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FIRST TIME SOUTH AFRICA

August 17, 2015

FIRST TIME SOUTH AFRICA

I had been in South Africa before. The first time was with my wife, while doing research for my thesis on internet in developing countries. This time I was on my own. Following our travels through Portuguese speaking Africa I wanted to go and look for a job in Mozambique, and South Africa is where the cheapest flights would land coming from Europe. After all, I had talked to some people, met others and had uncomfortably held hands for about thirty minutes with one of the bosses at the universities IT department, so a job would be easy to get. My wife wasn’t too happy with my decision to take six weeks off and explore the opportunities.

As I was preparing for our future and had no laptop, I decided to bring my full sized computer and monitor with me. It weighed a ton, and since I didn’t want it returned to me in pieces, I took it as hand luggage. Pretending to carry something light, while the sports bag strap dug itself into my shoulder ever further was something I would just have to endure.
I managed to safely pass the baggage control and into the plane in Amsterdam and only had my next flight from Rome to Johannesburg to worry about. Or so I thought. The Alitalia plane supposed to leave from Rome didn’t because of technical problems. After eight hours waiting and only a bottle of water to get by, with lots of complaining and shouting as Italians do so well, they drove us to an expensive hotel at 2 am, where I emptied part of the mini bar. Only three hours later, we were woken up again, with people missing who were either sleeping or never got to sleep and decided to explore Rome by night.

Early morning customs officers, especially in Italy, tend not to be the nicest persons, so when slugging my “hand luggage” through customs, which I only had to do because of the stupid delay and few hours of sleep, they decided to check my bags. I don’t know if it was my Italian sweet talking or the lack thereof, or the fact that they grew tired of me asking them to explain the difference between a laptop and a computer, since both devises performed the same tasks, but they let me go eventually.

Once over Africa, I wondered what the heck I was doing, flying to a country far away, looking for a job and adventure, but decided it was better to catch up on some sleep that I had missed the night before.

Flying through South Africa, I stayed with my mother-in-law’s cousin in Johannesburg who was married to the regional director of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a great Christian and welcoming couple who had lived in Africa most of their lives. On my second day, whilst preparing for my trip to Mozambique, he asked me over dinner whether I would like to go with him in a Cessna, doing a trip over Johannesburg. Not one to miss out on an adventure, I gladly accepted the offer. What he had failed to tell me however, was the minor detail that was this was a test flight for the said plane. They had received a new second-hand plane from the States and this would be to check whether the thing was any good at fulfilling its meaning in life and would actually fly. About halfway through the flight, they turned off the engines and we dropped what felt like a kilometre. With my heart now pounding in my throat, I tried to ask in an as non-scared shitless voice as I managed, whether this little part of the test was to be done more than once. Much to my relief the pilot confirmed this was to be only once, and the engines did turn on again before a stall. I kind of enjoyed the rest of the flight, looking down on Johannesburg. A thick layer of brown smog originating from people trying to warm their houses in the settlements, contrasting with a wonderful early morning sun amidst a cold winter.

Not being very sure whether there would be any other flight test surprises, I was very happy to be landing and standing on the ground once more, like us mortal humans are supposed to.

I needed a car if I was going to get to Mozambique. I looked around and found a garage selling a beetle (Volkswagen). I wasn’t sure about the state of the funny looking beast, so had a test drive. It seemed to start, drive, turn and stop, so that was ok. It was a bright yellow, with very wide oversized tires and NO FEAR written on the sides. I liked it. All I had to do was pay for it with all the money I had left and register it to my name.

Any new owner must go through a road worthiness test, even in South Africa, so I booked a time and showed up only to be told the car was not roadworthy. I experienced what confirmed the verdict they had passed as I approached a red light on a busy crossover,where despite all my pumping the brakes, the car had different ideas all together. I drove through the red light, or robot as they call a traffic light in South Africa, avoiding oncoming traffic and taking a long rest by the side of the road once making it to safety. The phrase “watch out Robot ahead” now made sense. I proceeded with driving very slowly back to the garage making sure I could stop by shifting back in gear hundreds of meters before any traffic lights or slower traffic.

The garage wasn’t too happy to see me return, made a fuss about warranty, sold as is, etc. I had no money left, so nothing to lose and also managed to put up a good fight in return. They agreed to fix the brakes and take it through the road worthiness test. They did so a day later. Only thing now left to do was to register the car to my name and get me some new number plates. I wanted to leave for Mozambique to pursue my opportunities and felt I had spent too much time in South Africa already. In a continent where one is to slow down and adapt, I was in quite a hurry.

