“Travel is transition, and at its best it is a journey from home, a setting forth. I hated parachuting into a place. I needed to be able to link one place to another. One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease with which a person could be transported so swiftly from the familiar to the strange, the moon-shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.”
–Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
“What you see is what you see.”
– Frank Stella
Travis, whose parents owned the local country club, was a golf course greenkeeper by training but something of a hooligan by trade, with wild hair and a highly refined skill of getting himself into trouble. The day I met him the year before, he had disclosed matter-of-factly, “I like to climb [3,004 meter] Cathedral Peak so that I can run back down as fast as I can and try not to fall.”
Shortly before my arrival this time around, he had applied for a tourist’s visa to visit the United States to see his American girlfriend, who was also a friend of mine. His application was denied…three times. Consequently, he was marrying his girlfriend, a bit sooner than would be desirable under normal circumstances.
“They thought I was planning on overstaying my visa,” he said, and flashed me a broad smile. “I was, hey. I had a job lined up and was making plans to sneak across the border into Canada if I had to.”
I was about to begin my first job after graduating college, and I thought of my visit with Travis as something of a last hurrah, and a way of easing back into South Africa and all of its socio-cultural quirks. The days were warm and we sat on the patio eating, drinking and talking about Travis’s imminent wedding as we watched the peahens that meandered in and out of the restaurant and past the sign that read “Local is Lekker.” The bored-looking waitress smoked and smirked a few tables down. Travis pondered aloud about the marriage and the ring, and told me noncommittally about someone he had met who smuggled diamonds across the Zimbabwean border and rewarded his cronies by allowing them to keep one of the stones.
On Friday afternoon we went to the stables nearby to go horseback riding in the foothills. As we sat beside a cluster of aloe plants, waiting for the guide, a man pulled up in a battered truck, the bed piled with the workings of a handyman – a ladder, toolboxes, cans of paint. He stepped out of the cab with the scruffy beginnings of a beard, in ripped blue pants splattered with paint and an olive green button-up that was half untucked. Travis began chatting with him and he introduced himself to me as Les.
“Do you like horses?” he asked me dubiously as he glanced at the stables.
“I do,” I replied.
“Good. I like them too. They’re good eating,” he said with a wry smile, “That’s the only thing I like about them.”
Not long into the ride, which took us high into the golden-green hills above the country club, through wattle-tree plantations and across grassy plateaus (a landscape which reminded me with a pang of homesickness of California’s Central Valley), the guide asked me to dismount. I looked at him blankly as he tried to explain in broken English, and finally I gathered that he wanted to trade horses – his was belligerent and wouldn’t lead. As the most inexperienced rider of the three of us, I was wary about getting on a disobedient horse, but did as I was asked. Predictably, the horse didn’t listen to a single one of my commands – I tightened my legs, nudged him with my heels, pulled back on the reins, all to no avail. With a snort and a violent kick of his thick hind legs, he would refuse and instead do what he wished, whether that was walking at a leisurely pace, leaving us far behind the guide, stopping suddenly to chew on a green shoot or to defecate, or galloping wildly at will, leaving me shrieking and grasping white-knuckled at his neck.
But as we neared the end, Travis – as I had come to call the horse for the capricious personality that mimicked that of my host – proved to be the most level-headed of the three, at least for a critical minute or two. With a flash of dark mane and a wayward hoof, the guide’s horse tripped in a rut and threw him into the long grass beside the trail. Travis’s horse, which had been following closely, stopped short and tossed Travis forward into a dirt-flinging roll. The first horse righted himself more quickly than his rider, and dashed at a full sprint down the trail, reins flailing. My horse simply saw a window of opportunity and stopped to munch on a few leaves of grass, but then, watching his compatriot vanishing into the distance, took off after him. I managed to hold on, despite the laughter that had seized my entire body and left me heaving violently as I watched the guide cut across a meadow, his legs reaching as he ran after his errant steed.
After catching up with the first horse and walking most of the way back to the stables, my legs aching from trying to remain in the saddle and my belly aching from laughter, Travis and I headed to a local bar called Thokozisa. On the way, we passed bicyclists and pedestrians travelling two or three wide on the shoulder; I sucked in a breath and drew in my toes each time, but they neither flinched nor stepped aside as our car raced past them on the narrow road. Travis stopped abruptly only for a herd of cattle plodding across the road through a cloud of dust, a man in a blue jumpsuit and orange skullcap waving his arms and stomping behind them, and we each opened a beer behind the dashboard.
