. Next up was my LLB degree.
I was invincible; I was in love. And my armour was blinding. Life was teaching me things, but I was schooling it.
I was The Big Thing. Everything I touched turned to MVP.
First ring, baby!
My road made sense. I, Rémy, was undefeated, unbent, unbowed, and unbroken. The skies were clear, the horizons were infinite and I chased each one down relentlessly, without fear, without failure.
Veni. Vidi. Vici.
And I thought that year would never end. But it did. The world blinked and it was 2011. I was 23, I was in law school; I was working four jobs; I was living the life in Cape Town (magical sunrises, spectacular sunsets, bright days, flashy nights). I shirked visiting home; Windhoek was small, and predictable. (“Do they even have a library anymore, bro?”) Home and I did not see eye to eye so we avoided each other.
I was the all-star athlete with so many flights to so many places. Home was not one of them.
Success, the most addictive drug on Earth. And I was its dealer. The problem, I think, is that I smoked my stash. One whiff and I was already hooked. When the newspapers said people were The Next Big Thing they used me as a yardstick. My powers knew no heights, they nonchalantly crossed every obstacle in my way. Success was getting to my head.
I was Napoleonic.
That is an apt description, really, because at the tail end of 2010 my Russian campaign ground to sudden, unpredictable halt.
“He what?” exclaimed News Anchor One.
“He failed his intermediate year of law school!” said News Anchor Two.
“The Next Big Thing!” replied News Anchor Two.
“Get outta here! Quit fucking with me,” said News Anchor One. He refused to believe such outlandish tales.
“No, it’s true. Ask him yourself.”
Yes. It was true. I flew too high, too fast, like Icarus.
And down I came. Hard.
I was working too many jobs, I had too many commitments; my life was too much of too much. I had gotten in over my head, my armour was so bright and shiny it blinded me too.
How the mighty fell. And how crooked and confusing the road quickly became.
I hastily sounded the retreat.
Thankfully the world spun madly on, and 2011 became 2012. I was 24. Bumped, bruised. Not broken. Sure, the newspapers still creamed it with headlines of my stumble, but I could stomach them and almost anything else that could be thrown at me. I just could not stomach defeat. It made my blood boil, it made my stomach writhe; feeling mediocre stole many nights of sleep from me.
So, to get back to the top, I cut the deadweight, put my writing on hold, cancelled the better part of my social life, and got down to the business of reclaiming my glory.
I know not when it started, but Cape Town began to feel smaller, more finite. My life was routine: school, school, school, friends when time permitted, and then more school. Cape Town became…predictable. The same bookshops, the same restaurants, the same hiking trails, and, oh, look, the same events.
And Windhoek? What the heck was Windhoek now? I did not know. I had not been back in a while. I was that high school athlete with the life in the Big City, home was where I decided it was, and I had decided a long time ago that it would be where my glory lay. So Windhoek, and family, and all the places I had grown up, took a backseat.
I did not think too much of the future, then. All that mattered was the next day, the next assignment, the next test, and the next chance to progress. I knew my road, as a whole, was a tangled mess. But if I focused on the centimetre just ahead if me, on the small certainties, it felt straight.
All I had to do was weather the year.
But after taking one too many left hooks to the jaw, life was countering with its own combos in the dying months of 2012: a breakup and a death in the family, one after the other.
It was a one-two that floored me and left me gasping.
I even lost at UNO and 30 Seconds a couple of times, goddamnit! (Which, to be honest, is not the worst thing that can happen to a person but, seriously, let a guy win at board games when life has him by the sensitive bits.)
So I sat out the last few days of 2012, at home, in Windhoek (small, predictable, funeral, heartbroken family) wondering where my invincibility went; whence my prolific writing had vanished; and just when the hell I had been caught flat-footed and so out of breath.
And I waited for that miserable year to come to an end.
But I greeted 2013 politely. At 25, life and I would nod to each other respectfully when our paths crossed. We knew what we could do to each other. I went about my tasks as I best as I could, promptly, efficiently, and with purpose. I was that former all-star with the Big City at his feet. But I was not as wet behind the ears as I was when becoming The Next Big Thing was the sole purpose of my existence. I was quieter, a bit colder. I was deliberate in thought and in action: I planned, and I executed. Ruthlessly.
At home and on the road I played to win, I used every single trick I had learned along the way. I avoided the bright lights and the high life. “Fuck the press conference, where the gym at? Gotta warm up!”
That was me. I was all about the endgame.
After a long year the endgame came. Second graduation. Second ring, baby!
Law school was finally over. It had been a long road, and I was glad it was over. I was not The Next Big Thing, or maybe I still was albeit in a different way. It mattered not whether I was in the headlines or in the endnote—all that mattered was that I was doing things my way. I was just…me, you know?
The once straight road had become a crooked dirt path; a small mist of doubt hovered just ahead so that the future was never clear for too long.
But it was my road. And I walked it.
And what about that tranquil city underneath the mountain? Well, Cape Town remained…Cape Town. Just Cape Town. Surprisingly. No pangs of excitement when I thought about it; the bright lights seemed a bit duller. The Mother City seemed to have lost a bit of its shine. It had become a round robin of school, job applications and rejections, and, finally, work. And work was…work. Just work.
And Windhoek started feeling like…home? Unexplored? Adrift from my family for nigh on a year I wondered what was happening in the little inferno of heat and recycled news. Was that one bookshop still there? Had the library reopened?
