Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Traveling in South Africa

Unlike many of my fellow volunteers, I haven’t really “seen” any fun sights of South Africa. There are several reasons for this, but it can all be boiled down to: I’m an old fuddy duddy.

We’re eight months into service and many of my fellow volunteers have taken trips at Christmas and Easter. Many of us have seen Durban, Cape Town, Kruger, and the Wild Coast. Some of us have traveled outside of South Africa to visit neighboring nations: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Madascar, etc.

I have yet to see anything “fun” in South Africa.

For one thing, I’m careful with my money because I don’t have a cash reserve or discretionary income. I was very frugal at the beginning of my service because, well, I wasn’t sure how my living expenses would pan out in my volunteer experience in a new country, and I felt more comfortable forgoing trips to get a better feel of my financial situation.

Read: I’m a fuddy duddy. Feeling financially insecure was more important to me than seeing Table Mountain or the “Big Five.”

(A side note: I was delightfully surprised to find my financial situation significantly improved with my 2009 federal tax return. It seems the secret of getting a sizeable tax return is barely working or not working at all!)

In the beginning of my service, I was very overwhelmed with my integration into my new community, and all of my energy and effort was focused on trying to “fit in” to my community.

Read: I’m a fuddy duddy: I’m too old to multi-task community integration with travel and sight-seeing.

But the most important reason, and the real reason I’m such a fuddy-duddy, is that I find it nearly IMPOSSIBLE to take care of myself when traveling in South Africa.

Peace Corps volunteers are urged to use local transportation for moving about in-country. For those of us in rural South Africa, we rely on the public “taxi system.”

(Please don’t be fooled by the word “taxi.” “Taxis” here are vans that should seat 12-15 people, but are always loaded beyond capacity—I’ve counted up to 20 passengers in one van before—and all are packed with parcels and packages, and the vehicles are usually in disrepair, have bad tires, and often have an idiot for a driver.)

I’ve spoken more than a bit about the taxi system of rural South Africa, but as a reminder: it takes FOREVER to reach your destination, your travel experience is very unpredictable, and your safety is at risk more often than not.

As the ride is always unpredictable, I always limit my liquids in worry of needing a toilet. In other words, when traveling, I deliberately dehydrate myself which gives me a headache, makes me irritable, and feel in-general, all-around unhealthy.

If I forgo bringing lunch or snacks, I’m usually sorry, because I’ve waited up to 6-8 hours for a taxi to depart, which necessitates missing meals.

As the taxi is packed with parcels and people, I’ve been on long rides where I couldn’t even reach into my pocket for change or my cell phone.

The drivers, if they have the equipment, LOVE to blast their radios at ear-bleeding volumes regardless of whether small children or infirm as passengers are aboard.

As I am TRAVELING on these excursions, I’m usually loaded down with a bulky pack and other bags and therefore have transformed myself into a walking “target of crime” as I move about in unfamiliar taxi ranks. As we’re urged to be extra vigilant when carrying travel gear, I’m exhausted by all of the “fight or flight” adrenaline pumping through my body.

As an old fuddy-duddy who appreciates her health and well-being, I try to avoid using public transportation (read: TRAVEL) at all costs.

For extra measure, let me recount my recent adventures with some smaller trips:

For Cinco de Mayo, several volunteers traveled to a central location to get together and eat good Mexican food. This location was, by normal travel standards, two hours from me.

On the day of my journey to meet my friends, I arrived at the taxi rank at 7:30 in the morning in hopes of departing as early as possible so I could spend most of the day Saturday with my friends. My taxi left at 1:30 pm in the afternoon. So, I sat on my taxi most of the day Saturday (the party was scheduled for Saturday evening), limiting my liquids and worrying about lunch. (Remember, I thought I’d be departing early in the morning.)

When I finally arrived at my destination, I had time for a half an hour at the party, dinner, and then it was time for bed as I would be “traveling” back to my village first thing in the morning. My “trip” was actually a very expensive taxi sit.

I recently spent a week at Eduland with my school. Although the school provided transportation to and from the Eduland campus, I decided to use public transportation and leave a couple of days early to spend a weekend with a fellow PC volunteer.

On Saturday morning, I headed for the taxi rank around 9:00 in the morning (after my painful lesson that a 7:30 departure was sure not to happen). My taxi finally filled and departed around 1:00 pm. I had a four-hour ride and needed to be in the destination city’s taxi rank before dark (5:00-6:00 pm). About two hours into my ride, my taxi driver decided to ignore a construction sign stopping drivers from moving into one-lane, one-way traffic. As our vehicle was now driving head-on into oncoming traffic, our driver had to move to the “construction” side of the road. He proceeded to drive on the gravel part of the road, with pot holes as huge as bathtubs, at 80-miles per hour. Every time we were airborne, I hoped the vehicle wouldn’t roll upon impact. I was thinking to myself, “If this guy doesn’t care for his passengers, perhaps he might care about the vehicle?”

While we survived the ordeal, our vehicle did not, and when smoke began pouring out of the back of the vehicle, we stopped and emptied ourselves out on the side of a major highway. It was around 2:30 pm at this point, and I’m still 2 hours away from the destination city’s taxi rank and about 3 hours away from night fall. Nice.

Long story short: We were picked up by another taxi about an hour later, I made it to the destination city’s rank at nightfall, and safely reached my destination well after dark.

So much for going in a day early for visiting my friend.

There are a couple of other stories, but they pan out basically the same way and you get the idea.

As an old fuddy-duddy, I find it much easier and I’m infinitely happier to stay home and not go to the bother.  :-)

So, me, the fuddy-duddy has decided to take my first major traveling trip during the World Cup soccer match. Traveling during World Cup is absolutely, crazy-making waiting to happen.

What am I thinking?

I’m thinking, “I have to see a baobab tree!”

Wish me luck—and good travel stories are sure to come!



PS: For my worriers: travel during the World Cup won’t be so bad! I’m heading for a non-tourist, non-soccer area! No worries!

PSS. All photos are downloaded from the Internet.

1 comment:

  1. I wish you could take that double decker bus to the trees. If you had some money, could you? I can send some money. I hate those effing koombies.