December, 2012 Part III: Traveling In South Africa Is Like a Box of Chocolates – or – Trade Seats, Get a Burger!

02 Feb

As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I heard cheering from inside the main house. Something must be going well for the ZA Soccer team. They are playing right now in Durban, and many of my PCV friends are there. I seriously considered going for the match, but I just can’t get into soccer enough to justify spending the money. All of my American (and non-South African) readers benefit from me not cheering on the “boys” (Bafana Bafana), as I’ve spent this time completing the next installment of what may be the most story-filled month of my life.

When I woke up the morning of Saturday, 15 December, the thought crossed my mind that by being with these people again, I was in someway being rehabilitated of all the luxury I had been experiencing over the previous two weeks and all the commotion of the previous two days. Specifically, I thought of the part of Forrest Gump where Jenny comes to stay with Forrest to kick her drug habit and stop drinking. Not that my situation was nearly that dire, but it felt nice to “hit the reset button” in a safe place with people who were happy to see me.

Mandisa and I walked to the small grocery store around the corner (Pinkies Tuck Shop) for some bread, peanut butter, and cookies (or biscuits, to be South African about it). After breakfast, Mandisa and I prepared to go to day-two of the Mpumalanga Traditional Music and Dance Festival. We were to meet Abegail there, as she was working security there again that day.

It was a much larger production than I was expecting, but it was so hot and sunny that most people sat far from the main stage in the covered bleachers of the small stadium it was being held. The field in front of the stage was vacant, but it was clear that by the night it would be filled with people. I was exhausted most of the day, and at one point I even fell asleep in the bleachers. When it started getting dark, Mandisa and I grabbed a taxi back to the house. As Mama was finishing the preparation of dinner, I shared some of my favorite scenes from Singin’ in the Rain and Swing Time on my laptop. It was cool to have a bit of a cultural exchange after all the African dancing we watched earlier that day.

Abegail and Mandisa at the Music and Dance Festival

Abegail and Mandisa at the Music and Dance Festival

I was then treated to another nice, home cooked dinner (by candlelight). In the middle of dinner, Sabelo, one of the brothers in my family there – and a sometimes resident at the house – walked in and exclaimed he could only see me sitting there because of the color of my skin. We all had a laugh over that as he joined us in our dim dining. Afterwards, with no electricity other than what was stored up on the battery of my laptop, we all turned in for the evening.

On Sunday morning, I was feeling good. I got out of bed, cleaned myself up for the day and made my way outside.

I turned the corner on my way to the toilet, and saw a goat that didn’t belong to the family (as they don’t own any) scrounging around the yard. On my way back from the outhouse, I saw Mandisa washing clothes around the front of the house and let her know about the goat. She picked up a handful of gravel to chorale it out of the yard. (The girl’s got a good arm AND good aim, by the way.) The goat darted through the open part of the gate where it apparently got in.

As I walked with her past their small mango tree, a wasp (or some other kind of biting, flying pest) flew down the back of my shirt through the neck hole and started to bite my back. I let out some surely strange yelps as I ripped off my shirt. Apparently this pest has been a problem in the past for Baba, as he was bit on the face and the ear, which I was told caused him some swelling. Luckily, swelling wasn’t a problem for me. Mama helped me put some anti-itch cream on all the bites. (It was fortunate that I had brought it with me for a mosquito bite I received right before leaving my site over two weeks earlier.)

In the late morning, Abegail accompanied me to a neighboring town that has a rather large shopping center. My plan was to have a temporary replacement phone and a bus ticket on a private bus line from Pretoria to Durban for Monday, and I needed to have these things before heading back to Watervaal.

The phone I bought cost about the equivalent of $15 USD, and to use it feels like stepping back in time – at least from a technological standpoint. But, I was in a tight spot and it was more than adequate. To make it work, all I had to do was insert the SIM card from my 3G modem and I was reconnected to the outside world.

