Good Bargains in Downtown

Photo by Clive Reid

Photo by Clive Reid

My favorite district in Pietermaritzburg was the Indian Suburb in the Downtown.

My friends and I often went there because it was possible to find shops with good bargains and where you could bring the price down. All in all it was fun shopping there. The Downtown was full of all kinds of shops selling everything you can think of.

I normally found jeans of good quality, even if I didn’t like their color because it was too much of a dark blue. Anyway, this was not a big problem because I found a way to fade them in a very simple manner. I just wore them when I went swimming in the pool, which was full of chlorine water. After some time they became lighter and had an old look, just like I wanted them.

One of the shops I liked best, was a small shop with a funny old man who sold stationery. Besides all sorts of exercise books, pencils, rubbers and sharpeners, I bought my first fountain-pen there as the man had a great variety of these kinds of pens and I liked them a lot. A few months later I had a good collection of them in my room. In that shop I also bought my first geometry box, which contained a pink sheet of blotting paper, a protractor, a compass, a pencil, a ruler and a rubber. This set lasted a very long time although I used it very often.

The shop next door sold all kinds of odds and ends, from things necessary for sewing to bicycle spares, including kits for repairing punctures. There you could also find the Chinese kite-paper which would shrink when you wet it. The shop also had an assortment of very nice little penknives of all colors, shapes and sizes. Even these went to enlarge my home collection. The owner of the shop was very kind. He often spent a lot of time explaining to you how good his products were, whether it be a bicycle or a bedside lamp. This is why you had to wait for a long time in the queue before being attended to. I remember that the man was very fond of us kids because we always left him a lot of “rands”, which is the South African currency.

Not far down the road there was a big butcher shop. As my father was a butcher by trade, he was allowed to go into the refrigerator with a big knife in his hand, to cut the best pieces of meat himself. He took meat also for other Italian families and each time he went out of the shop he needed someone to help him carry the many heavy parcels.

The suburb also had various jewelry shops. In particular, I remember one of them where they bought second hand jewels for a good price and where I sold them two small diamonds which I got from an old medal I had. During the course of my teens I bought all my metal wind-up watches in that shop.

As we worked on cars and often needed spare parts we used to buy them in a garage near the motorway in Downtown. We went there because this supplier was open until late at night and sold any spare part we needed at a fair price.

Photo by Paul Hamilton

Photo by Paul Hamilton

I often went to the Indian Suburb also because there was the barber shop where I got my hair cut. I remember that the first time was not at all easy to find this shop, as it was almost hidden in the basement of a block of flats. To get there, you had to take a narrow passage between two buildings which were on the edge of the pavement. At the end of the corridor you went down some steps and there was a small room in which a young Indian man started his working life as a barber. The furniture in the shop was old and worn. There was only one big wooden chair with a mirror in front, where customers took their place to have their hair cut and only a wash-basin with two ancient taps. He used a cut-throat shaving razor which he held in a curious manner in his left hand. He sharpened the razor on a leather belt which made a “swishing” sound and that was fastened on the back of the chair. This shop was always full of customers of all races who waited their turn for a haircut sitting on old dark wooden benches.

Photo by istolethetv

Photo by istolethetv

Another memory of the Indian suburb is the Hindu Festival. We kids stood in the crowd waiting for the big cart full of delicious colorful fruit, which was pulled by devotees with hooks pierced on their backs. After we had seen the cart go past, we would run forward to the corner of the street and wait for the same cart, just to see the poor devotees and their suffering faces again. After that we would run to the field where the Indian men walked across eight meters of red hot coals and then run to a pit full of milk to cool their feet down. Although this Festival was a religious event for Indian people, it represented for us only a show full of colors and curious things.

Photo by Marshini

Photo by Marshini

Last but not least the Indian Suburb offered you the opportunity to eat a real delicacy late at night. A cart sold the so called Bunny Chow, a typical fast food snack consisting of a hollowed out loaf of bread, filled with curried meat, potatoes and other vegetables. This was sometimes so hot and spicy that we had to drink milk to be able to breathe. We found the milk outside of one of the many houses that had milk delivery service, which means that in the evening a truck brought the bottles of milk which were left on the front door. When we ate Bunny chow, the families near the cart were lucky if in the morning they found any milk.

These are only a few examples of why I liked the Indian Suburb so much and I often wonder: “Is the Bunny Chow cart still there”?

About Mauro

I am a scribbler of my far away memories. I am Italian and when I was little I landed up with my family in South Africa, where I remained until I was 22 years old. Then I came back to Italy, where I live. Writing life stories about myself and to share them with who desires to read them, helps me to tackle the hardships of life! [Read More]


  1. Interesting story, Mauro! It brings back memories for me too. I remember my dad and uncles used to eat Bunny Chow sometimes when I was a kid, but I never tasted it. I would always order a bacon and banana toasted sandwich with a Creme Soda float instead!

    I never knew about the Hindu Festival in Pietermaritzburg – it sounds fascinating, but I’m glad I never saw it. I saw photos of the adepts with hooks in their backs when I was looking for photos for this story, and I think I would have fainted if I saw that in real life!

  2. This is one of my most vivid and favorite memories of our days as innocent kids having fun in the Indian downtown. What excitement it was to visit all those quaint little shops and the best of all was that even at our young age we could bargain with the store owners to get anything at a good price. I ate bunny chows by the dozens every week when I worked as a policeman in that city. Specially the cold winter nightshifts weren’t complete without a bunny chow three o’clock in the morning! And how many times didn’t Mauro and I visit the bunny chow cart on our fifties. Man, where are those days!

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