Travel Stories

Joburg the Second

        Surreal does not begin to adequately describe the transition back to Joburg, a place I’ve been and never been before.  I mean the border crossing and the bus ride could not have been more routine.  Shit, I’ve been here almost a week, I’m an old Africa hand.  And other than a little unpleasantness with the angry seemingly imperious taxivan driver, the besieged captain of his ship, life is good.  Why someone with black shoe polish actually polished all four tires of the van I rode on before it pulled out of its rank.  And, indeed, if an odd/incomprehensible taxivan driver who I pushed back against and didn’t want to take what I thought were irrational commands of me is all I have to complain about I’m a very lucky man, which I am.  And how much of that particular encounter was about race and size I have no idea, but throughout my time thus far in Africa I am the only white person I see in the venues I frequent, the only white person on the buses I ride, and among the tallest people I see. 
         The arrival into Joburg at the old bus station is exactly as I remember from five days ago - mobs of people throughout the trash laden downtown, literally hundreds of people standing in block long lines waiting to be crushed into taxivans and transported home after a day of work or urban shopping, a bus “station” in a one lane wide alley that dead ends at the ticket office so that vans going in have to back out into the street - contributing to already massive traffic snarls - to let vans going out out.  Few if any kids other than those in blanket slings on their mothers’ backs are to be seen, no beggars, everywhere liquor stores, bars, shoe shops, hair salons, and street vendors selling fresh vegetables, roasted corn, unappealing meats from charcoal grills, and useless trinkets that no one buys.  As Gil Herron sings, “Have you heard the word?  Johannesburg!”
         That there is virtually no public transportation in Joburg is ridiculously inefficient, and a few real buses going up and down the long main thoroughfares could make a huge difference in traffic, although it might unemploy legions of taxi drivers.  Taxi, did you say, you mean those little private Nissans and Toyotas that have handmade signs in them saying “Taxi,” these unlicensed standards with no medallions, no taxi car door without the inside plastic door opening handle broken off, and no horns blowing?  How odd that Cairo and Kolkata taxis are incapable of moving forward without the energy of one hundred car horns blowing, whereas in South Africa all the horns have apparently been disconnected. 
         Speaking of disconnected, I wander away from the massive crowds and traffic around the bus station to get a little maneuvering room.  I have written down on a piece of paper the address and phone number of the Backpackers’ Ritz Guesthouse where I will meet my sister and be staying.  I show the address and phone number to a taxi driver who calls the Ritz and gets general directions to that part of the city, brings one loosely dangling wire under his dashboard into contact with another loosely hanging wire, the motor turns over, and were off.
         As we move from the inner city through neighborhoods growing cleaner and overtly nicer I ask the taxi driver about what we are seeing, about the social class progression reflected by the route we are on, something suggesting an ascending line on a graph depicting the local economy, and about the recent history of his country.  And instead of sharing with me a sense of the wonders of freedom and democracy, as my predisposition had expected and hoped for, he shares with me a sense of frustration, a sense of the helplessness about his economic and social circumstances, of being trapped in circumstances he does not have any way of escaping.  He says he is confused by the fact that he believes God put people on this planet to serve a purpose and he does not see what his purpose can possibly be.  He asks me what he can do about it with a sense of earnestness that evokes in me a desire to answer his question seriously.  And instead of just offering heartfelt sympathy I think hard about it, searching my years before answering, after all, if I am willing to accept the presence of guides who appear quite unbidden in my life to offer me inspiration, confirmation, and direction, mustn’t I be willing to accept that I too on occasion may serve as guide for another?   
         “You must understand and believe that change will come to you,” I say, “because change is inevitable, and the only issue is whether you can effect the path you are on in ways that satisfy you.  You must believe and accept that you will change, that this frustration you feel can serve your purpose, that it may help bring you to a more satisfying place.”
         “You do not understand, my friend,” he tells me, “the economy is terrible, there are no jobs, there is no way out for me.  This is not America, my friend, it is South Africa, and I am not a white man, I am Black.”       
         “Well, of course, that is true,” I acknowledge, laughing inside myself at a vision of Byron Katie appearing and asking him who he would be without his thoughts, and if the thoughts he is thinking are really true, and who he would be if the opposite were true.  But Katie doesn’t appear, it is only Bruce inside his car, and I know so little.
         “What is real is what you believe to be real,” I tell him, consciously afraid I am being simply saccharine with him.  “If you really believe you have a purpose let your purpose manifest itself, let these feelings serve to bring you to where and what you most deeply want to be.  Serve your children as a good father.  Love yourself and your life.”  I might as well be singing, "Don't worry.  Be happy."
         I think about this exchange, about how empty it must seem, about my desire to alleviate suffering and be of use.  I think about the fact that today is my dead father’s ninety-eighth birthday.  I remember what I believe to have been his mostly useless(?) advice when I expressed unhappiness and despair, his telling me not to think the thoughts I was thinking, to not dwell in the negative, to think positively, to believe I could be whatever I wanted to be, to know that it was up to me whether I saw the cup as half empty or half full.  I believed then that his guidance in these realms was useless.  I wonder if there is any difference in what he said and I say.  I want to believe there is, but I doubt it.
        The Backpackers’ Ritz Guesthouse, a former mansion with a swimming pool, rooms in the servants quarters, and free condoms in the lobby reading "Get it on before you get it in," is in the S.A. equivalent of Beverly Hills.  The houses are huge.  Female joggers in halter-tops and shorts run freely through the tree lined streets.  There are white people … everywhere!  There are shopping malls with high-end London shops - Pink, Burberry, Versace - lovely restaurants filled with mostly white people, bookstores, a Seattle’s Best coffee shop, jewelry stores, crate and barrel equivalents, amazing bakeries.  Parking garages filled with Mercedes and BMWs.  You could easily imagine you were in Roslyn, Long Island.  The malls are filled with glass windowed stores, fancy displays, lovely upscale restaurants, high-end bookstores, bright lights, Christmas displays.  Even Christmas music.  It looks like any mall in Westchester, populated by people who would seem quite at home if transplanted there.  It’s the Hyde Park and Rosebank neighborhoods of Johannesburg, and as real as the dirt-poor farmer in Lesotho is real.  Sometimes I still shock myself with my ignorance and naiveté.

 ... servants quarters - now guest rooms - at the ritz ...

... servants quarters - now guest rooms - at the ritz ...

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