22 August 2019
As the first anniversary of the legalisation of marijuana in South Africa approaches, two old stoners recall what they were up to just before that historic day last September
To the curious observer on the square, MoSal and MinGus stuck out like a pair of old unreconstructed stoners among a global sea of young and upcoming ones laying back and doing whatever they were doing on a sunny afternoon – rolling and smoking joints… playing music on their guitars and mobiles or just listening… engaging in deep conversations or just having a lark and a laugh…or just sitting on their own, lost in thought. An epitome of peace and tranquillity.
And these kids had come much better prepared with their bottles and cans of cool drinks and water, MoSal noted somewhat jealously as the beginnings of a thirst burst began creeping up slowly to his throat. And it didn’t help that he and MinGus had just downed some coffee before arriving at the top of the square to fire up their Mango bought at one of Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops last night.
If it wasn’t their age that may have caught the observer’s eye, then it might have been their appearance. MoSal sporting a jazz cap, back to front, and brown pair of clear lens glasses. As for MinGus, if he weren’t skinny and looked somewhat like Bowie with his large light blue square glasses, he would have made a good impersonation of Elton John.
The midday sun was out to make sure anybody unprepared for a thirst burst was going to feel its searing heat explode in their throats for the arrogance and ignorance – innocent or otherwise. MoSal had no intention of waiting for the explosion as he somewhat unsteadily got up from the ledge they were sitting on to cut a path through the sea of bodies occupying the terraced stairs leading down to the road.
On the other side of the road stood a mobile wagon selling thirst quenchers to desperate suckers like him who hadn’t bothered or forgotten to carry their own. But they had to get to it first. Moments after they set off MoSal turned around to check why his friend was not keeping up. He scanned the crowds and it took a few more exaggerated stoned seconds to find MinGus at the spot where they had been sitting. A few more exaggerated stoned seconds later MinGus rejoined him. He’d forgotten his jacket at the top.
Off to the thirst quencher wagon then. It was going to take a few more exaggerated stoned steps. But there’s no exaggerating the city’s bicycle traffic, interspersed with buses and service delivery vehicles, whizzing past at a dizzying rate as the two unreconstructed stoners stood unsteadily staring at the vehicles from the edge of the pavement, waiting for a gap to scoot across. It didn’t help that they were standing not far from a bend in the road – they couldn’t see what was coming until it was, well, almost upon them. Or that’s how it felt in their state.
The observer would have been in stitches now laughing as the two old reprobates gingerly ventured a foot onto the road but quickly retreated to the pavement – several times. On one occasion a cyclist ringing her bell startled MoSal into backtracking. Finally, he pointed out to some younger pedestrians, who could have been the age of their grandchildren had they had any, waiting to cross. “We ought to watch and follow as they make their move,” MoSal suggested to MinGus, as he went on high alert, following the young ones as they sped across in stoned abandon, and shouted at MinGus to do likewise. But once he crossed over, MoSal realised his friend was still on the other side. After a few more attempts MinGus made it across.
“Didn’t you hear me shout to you to get moving?” MoSal asked.
“No, man. You know it’s my bad ear you were speaking to,” MinGus replied, to which they both laughed. Like some of the things during their traipse through the streets, the hearing problem would be a recurring theme for the friends over the next few days they were to spend together as MoSal would forget which ear to address and shout at MinGus who in turn would shout at him to stop speaking so loudly and point to the other being the problem one.
As they stood at the wagon sipping their drinks MinGus repeatedly mumbled: “We’re getting too old for this shit, man.” But at least they’d managed to stave off the searing of their throats. However, now the munchies were beginning to nibble away slowly at the depths of their tummies.
If the observer had lost interest in them by now, the man selling drinks will remember telling MinGus off for saying his prices were a rip off. “I told the fuckers: ‘You can go elsewhere. You don’t have to buy here’,” the man would probably tell his family as they discussed their day that evening, The friends hurried off before they could get into an argument, but MinGus murmured that was the problem – there weren’t any places in the immediate vicinity selling drinks – and the guy could charge as much as he wanted.
But more urgently now, they needed food and were bent on avoiding the mediocre today as they had a bit more time to explore the city centre in contrast to when they arrived yesterday and settled for the nearest curry place for lunch and later that evening a fast food place that served the most awful falafel. Now they had a bit more time, so for over an hour they traipsed around for something different – stopping here and there to check out the menus on display outside.
A woman working at a restaurant would recall watching the duo inspect a poster for a Banksy exhibition across from where she worked. She had probably wondered what could these two old farts have been discussing so intently as they pointed and wagged their fingers all over the poster for quite some time. If she had been keen and curious to inquire, she would have learnt that being media men they were appalled by the font and size of the words on the poster. And worse still the € (euro) sign before the figure of the admission fee was so faint it could have been mistaken for a C. And the admission was written in much too small a print. The layout and design just didn’t do justice to Banksy, they insisted.
But something else more urgent was eating at them – the need to feed. So off they went again in search of something different and continued the discussion about the poster.
Then, like the cliched “just when they were about to give up” for the next whatever eating place, they were standing at the window front of a nondescript restaurant, reading the menu and shaking their heads in approval of what was on offer. The visible lack of patrons at Abinish restaurant was not off putting because the items on the menu had fired up their curiosity and appetites. Also, the menu fed the criteria of something out of the ordinary that they had been searching for. They entered without trepidation into what MinGus would repeatedly say could be described by one word only – tasteful. And that was not the food but the décor. The food was something else – simply delicious and beautifully presented. MoSal had the marinated spicy grilled chicken sandwich while MinGus had the lamb burger. Both came in an open pita-type bread, served with side vegetables and salad.
