The last couple weeks have been filled with preparing for – and starting – the new school year. You know … my actual work here. And though my work can be an adventure unto itself, I know you’ve been waiting with baited breath for the continuing saga of my travels last month.
On Thursday, 13 December, with three other Volunteers and our Peace Corps driver, I traveled northwest most of the day through the rolling, green hills of KwaZulu Natal, ultimately to Pretoria in the Gauteng province of South Africa. Holly had her transportation to her final destination all worked out with the folks she was staying with, so after dropping her off, Sharon, Linda and I were dropped at the Khayalethu guest house/backpackers. Even though it was still within the daylight hours of the early evening, we knew it would be best to spend the night in Pretoria. We figured there would be no transport to get us to our respective destinations in Mpumalanga that evening – at least not anything particularly safe. And, PCVs aren’t supposed to travel at night anyway, especially alone.
It turns out Khayalethu is something of a Peace Corps hangout. They have a restaurant with an outdoor, wood-fire pizza oven, private rooms and dorms with lots of beds, inexpensive nightly rates, and freshly cooked breakfast included. (This sounds like a commercial now.) Since there is still a decent number of Volunteers in South Africa I haven’t met and we were now officially in the “festive season” (as many in South Africa refer to it), it was no surprise to me that throughout that evening I was introduced to lots of folks from the three previous Peace Corps groups: SA-23, 24, and 25. I met Roy, Fran, Joey, Barb, Sean, Stacey and close to a dozen others whose names I had forgotten nearly as quickly as they were told to me.
Linda, Sharon and I ate some good pizza together. They decided to turn in for the evening, but I stayed behind to listen to Roy sing and play some tunes on his acoustic guitar for the crowd of mostly (if not entirely) American people on the patio. After some music discussion, I played a little on Roy’s guitar and he told everyone that was listening some hilarious stories. However, as more beers were opened, the discussion around the table I was sitting at took a turn for the pseudo-intellectual about religion and politics and I thought it better not to get involved. (Ideas I agreed with were well represented, but the whole conversation had an uncomfortable air about it.) For a moment, I forgot I was on another continent. It was the same type of beer-fueled conversation you could hear at any bar in America.
Of course, it isn’t as if Americans have cornered the market on bullshit. I’m sure it was the same type of bar-talk you’d hear anywhere in the world. This bar-talk just happened to have American accents – very familiar to me, but something I hadn’t heard in six months.
Add to that the smell of cigarette smoke. I was surprised at how many of these volunteers smoked, especially considering how half of them aren’t education volunteers, but are in the CHOP program (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Program) – volunteers here to help Africans get healthy. I don’t believe anyone in SA-26 is a habitual smoker, and that is convenient for me as a non-smoker who has lived in parts of the US where smoking in public places has been banned for a considerable amount of time.
I made my exit from the party and found my place in what I believe to be the largest of the dorm rooms there. I had a top bunk of a bunk bed in a room sleeping around 20 American volunteers. Linda was quite certain that they put us all in the same room on purpose. As the evening continued, other volunteers made their way to their beds, most of whom I did not know. Everyone was respectful of keeping it quiet, and it felt very safe.
The next morning I had a great breakfast (quiche, muffins and coffee) with Linda and Sharon. Linda, who had spent a decent amount of time in Pretoria already due to some medical issues and knows her way around, guided me and Sharon on a little trip around the Hatfield area of Pretoria on foot. At a nearby mall, I helped Sharon purchase an adapter for a Mini-SD card, I got some cash from an ATM, and Linda grabbed some things from a drugstore. We were ready to depart Pretoria. We went back to Khayalethu to gather our bags and arrange a taxi to the bus station.
The Marabastad bus station is a main hub for the PUTCO (Public Utility Transport Corporation) busses that run in and out of Pretoria for all the neighboring communities that have folks commuting to the city. When we arrived, I instantly recognized this was quite possibly the most dangerous place I’ve been to yet in South Africa. Of course, since the three of us were headed to different communities, we had to split up.
Luckily, I found the line for the bus I needed rather quickly. The luck here comes from the fact that there are no signs posted to tell you which line is for the bus you need – you just have to start asking, and hope you can trust the information you’re given. And they weren’t really in anything resembling a line; people were gathered in highly unorganized crowds, next to what looked like the bars of the nice mazes that keep people in lines for a roller coaster. Of course, there was no security to be found to even attempt to keep any order to the queues.
I saw a young man in an official-looking cap, and he had a badge pinned to his chest that read ZCC. I thought he looked official enough for me to ask a question. I confirmed with him that it was the line for the bus to Watervaal – the community in Mpumalanga where I stayed for Peace Corps Training. He then pointed me in the direction of the ticket window to buy a ticket for the ride.
On my way to the ticket window, which was on the other side of the bus station (naturally), I was warned by complete strangers – on two separate occasions – that the place was dangerous and it wasn’t safe for me there. Apparently, my skin color was enough for them to feel concern for me. While I was waiting in line at the ticket window, I saw Sharon walking past the ticket lines, with a less-than-confident look on her face. I called for her to come stand in the line I was in. It appeared to me that she was by herself, but she later revealed to me that she was following someone who told her she should follow them to get her ticket. She thinks now that she may have been being led to a less conspicuous place for this person to rob her, or something worse. Even if that wasn’t what was about to happen to her, it was clear to me that she was passing the place where I knew she needed to be: the ticket counter.
