Just hop on a bus
Trip Start Jul 19, 2009
160Trip End Oct 25, 2010
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Where I stayed
the old bridge backpackers
'Please make sure I'm on the 12 o' clock shuttle to Mthatha,' I asked Quintin the bartender whose job it is. 'Sure, no sweat and you'll have plenty of time to get on the Greyhound to Jo'burg.' Great. The ticket couldn't be booked on line, but I was assured the buses would be empty on a Sunday.
11.30 am, I am all packed and bring my luggage to the car park. Just to be sure I yell: 'Quintin, you have booked the shuttle?'
Sheepish grin. 'Eh, no, the driver wasn't answering but you can get a local taxi in town, no problem and it will cost you half the price of the shuttle.'
'Oh, but you never know when they leave, do you? You have to wait till they are full and that can take ages.'
'Yeah, but it's Sunday man, lots of people going to Mthatha
So now it's Sunday and everyone is travelling?
Well, at least I get a lift into town and shown which taxi to get into, that is not always obvious. However, I am the first passenger so that means waiting. It slowly fills, the driver comes to check every now and then, counting the heads, turning away, not enough. I nervously ask him how many before he takes off.
'Oh, it doesn't have to be full, 6 or 7, we'll leave soon.'
There's 6 now, one more, quick please....A woman leaves the car and wanders off. Driver comes, counts, ready to leave now but waits for the woman who eventually arrives, leisurely, a Spar bag dangling from her hand. If she's aware she's holding up the taxi she doesn't seem to mind. Actually, I think I am the only one who minds.
By now the taxi has really filled up and without much fuss people shift themselves and their stuff to accommodate the latecomer.
We leave, an hour and a half later than planned. Then the stop - start - stopping begins as more people are being packed into the already crowded mini-van. Surely no more? but planks appear and are wedged across the aisle between the seats. The seated passengers reach and pass down any children and baggage that comes with, extend a hand to help people in. No thanks or smiles, nor apologies are exchanged, it is all conducted calmly and patiently, almost automatically. If I wasn't pressed for time I would have felt humbled, now I just want to scream.
We got there. Mthatha town, not the Shell station where I usually get off, and I'm at loss where to go. My baggage is too heavy to just wander around and it is very hot. I ask a lady who was in the taxi the way. She is carrying an umbrella and doesn't stop walking but says: 'I'll show you.' I pick up her pace as she walks in the merciless sun. 'Hot, isn't it? she comments, 'Where's your umbrella?' How the hell am I supposed to carry an umbrella when I am loaded with backpack, carry-on and travel bag? I just smile. She gives me her first glance. 'Shall I carry a bag?' she says. I hesitate, wouldn't that be asking a lot? She takes that for a 'no' and shrugs her shoulders. Have I insulted her, does she think I don't trust her? 'No, I mean, yes please, that would really be helpful,' I stammer, and she slings a bag over her shoulder. Oh, Katherine....
Fortunately it's not that far and she walks me all the way to the Greyhound, I thank her profusely, marvelling at such kindness.
The Greyhound lady was less helpful. It annoyed her that I couldn't understand her accent and she kept looking away, bored. There were no buses today, she told me. But I had seen them on the internet. All full. How do I get to Jo'burg then? Dunno. Please? She grabs a calender. 'Is it Sunday the 26th today? she asks me. Good god, she's looking at the damn thing. 'Eh, yes.' 'Full,' she says, 'find another company.' 'Can you phone one for me, I haven't their number, I'll pay. I have a lot of luggage...' 'No.'
A lady standing behind me steps in, 'I'll walk you half way. Leave your luggage here till you find a ride.' She speaks sharply to the receptionist who then waves an indifferent hand towards a luggage deposit.
I find Translux, with difficulty, after getting lost even though the lady left me with perfectly clear directions. It's a rather complex building, I see several offices, most closed, and am not sure where the ticket sale is. People are milling around, I ask, blank looks - no-one can understand my accent now.
Finally I get to the ticket 'office'. a dim-lit dingy cubicle, peering through its smutty window I can just make out a dark, bland face. 'Hi, good, I'm so happy I found you,' I say in my friendliest, clearest voice. Nothing, no smile, no acknowledgment. Oh, well. 'I'd like to buy a ticket to Johannesburg,' I soldier on. I get a stony look and: 'It's full.' 'Full?' 'Yes.'
While this conversation took place a man had been rummaging around, first just near me but now so close I could smell him. Apparently he was looking for something, searching his pockets, pulling out well-worn bits of paper, folded and dirty,, 2 old mobiles, held together by sticky tape and rubber bands, muttering, making a show of it, obviously trying to attract attention. He says something in Xhosa to the girl then turns to me, as if continuing an on-going conversation he says: 'It depends on what it's worth to you.' Huh? He lowers his voice, looks around, shifty, like a dealer. 350, 400 Rand? The penny drops, he's peddling his ticket.