Now that the appetites had been taken care of, they went back to inspecting the layout of the restaurant. The small front was somewhat deceiving as Abinish seated more than met the eye. To start with, two chairs at the window front of the restaurant gave diners a view of the passing parade outside. A few steps behind the chairs a functioning didgeridoo was propped across the back of a small bench made of what looked like left over wood from crates. Then came two tables and chairs, next to which was a counter made from a glass and wooden door behind which the meals were prepared and served. Past the counter a flight of stairs went down to a landing that lead to another flight which in turn lead up to a room that accommodated more tables. It was much airier and light entered from two large windows that looked out onto a garden below.
The owner-chef was praised to the highest level of munchy heaven as they engaged him about the choice of the items on the menu. He confirmed their suspicion. The Abinish menu was a collection of the owner’s favourite dishes. But they reserved their one criticism for last. The menu card did not do justice to what is served. The print font is too small and the description too direct, somewhat lacking adjectives. Pictures would have helped too. If MoSal and MinGus hadn’t bothered to torture their ageing eyes with the fine print, they would have missed out on some fine fare. First the Banksy poster and now this, said MinGus to emphasise the point of fine print. “We could have missed this oasis, if you’ll forgive the cliché.”
The conversation swung to their thoughts about the city centre and why they had bothered to dine at Abinish. The streets with their myriad eating and clothing outlets, both chains and independents, have turned into gauntlets of fast fashion and fast food. If any takes umbrage to being called fast, then let’s call them medium paced, in contrast to Abinish’s relaxed, slow and cosy pace. The décor displays the same touch of flair of the owner’s menu. Yet another collection of things put together. There’s no chance the menu was going to be reprinted the owner told them as he was going to close shop soon because the landlord’s been hassling him. He was gonna do something else – nothing to do with gastronomy. MoSal googled Abinish a few months later and discovered it had indeed closed down and there were pictures aplenty showing what would be missed.
An unforgettable meal at an unforgettable place. And the owner definitely won’t forget the duo who asked him all sorts of questions and bantered with the staff as well. He would remember MoSal as the one who scribbled notes while they waited for their meal and explored the rest of the restaurant, observing the décor and pictures while MinGus repeated tasteful every now and then.
MoSal and MinGus were somewhat disappointed that the premises could become yet another mediocre restaurant like the hundreds lined in the gauntlets of restaurants and take outs which especially seem to serve the throngs that go foraging for food to satisfy the munchies, without too much care for taste and flair. It seems like the city centre’s main purpose is to serve this never-ending need. But what about the cultural aspects. Aha, now that’s all part of the cultural package and experience – get stoned, if you want or need to, then check out the art and sights.
The next day MoSal and MinGus would further extend their thoughts about the commodification of the city as they paid to see a Banksy exhibition. Patrons could not have missed MinGus expressing loudly that Banksy had gone back on his word about not being commercialised as they faced gauntlets of Banksy buyables and collectibles, from coffee mugs to T-shirts and what have you, as they left the exhibition. But his last word was reserved for the two Iranian graffiti artists whose works also appeared at the exhibition. MoSal couldn’t agree more at the irony that the two who had been jailed back home in Iran but now live – and have been granted citizenship – in the US, the country whose president has threatened to bomb their homeland.
Art and culture exhibitions, together with the coffee shops had become the epitome of commodification for Amsterdam. Threats to close the coffee shops may remain just that as they had become too far entrenched in the city’s ecosystem to get rid off. Obviously the threats had been somebody’s political puffery to win votes and there just may not be going back on Amsterdam’s unique marijuana money-making machine as more countries liberalise marijuana laws.
Two weeks later – on 18 September 2018, to be precise – the friends would be reflecting about the impacts of marijuana legalisation in South Africa. Throughout the day MoSal had been kept amused by the comments, jokes and puns on social media. Of course, the prophets of doom were having a field day too with all their “entry” or “gateway” drug arguments. MoSal was amused by some of the infantile arguments and theories. Had most of these been really true then Amsterdam would long have been declared a site housing Weapons of Mind Destruction which were turning young people from round the globe into the drug addicts that the prophets of dooms were warning us about. And if it were really true these kids returning home to wherever they came from would have been declared part of some hypothetical drug addiction pandemic. And, above all, if it were really true then some imperialist mother fucker dictator would have taken it upon himself to bomb the shit out of Amsterdam a long time ago.
Legalisation in South Africa was mere acknowledgement of what the real situation had been for years. It was an open secret that everybody and anybody smoked. It was more than common as knowing somebody who had been a victim of crime which was a dinner table conversation that still prevails. It just didn’t make sense that many behind bars for possession had been caught with a mere joint or few grams for personal use. The new law put an end to that.
That night MoSal lit one up to mark the day in unity with friends and comrades back home celebrating the legalisation. Raising his joint in the fist of his hand in an Amandla salute, as he watched the TV news bulletin announcing the news, MoSal whispered lovingly: “High, the beloved country.”
MoSal and MinGus would have loved nothing more than to have been there as they had been for many of the country’s milestone moments but for now they would have to cherish their moments in Amsterdam. On the last night of their long weekend together they sat in the hotel lounge reminiscing as they sipped hot chocolate. In the coming days the young barman, who insisted the hot chocolate was his treat, would probably tell his mother about the two curious old men who immediately recognised his South African name and told him they had been part of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Had he eavesdropped on their conversation, he would have heard them trying to make the best of the little time they had left together, squeezing out as many memories about their days in Johannesburg before MoSal returned to Germany and MinGus to the UK the next morning. But they had already decided to meet again in the next year as they had let too many years pass by before getting together.