Monday, July 5, 2010

more about my journey to Messina

It is said that God watches over fools and small children...

The Monday, June 14, I left for Messina, I sat in my shopping town waiting for the taxi to Pretoria to fill. The first to arrive, I had snagged my preferred seat: the first one directly behind the driver.

On arriving in South Africa, and for a very long time after, I was often irritated at the habit of the taxi filling from front to back, thereby requiring old, large, and infirm ladies to struggle to move to the back of the bus. In my southern upbringing, it was rude to accommodate myself first, so I would move to the back of the bus, even if free seats remained in the front. I’ve since learned that the filling of the bus from front to back is a matter of survival, and in the front, near the driver, one is much safer from being accosted by, well, any undesirable, but my lesson came at being trapped in the very back with three very drunken men. Since that time, I choose my front seat very selfishly and do not relinquish it to anyone.

The Monday of my trip had me waiting in my preferred seat on a taxi and a lady with three young children approached. Her three children, two young sons and a daughter, climbed in that front seat with me. It was clear that the mother would not be making the journey with her children and her smile to me indicated she thought her children would be safe riding to the big city in my care. I thought her crazy and the situation instead much more in line with “the lamb leading the lambs.” She tucked the children in with lunches from KFC, gave their father’s phone number to the taxi driver, and closed the door on us all. We were off to Pretoria.

The daughter sat nearest me and as her English was quite good, we talked a bit. It was one of her brothers that whispered to her that I “looked almost like Michael Jackson.” (I think it was the hat I was wearing to protect me from the hot sun my anti-malarial medication would be making me especially sensitive to. Although, maybe I do look like Michael Jackson…)

I find myself living in the “rainbow nation” of South Africa and find myself as a person of little color living with persons of a variety of color. I’m finding it common, among the people I live, that it is acceptable to talk of others based on these differences. I find myself too, speaking along these same terms, although this kind of distinction in talk is strictly forbidden in America and even among other volunteers. In fact, I’m quite unconscious of it until I realize another volunteer is listening to me speak with a look of horror on his/her face and I’m jolted back into my previous-life’s version of political correctness.

The children—they of black heritage and I, of European heritage, found ourselves in the majority company of passengers with Indian heritage.

The little girl and I shared a conversation about it:

Her: “I’ve never ridden a taxi where there were so many Indians on it. Indian people are either very rich or very poor—they are never normal like we are. My friends think I am rich because my father is a celebrity (apparently, he is a newscaster on a SA news show) but we’re just normal.”

To this I smiled and replied, “I understand. People think I’m rich too, because I’m from America, but I’m just normal.”

I was feeling apprehensive about my journey because I would be using public transportation the whole way. While Peace Corps encourages us to use public transportation, it can be quite dangerous, and people of all colors constantly advise me not to do it. Although my experiences of real danger have not culminated in my personal harm, other friends (volunteers) have been robbed (some repeatedly) and one friend has been in a serious taxi accident. I often feel I am merely waiting my turn…

I had about talked myself out of taking the trip, but prayed about it, and decided to try, knowing that I could stop at any moment and turn around to return.

Getting to Pretoria on a taxi was the first leg of my journey.

On arriving in Pretoria, my next task was asking directions to the Train Station. I had studied the map carefully and even written myself directions knowing I would be overwhelmed and confused upon arriving: Find the corner of this street and that; turn right, walk two blocks, turn right…

I stumbled off of the taxi, having traded seats with the youngster sitting nearest the door (it hadn’t closed properly and he was frightened about falling out) and I began asking my directions with two of the gentlemen in the taxi rank reaching down at the same time to zip up my bag. Everyone knows that you must never walk about a taxi rank with open bags…

The children’s father arrived in his shiny BMW (well, maybe he’s a little rich) and I helped load the children in the car, and headed the way I thought I was supposed to be going. This is one of my scariest parts of my journey: negotiating downtown Pretoria alone and not quite sure where I am going. I assume my best “I know where I am and where I am going and don’t you dare approach me” stance and navigate the two blocks without incident.

I find the train station, pay for my ticket, and move to the area to wait. My train departs in 4 hours.

I’m pretty happy to people watch, and there is no better place to do so than at a Pretoria train station during the World Cup soccer tournament.

When traveling with the common people, because of my skin color, or better yet, because of the lack of my skin color, I stand out, and everyone takes a special note of me. In this way, I’ve found, the group I’m traveling with, involuntarily—but very protectively--assumes the responsibility of my care. Inevitably, a group of women, or a woman alone, will hail me, ask me to sit, and assume me as her (or their) charge on their portion of the journey.