The bus ticket was to be purchased at the Shoprite grocery store. My first choice of bus line and time was already sold out. My next choice was the Intercape bus line, with more stops along the way and a little bit higher cost, but it would have me departing Pretoria at 9:30 and arriving in Durban by 6:00 pm – not perfect, but good enough. I handed over my credit card, signed on the line, and waited for my ticket.

But things weren’t to be that easy. When the lady at the service counter of the grocery store tried to print the ticket I had just purchased, she discovered the ticket printer was not working. I asked her if she knew if my reservation was still in Intercape’s system, and that if she could just print a receipt for me that I could take to the bus station and have my ticket printed there. She looked at me with a blank stare and said “But I can’t print your ticket.”

So, without knowing for sure if I had a reservation for the bus or not, I thought it best to get a refund. But then I still needed to get a ticket. My thoughts: “I can deal with this. Intercape also has online ticket sales. I’ll just go back with Abegail and first thing when I walk in the door, I’ll logon and buy one. No problem.”

She began to process my refund. Because they are a grocery store, they are used to taking returns of merchandise. So she asks me to sign a type of returns ledger that requires all my contact details: address, phone number, etc.

This was the point in which I lost my cool. This lady – as a matter of protocol – was asking me for personal information that she clearly did not need. She didn’t need these details to sell me a ticket, why on earth would she need it to return my money for a ticket she was incapable of producing?

“My address?! You want my address?!?! For what? You didn’t even sell me anything, because YOUR printer doesn’t work! Are you going to track me down when your printer is working again to make sure you get me a ticket?” In the address blank I wrote in large letters “USA”, scribbled my signature, grabbed my return receipt, and walked out.

Of course, this poor lady was taking the brunt of all my frustrations from the past several days just because she was following the steps for processing a return at their store. She had probably seen hundreds of other customers before me that day and was in no state of mind to single out my unique situation. Abegail could tell I was stressed out.

We returned home with only one of the two objectives met. I got back on my computer and quickly secured a reservation for the same bus (a few bucks cheaper, too). Now I just had to figure out how I would be in Pretoria by 9 am the following day. I asked Abegail for her suggestion: “Don’t take the public busses – take a taxi!” Good advice, but then Sabelo pipes up, “Tomorrow is a holiday – there won’t be any taxis or busses.”

My heart sank. This was not what I wanted to hear. But he was right about it being a public holiday that Monday. South Africa celebrates the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December, and because that was a Sunday, it was observed on Monday. I knew this, but didn’t think to make sure public transportation would be in service.

After some more discussion, Abegail suggested I ask Jafta, the eldest brother of the family, to drive me. He was expected to come for a visit later that day as it was, and time permitting, he would take me, Abegail and Mandisa to his house to visit with his wife and kids. That seemed like a good plan. I had never been to Jafta’s house the whole time I was staying with the family during Pre-Service Training. I had only seen some pictures of it and knew that it was very nice, even though still unfinished.

Throughout the day, no one could seem to get ahold of Jafta. I’m sure I was visibly nervous about possibly having wasted money on a bus ticket that I couldn’t get to the bus station for. Mama resorted to calling some people that may or may not have been private taxi drivers … seemingly, anyone she knew of who might be a driver for hire the next day.

I packed my bags as it was getting dark. We ate dinner. We even had dessert. I resigned myself to the fact that Jafta wasn’t coming, and announced as much to the family. I figured I would get up really early and take my chances for finding some kind of transport to Pretoria on my own. Even on a holiday, money would surely talk someone into getting me there. I grabbed the bag of small toys that I brought for Jafta’s kids, and showed them off to the rest of the family by candlelight.

Then, as if out of a movie, we see headlights. Jafta had arrived! I explained to him my situation, and he offered to take me; I was happy to pay him for gasoline and his trouble. Finally, I had a solid plan. (I think Mama had prompted him in an earlier message that I would be asking him, but I’m still not sure. Abegail said it was important that I ask him; in other words, they weren’t going to ask for me. Still, he seemed to know of my predicament before I even started talking.)