When I went to the registration office they told me everything was ok, I just needed to go to the Benoni police station (about 20 kilometres from Johannesburg). So go I did. Once there, I was told the vehicle registration numbers didn’t add up. The car was either stolen or papers forged. I didn’t know whether to cry or crazy laugh. Worse still, I called the garage and they didn’t want to talk to the police, and the police didn’t want to talk to the garage. The garage had probably made a deal on the roadworthiness test and didn’t want to get any attention from the authorities. I insisted for about four hours and finally they talked. Turned out that for my road worthiness test they had just used another Volkswagen beetles papers. So my car was “checked” but given the ok with the wrong papers. This also meant that whoever checked the car didn’t check anything at all, but probably got a bit of money to stamp a document.

After almost ten hours at the police station, with nice gospel music playing in the background, buying a bit of lunch consisting of some meat and maize pap from an open air caterer in the backyard and pleading, begging and talking, I got my car back, with the promise of going to the garage the next morning in order to get the right papers. I did, and after five entire days I finally had a car I could actually drive without it killing me or gettingme arrested. I also had the fuel gage fixed, since I found out it stuck at half a tank despite being empty. I discovered this during a drive through Joburg only to find the car was running on empty. This happened to be in Hillbrow, an area of town you don’t want to be, especially if you are a young white man. I had been to, and stayed in Yeoville, but this was an all together rougher area.”They will steal the jam from your sandwich”, is how South Africans describe it. I pulled to the side of the road, and was greeted by people warming their hands over an open fire in a metal garbage bin. The local prostitutes also complimented me on my good looking car and asked if they could have a ride.

Only thing I could think of saying was: it’s not running right know, so I can’t give myself a ride, let alone give you one. I tried to walk confidently, as if to state I wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody and looked for a petrol station. Preferably one at a distance that did not cause me to be mugged or raped. I tried to look like what my car stated, No Fear! I found a station about a block away, much to my relief and happiness.

I bought a bottle of coke, emptied it in the gutter and filled it with 1.5 litres of gasoline, since asking to borrow a container of some sorts was not going to work in this neighbourhood. At least I now had something to put in my tank or throw at a potential mugger. I filled up quickly, still looking very buff and menacing, pretending to know the area and feel right at home, while most likely looking like a scared Dutch dumb ass in a very dangerous and black neighbourhood. I managed to drive to the gas station very happily spending whatever money to fill the tank and drive away.

The next day, I finally managed to head off to Mozambique. At the border, the customs officer asked me to open up the hood of the car, only to be surprised there was no engine but a weird looking thing. I explained it was a computer monitor. He didn’t understand. I explained again. He still didn’t understand. I said it was a TV. This he understood. Surprised by a TV where the engine was supposed to be and an engine where my bags should be, he let me through. Confident that my tires were wider than most of the holes in the road ahead I reached Maputo by nightfall.

The next morning I drove straight to the University only to be told by the manager’s assistant that my friend and potential employer whom I held hands with for an uncomfortable time, had left for the USA for four weeks for a work visit and conference. Bugger. I spent the next weeks trying to make other contacts, dropping my CV and looking for opportunities. But I didn’t manage. This country was much like Portugal in that you don’t just drop a CV and wait for them to give you a call. It would take getting to know people and building a relationship before standing a chance. Although I met some influential people, the time would be too short to get anything meaningful happening. Going back to the Netherlands with unfinished business and a potential “I told you so” from my wife, I managed to leave one day early, planning my arrival with my wife finishing school to go home by train. I managed to track her down and sat one row of seats behind her, only to pinch her neck once she left the train and was walking to the bus. I knew her well enough to know that if I´d pinch her butt I would surely be hit. Even then, the neck was a risk. Her instinct took over, but just before almost slapping me in the face she realized it was her long gone husband.

The beetle I left with my wife´s family in Joburg, who were nice enough to allow me to park it in their garden. When we returned to South Africa and Mozambique two years later, it started without problems, only to blow up the engine with shrapnel all over the road (it was leaking oil before it reached the engine) on a very dangerous stretch of highway. We were very fortunate to have someone offer us a lift to a gas station, where we called a tow truck. The white South African with the tow truck drove us back to our car, showing us his tow trucking injuries from people who had tried to rob him by pretending to be broken down, only to show their guns and try to rob him. He also had two guns ready to be used, so we felt safe. We towed the now stupid #$@”/(! beetle back to a garage, and sold it to twolocal police officers, who liked the wide tires. I only got a receipt, but that was good enough for me.

The tow truck man was nice enough to drive us back the 120 plus kilometres to Johannesburg, where my wife’s surprised family had a laugh when they saw us coming back after going away the same morning, ready to conquer Mozambique. With the money we got from the beetle, we hired a car and drove on the next morning for a second attempt.

