Thursday, August 15, 2013


She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes. . .
Five years ago, I was about to order lunch at a German restaurant a long walk from my hostel in suburban Johannesburg, when one of my tour-mates called to invite me to a reunion downtown.  I was so inent on the menu, and relatively short on time, that I almost turned her down.  But after many group tours, this was the first time anyone had managed a post-tour gathering.  What's more, this particular tour had been run by a certifiable Afrikaans lady, and we were all primed to kvetch.  So I chugged my beer, rushed back to the hostel, called a taxi, and met up with the group.

2nd class berth (4 spots all to myself)
When the opportunity arose to visit South Africa a second time, I thought I'd save myself the trouble of comparing dozens of lodging options and simply re-book at Diamond Diggers, where I'd been before.  With any luck, the German restaurant would still be there, and I could pick up where I'd left off.  I've long harbored a fantasy of flying to Paris (and back) for a dinner date, but now that the Concorde is no more, this is much more challenging.  Completing a meal begun five years earlier on the other side of the world wouldn't be a bad substitute, however.

The backside of Port Elizabeth
Apparently someone didn't want this to be, because the train from Port Elizabeth, scheduled to arrive in Jo'burg at 11:35 am, experienced severe and persistent locomotive trouble, and didn't pull in until almost 7:00 pm.  My long-lost leisurely lunch quickly collapsed into a rapid dinner and early bedtime, in preparation for the 7:50 bus to Maputo the next morning.  It almost pained me to ask, but a guy at the hostel confirmed that the German restaurant was still there: "really fun," he declared, but too far to walk at night.  The manager claimed to remember me, even though he'd only been there for three years; they'd sold the part where I'd stayed before--which included a little bar I was hoping to hole up in--but he suggested a Portuguese restaurant right across the street, which was excellent, and probably much harder to find at home than German food.  Still, delectable clams, codfish, and flan couldn't quite stifle the call of wurst, kraut, and spaetzle.

Remind me why I should fly. . .
My bed neatly made up by the attendant

Portuguese restaurant resplendent with azulejos

The right bus at last
My bad luck continued the next morning, when, just as I was about to board, I was told that I'd been waiting for the wrong bus; although I'd bought the ticket there, at the Translux office, mine was in fact a "City to City" departure, run by a sister company on the other side of the terminal.  Since all departures to Maputo occur within half an hour of 8:00 am, it was now or never.  A great deal of harried negotiations ensued, including a porter advocating on my behalf to the bus conductor; the conductor coldly insisting his bus was full and I should get lost; going into the ticket office and getting a special authorization stamp from the cashier-lady--who shook her head in disgust: "Who sold you this ticket?!  Go back out there and show this to him [the conductor]!"; returning to the conductor for further rebuffs; dashing across the terminal with the help of another porter to find that the correct bus had already left; dashing back across to double-check that the mistaken bus was indeed full; waiting awkwardly with heavy bags as dozens of other impatient people pushed past; standing outside in the diesel fumes while other drivers asked where I was going; and then, suddenly, although I didn't realize it at first, magic happened.

A short, young, serious mulatto fellow in a Brazil ski cap and grubby clothes, who didn't look like he was in charge of anything, suddenly took an interest in my case, and started asking everybody and his brother, both in person and via cell phone, why they couldn't do X, Y, and Z to resolve it.  By this time I'd just about resigned myself to returning to Diamond Diggers and eating at that German restaurant after all, dagnubbit, but just when I was about to say "Thanks for your help; I'll come back tomorrow," Mr. Brazil started dragging me across the terminal again to wait by the side of yet another bus while he called ahead to one of the drivers to verify that if I got on the current bus, to Nelspruit, the driver up ahead would wait for me to switch and continue on to Maputo.  Mr. Brazil didn't exactly explain all this to me, and he was speaking either Portuguese or some African language on the phone and to the driver and porter in person, but this is what I gathered.

In the catbird seat

I probably should have given him a tip, but he was gone before I could even thank him.  It was like that scene in Pulp Fiction where Harvey Keitel, "The Wolf," shows up, announces, "My name is Winston Wolf.  I solve problems," fixes the impossible mess, and then disappears in a squeal of expensive tires.  There are plenty of annoyances to contend with while travelling, and people constitute a great many of them--pushy curio salesmen, streetside catcallers, waiters who pretend you're invisible--but there are also many times when people go out of their way--sometimes far, far out of their way--to be helpful. 