I sat for awhile with another woman traveling alone and two gentlemen traveling together. This was the most uncomfortable portion of my journey, as I seem to be cursed, when feeling especially vulnerable, to have a blinking, neon sign on my forehead that seems to flash: “if you are very odd, mentally ill, dirty, unkempt, foaming at the mouth, or otherwise of questionable human character, please approach me and ask in a very loud voice if I am a stranger to this country, if I am traveling alone, where I am going, if I am married, and the like.” I had two of these kinds of gentlemen and each approached me more than once but they finally went away and left me to my waiting. (Unluckily for me, I had forgotten to wear my “wedding rings” that seem to offer women alone a marked protection.)

As darkness fell and my departure time drew nearer, a lady and her daughter hailed me and asked me to sit with them. A security guard, who had kept a special eye on me all along, eventually advised this woman and her daughter, as we were boarding, to “keep an eye on this one” (me). They did as they were told, and when I lost them during the crush of boarding, they held a seat for me and anxiously watched and hailed to me as I made my way. The second leg of my journey was managed: I was on the train and I had people with me “for protection.” My train ride would take 13 hours—through all of the night. I felt safe on the train and the women were there to watch my bags when I needed to use the restroom. (This seems my biggest hardship when traveling: having someone to watch my bags when needing to use the restroom.)

I found on this journey that one thing that sets Americans off from rural

South Africans is the bags we carry: they carry none or carry their belongings in the regular plastic grocery sacks or a cheap plastic sack available for purchase. Americans, on the other hand, arriving in this country (and often living) as travelers, often have “nice bags,” well made, for the rigors of traveling. While I’m sure that the lure of robbery lies in what resides in the bags, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone wouldn’t want to rob and American simply for the bags themselves.

The night ride to Messina was boisterous, crowded, and had the added “attraction” of a vendor selling herbal supplements—the passengers in my car, at least for an hour or so, were a captive audience. (My principal at the primary school inflicts this torture regularly upon us at “staff meetings.”) He shouted the benefits of his miracle cures in the same fashion of a Protestant preacher would on Sunday mornings, making sure to involve his “special client” (me) in his pitch. After awhile, I plopped my bag in my lap, lay my head on it, and pulled my jacket over it in hopes of “resting.”

I can’t say as I slept but I did manage to doze a bit, with several arousals to full consciousness when the train stopped. I lost my guardians around 4:30 in the morning, but they (and I) felt safe that I would manage “on my own” until morning. The train was considerably less crowded by then and everyone left was dozing. (The train had security teams that walked the length of the train corridors all night.)

At dawn, I woke completely and became excited: it was light now and I could see out the windows and watch South Africa ride by as we made our way to Messina. It was during the morning on Tuesday of my trip that we made our way through the Soutpansberg Mountains and I knew I was near the baobabs. It was this morning too, that I saw my first baobabs.

The train arrived in Messina at 10:15 in the morning. I began the last let of my journey to Messina: finding my hotel. I knew it was near and a gentleman at the train station directed me; I was at my hotel within minutes. Unfortunately, my check-in time wasn’t until 2:00 pm, and the lady at the desk wasn’t terribly sympathetic, so she allowed me to use the toilet and turned my back out into the streets of Messina. I found a place to lunch and internet café to abide my time until check in. (Later, the owner of the hotel, who was of different skin color, would go to great lengths to “let me out of special locked gates” to avoid the streets of Messina, where she felt sure I was in danger.)

At one point in my life I wanted to write a story about how it feels to be homeless. My plan was to live as a homeless person and write about it. I had found a place to live (a graveyard no longer used —I was going to pitch a tent) and thought I could spend rainy days riding the bus all day or hanging out in the library. I was never brave enough to actually follow through with this plan, but there were several times on this journey to Messina where I felt “homeless.” One of the times was when I was turned away from the hotel in the lobby that morning.

One of the tricks of homelessness, I think, is actually finding a place “to be.” I had never noticed it before, but owning a car goes a long way in providing one a “place to be.” Without a car, one becomes much more vulnerable. This feeling of homelessness left me when I was finally able to check in to the hotel, and therefore established a “place to be,” but would leave me again on Sunday, as I made my way back to my site. Checking out of the hotel was at 10:00 am and I needed to find a place “to be” until my train departed at 3:30 pm. I would hang out at a nearby mall for most of the morning and have lunch, and then sat most of the afternoon in Messina’s train station, establishing my new traveling companions that would watch over me on my return home. (The photo is of my sitting bench and my bags by the last baobab tree I could touch with another favorite African tree (wild fig) covering me with its branches, and the “god light” colors that I sometimes catch with my camera.) Here too, once I found a place to sit and feel safe, I enjoyed my afternoon people watching. But while I was in the mall, “shopping” (really killing time) and having lunch, I felt the peculiar feeling that everyone knew I was there because I had no where else to be. It’s a very vulnerable feeling.

