Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Odyssey of a Smoker - Part 2

Go here for Part 1.

My flirtation with the weed, tobacco in this case, didn't last much longer than 6 months. It was easy to stop and there were no withdrawal symptoms of any kind. I did, however, miss the smokey bubbles!

I more-or-less moved in with E straight after meeting her. She shared a flat with two flat mates, one of whom was a friend who fancied me and who'd introduced us. Sounds tricky, I know, but it wasn't. At the end of that year, we moved to a communal house in Observatory, the home of Cape Town's white working class and 'bohemian' students. Yes, quite strange bed-fellows but mostly amicable in relations. Observatory borders on Salt River, a 'coloured' suburb and it retained a slightly 'mixed' feel despite apartheid's best efforts to eradicate it. We knew the housemates from varsity. Two of them, like me, were drop-outs and had just started first jobs. Only E and M, whose brother owned the house, were students.

All of us smoked dope and so did all of our friends. About half of them also smoked cigarettes. E didn't. Nor did I.

Jimmy CliffVery appropriately, Jimmy Cliff performed at the nearby Hartleyvale Football Stadium that year. The concert wasn't that well-attended but there was enough dope in the air to fill the Hindenburg. I'm not sure how he got passed the cultural boycott but it made us happy. We'd have preferred seeing Bob Marley or Peter Tosh live but Jimmy Cliff was more than an adequate second-best. Especially since we'd seen The Harder They Come just a few months previously. Some reggae afficionados would argue that he was a much better representative of reggae but the other two achieved greater commercial fame.

The commune wasn't a great success.

The people wore us down even though we were all so mellowed out on dope. J, the moody secretary, had a dreadful dog that yapped a lot and an even more dreadful boyfriend who whined a lot. W, the fat drama-school drop-out, paraded around in the nick and was always making lunges at me. M, the owner's sister, was placid and on our side when it came to bitching about the others but tended to sit on the fence when it came to the regular powwows convened to sort out household issues. The atmosphere soured as the months went by and wasn't exactly condusive to a new job and part-time studies. The dope didn't help either!

E and I moved out after 10 months. Having a place to ourselves was liberating and we cut down on the dope. E passed her exams. Amazingly, I did too.

I didn't smoke a regular cigarette for the next 18 years.

Now and again, we still smoked dope - I more so than E. We'd even reached the stage where we could have dope in the house and not flatten it within days, something unheard of just the year before. If cigarettes were bought, they were bought as 'mix'.

We did, however, occasionally - very occasionally - smoke bidis.

bidisE had returned from India and Nepal just months before I'd met her. Amongst the many beautiful bits of jewellery and mementoes she'd brought back were several packets of bidis. I'd never seen them before and found them exotic and fascinating. Small, pungent leaves wrapped around a bit of tobacco, tied with a small piece of pink cotton and tightly packed into a beautiful packet covered in Indian figures and writing - they were the epitome of handcrafted perfection, the complete antithesis of Western mass-market products.
loose bidis

We didn't make a habit of smoking them nor did we make a habit of buying them. Even so, a packet was often to be found next to the chillum, stuck away in a drawer. For all their beauty and exotic redolence of the Orient, they could hardly be described as being 'made for your smoking pleasure'. Once lit, a bidi needs constant attention as it goes out very easily - smoking bidis can be a frustrating experience! But, the taste and smell are very pleasant after a drunken dinner party once it's time to be indiscriminate with various forgotten liqueurs and ports that lie gathering dust in the booze cupboard.

Buying them was almost more fun than smoking them as I'd usually buy them from Atlas Trading Store in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town. The Bo-Kaap, also known as the Cape Malay Quarter, nestles below the slopes of Signal Hill and has, until very recently, remained almost unchanged since the 19th century. The area is predominantly Muslim and is dotted with the minarets from several mosques. bidi packetsIt's within less than half a kilometre from the city centre but the pace of life seems slower, the shops are noticeably different and the air is often suffused with the smells of spices and home-made curries.

Atlas Trading Store seemed to occupy another time and place - it could have been in India or in some colonial outpost of Africa. The smells were different. And, despite occasional customers from the affluent white suburbs, the customers were different. The courteous manners of the staff and their ways of doing business weren't those of electronic cash-registers and bland shop assistants trained to smile but not engage.

It's changing now. So is the whole area.

For many years after having stopped smoking regular cigarettes, the occasional bidi was the extent of my smoking habit.


Blogger kyknoord said...

Man, the cravings hit with full force after reading that. I haven't smoked anything since 1993, but I've never been able to get the urge completeley out of my system.

10:20 am  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Well, when you get to read part 3 you are going to shake your head and say, 'wtf did you do that?' and know exactly why you said it.

10:54 am  

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