I remember the day I first noticed it. It was some time in first year. Past the first terrifying and wonderful months away from home, I'd taken to walking. People underestimate walking. I'm not talking here about hiking, although I am starting to understand why people like that. I'm talking just walking around. Walking gives you time to think and time to notice things. It's a way to interact with a place not just the people. It's a way to start turning a foreign space into home. I suppose there was also the value of being off campus for a while. In the early days, the artificial, ivory tower world of university life felt unreal and claustrophobic. Walking through other areas of Grahamstown and along suburban streets was a way to see ordinary people living ordinary lives, to be reminded that all that I knew hadn't ended just because I had left it behind. All these years later, I still feel that way when I walk. It's a way to see there are things still the same no matter what has changed in you.
I would often walk on the weekends, particularly on weekend mornings when everyone else was still asleep. The campus world tended to be relatively quiet then and it felt natural to step away from it and visit the reality of the town. This day was a weekday, though. There were days when I had very few lectures or only had lectures early or late, so I had lots of time to kill. I don't remember what the exact set-up was but it was probably one of those days. Weekday mornings are a wonderful time to wander because things are peaceful. Everyone else in the world is at work or school or going about their usual business. In the gardens, gardeners are weeding and planting and sometimes a maid hanging out the washing but there are very few cars on the street and no-one is rushing.
I had walked up towards St Andrews and then back down to African street and along towards what I would come to know and love in later years as the Village Green (although I hear that even that has now moved). I went past Oatlands Prep and up Oatlands Road (which I would also know later when I younger sister lived there). Perhaps it was a sound or a smell or the peacefulness of the place, perhaps something did happen. I don't know. But all of a sudden I found myself heaving a deep breath and filled with a sense of relief and home. I was walking through a not-very-well-maintained park, with trees and winter-dry grass and flower-beds with the occasional spindly daisy when I realised that the soil, the red, dusty clay, felt familiar. 'Felt' is a clumsy word. Not felt in tactile sense. Felt in the sense of an overwhelming feeling that it was familiar, that I had known it before, that it was mine. That it was home.
I hadn't travelled very far from home for University, something that, having now experienced real distance, I'm rather grateful for. But it wasn't that home I was thinking of. It didn't feel like the little town I'd been living in. It was deeper than that, older than that. I sat in that park for a long time trying to understand what I was feeling before it occurred to me that the photos of my very early childhood, the photos of the place where I was born all have the same kind of dusty red sand.
Perhaps there was some wordless early memory of living with the red earth, the red dust. Perhaps I just recognised it from the photos. Or perhaps it just happened to be the moment when I finally felt that this town had become home. I hold onto that moment. There have been others like it, in other places, at other times. Some of them have been equally precious. But none has been as tangible and none is as central to my concept of home as that red sand. None is so strong that I can close my eyes and return in an instant, to the sights and sounds and the smell of red dust. I have tried to capture it many times but I can't. The earth doesn't wish to be captured, to be put on paper. You can't take it with you. As if the red earth is the guarantee that no matter how far you wander, you will always, always return.