Setting off on the journey(s) to become… me.

People sometimes talk about “the trip of a lifetime”. I have been fortunate, I’ve had many of these. (The trips, not the people.) I’ve already shared some of these trips in this blog but today I’m writing about the exciting journey that my life has provided .. so far. Or at least how it all started.

Perhaps, if you look at a few snapshots from my life, then you may understand how I have turned out to be the way I am. We are not only a result of the building blocks in our DNA, we are certainly also a product of our experiences.

When I started out in my more-or-less adult life, I had some idea of what my future career and life would be like, and now that I’m older and can look back, I realise that chance played a major role. It would not be fair to compare myself to the famous author Mark Twain (although he did spend some time as a prospector for gold and silver…), but he apparently wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,..” and I hope that it has had this effect on me, too!

I am very sure that my childhood has been much easier than his, but it is clear that chance played a major part in both our lives.

Back in the mid-50’s, my parents decided to emigrate from The Netherlands, to South Africa. Many years later I asked my mom about this, and expected answers that would involve employment opportunities, the stagnant economy in Europe, and so on. However, she responded with “I don’t know, it was an adventure!” So they boarded a ship to Cape Town, took a train to Johannesburg, and started looking for work there. That is why my brother and I were both born in Johannesburg and why I have a foot and a heart in two continents.

When I was about 5 years old, my parents decided to return to The Netherlands, and I think my earliest travel memories are from that time. We sailed from Cape Town on the “Oranjefontein“, one of the Holland-Afrika Line ocean liners. This particular vessel had had quite an eventful life, also during wartime, but in our days it was a mixed freighter/passenger ship. If one looks at scanned brochures and such, illustrating life on the various “-fontein” ships, it looks like we might have enjoyed a First Class trip, but our experience was less glamorous.

The M.S. Oranjefontein in Cape Town (Artist of this painting unknown, but picture sourced here on this website)

My own memories include the slamming of my finger in a 4-inch-thick bulkhead door (and subsequent removal of a fingernail) and waiters sprinkling salt on the dining room floor to stop them from sliding between tables while we passed through high seas in the Bay of Biscay. I also remember the canvas swimming pool (filled with sea water) that was erected on the afterdeck for us lower-class passengers (First Class passengers had a permanent pool on a forward deck) and a short visit to the bridge, where we were allowed to hold onto the wheel (briefly) and peer into a darkened hood to look at the radar scan around the ship.

My “enhanced” memories (assisted by my parents’ photographs) include festivities when we crossed over the equator, which required everybody (even kids like us) to dress up as something. So my brother and I were dwarves with cotton-wool beards, crinkle paper coats and pointed hats. My brother, a couple of years younger than I, was highly annoyed by the cotton-wool that kept getting into his mouth. The adults spent the day in the court of Neptunus, one of the seamen dressed up (or rather, down) as the Roman god of the seas and with first-time equator-crossers having to grovel before being thrown in the pool. These are the things you miss when you cross the equator in an aircraft.

Crossing the equator on the MS Oranjefontein

I can unfortunately remember very little from that first stay in Holland. Some images remain of the staircase into my grandparents’ apartment in The Hague, where the front door was opened by pulling on a string from upstairs. I remember the short walk around the corner to a nearby kindergarten. And there was one instance when we went picnicking for the day somewhere on the Veluwe, but where I managed to sit down on a nest of red ants. I do remember the result, which must have been hilarious for anybody watching.

Maybe my parents also had “ants in their pants” as the saying goes, since after 7 months in The Netherlands, we boarded ship again and returned to South Africa. I know that they had been disappointed that nothing much had changed in the 6 years or so that they’d been away. My dad could literally get his old job back at the bus company where he had worked, and the same mechanics were still working alongside him. In South Africa he’d become a foreman at Lawson Motors (a Volvo truck dealership in Johannesburg) and I think that both my parents missed the open spaces and the potential to grow.

I don’t think they were indecisive, I’m sure they were already feeling torn between two countries – family in one, friends and opportunities in another. A feeling that my own family and I experience today.

In my case, the “T” stands for “Traveller”, not Thymine

My father had years ago joined the Dutch marines (“mariniers“) and spent a stint in Indonesia (then called the Dutch East Indies), where he served as a diesel mechanic, servicing and maintaining bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment used in the building of bridges. He often referred to this time away from home. I don’t think that he was always happy in a military situation, but he did enjoy the adventure and the freedom away from home, he told us. On my mother’s side, I had an uncle who also served there, as well as an uncle who worked on passenger ships between Amsterdam and New York. Their youngest brother qualified as an engineer and sailed the seven seas for years in various Shell tankers. So I probably do have the yearning to travel built into my genes.

Growing up in South Africa, I can remember many trips and travels to different parts of the country. Annual trips of a few weeks to Cape Town, during December, and shorter visits (usually during the southern hemisphere winter) to the Kruger National Park, the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga), the Drakensberg or Durban.

We were always camping, initially with a borrowed tent, but then my parents built a fold-out caravan (from scratch) which I think we used once before we sold it. I remember my dad pop-riveting the aluminium sheets onto the steel and wood body and my mom sewing the heavy canvas with a manual sewing machine. Later on, we had a Slipstream which was also a pop-up, but with a solid roof. That Slipstream caravan was our temporary home for many holidays. We towed it all over the country behind a series of different Volvo’s. My dad was issued a “new” company car every two years or so, a hand-me-down when his boss got a new model.

This Volvo+Slipstream combination is what I remember best from our South African holidays. No compulsory seatbelts in those days, my brother and I used to sleep on top of the luggage in the back while we drove through the Karoo to Cape Town.

So while I may have inherited my travel urges genetically, I certainly also caught the “travel bug” by seeing so much of the country. It’s one of the greatest gifts that my parents could have given me, it also opened my eyes to see how things are different elsewhere. In future posts I will show you some of those sights and share some of my youthful experiences.

2 thoughts on “Setting off on the journey(s) to become… me.

  1. Ai Ron, baie interessant!! Mara and me can surely appreciate the nomadic lifestyle or rather urges as you describe. Travelling or touring remains an adventure even today. Looking forward to the next installment!!

    Like

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