As it was so late, Abegail and Mandisa wouldn’t be heading over to visit his house with me. Instead, I would just go to his place to spend the night there so that first thing in the morning, he could drive me to Pretoria.

When we arrived at Jafta’s house, all I could think of was how incredible it is. It looks like a house that a big-time drug dealer would live in on Miami Vice … except it was visibly unfinished in some areas and had no air conditioning (which it really could use), and they seem to have a bit of a mosquito problem.

Jafta’s kids were staying with his wife’s folks for the night, since he and his wife both had to work late that day. (He’s in construction and she’s a nurse.) She prepared a meal for him, and in true South African style, I was given a big ol’ plate of food, too. I told her I already ate, but she insisted. It was delicious, and I ate it all. Of course, it was totally unnecessary, but it’s hard for me to turn down food when the plate is already made up.

In the morning, I was brought a bucket of warm water for bathing. I bathed in a plastic basin, as is my usual custom. However, I was actually bathing in a bathroom and the bucket was sitting where, clearly, a shower is intended to be installed. C’est la vie.

Stranger still, I managed to get no less than seven(!) mosquito bites (or some other kind of insect bite) on the bottom of each of my feet in the process. I didn’t even know it until I was drying them off. That tube of anti-itch cream was again put to good use.

Then, we quickly loaded my luggage into his truck and managed to leave earlier than we planned. (This is a very un-African circumstance.) We were originally allowing for two hours travel time, but left nearly a half hour ahead of schedule. There was very light traffic on the way into Pretoria, I’m sure due to the holiday. However, we passed several public busses on the way, and a handful of taxis. I then felt bad that Jafta had gone out of his way for me, but in an African context, I’m sure he thought nothing of it.

With leaving almost 30 minutes early and traveling in light traffic, I arrived at the bus station shortly after 8:00 am. I didn’t need to be there until 9:00 for a 9:30 departure. I offered to buy Jafta breakfast, but he was eager to get back to Watervaal – I know he had lots of work to do that day.

I confirmed my reservation at the Intercape ticket counter. I was still hoping to get some breakfast for myself, but unlike the Marabastad bus station or any taxi rank I’ve ever been to in South Africa, there wasn’t a hawker to be found (that is, the people who walk around trying to sell food, beverages, cell phone airtime, and various other goods). There was only one restaurant in the bus station and it wasn’t open yet. Being hungry is nothing compared to other travel mishaps I’ve endured recently. So, since I had some time to kill, I called my friend and fellow PCV, Vanessa, and brought her up to speed on the trials and tribulations of my weekend.

Thankfully, the Intercape bus line is run very well. I had a baggage claim ticket for my suitcase, I dealt with very pleasant staff, they had snacks for sale on board (probably why there were no hawkers allowed at the bus terminal), and no problems along the way.

Intercape Bus

Intercape – Go With God … or at least Jesus!

What I wasn’t expecting is that they are a super Christian organization. There were prayers at every stop, christian-themed movies shown throughout the ride and even my fellow-passengers felt the need to bless me.

A guy sitting across from me, who had boarded at a later stop with his family asked if he could trade seats with me, right after I pulled a bunch of things out of my backpack. I guess my body language said it was really an inconvenience for me. He started apologizing right away, and said that he just wanted to sit next to his wife so their toddler son could stretch out on their laps. I said, “It’s okay … we can trade, just give me a moment to collect my things.” He blessed me.

The rest of the ride, he offered me some of whatever he had: cookies, Coke, chips, whatever. I declined. Then we got to a rest stop about lunch time. I went inside to get a burger. He saw me in line and insisted he buy it for me. I let him. He blessed me again. When we stopped in Pietermaritzburg, he and his family got off the bus, but not without him blessing me one last time. But really, how could I complain? Trade seats, get a burger!

