5 years ago

On the Road | Musina, South Africa

Nearly three months have passed since I arrived in South Africa. I am minutes away from heading north, to Zimbabwe.

Two slow-moving overnight trains, three Gautrains, one hot, packed, long-distance bus, and innumerable Ubers have moved me across this land. Mostly, thought, I’ve been behind the wheel.

Stuck on the wrong side of the gate
Google maps + missing a sign led to a lot of backtracking on really bad forestry roads.

Car rentals are affordable here, and truly the best way to enjoy South Africa, where distances are vast and ain’t nobody got time (or patience) to deal with young gap-year Brits & Aussies on the Baz Buz. I’ve generally paid $10 to $13 a day; the $20 for each of my last two days here was the most. But at least that came with my one and only free upgrade, which got me from a Hyundai i10 to an i20. #Winning

When the roads are good, they are great and make you completely forget you’re in Africa. When they are bad and exclamation point road signs repeatedly remind you to beware of potholes, they are terrible, and help you remember you’re in Africa. Tolls are reasonable, too.

And while I wish I could say that the little Chevy Spark I had for nearly a month was the worst I had to deal with, it wasn’t. I ended up with several uncomfortably odd and audibly terrible Datsun Go sedans; one in such a horrid shade of blue that I couldn’t help but laugh along with the other drivers who did, bemused.

My first rental
My first rental. Tiiiny trunk.
My embarrassing blue Datsun Go.
My embarrassing blue Datsun Go.

I truly enjoyed the freedom that came with having my own ride, and although I did get it to 160 km at one point, I was only pulled over once. And that was when I was going 20 and the unequivocally bored police officer on foot simply wanted someone to chat with for 10 minutes. He let me proceed without addressing a single traffic or car related matter.

Behind the wheel, from JHB to the top of Kruger, Nelspruit, the Garden Route, Cape Town, the winelands, and Mapungubwe, I saw amazing animals and incredible landscapes, listened to a few books (shoutout to the Seattle Public Library!), loudly perfected lyrics on songs I didn’t quite have down, and witnessed one gut-wrenching tragedy.

I also did something which, for some, cast doubt on my sanity: I picked up hitchhikers.

On my long-distance drives, I tried to pay the universe back for all the kindness I’ve received from strangers on this trip. Most did it for free, and several without me even requesting a ride, so it was only right that I do the same for someone in need now that I had the opportunity to.

With an unemployment rate at around 27%, there is no shortage of locals, mostly impoverished blacks, on the side of major freeways and desolate roads, achingly trying to thumb their way to their next destination. Yet, I’m no angel nor an Uber. I’ve driven by far more people than I’ve even thought about picking up. Sometimes because I’ve had passengers who were opposed to the idea. Others because I saw them too late. Often simply because I was selfish and wanted to just keep doing my thing, alone.

Of course, I took precautions. I’m a realist, and neither naive nor stupid, although the RSO at the U.S. Embassy may have thought so. I only did it during the day, and primarily offered rides to the elderly and mothers, although I did pick up a few guys. That reads wrong, but you know what I meant.

Despite English being the primary tongue here, language and mutual understanding was an issue. One time, I was driving a woman who mentioned she was going to an interview in a nearby town. When I approached the T-junction at which I had to go left, I asked how much further she had to go to the right. She said 3 kilometers, so there was no way I could leave her 2 miles short of her destination. Unfortunately, I heard wrong. She said 30. Really sweet woman with four kids, one of whom died in May. I hope she got the job.

Having three generations of a single family in my tiny car was cool. The eldest said nothing, the baby cried, and whatever was in the bucket was pungent and left a ring in the back seat. The woman in the passenger’s seat was so massive that her stomach was squeezed behind the glove compartment and her breasts rested partially on the dashboard, with her hands on top. I didn’t have the heart to ask her to put her seatbelt on so that the car would stop ding-ding-dinging. It would have been a physical impossibility, anyhow. Thus, we ding-ding-dinged all the way to their town. They were quiet, but nice, and sent me off with a torrent of blessings.

On my way back from Durban & the Drakensberg, I picked up two men. The younger one was in college and heading home after the violent tuition raise protests precluded him from getting to class. The older one was quiet for a while. After I dropped off the student, he opened up.  He also opened up what I thought was a milk carton. It wasn’t.

The stench of sorghum beer stings the nostrils. I asked him not to drink in the car (as it was 10 a.m.), and he tried to put it away quickly. However, he was too drunk to do so without spilling a sizable amount on the seat and floor. 15 minutes later, after sharing a few laughs, I dropped off my drunk Zutu friend near his township. But the smell of his beverage went with me all the way to Pretoria. Despite my best efforts to clean & refresh the car before returning it, I was charged a cleaning fee by Avis. Expensive lesson learned.

Me & my drunken Zutu hitchhiker
Ah, good times. Bad smells.

I ran into a safety conundrum once, after slowing down to pick up a mother and 7-month old baby boy. Her friend, whom I didn’t see, and her 1-year old joined, too. There we were, going 120; me buckled up while my passenger breastfed the little one with reckless abandon. I asked her to buckle up and turned off the passenger’s airbag. The crying kid in the back made, and left, a mess of cheetos in the back seat. But the mom had her hands full, so I tried to be understanding.

It’s hard not to be. I have a mom. And I miss her.

A quiet, scared Zimbabwean kid asked me for a job. He was enthusiastic, positive, and willing to do whatever job. He even showed me his tattered passport to prove he was legal and old enough to do well. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that and, unfortunately, I had to give him the same, utterly unhelpful answer I gave the others. I had nothing for him.Despite all the warnings, the disapproval, the risk, nothing bad ever happened to me or my car, minus a few dirty seats.

Selfishly, it felt good and put a smile on my face to be able to do something nice for strangers. It also left me pensive. Ever after providing a ride, there’s a certain feeling of helplessness that doesn’t escape you. You wish could do more.

Nonetheless, you do what you can and hope it helps, however insignificant the gesture.

Their quiet discomfort, stories, laughter, frustration with Zuma, and jobless desperation, were a very South African experience; much of it a stark contrast to my joyous outdoor outings and fun fillets and beers.

It was another reminder of how incredibly fortunate I am to be doing what I am doing. And that even with the threat of TrumPotus, living in the U.S. is a privilege.

Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

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