I thought of home. Often. It was not that far, but I always put off going back.
“Next year,” I said when I spoke to my family.
And next year came around. 2014.
It started off with a goodbye. A breakup. Again. I closed off a four-year dream and then started a new chapter with a dose of reality. My 25th year on Earth was coming to and end and there were some things I needed to tick off my to-do list before I got sucked into a whirlpool of what-ifs.
Rémy’s List Of Things To Do Before Turning Twenty-Six:
- Pick up the pen.
- Pick up the paper.
- Write, Rémy, write.
- Pick up the camera.
- Turn it on.
- Take pictures.
- Read more.
- Read everything.
- Get abs (Like, what are you doing with your life as a man if you do not have abs? What is your excuse? Are you pregnant?)
- Take salsa-dancing lessons (“Because comfort zones are made to be found…and left”. A good friend told me that.)
The list was longer. There was a lot to be done and not a lot of time to do it in. But I arranged my life in such a way that I could put a dent in that interim bucket list. I started ticking off things methodically, milestone after milestone. I was trading punches with life evenly; we slugged it out like champions, both after the win, both reveling in the fight. And, for a while, it was good to be in Cape Town. I rediscovered the magic of the city; I became a regular at new cafés and I frequented some really good restaurants; I took the train to the seaside; danced on Friday nights; swam on Saturday mornings; and took my camera for walks on Sundays. I read when I could, and I wrote when time allowed.
Oh, and there was work, too. It was stressful but not challenging. But I kicked ass at it without ever breaking a sweat.
And things went well for a while, until I turned 26.
“Every once in a while, life needs to undergo a cleansing phase, a tumultuous upheaval that relegates a former life to extinction and provides an opportunity for newer life to progress and prosper. This game of life and death plays out everyday in nature: only the fittest will survive, the weak do not eat.
Life, then, is tectonic. For a while it is stable, everything goes according to the plan. But behind the scenes, without you even noticing, the plates that form the bedrock of your existence gradually shift and grind against each other, sending out small tremors of uncertainty into the lazy tranquility of your life.
As the pressure beneath the plates builds, the tremors grow in strength and magnitude. Eventually, the pressure can longer be contained. The plates are crushed and broken; hot magma rises to the surface. At the fault lines of your life the old ways are forced into subterranean oblivion while a new crust is forced to the top. Volcanic destruction and construction; ash clouds choke the skies; lava weeps from dormant weaknesses in the crust of your being.
Here, in this make-or-break moment, in the direst of adversities, life has two options: to break, or to break out.”
~ From the David Attenborough-esque Narration of Rémy’s Fictional Documentary Life.
And if life is a series of volcanic eruptions, then the weeks following my 26th could put the Ring of Fire to shame.
First came the extinction of some friendships—some welcome, some not; then came extreme frustration at work (long hours, a hazy job description and the concomitant blurring of responsibilities); and then, finally, the life-changing situation that cannot be bought, bullied, or reasoned with: the South African Department of Home Affairs and my work permit rejection.
The rejection was Vesuvius in all of its wanton and destructive power. And my small Pompeii, my safe, predictable Capetonian life, built in the false tranquility of seemingly simple immigration laws, was about to be wiped off the South African landscape.
- Break out
After contemplating my situation for a while this is what I did: LIFE V.0.26: INSERT COIN > PLEASE SELECT PLAYER > RÉMY > PLEASE SELECTION OPTION > BREAK OUT
My friends inherited most of my life (but not my LEGO collection, no one was worthy!); I sold what I could and gave away what I could not; I resigned from my job. In ten days I closed bank accounts and policies, cancelled contracts, and I said some quick farewells to all the personalities that made Cape Town big for me. And I quickly explored all of my old haunts; bought as many books as I could afford; and danced as much as I could.
What else could I do? Sit and moan, wait for the poisonous fumes of rejection to get me? Have you seen the remains of a deer that stared at the bright, oncoming lights too long?
It is not a pretty sight.
I am not that deer. Or, rather, it could have been me. But I chose not to be roadkill on the highway of life.
So I bought that ten o’clock ticket back home to Windhoek. I had my trophies, my rings, and my memories. I had my scars, but I had the stories, too. And as I boarded that 22-hour bus ride back home, I looked back at Cape Town (big but small in strange ways; thoroughly explored; more of everything…but less of home to me), and thought about the kid who came to the Big City seven years ago. And I smiled.
Because, despite everything, despite the mishaps, and the uncertainty that lay before me, I was leaving Cape Town the way I came to it: curious and eager.
Curious about what lay beyond the bend in the road; eager to get going.
The high school athlete with the five o’clock bus ticket to the Big City is back home, in Windhoek. It is small, it is predictable; and, it has three bookshops now. The public library reopened. Progress. And in its special way, Windhoek is an adventure: good customer service is rarer than a snow leopard sighting; the politics of the country are ridiculously laughable; there is less variety in everything (I will pay a king’s ransom for anyone who finds me watercress or wild rocket in this town!); and all the people I grew up with are here. It is not all bad.
But, mostly, Windhoek is home. All kinds of home, too.
It is this kind of home.
And this kind of home.
And it is definitely this kind of home.
And the Next Big Thing?
Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned, won’t you? Because the court might have changed but the game is still the game.
And I just finished tying my laces.