Vanity Is The New Black …

When Gorgeous George briefed me on this piece – and I was warned against being a “rock star” in this self-portrait for this creative lifestyle magazine. That was quite a request; it’s been so difficult to get out of my marketing persona and delve deeper into me and expose the inner-most journey of my travels. So here I stand, naked, before you to share the true voyage I experienced.

For those that don’t know me or why I’m contributing to the travel issue of Studio83, I am Akona – not the rugby player – Ndungane. Once upon a time, I travelled across the globe on a Smirnoff-sponsored creativity and originality hunting expedition. Commissioned to explore the world’s party capitals in search of the best of the best when it comes to nightlife, music, drinking cultures, and find out how the world parties. I’m back from the whirlwind tour of 34 cities, and life has just begun.

After hearing or reading about the tour through various channels, most people would ask “so how was the world?” What a question. It started with me answering this question with exactly what their eyes told me they wanted to hear. With all the press conferences, TV, radio, newspaper and magazine interviews I had been groomed to give just the right answers with a bit of personality, to excite and inspire people. For example, I knew exactly how to tell someone about the raw sexiness of Brazilian women; the glide of the Russian women; and the free-spirited women of Spain when asked about the most attractive women of the world. Asked about the gay scene, not only would I tell them about the clubs and cultures, but I would also go into a detailed comparison between the crazines and absolute escapism of Pride parade in Paris, France, versus the controlled extravanganza that took place in Montreal, Canada.

Who would have thought that the best place to shop is Buenos Aires, Argentina; with small designer boutiques, high-end fashion houses and outdoor markets all in close range and easy to get to. How the tango is not only a dance of desire, but also a desperate desire to be loved – the conversation between the man and the woman so intimate and intense. The streets, halls and clubs are filled with people speaking with their bodies to the beat of the live bands serenading their ears. I would tell how KFC in China is the best there ever was, and tastes nothing like anywhere else – juicy and spicy. The blooming trees of Tokyo take your breath your way in spring. Russians really do know how to party. And so it would go; the tailored answers for what one wanted to hear.

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I was often asked what the best parties were like, and where. Having to pick from the many experiences would be a brain exercise of note, but I would describe partying on the London Underground transport system on the circle line (the yellow one on the map), and how you had to get into the right cart, drink and dance, with excitement and sweat in the air, compounded with the fear of getting caught by the authorities. Or, how in Berlin there would be illegal parties that you only found out about a few hours before; people would hand you a flyer with the location – if they thought you looked cool enough – and the masses would party up a storm in an abandoned warehouse somewhere>. Not knowing what to expect, you went for mystery and secrecy of it all. New York surprised me with a party right inside the Museum of Natural History (where they shot the movie Night at the Museum). How could I leave out drinking cocktails out of teapots at The World Bar in Sydney, Australia? Or dressing up like animals and painted in zebra, cheetah and lion designs at an Old Zoo in Ibiza, Spain? There were just so many fun and downright mind-blowing experiences.

For the celeb-lovers, hearing about meeting Kelis, Nas, Pharrel, Eve, Q-tip, Kanye, Little Louie Vega and all that, would be their slice of heaven. So while reciting the perfect verses to whet appetites, it all started to become larger than life. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t relate to people, because the tour was really overwhelming, and the more I spoke about it, the more it felt like I was bragging. So I dimmed my light, and played the whole thing down. It got worse when I just couldn’t tell people what they wanted to hear; I wanted to share my own feelings and not just the fun parts. I thought no one would be interested in hearing that I got my first and only tattoo, of Africa, because I was missing home and felt like I had lost my grounding.

In a previous interview with Studio83 about the trip, I said “my pride is something I’ve held onto, and that I’ve learnt to embrace my uniqueness, which was about taking with me everywhere I went what I thought made me the best African representative or, as some call it ‘African Ambassador’ – considering I was probably the first African some people had ever met”. As much as this was a positive role for Africa and my country, it came to bite me in the ass later. After 13 months as an ambassador for a brand and a continent, the weight bears heavy as at times I had to sacrifice a bit of myself to fulfil roles. Now here I am rebuilding the self, with all that I learnt and saw, carving myself today into a being stronger and more powerful than yesterday. Relearn what I mean to myself after being bombarded with so much new information in the form of people, places, cultures and so on, I am a new person in more ways than I ever thought. My love of Africa and being an African went through it’s own roller coaster. ride. People who have been outside the continent will also tell that you always bear the pride and burden on your shoulders. It is exhilarating and exhausting, and humbling to the end.

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It was at times very difficult being aware of people watching me. Not sure what to make of this bald African queen roaming the streets. Some would be subtle in their intrigue, others ourightly taking pictures, which was quite funny. Like being black in Moscow… it’s strange. It’s as though people have never seen chocolate skin. Ben and I got some of the weirdest looks; people took pictures of us and asked if they could take pictures with us. People driving would stare for the longest time, a bit longer than a driver should keep their eyes off the road. Some people looked like they wanted to take a bite of us, to taste if we really were made of chocolate. The closest to celebrity for me!

The country-hopping lifestyle isn’t for everybody, but it was an amazing time in my life. Being home and sleeping in the same bed for longer than a month has been strange. Walking into a party and knowing more than half the room, and understanding the language has been comforting and interesting. I am so grateful for being a South African, for the early understanding of interacting with different cultures and people, so the intensity with which I absorbed the newness of the world was much easier. I’ve learnt that in everything, you must do you. Write your own script because each and every one of our lives is our own movie set in far-off places and locations that have everything you love in your life. Book your own flight and soar in your heart and mind. Create your own exploration plan, but also get lost in the art of living you. Get out of your comfort zone – don’t just ask how the world was, go to it yourself. Open yourself to the possibilities that travel offers. Discover yourself outside of everything you know. I am asked, now what?

My plan is to take my passions of marketing, fashion and travel, by fusing them – I want to challenge industries and create experiences. I just know I have already lived a big part of my life’s dreams and am now working on new dreams.

Writer: Akona Ndungane        Photographers: Des Tak,Judd van Rensburg      Art Director: George Gladwin Matsheke       Stylist: Mpumi Ntintili-Sinxoto      Make-Up: Diana K Maphapho

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