Thursday, September 15, 2005

Odyssey of a Smoker - Part 1

rizla papers

I didn't smoke at school.

A lot of my friends, the 'cool kids', did. Most of the teachers smoked; both my parents had smoked and most of my friends' parents smoked. I didn't because smoking seemed too obviously a cool thing for a school kid to do. But, I didn't mind anyone else smoking - when I became a hostel prefect, my friends could count on me not reporting them. How they thought anyone couldn't tell that they'd been smoking, I really don't know - no amount of toothpaste or peppermint was going to disguise that smell!

Doing anything obviously cool just wasn't me. I even courted with old-fogeyism, just to be different in my own way. Why else would a teenager insist, until the age of about 14, that he liked the Andrews sisters and Ray Conniff? And why else would a teenager deliberately not wear denim? My music tastes changed dramatically at about that age and so did my dress sense but I still thought myself too different to be obviously cool.

No smoking for me.

But, none of that stopped me from actively seeking out dope at about 16, something almost unheard of at Barberton High School at the time. I had a good friend get me some from one of the farmhands on his parent's farm. Apart from him and another friend, no one there, not even the cool kids knew that I smoked dope. It was a different matter when I returned to Mozambique during the school holidays - we all smoked the stuff.

And more. Often.

By the time I got to varsity I'd transformed myself completely. My pimples cleared up, my hair was left to its own devices and my clothes became more and more outlandish - a hippy was born. One that just happened to be a medical student, living in a comfortable university residence, rather than a left-wing commune on a diet of lentils and rice. This being 1977, I was actually going backwards as the hippy era was dying, almost dead. Donna Summer and the Bee Gees dominated the charts but Punk was on the rise.

Medical students were largely a conservative bunch - obvious in their white coats, they were already secure about their elevated position in society. The only noticeable sub-grouping was the sizeable bunch of rugger-buggers, male medics that distinguished themselves by loudness, lewdness and the copious amounts of beer that they either drank or alluded to drinking. If it were not for the white coats, most of the rest would've faded into a solid background of wholesome respectability.

I fitted into neither group. I looked like an arts student and I tended to think like arts students - they were my natural milieu. A lot of us were very left-wing and a lot of us smoked dope. We thought we were hip; everyone else thought we were weird. Not many of us were actually weird but a lot were very pretentious. We spent an inordinate amount of time in confined spaces, getting stoned and earnestly discussing the arts, literature, politics, philosophy and drugs. Sometimes, not very frequently, we could be found wandering along the mountain paths or on the beach.

In those long-gone days, long before the advent of the metrosexual, any sign of flamboyance in a male was highly suspect. But, while hippies were regarded as weird, especially in conservative South Africa, they were expected to be flamboyant. Hippies looked weird and they were weird but they weren't queer. Well, not necessarily. Was that another reason why the 'lifestyle' appealed to me? There is nothing remotely flamboyant about me these days but I do remember being very fond of the colours, ethnic fabrics and beads.

I still didn't smoke. Cigarettes that is.

Me blowing smoke bubbles
During one of our intense dope sessions I remembered how my father had once blown soap bubbles for me while expelling smoke from his lungs. It had been fascinating to watch the bubbles burst into clouds of smoke just like little silent bombs. I decided to do the same. My friend T often had a bottle of soap bubbles - she'd pass them round when we were stoned and we would watch each other blowing bubbles. And we would watch each other blowing bubbles. And we would....

I asked someone for a cigarette and began blowing bubbles.

Watching those bubbles burst into clouds of smoke when stoned had everyone gasping in amazement. It became my party trick and, before long, I was well on my way to becoming an infrequent but regular smoker. My friend B sometimes smoked a pipe of Borkum Riff cherry-flavoured tobacco. I loved its smell but didn't like the taste of a pipe. So started my habit of making roll-ups with pipe tobacco. borkum riff pipe tobaccoFor someone who was quite shy, very shy in some situations, I chose to make myself very conspicuous by my clothes, hair and choice of tobacco.

Those of you who've never grown up in a country where cigarettes are dirt cheap, especially so in those less taxed times, probably don't only associate Rizlas with joints. Enough people in the UK smoke roll-ups for cigarette papers to be just that. In South Africa, white university students were generally a rather affluent bunch. Those that smoked, smoked 'proper' cigarettes. The working classes, black and white, also smoked regular cigarettes. Just the poorest black men could be seen rolling their own and that would usually be in quite thick paper, even newspaper. Rizlas were almost exclusively bought by the dope crowd. Being young, white and seen to buy Rizlas could only mean one thing - dope smoker!

rizla papersI don't think I consciously tried to be cool. I was just me and there were certain things I identified with which had an effect on the way I looked and the things I did. Unlike almost all of the other students, I happened to have virtually no money at all. My fees and accommodation were covered by a scholarship so I wasn't exactly homeless. But, my guardian had left me in Cape Town with very little money. Dumped there is one way of looking at it. Smoking was a habit that I couldn't really afford to indulge. And, although cigarettes were cheap, roll-ups were even cheaper. Coincidentally, they also seemed to carry a 'hippy seal of approval'

I began rolling my own.

About six months later, I met E through a friend of hers who fancied me. E had just returned from doing the 'hippy trail' across Asia where she spent time in India and Nepal. I found her fascinating and started spending all my time with her. She'd been a very heavy smoker who'd given up about a year before and, typically, had become a rabid anti-smoker.

I stopped smoking.


Blogger Paul said...

Nice post - and nice blog. Credit Mike for pointing me in your general direction.

1:45 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Thanks Paul. And, thanks Mike.

*Spoiler Alert*
Paul, there is, however, more to this doesn't end with my giving up smoking!

2:11 pm  
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