In the mid-1990s, while many South Africans were returning home from exile, Adam Levin was developing itchy feet and turning the other way. Of his life in Johannesburg, he wrote: ‘I am growing weary of life in this jungle. This savage hunting for money and things … it is time to walk again. To walk till my feet turn a tar road back to dirt.” This led him on his Wonder Safaris, through 20 African countries, in search of what it means to be an African. It restored his ‘miracle eye”, and changed his life.
As he moved through Senegal and Morocco and Zanzibar, it didn’t enter his mind that less than a decade later he would be immobilised by Aids — that the journey would turn inwards, and he would need to learn to walk all over again. In his Aid-safari — which is the joint winner, with Edwin Cameron’s Witness to Aids, of the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for 2006 — he describes this as ‘a terrified crawl from the door of death back into the great wide world of life”.
‘It’s a weird irony for me,” he says, ‘in that when I published Wonder Safaris I’d finally achieved my dream, which was to be able to go wherever I wanted. That gave me the credibility to keep travelling and walk the journeys that I wanted to make my life about. And at that point I physically couldn’t walk. So it did force me to think about different journeys. I stressed in Aidsafari how far one can walk without leaving.”
Levin has spoken out vociferously about the silence that perpetuates the stigma attached to Aids in South Africa, and I wonder what he thinks of the way the late, acclaimed travel writer Bruce Chatwin mythologised his illness and subsequent death from Aids in 1989 — exoticising it and claiming that he had contracted a rare blood disease after being bitten by a bat in China.
‘It’s a hard one,” says Levin, ‘because Chatwin’s really one of the people who set me walking. I remember reading What Am I Doing Here? and Utz, and him and [VS] Naipaul are really the people who made me want to be a travel writer. It was a different time, but I do think he was quite calculating.”
Levin is now healthier: ‘Rehabilitated to a point where I can travel again,” he says. In recent months he’s been to Thailand and India, of which he says: ‘That’s just so rewarding for me, and such a relief that I can do it. I can’t do it the way I used to. But I did rattle around Rajasthan. Where I used to just hop and skip around any foreign city before, now I had to be driven up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur. But still, what an amazing prize to be able to walk around something.”
One of the cruellest symptoms of Aids is neuropathy, a disease that causes the feet to be numb but, paradoxically, in constant pain. About 35% of HIV-positive people are affected by neuropathy.
‘I got to a point where I realised that the pain is there constantly, whether I walk or whether I lie in bed. So what the hell. Being immobile, psychologically the pain takes over. Basically, at this point exercise helps, because it stimulates the production of endorphins — the body’s natural painkillers — but it also helps psychologically. That spirit of independence, you know. You walk on your own. Whether it’s to the bathroom, or through the desert, I think it’s part of defining your existential reality and affirming it in the process.”
Even when he could walk quite easily, though, Levin rarely walked around Johannesburg. ‘I’d walk down the street, or to the shop or whatever, but no … It was more the adventure of arriving in a new place. It was always standard for me, because of my fascination with maps, I’d arrive at 11 at night and I’d go out to get my bearings, walking to make sense of the geography of the place.”
Of course walking at 11 at night in Johannesburg is not an option. ‘Jo’burg is also very class-bound,” Levin reflects. ‘And I think danger is one of the factors that plays into that.”
‘A great walking memory for me is New York,” Levin recalls. ‘I think that was my greatest experience of liberty, to be able to hop on a subway and then walk that city, which is walkers’ paradise. There you have these really wealthy people who’d never dream of owning a car. And then there’s walking, which is usually associated with poor people, as a daily routine of the wealthy.”
But he admits he did feel vulnerable walking in Harlem. ‘I was missing Africa, so I moved up there, and I’ve never felt so alienated: there’s no bullshit with black Americans. There isn’t the kind of politeness that we have here. And walking in Harlem was very dangerous. Just getting from my house to the subway was scary. All the more so in drag! But I did it.”
When it comes to walking, rhythm, he reckons, is key: ‘In New York everyone has an iPod, or a Discman, because you’re alone, on the subway or whatever. So there we all sit with our separate rhythms beating, and walking to our separate rhythms. I defined three kinds of rhythms — the one of all our memories, all our songs that have carried us so far; what we currently listen to; and then what will take us forward. I’ve always got to have an anthem of the moment, that I play to death.” Currently his anthem is Lord Raise Me Up by the ‘reggae rapping rabbi”, Matisyahu. ‘At first I thought it sounded like a gimmick,” he says, ‘but his songs are wonderful.”
Levin has been remarkably productive over the past few years, publishing three books (The Art of African Shopping in between The Wonder Safaris and Aidsafari) with another, on the history of dress in South Africa, forthcoming next year. But he insists that he is ‘prolific by default, because I’m a lazy ass! When I get an idea, though, I get very excited and I get things going.
‘There I was,” he recalls, ‘unable to get out of bed, and I suddenly found myself as ‘the country’s top fashion writer’, crawling to fashion shows. That was very important to me because I wanted to be not only about Aids.
Currently he is organising an ‘urban runway as part of fashion week, in July, which again will be individuals promenading. And it’s real people, it’s not models, and we’re doing castings based on individual style. That thing of the catwalk and the promenade, I think there’s something very powerful in that. There’s an irreverence to it, as well.
‘What’s interesting there for me is the cycle from street as inspiration, to catwalk, back to the streets. So in this show I want to have celebrities, grannies, hobos, young punks, to really reflect Jozi’s style. I think that’s key for the Fashion District, but street fashion is always much more exciting to me than ready-to-wear collections. How people customise their clothes, and then communicate something to the universe as they walk. Urban identity is powerful, and street style is key. I think clothing is very intimate and very political, because what touches our skin is so close to us. And what we wear subconsciously says so much to the universe, as we parade about.
‘The thing that I live for,” he concludes ‘is my fear of missing out. I know there are more surprises, and even right now there are more things hanging and possibilities, and that’s why I get up in the morning. And that is truly what drives me, and probably why I made it, because I feel very hard done by if exiting things happen and I’m not there for it.”
Andie Miller is currently working on a collection of essays on walking