Monday, May 27, 2013

Traveling Lessons: Part One

I’m told we are in early autumn, but it’s hard to believe. Everything is growing. Everything is green. In fact, my first two days here it rained almost non-stop. We unloaded our vehicle amid warm, steady showers.

But we were so happy to arrive, no one cared about the mud or the soaked bags.

In fact, our welcoming party was one of shrieking joy and the bouncing ecstasy of children. Dozens of them. Running. Clapping. Shouting for attention. Calling for Papa Roy or Mama Trish to wrap them up in a hug and a kiss.

The party was not for me... but I enjoyed it all the same. I stole a few hugs from the younger ones and slapped hands with those ‘too cool’ for hugging. The older girls remembered me well, and greeted me by name.

As I stood there taking it all in, one by one their cherub faces morphed into memories for me.

I was back.

I was really back.

The army of children unloaded the truck and trailer in no time, carrying each packet on their heads despite the downpour.

But I get ahead of myself a bit. I intended to write about my journey here. But so much has happened this week, my thoughts are crowded out by more urgent and pressing ones.

Nevertheless, my trip here was noteworthy... so I will write it. Please bare with me.

Achem... let’s see. Where to begin.

After the end of my three-week delay in South Africa, Roy picked me up bright and early Thursday morning. The plan was to leave directly, picking up some car parts on the way to our final destination that night --Zimbabwe.

But when I saw that Roy arrived without the truck packed and Trish was nowhere in sight, I knew we had a long day ahead. Smiling wryly, I loaded my bags and prayed that my American affinity for schedules would not get in the way. 

Lesson One: Schedules are not important... but people are.

We were supposed to pick up a phone card on the way back to Trish, but the directions were not good so we steamed on ahead without them. This proved to be the wrong choice as once we packed up the truck and trailer (which took several hours), we had to go back for them (adding an hour to our delay).

By one in the afternoon we were on the road to Pretoria where a friend’s car parts were waiting. But we were so heavy loaded, no one expected to find room for them.

Miraculously, there was.

It took three strong men to lift the engine block into the back of the trailer, rearranging the donated clothes as they went. But to everyone’s relief and surprise, it worked!

Lesson Two: In Africa, there is always room for one more.

Now with an engine block, massive donations for the orphans, my heaping bags, and three adults we set out for our journey. It was well past two in the afternoon at this point and we no longer hoped to reach Zimbabwe that night.

We’d have to stay at a guesthouse in South Africa.

Plus once we started calling around, it became clear there was trouble at the border and no one was getting through. Friends had been waiting for hours in line with little progress. 

A few more phone calls and we secured ourselves a room in a small guesthouse in ???. But we only pulled in to our destination by 9 p.m.

We got settled quickly, found a restaurant that was still open that late, and had a quick bite before we turned in for the night. We could not be sure of what the border would bring the next morning and wanted to be rested before we got there.

The next morning started at dawn. The guesthouse gave us a breakfast of champions. Eggs. Bacon. Fried tomatoes. Yogurt. Fruit bowl. Biscuits. Toast. Cereal. Meat spreads. Cheeses. And more!

Apparently this is a common English Breakfast, but my eyes could not take it all in. There was more food than I could eat in a week --all for just three people! But no doubt, this home-made luxury put a smile on my face as we headed out the door.

It took us another two hours before we reached the border.

I’m not sure what I expected... but it was certainly not what I saw. Large warehouse-like buildings in various stages of ruin (or repair depending on your view in life) peppered a flat open space hemmed in with chain-link fences and green-clad guards in berets.

I did not see any guns... if they were there at all. But I did see a long line --which was getting longer while we watched.

Trish was hesitant to leave the truck for fear our stuff would up and walk off. And even when we finally joined the line, she watched it like a naughty child hell-bent on finding its way into trouble.

Fortunately our wait in line was not as long as expected and we were through the South African side in under an hour. But once we had our passports stamped, we then had to be granted access into Zimbabwe.

This meant more lines, more officials, and (for me at least) more money. I won’t bore you with the number of lines and stamps needed. Suffice to know, it was more than a few.

Lesson Three: Even with all the right papers, Africa can still take hours and hours.

By lunch we were finally through and on our way to Matare. But a few hours into the drive, Roy got sleepy and offered me the wheel.

I was happy to take it (as I love to drive), but I wanted to do it right. Since no speed limits were posted, I constantly kept asking Trish, “How fast can I go here?” and “Is this the right speed?”

It got so bad that Trish began to chuckle and repeat in slow, articulated English, “It’s 60 km in the village... and a 110 on the highway.”

“But how do you know where the village begins... or ends?” I asked in desperation. The highway was nothing but a narrow two lane paved road with tuffs of dirt on either side. I could see no houses and just a few people from the road.

“The best rule of thumb,” she began “is to look for crossroads.”

“Crossroads? What do you mean ‘crossroads’?” I complained, “It all looks the same to me.” 

She laughed again, then pointed out a tiny dirt path shooting off to one side.

“That!” I exclaimed in indignation. “That could barely fit a large motorcycle!”

“Precisely!” she continued, “If it could fit a motorcycle, then it’s a crossroad.”

I just shook my head in confusion and carried on.

Lesson Four: Even if the rules are not posted, you still have to know them.

It did not take long for a ‘village’ to appear. But the only thing I could see that made this village a ‘village’ was the large tree shading a handful of traffic police with speed guns pointing right at me.

But I had anticipated them and had been able to slow to the proper speed in time.

The dilemma was... I could not tell where the village ended. Once I passed them, I didn’t see any more footpaths and naturally started to speed up. The heavyly loaded trailer and truck did not allow this to happen quickly, and thus I was only at 81 km when the next pile of traffic police waved me down.

The scoundrels!

(Read the rest of the story in Traveling Lessons: Part Two by clicking here....)