I waited for several minutes in the front seat of my Chevy Cruze, steeling myself for the challenge ahead. This was something we had been anticipating for some time and there I was. Sitting on the right side of the car. Holding the manual transmission shift stick in my left hand. Repeating my mantra, “stay to the left, stay to the left,” which also happened to be taped to the rearview mirror. Speaking of the rearview mirror, peering at traffic through it in this world of reversals feels a lot like looking at the world in a mirror. Backwards.
I eased into first and over the next 4 hours and 400km achieved something that could only be described as success. Didn’t stall. Didn’t get lost. Safely made it to Bloemfontein. That success, though, glosses over some unnerving moments along the way.
The highway outside of JoBurg is wide and, aside from my instinctive pull to the left of my lane, easy to drive on. However, the further I got from the city, the less comfortable the road felt. For most of the journey, the road (N1) was a 3-lane highway with the middle lane alternating every few kilometers in the direction that it traveled. Thus, there were somewhat regular opportunities to pass slower cars. Still, I was regularly passed by cars employing the Brian Kiel “accelerate into oncoming traffic and dart back home” method. I eventually learned that the expectation of a car riding my rear was that I drift left into the service lane to make the maneuver easier. By the end of the journey, I was passing large trucks in this manner myself, hurtling along the N1, my ipod blasting in the speakers (Beastie Boys, Annie Kids, etc.). In my most authentic cultural immersion to date, I passed two trucks at once, whipping back into my lane a little closer to the oncoming car – a police car, no less – than I would have liked. I feel some satisfaction in thinking that the police must have thought me a local. I was glad Meggan and the kids were not there.
After two days, I feel increasingly comfortable, even with city driving, though I have a hard time whenever I go to the car, my instinct taking me to the left door and my legs then taking me around the car to the right (and correct) door.
One other experience in the car, also unnerving. In the euphoria of recovering my bag and the concentration of driving for the first time, I relied exclusively on my phone to get me from the airport back to my hotel. Much of the drive was a run-of-the-mill drive – billboards aside the highway, cars zipping past, the city a blur beyond the highway wall, indistinct from pretty much any other city I’ve driven in along a highway.
But I eventually got off the highway and started winding through local streets. Shortly after departing the highway, I started noticing an increasing number of people along the side of the road. People were walking in all directions, waiting for traffic to pass and crossing the street, carrying satchels along the side of the road, crowding the cars into the center. I drove with wide eyes, descending, it seemed, along with the road. At the low point of the road, there was a market and the road was made even narrower by parked cars jammed alongside. And people everywhere. I was surrounded by poverty. I’ll confess that I was growing quite uneasy, cursing the google maps and finding myself doubly conscious not to stall. To that point, my experience in Johannesburg had been largely indistinguishable from being in any western city, but this was substantially different.
This was poverty on a scale I have never seen. You could see it in the shacks and in the market kiosks, you could sense it in the volume of people crammed together. I very much wanted to observe, but very much did not want to be seen observing. All the while, I was trying to remain focused on driving as well. Eventually, the crowds on the side of the road thinned and I returned to more familiar roads and eventually to Sandton and my hotel, no more than 10 minutes from what I later learned was Alexandra township. This coexistence of wealth and poverty is surely not unique to South Africa, but the scale of the gap startled me.
Wikipedia tells me that Alexandra (Alex) is commonly known as “Gomorrah” among local residents and is one of the poorest urban areas in the country. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, told me when I listened to it some years ago that Alexandra was the first place Mandela lived when he moved to Johannesburg, renting a tin-roofed room at the back of another’s property while he clerked at a law firm to put himself through school. (I don’t actually remember that – my memory was jogged) Google news tells me that soldiers were recently deployed to Alex to quell anti-immigrant unrest (South Africans resentful of immigrants from other African nations, Mozambique in this case). This blog tells me that though troubled, Alex is vibrant and, lest we forget, human.
For me, this was an unexpected introduction to a great paradox of South Africa, the massive distance between people’s lives alongside the small distance between their living places. This is different from home, at least in degree. In the United States, people generally speak the same language, share the same values and ideals, abide by the same rules and norms. I do not mean to minimize the wealth gap or even the cultural gaps in the United States – I’m only noting that the gap exists within a somewhat narrower range than the gap in South Africa.
I am reading a collection of stories of South Africa by the somewhat controversial journalist Rian Malan. I haven’t made it far, but I found the following instructive as he writes about the search for a true story in South Africa.
The facts may be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else…Our languages are mutually incomprehensible, our philosophies irreconcilable. Many South Africans can’t read any of [the English-speaking commentators], so their truth is something else entirely. Atop all this, we live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backward. The blessing of living here is that every day presents you with material whose richness beggars the imagination of those who live in saner places.
This particular day of driving indeed presented me with rich material to chew on.