I don’t remember the first time I crossed a border – I think it was Swaziland and I was around two years old. There’s a photo of me in nappies playing with a little Swazi boy in the dust. Travel has always been something I longed to do ever since I can remember.
I was that nerdy kid, with few friends and her head buried in a book. My Saturday morning ritual with my granddad was driving to the Durban Central public library and getting as many books as I could for the week. My travel adventures began in that old library – The Little Princess took me to colonial India, James and the Giant Peach to the London countryside, and Tintin pretty much everywhere. In my little head, I was an explorer ready for adventures, solving mysteries with Nancy Drew and Scooby-Doo alike. It might have only been from my backyard but in my imagination, I was discovering incredible India, playing in The Secret Garden or crossing the Atlantic on a pirate ship.
Other than my extreme bookishness and an overactive imagination, it was my grandmother who sowed the seeds of wanderlust in my young mind. From the age of seven, I was already living my life out of bags, constantly commuting between my grandparents, where I stayed during the school week, and my folks, where I spent weekends and holidays. Ma, as I called my grandma, was a primary school teacher. Outside teaching, and drilling me with flashcards, she ran a side hustle business selling traditional Indian clothes from home. This involved her travelling to India at least twice a year to buy goods which she’d mark up and sell, and allowed her to save for her other travels. With Ma’s street smarts and her ace arithmetic allowing her to do complex currency conversions in her head, Ma had a good head for travel. By the time she passed on at 70, she’d been to India over 30 times and to around 40 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Not bad for a teacher.
On her trips abroad, Ma would send me postcards from exotic places like Kuala Lumpur, the Taj Mahal and Toronto. I would diligently find these on my Children’s Atlas and read up about them. As soon as she returned from one of her overseas trips, I couldn’t wait for her to open her suitcases brimming with outlandish things. As she unlocked and unzipped, wafts of the exotic escaped – spicy incense and perfumes, strange sweets and chocolates, silk scarves, colourful clothes, jingly trinkets, bizarre dolls and funny money. I was intoxicated. I’d gaze upon the postcards on my bedroom wall wondering when my turn would come.
Though I’d crossed borders to neighbouring countries as a kid, my first real “overseas” trip was to Mauritius when I was eight, thanks to my grandparents. Being the eldest grandchild came with its privileges. My grandparents weren’t rich – they were both educators – but with all their kids out of the house, they could afford to spoil their grandkids with probably the best thing they could have – travel.
Mauritius was a kids’ holiday paradise. The massive beach resort we stayed at seemed right out of the movies, with its palm-lined, sparkling blue beaches, grand breakfast buffets and glamorous guests. The beaches were nothing like the Durban beaches I’d grown up on – people seemed so much more carefree. I remember my grandmother telling me to close my eyes when we walked past topless sunbathers and smacking my granddad for looking a little too long. I swam, snorkelled, collected shells, made friends at the kids club, sipped on fresh coconuts and got my hair braided by a local lady. I returned with a tan and feeling as worldly as one can at eight years old. None of my school friends had been overseas and I had stories of topless bathers to tell.
When I was thirteen, my dad won a tidy sum on the horses at the Durban July. My mother, feeling that gambling money was tainted, convinced him to spend it on a family holiday to Europe which we would have not afforded otherwise. After our trip to Mauritius, Ma had motivated me to save for travel and opened up a savings account in my name. I would give her half my weekly pocket money to deposit in my account. My proudest moment was surprising my mom with my savings book as a contribution to our family holiday. I had paid for half my plane ticket plus some spending money.
Travel is one of the greatest privileges I’ve had as a kid and I am grateful for my family that instilled the love of travel in me. I’m sure somewhere Ma is proud of me for taking her travel legacy forward, though I’m not so sure she’d be too excited if she recognised me as one of those bathers topless on that palm-lined beach.
By Meruschka Govender