Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Aidan: A Link to the Past

Image source: This is a 1925 image of Orient Beach, which is adjacent to Eastern Beach. You can find more pictures like this at their website. I was unable to find any online images from the 1950s like the one I've described below.
Image 2: Eastern Beach in 1907
Image 3: a man selling candy on the esplanade above Eastern Beach. Source:
Image 4: Eastern Beach in 2008. Source:

I found Aidan one day when I was sitting in Wendy's Book Lounge, reading, writing and talking to Cornelius as I so often do. Cornelius introduced me as one of his girls, as he always does, and Aidan and I started talking about my research. As it turns out, Aidan is quite involved in the nature tourism industry: his family owns a tour operation in the northern part of the country and he's put considerable effort into following what's happening in it, and is even looking into starting some sort of a tour company of his own. We talked while he browsed the shelves around us: about how the Eastern Cape has a lot of under-utilized potential for tourism; how there's a lack of continuity between areas of the province, left over from the Apartheid-era homeland separation; and how the marketing in the Eastern Cape just hasn't been as effective as in other parts of the country. He also brought up the issue of safety, how many people still have misgivings about traveling to South Africa because of its reputation of being dangerous and crime-ridden -- though if you just take the right precautions, he says, it can be as safe as anywhere else. He had a lot to say and clearly could say more, so he told me I could stop by some day and talk to him again.

A week later I was able to go to Aidan's home to talk to him further, along with Diana, who had met Aidan independently, and wanted to see his collection of old postcards of Oxford Street. He invited us right into his home and introduced us to his wife and two children, the older of whom was 10, about my sister's age. Diana and I were offered tea and muffins as Aidan went into the back to find us what might interest us in his collections. He came back with books and boxes full of postcards and business information for Diana and travel brochures for me. These were really fascinating: pamphlets and brochures from the 70s, 50s and earlier, advertising East London and the surrounding area. The brochures for EL itself displayed a city drastically different from the one I've gotten to know so well. One brochure that looked as though it must have been from around 1950 gushed about the thousands of tourists that visited the city each year, drawn by what they termed "the safest beaches in the southern hemisphere," the "charming, bustling downtown," and the overall "family-friendly atmosphere." The pictures showed Orient and Eastern Beaches, beaches I've visited many times, covered with beach towels, umbrellas, and bikini-clad sunbathers, next to waters filled with laughing children and their proud and watchful parents. I wonder what those people would think if they were to see these places today. Eastern Beach is often covered with people, but they're mostly local and all black, except for the occasional white surfer or tourist from Sugarshack Backpacker's. This beach gives off the immediate sense of a party: everyone laughing and yelling, laying on the sand just in front of the surf and waiting for the waves to bowl them over, dressed in whatever they have at hand - jeans and t-shirts, dresses, underwear, once in a while an actual swimsuit. Tell-tale bottles and cans are typically strewn across the sand and boardwalk, signs of the last night's revelry and a preview for the upcoming evening. It's loud and eager and invigorating and alive, but certainly not the tame, tourist- and family-friendly site of 60 years ago. And not at all white like those picture-perfect families on the brochure.

I was also intrigued by the claims these brochures made about East London being a tourist hot-spot and favorite vacation destination for travelers from all over the world. Unless they were greatly exaggerating EL's popularity, something must have happened to take this city off the map. Or maybe nothing happened, and that's the problem - it just didn't keep up with the modernization and marketing happening in other parts of the country, and with nothing new or unique to offer, it eventually lost its draw. Now I'm curious to see the numbers for East London tourism. I've already tried to find them online to no avail, so I'll have to try emailing the tourism information office and see if they have anything to tell me.

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