The reason we decided to go by car in the first place was because car rental in Mozambique was a very pricey affair, and our first train journey back in 1997 had been a bit of a challenge. It went a little something like this… As students, we spent the night in Pretoria,waiting until it was time to head off to the train station and catch the weekly train toMaputo. I had somehow managed to buy the tickets in advance and we would have our own coach in first class. First class bought you exactly that, some privacy. Finding the correcttrain was challenging enough. Fully loaded with our backpacks causing us to almost fall over backwards, we waited for any announcements on the PA system. They came, in anhardly audible dribble of words, which caused large groups of people to move somewhere else, with us tailing behind just in case it would be an announcement for our train. A couple of hours later and an equal number of running endeavours to another platform, our train finally arrived, way later than then the time table suggested. We sought our carriage and cabin number and settled in for the night. This being our first train journey in Africa, we weren’t sure of what to expect and decided it would be best to lock up and wait for the nightto pass. A couple of hours later, we heard loud noises, shouting and banging coming from the cabin next to us and in the hall. We assumed there might be some robbing and mugging going on. I pulled out my knife, just in case. We opened up the window for some fresh air and have a look at the surroundings at night as well as any indication of trouble. No sooner did I stick my head out of the window or what felt like a fly going hyper speed hit my lip. I wasn’t sure what it was but we quickly pulled up the window and the metal shutters. Hard banging of some object ensued against the metal shutters. We were now pretty sure we were under attack by angry black people trying to get our stuff. I was prepared to put up a good fight.

After a while, the situation seemed to calm down, with us still waiting in anticipation whenthe train stopped in the middle of nowhere. We carefully lowered the window again. After half an hour, two police cars drove up heading towards the train. With police around, we found it safe to investigate what the heck was happening. Once outside the cabin, we saw how an older white Afrikaner man, half drunk, half beaten up was taken away, together with a young ugly white woman. We saw some other white young men and engaged in conversation.

Turned out the white old Boer was in second class, with his young wife. He was drunk and angry and they had a fight. All the black people in the carriage thought this was quite funny. But they tired of him and his shouting and insults against his wife. He pulled down his wife´s dress leaving her standing in her undies in front of a laughing crowd. When the drunk became abusive, they told him to get the heck out and stop. The white young men had also been attracted by all the noise and decided to have a look. One of the men had been raised by an abusive drunk father that used to hit his mother, so he didn’t like what he saw one bit. A fight between the old Boer and the younger men ensued. They had managed to punch and kick the Boer into submission and locked him up in the toilet, which as we now saw, was just next to our private quarters. Angry, drunk but strong, the Boer had broken the rigid plastic toilet seat with his hands and had started swinging it around. The high speed fly I had felt and the banging noise afterwards had been him hitting our metal shutters with half the seat. Relieved and tired, we talked some more with the young men as the culprits were taken away by police while still shouting and shouted at by the other passengers. I was happy. It hadn’t been angry black muggers, but a Boer, a descendent of Dutchmen, speaking Afrikaans, a language I could understand, who had been the cause of our stress and bad first night. I had my own people to blame.
After that, apart from the train breaking down somewhere in Mozambique for three hours, we managed to survive the rest, get through border control and set feet in Maputo central station.

By now, we were getting used to strange and unorthodox ways of travelling. Even coming to South Africa had been a challenge. With Air Balkan flying us from Amsterdam to Sofia with a stopover in Vienna. Apparently the flight from Vienna to Sofia was fully booked, butpeople wanted to get on, which resulted in every seat taken and anyone left had no choice but to stand in the isle. The plane took off regardless, with this being the first time I had seen people standing in a plane for the entire one hour trip. The "fasten your seatbelts" sign didn’t make much sense after that. The trip from Sofia to Johannesburg had been better, despite the plane being a sluggish Tupolev and the cabin crew looking like either Borat or an ugly prostitute with enough makeup and lipstick on to paint the entire runway.

The food and drinks were great though and it seemed like the crew wanted to make sure you had enough alcohol in your system to not notice anything else including the five yearold single movie that was played over and over again.

Other forms of questionable transport we used were the Chapas in Mozambique. Nowadays these minivans and pickups are checked for the number of people allowed to be squeezed in. But in the late nineties there were more people than seats in Chapas, so hanging on at the back by your fingers or hanging with half your body out of the van was quite normal. You easily got intimate with your fellow passengers as someone’s butt would be in your face or their bosom in your neck. On a particular day, which we found out was a public holiday; the minivan drivers decided most of them also wanted a day off. We were stuck about 20kilometres from our rented house and wanted to go home after a hot day in town. The chapas were very few with long “queues” of people trying to get one of the few seats or alternative gymnast prone positions. We decided to go for it when the only seats available were on top of the minivan. It was a truck with the back closed up by some tarpaulin on a metal frame.

We climbed up and tried to sit on the metal frame, but managed only to sit on people’s heads trying to hold on to something fixed.

With half the journey done, we were happy to be refreshed by the wind, knowing that although in a precarious situation, we were somehow better off than the ones packed up beneath us on whose heads we were seated. The vehicle stopped. We climbed off after a while. One of the wheels had lost too many nuts and was now in danger of eminent collapse. We decided that this was a bit too much of a death daring call and decided to walk the rest of the way home in the smouldering heat.

By now, we had done dangerous flights, train rides and minivans, we had proven we weren’t sissies.

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