Not being the most athletic of fellows, the thought of strenuous exercise appeals to me about as much as going to the dentist. Which probably explains why my periodic resolutions to start jogging, or attend gym, or begin the day with push-ups and sit-ups, never gained traction. One particular delusion of gym commitment, many years ago, at least had the benefit of producing a free tog bag, which proved to be very useful for overnight trips. But beyond that, I have had little to show for these overly optimistic diversions. A conviction that I should be doing something to get fit, when that something was tedious, repetitive and generally unpleasant, was not a recipe for sustainability.
And then I discovered the joys of strolling in the suburbs – to which I owe much to my now departed strolling companion, Zippy – see http://www.suburbanstroller.co.za/2020/02/08/in-memory/.
Google the word “stroll” and it provides the following two meanings for the verb: 1. “walk in a leisurely way”; and 2. “achieve a sporting victory without effort”. Both of those definitions are particularly germane to this context. I derive pleasure from walking at leisure. At the same time, these pleasurable strolls, typically in the early evening, have had a marked impact on my health status, including reduction in general fatigue, blood pressure levels and body weight.
The suburbs provide an endless source of fascination and inspiration at people’s ingenuity, creativity (and sometimes oddity) in the design and features of their gardens and houses. The start-up of new businesses inevitably leaves me inspired by the courage and hope of someone who is putting a lot at stake to try to “make a go of it” – and in so doing, support their families and build the local economy. The maintenance of parks, waterways and other public spaces by volunteers and community associations fill me with optimism that communities can pull together to confront the challenges of individual consumerism, economic downturn and climate change. The antics of the dogs, cats and other non-human companions one encounters in the suburbs provide an endless source of amazement and amusement.
At the same time, strolling in the suburbs confronts one with the harsh realities of South African society. The relative opulence, spaciousness and greenery of the suburbs stands in stark contrast to the poverty, service deprivation and overcrowding which characterises many of the townships and informal settlements on the periphery of South African cities. It is possible, as a resident of a leafy suburb in a city like Cape Town, to try to insulate oneself from the glaring inequities of South African society – by retreating behind high walls, security cameras and electric fences. But this artificial reality is more difficult to maintain if one engages in the habit of strolling. Because when strolling (especially after dark), the invisible becomes visible. One sees that the suburbs provide refuge to many of the marginalised and vulnerable members of society, who take shelter in the parks, on the verandahs of unoccupied houses, in shop doorways, in stormwater pipes and so on. And this often despite the ardent efforts of neighbourhood watch groups to make them feel unwelcome. The hostility which these unofficial residents encounter in the suburbs must, somehow, be better than their alternatives.
Suburban strolling, as a pastime, accordingly demands from us to hold a tension between the enjoyment of all the benefits that the suburbs have to offer and a keen empathy for those who get to witness, but not necessarily experience, all of those benefits. I hope that this tension will find expression in the adventures – and misadventures – which are described on this blog site.