I know it costs 230, so he wants to make a profit. That wont break the bank, and I really want the ticket, I don't want to spend the night in Mthatha, besides the price of a bed, taxi's etc will amount to more than his little scam. Is it legal? I ask the girl. She is reluctant to answer and just stares. Right, this doesn't feel kosher. I turn away but the man holds me back and then follows another urgent exchange in Xhosa. Agitated, he really wants to sell me that ticket, he prompts the girl to speak. 'It is legal,' she gruffly states.
'Ok,' I say, 'let's see the ticket.' He can't find it and tells me to follow him to the bus where he'll sort it out with the chauffeur.
The chauffeur is sitting on the steps of the bus and people are standing in line, handing him money. My dealer tries to catch his attention but the man is busy and gets irritated, telling him to wait till he's done. A gentleman standing in line taps my arm and tells me to join the queue. 'But I haven't got a ticket,' I say. He smiles: 'None of us have.'
'But the bus is full, I am told.' Now he gives me his full attention. 'Listen, and do what I tell you,' he says, 'We buy them from the driver. You must humble yourself, just do as I do and you will get your ticket.' He crouches and holds his hands as in prayer, a timid smile. 'Just do it, swallow your pride, it's the only way.'
Dear me, how bad do I want this ticket?
What's the deal anyway? 280 Rand. Who's getting what?
But I want it bad.
I smile, I bow, I hope my cleavage will touch a soft spot. He keeps me longer than the others, pretending to make up his mind, shaking his head - hard decision, big favor. I can't take it anymore, I grab my wallet and pull out the notes. He wavers, he breaks out in a smile and writes down my name, my ticket is within reach.
Damn, my luggage.
The driver has had his fun and wants to hit the road now. No way can I get my stuff here any time soon. Fuck, fuck. I turn to bystanders and explain my predicament. Suddenly everybody wants to help. It can easily be picked up, we practically drive past the Greyhound office. The driver is pissed off, can't do, forget it, but thanks to the kind interveners he angrily gives in, shouting he wont go near the competition, they are at war. I secretly think he is enjoying this, he is making me squirm, making me pay for the inconvenience.
Funny enough, once the song and dance was over, the whole power trip, he was ok, and by the time we got to JB, 15 hours later, he was my new best friend.
Unfortunately, the shifty guy had managed to get on board too and he made a bee-line for me.
Like most, I had found two empty seats in the 'full' coach and was looking forward to curling up to sleep on them. The bum had the same thing in mind but only single seats left now, so he tells me to go and sit with the gogos, the grannies. 'Why would I want to do that,' I say, 'I'm perfectly happy here.' 'Go,' he hisses, 'you can talk to them.'
Oh, how very thoughtful. But I stood my ground, much to his displeasure, so he sits across the aisle to me and rambles on about this plan we are supposed to have. That amounts to him getting something from me and he is relentless. Did I realise it was him who saw my luggage was picked up? No, that was my grovelling. Welll I owed him anyway. A cool drink next stop. He starts shouting down his mobiles, they don't work, he pulls them apart, taking out the batteries, bits flying through the bus. Give me your cell phone. No. Why not? Why do I even explain? Ok, transfer airtime to mine. No. Give me 10 rand. My food was stolen, buy me a hot meal, next stop. He is wearing me out, I wish he'd go away, I wish he'd shut up. Now he is back to this plan again, he helped me now I must help him, menacing now. The man is crazy, what am I going to do?
Next stop we can pee and buy food and drinks to see us through the night. I have hardly any cash left and the ATM is down. The guy follows me around. I give in, just enough money for 2 drinks and pies. He is pacing in front of the shop. I sigh, I really didn't want to fold but maybe he'll shut up now he's got something out of me. With a sigh I hand him his food and see he is holding a big bag of KFC. I gasp and want to retract the offering but he snatches it out of my hand, grinning. God, I am a sucker.
He did however, finally shut up though that didn't mean I got to sleep cos I now realized we would be arriving at JB bus station somewhere between 3 and 4 am and I hadn't a clue if I would be safe there, if I could catch a bus to, where? I wanted to get to Maun but hadn't seen that as destination. No money, was there an ATM? Taxis? Beds? Anyone?
As it happened, we arrived at 4 am and could sit in a waiting room till business opened at 7am. Of course there was an ATM and by 8 am I was on a bus to Gaborone. On arrival I find the last bus to Maun had left so I had to spend the night. I was dead on my feet anyway, dragged myself up to the room where I kept falling asleep and waking up at strange hours thinking I'd missed the bus that left at 6 am. Though I didn't get my wake-up call I managed to stumble out of the hotel at 5.30 am and walked straight into the 5 o' clock bus. A 6 hour ride, someone said. We arrived here at 4 pm. Ja. Tired and puffed up feet but, hey, I am at Maun, at this beautiful lodge, the Old Bridge Backpackers, and I intend to put those sorry feet up and enjoy.
Oh, and might I have given the impression it was a bumpy ride, nah, it was actually quite an extraordinary adventure.
Didn't I tell you that's the whole point of just hopping on a bus?