The train trip on return was much the same as the train trip to Messina, except that I froze to death on the night ride back to site. The northern climate of Messina had spoiled me to the freezing temperatures of Pretoria and my site. I lost my travellign companion at the Pretoria station (but she was with me the whole of the ride), found somewhere to sit with security, and waited for daylight so I could make my way back to the Pretoria taxi rank at day break. (I would later learn, much to my dismay, that I could have quickly boarded an Intercape bus as soon as the train arrived in Pretoria and made my way back to site quicker and much more comfortably.)

I had a bit of a meltdown on my taxi wait in Pretoria. I was overtired (from staying semi-awake on a cold, overnight train ride), and sitting with my knees to my chin waiting for the taxi to fill and make its way to my shopping town. As passengers boarded, I was trapped in with a young mother who was obviously very sick with an upper-respiratory infection, and she was alternating between blowing her very stuffy nose and inhaling snuff on regular intervals, with her also very sick baby with weepy eyes grabbing my water bottle. As my panic escalated (I hate being sick), I found myself quietly weeping, wondering if I would ever make it back to site. I tried to negotiate a ride on anther taxi (one that would have gotten me even closer to site) but the man that could help me was blunt and refused to do so: no, I must ride this one (the one with the very sick young mother and child). When I thought things couldn’t get any worse, God directed the same man (who was denying me passage on the other taxi) to say, “Why don’t you ride up front?,” to which I blessedly agreed, unwedged myself away from the sick young mother and moved myself into the front of the taxi where I would have a working seatbelt, legroom, and at least some chance of avoiding contagion.

The ride home was long and arduous and I’m sure it felt especially bad because I was overtired. We stopped at a petroleum station/convenience store for a break and I felt a woman’s eyes on me in the restroom as I made my way from a stall to wash my hands. I was trying to ignore her but felt her eyes on me. Her head must of turned a full 360 degrees to follow me and although it wasn’t my best moment, I stopped, turned to her, and pulled out the coldest, meanest stare I could muster with an eyebrow expression that indicated, “White people use the toilet too.” She shrugged at herself, embarrassed at my challenge, and shook her head. Again, it wasn’t my best moment.

In the United States, I have the blessing of anonymity. Because I have no special attributes, I can “blend in” very well and have done so all of my life. One Christmas, when my young son having an allergic reaction requiring a trip to the hospital emergency room, he was very embarrassed and humiliated at being stared at by other people waiting in the emergency room. He was breaking out in hives and had these huge, nasty-looking red whelps all over his body. The people in the emergency room couldn’t help but stare at him. Unable to cope with the stares, my son pulled up the hood of his down jacket and disappeared into the depths of his hood so no one could see him. I remember feeling furious that these people couldn’t control their stares at my suffering, young son. Likewise, I have a family member who is unusually tall for a woman. She is so tall that people will often glance at her and assume she’s a man. The tendency to stand out in this way has caused her many embarrassing encounters in public restrooms as women become upset thinking a man has entered a restroom. A life of these encounters has made it difficult for her to use public restrooms, an inconvenience that is quite bothersome at times. I remember thinking to myself, “She’s dealt with this her whole life: it seems as though she’d get used to it.”

But that’s just it: there is no getting used to such scrutiny. It is a very disconcerting feeling.

After this train journey, I feel I can finally understand what my family members have endured. The Peace Corps calls this phenomenon: a “fish bowl” effect or “receiving unwanted attention.” As a very private person in general, I find this aspect of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer one of the most difficult to deal with, and find myself sympathizing with celebrities and other persons of fame.

During my journey, I feel I had lessons in vulnerability while at the same time finding protection the midst of South African’s “common people.” Would I do it again? I’m ashamed to admit that I much prefer the comforts I’m used to accommodated to my race: privacy and the feeling of security in private cars or the more expensive long-distance bus routes. If I were feeling urgent to do it again, I probably would, just because I’ve learned that it’s easy to saddle up to security or groups of women willing to take me on as a charge. I feel more comfortable in my knowledge of Pretoria, its streets, and its train/bus stations.

But will I do it again? Probably not. I was feeling urgent at seeing the trees because I thought there was an urgent situation at home requiring my attention. (The urgent situation at home seems to have resolved itself.) Embarking upon such an adventure with a sense of urgency greatly increases my risks in waiting my turn to be robbed, assaulted, or die in a taxi accident—all three things I’m trying to avoid.



PS. Many of you will wail and pull your hair at me wondering why in the world it is that I’m traveling alone, because I would be much safer traveling with friends. You’re right: I would be much safer traveling with friends. However, for this instance in particular, I was doubtful of finding a friend that would want to travel very far to sit with trees (Sit with trees?) when there were many other attractions in South Africa available, none of the least was World Cup Soccer.

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