Also, towards the last couple hours of the trip, a little girl sitting a few seats up and caddy-corner of me started to play peek-a-boo with me. She reminded me very much of my cousin’s daughter, Olivia. After the stop in PMB, the girl’s mother noticed, and she struck up a conversation with me. She could tell right off that I was American from my accent. There were plenty of open seats by this time, so it was easy for me to move up and sit next to her. Lorraine is a native South African of Indian descent, divorced, two-kids, and English is one of her first languages. It was really nice to actually talk to someone for the last hour or so of the trip.

The bus finally arrived at the station in Durban. I got off, grabbed my suitcase and said goodbye to my new friends.

My plan was to meet up with my friends, George and Eva, who were staying in Durban as part of their holiday time. As they are also PCVs, they were staying on-the-cheap at a backpackers there. George had already given me the address and the number for a taxi. I didn’t need to call for a taxi, though, as there were plenty waiting at the bus station. Apparently these taxi drivers weren’t taking this holiday off, either!

I called George and Eva while en route, and within minutes I was walking up the steps of Surf and the City – an old, large house that was converted to a backpackers’ hostel. I found it really cozy and I would probably stay there again. After telling my friends about all of my adventures from the weekend, the three of us took turns cleaning up for the evening and then we headed to Florida Street for dinner.

On our walk to find a restaurant, Eva suggested an experiment for dinner: we would all attempt to pass ourselves off as being of the upper class of the Southern US, through the use of that specific accent and manner of speaking. Then, we settled on an Italian restaurant. All of the people working there were South Africans, so it seemed as good a place as any for this experiment.

The food wasn’t bad, but it was clear we weren’t in an American Italian restaurant. (No bread served with pasta dishes? What?) We must have been doing okay with our experiment, too, as our server asked us shortly after we sat down if we were from Texas. I declared I was from Greenbow, Alabama. (Forrest Gump was still on my brain, apparently.) Miss Eva quickly said she was from Tennessee, which is true. Then, Mr. George, almost breaking character, said he was from South Carolina. (Keep in mind that George is from California and of Japanese descent.) We must have passed the test, though, because nearly everyone else who worked there – at different points throughout our evening – had a reason to visit our table. I’m pretty sure they just wanted to hear us talk. It was a whole mess of fun, I do declare.

We came back to Surf and the City and ended up having a nice long conversation with a young Australian couple (Tim and Grace) in the living room there. I even got to pick a little on an acoustic guitar that was sitting in the corner. We turned in for the evening with a plan for getting some good coffee with our breakfast in the morning.

The next morning, we did just that. In addition to good coffee, I had a croissant with eggs and cheese, and before long, the accents returned and kept going about 75% of the time we were talking with each other. Later that morning, after Eva and I traded some music and movies on our computers, I was on my way to the taxi rank in Durban called Teachers’ Center (I guess because it is adjacent to a large building that says “Teachers’ Center,” but I’m still unclear as to what happens at a building with such a name).

I was finally on my way back to my home in the Northern part of KZN, cramped with my suitcase and my backpack into one seat of a well-used 14 passenger Toyota Quantum – the gold standard of cheap transportation in South Africa. Nearly six uncomfortable hours later, I was back in my shopping town, and I quickly found a taxi to take me the short distance up the tar road to my village. I dragged my suitcase through the sandy roads all the way to my little house, and breathed a sigh of relief. I was so happy to be home that I knew it truly is my new home.

I had a little under a week to relax at home before I was to be off on my next adventure: back to Durban. But this time, I would be meeting up with other friends, spending time on a beach, and finding time for other entertaining (and sometimes painful) mishaps.

To be concluded …


2 responses to “December, 2012 Part III: Traveling In South Africa Is Like a Box of Chocolates – or – Trade Seats, Get a Burger!

  1. Robin Emrich

    3 February 2013 at 1:41 AM

    great to read your updates, Erik! Enjoying them immensely!



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