My fears that I'd be stuck on the wrong bus proved groundless, because the drivers of both the first and second busses took pains to explain and guide me.  The second driver apologized because the only seat available was the jump-seat right behind the windshield normally reserved for the conductor--but this seat affords spectacular views, and is in many ways more commodious than a normal seat.  At the border crossing, an older lady in the next seat led me almost by the hand, step by step, through the formalities.  When we finally disembarked in Maputo, and I asked a young woman, in Spanish masquerading as Portuguese, where Lumumba Street was, she answered in English.

Last call for groceries!
My faith in humanity was restored, but the journey was a doozy.  When we stopped at a highway junction just before Maputo, a major fracas ensued because one (or more) passengers were convinced their bags had been stolen or pilfered by other passengers.  It was hard for me not to chuckle at this, given the cornucopia people had brought on board, most of it acquired at a supermarket stop just before leaving South Africa: eggs by the 4 dozen; beets by the sack; cornmeal by the 20-lb. bag; rice; potato chips; soda; takeaway fried chicken; potatoes. . . everyone on board except me spent much of the journey shuffling plastic shopping bags back and forth from one section of the overhead bins to another.  A live animal could have gotten lost in the shuffle.  This plus other delays turned a supposedly 8-hour journey into an almost 12-hour one.

At the behest of the young woman who spoke English, I took a taxi to the hotel.  The driver was a sad-looking old man, but he seemed to understand my Spanish.  We spent a while looking for an ATM, before circling back around to the hotel--but within feet of the door, his car stopped dead in the middle of the street--and I realized he'd brought me to the wrong hotel.  I started to grab my bags and walk to the right hotel, which was only a couple blocks away, but finally took pity on him as he feebly tried to push the car up into the gas station, and helped.  Here I was, newly arrived in a strange city, shuffling my backpack back on so I could help an old mulatto man and a black boy he'd somehow co-opted push a broken-down old Toyota into a gas station, the only thing lit in the tropical night.  When was the last time any white man had been seen in such a scene?  Why wasn't somebody photographing this for me?  Was I glad there was nothing wrong with his car more than an empty tank or mad that he'd let it run dry?  I was slaphappy with fatigue, and beyond caring.  It was a one-way street the wrong way, as were the nearest few cross-streets, so we made another big circle before finally coming upon the right hotel, during the course of which it became clear that the driver had never been there before, even though he'd insisted initially that he knew right where it was.

The night watchman would only say "Full," and might not have let me in had I not produced an email printout of my reservation, at which point he scurried off to summon the manager.  I gave the taxi driver $3, which seemed generous given his level of service, but he moaned and groaned that I owed him $10, so I settled on $5, upbraiding him for making such a mess of a quick and easy ride.  If I hadn't been so tired I might have laughed about it, and maybe even paid him what he asked, but after two days in a row of over-extended journeys, I was worn thin.

I dumped my stuff in my room and headed out to the nearest place that served beer and anything approximating food.  And as I sat there munching on pretty good pizza and excellent Brazilian-style dark beer, most of the troubles faded, and I was left with amazement that, in the long view, everything had worked out.  Travel is supposed to be about the journey, after all; sometimes it's a little too long, or complicated, but we forget the old adages at our peril.  Ticking off destinations on a personal hit list is a terrible way to go; it's hackneyed but true--you've got to enjoy the ride.

A hard-won meal


  1. Hmm...I wonder what the odds are now that you'll be at the Deutscher Club on Friday??? ;-)

  2. For some reason, this image stood out for me: " Here I was, newly arrived in a strange city, shuffling my backpack back on so I could help an old mulatto man and a black boy he'd somehow co-opted push a broken-down old Toyota into a gas station, the only thing lit in the tropical night." Those last 8 words feel like part of a good poem.

    I still agree with you about the journey, not the destination, but I need more comfortable adventures than this. Kudos to your hardiness. And thanks for pulling me into still more scenes and events.