When I got to the ticket clerk, I explained to her where I was going. She seemed apprehensive to sell me a ticket. She told me several times from behind her protective glass and iron bars that the place wasn’t safe, particularly for me, and that I should be very protective of myself and my luggage. The ticket was 39 rand – approximately $4.50 USD – which is really cheap for the distance I was traveling. I instantly understood why so many people were there; low cost, direct transportation + big South African city + Friday + holiday season = hordes of people. She was still exclaiming concerned warnings as I walked away from the counter.
With my ticket, I went back to wait in the mob of people going to Watervaal. I stood next to Harry, the young gentleman in the cap and badge, plus a pregnant lady and her friend. Harry informed me that the bus we were expecting for a noon departure was sent off empty due to a mechanical problem. I knew we would be waiting a while.
While we waited, I learned from Harry that ZCC stands for Zion Christian Church and the cap and badge are an easy way for them to identify each other in public. I explained to him how this is confusing to an American seeing him at a bus station. Luckily, he is a polite, bright, and helpful guy who speaks English (very well) and didn’t think twice about helping me when I approached him out of the blue.
The replacement bus came at 1:00 pm. After seeing the fighting to get on that bus, which Harry and the ladies we were waiting with refused to participate in, I started to mentally prepare myself for what to expect when the next bus arrived.
The next bus arrived at 2:00 pm. I’m not sure, but by that time I figured Sharon and Linda had long since departed for their respective communities. Since it was likely this was the last bus going to our destination that day, we would be forced to fight our way on to it. In all fairness, we should have been first on for how long we waited, but as there were no proper queues (and no one to enforce them if there were), we had no choice.
I had intended to double check the safety of all of my things before boarding the bus. However, the mob of people stampeded the door of the bus before it even came to a complete stop. It was particularly disheartening to see an elderly woman knocked aside and no one giving a second thought to pushing themselves in front of a pregnant woman.
In my haste to make sure I would have a seat on the bus, I failed to properly secure the stuff in my pockets. My suitcase in my right hand was pressed against my wallet in my right front pocket, but my bus ticket in my left hand made my BlackBerry in my left front pocket vulnerable to theft.
Of course, it was stolen.
I didn’t even realize it was picked from my pocket until I went to put my ticket stub in my pocket after the driver had punched it. I’ve been pushed around in a crowd before, but never with a backpack on and a heavy suitcase in my hand. To the credit of the bystanders around me, they immediately tried to help me locate the phone by calling my number. The thief must have already shut it off, because their calls went directly to my voicemail. We all knew that it was quite likely the thief was sitting amongst us.
Because there were more people on the bus than really should have been allowed (if you ask me), I ended up sitting on my suitcase in the aisle about three-quarters of the way to the back of the bus. Harry was standing in front of me. Ndumiso, an acquaintance of Harry’s, was sitting adjacent to us, and I talked to the two of them nearly the whole ride.
I believe this ride would normally take about two hours. Due to traffic and stops to let people off along the way, the journey took until after 6:00 pm – over four hours! Harry was nice enough to travel with me the entire trip, even though his community was two or three stops ahead of mine.
From where we got off the bus, it was more than a half-mile walk to the home of my host family. I was to call them when I got there, but without my phone, I was also without their numbers (which were all stored in the phone). The lesson here is to have phone numbers written down in a different place from your phone in the event your phone is stolen.
So, I would just have to show up. Harry walked with me. Along the way, kids who remembered me from my student-teaching at the nearby primary school came out to the road to greet me. After having your phone stolen and a hellishly uncomfortable ride sitting on a suitcase for four hours, it was nice that people were so excited to see me.
There was still enough daylight to see that Mama, Baba, and Mandisa were outside and saw me coming up the street. Jaki also saw me from the nearby tavern, and before I knew it, they were all greeting me in the road and helping me and Harry with our bags. But one person was conspicuously absent: Abegail, my host sister.
We made it into the house and I quickly realized something else was conspicuously absent: electricity.
I introduced Harry and explained everything that had happened to me that day. They explained that the power company was somehow trying to extort money from them, but I’m still kinda’ fuzzy on those details. Harry called a friend to pick him up where the bus had dropped us, and as it was getting dark, we started to walk that way.
On our way, we met Abegail – she was on her way back from a temporary job she picked up, working security at the two-day Mpumalanga Traditional Music and Dance Festival. She walked with us the rest of the way and helped Harry on his way with his transportation to his home.
I was ridiculously hungry by this point, with my last proper meal being breakfast. We walked back to the house for a great dinner (considering it was cooked with a kerosene burner that kinda’ stunk up the house) that was illuminated by two candles.
I had enough battery power on my laptop to jump online and figure out the protocol to report my phone stolen to Vodacom (my wireless carrier), and to let other folks know of my current phone-less situation via Facebook. I also took a moment to change all the passwords for the stuff I had programmed on the phone, in case the thieves were clever enough to hack into it. Then I showed my gracious hosts a bunch of photos of everything I had been up to since I left training.
With so much excitement packed into one day, I was happy to safely and comfortably go to sleep in the bedroom of what was my home for over six weeks just a few months earlier. Even though without electricity, it was familiar – and a lovely sort of homecoming.
I was looking forward to a low-key weekend. After all, I had to mentally prepare for the journey back to KZN. What adventures would be in store for me this time?
To be continued …