“You couldn’t do this in California,” I observed.
“You can’t do it in South Africa, either,” Travis said, and took a long swig.
He then described one of his favorite ways to imbibe: he and his friends passed around a can of beer, each one hitting it as hard as they could against their foreheads, until it made a hole in the can from which they drank. I decided I’d probably never try it, for fear that the impact might damage my brain more than the alcohol ever would.
At Thokozisa, we ran into a few of Travis’s friends, who we joined for a beer on the patio. Bruce was a tall man with a shaved head and the skin tone of a southern European, wearing a royal blue t-shirt and jeans. He had a wide smile with teeth that jutted in a way that made him look all the more gleeful, and the lined face that suggested he was someone who had smiled copiously in his lifetime. He spoke with a slight lisp and laughed great belly-laughs as he recounted how he had to swim after his peg-leg when it had come loose during a wakeboarding session on the coast.
“So how do you keep from losing it now?” Travis asked him.
“Duct tape,” he answered. “I duct tape it to myself.”
We went inside the bar, and soon after someone produced a vuvuzela – a long plastic horn that produces a single, blaring note, and was soon to cause trouble at the World Cup when some teams found its prominence in the stands distracting. When Travis blew it in the bar over his Windhoek Draught, a small man in a grey newsboy hat and an argyle sweater-vest smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. The next night, at a bar called Four Rivers, it wasn’t so well received.
“That lady yelled at me for blowing my vuvuzela when her baby was trying to sleep in the stroller,” an incredulous Travis said to me the next morning, “why did she have her baby in a bar?”
He had managed to lose his wallet that night, but not his vuvuzela.
The next morning we awoke early to meet a van in Winterton, which would drive us to a town just outside of Pietermaritzburg for Old Boys’ Day – something like a high school reunion – at the secondary school that Travis had attended. As we stood at the sidelines of the rugby pitch watching the kids play, other students, dressed in knitted sweaters emblazoned with a coat of arms over collared shirts, pressed khaki shorts and knee-high socks, walked past, nodding at us and saying cordially, “Good morning ma’am. Good morning sir.”
Bemused, I looked down at my ripped jeans and at the scraggly bunch of middle-twenties guys I was with, with their five-o-clock shadows, hats cocked at odd angles, and hands clutching warm beers, looking more like “dudes” than “sirs.” So I asked about it.
“They have to say it. We had to say it too on Old Boys’ Day. It’s just the way it is, a sign of respect,” explained Matt, “They also have to do everything we tell them to. Watch.” He shouted at a passing boy, who looked over wearily but trotted to Matt’s side obediently.
“Do ten pushups,” Matt instructed, and glanced mischievously at me. “Ten for Jen.”
The boy got down on the ground and began doing pushups, inhaling and exhaling sharply.
“No,” Matt said, “Count them. One for Jen, two for Jen…”
“One…two…” the boy began.
“I can’t hear the ‘for Jen’!” Matt barked. “Start over.”
The boy sighed and began again. “One for Jen…two for Jen…”
I stood aside, biting my lip and covering my flushed face with one hand.
When the boy had finished, Matt demanded, “Now who do you love most in the world? Don’t get it wrong.”
The boy thought for a moment. “My mother, sir.”
“No, for god’s sake, Jen! Now do another ten for Jen.”
This continued throughout the day, interrupted occasionally for other, more critical demands.
“How fast can Stork run the hundred meter?” the Old Boys asked a pair of students.
They looked at each other blankly. “I don’t know, sir,” one of them responded.
“Oh my God,” the Old Boys huffed, rolling their eyes. “Then where is Luke?”
“Um…I don’t know, sir,” said the other one.
“For god’s sake! Figure it out! You have ten minutes to sort it out.”
“Yes sir. I’ll arrange it.” He scurried off, head down, and never reappeared.
“Get Mrs. Boast’s phone number,” one of the guys demanded to another boy, “tell her Travis wants it.”
The boy’s eyes widened and he grimaced over protruding braces. “Mrs. Boast?” he squeaked, and ran toward the stands.
Travis leaned over to me. “Mrs. Boast was our Afrikaans teacher. We thought she was so fit.”
The boy returned a few minutes later. “She says if you want to talk to her you must phone the front office,” he reported.
“Go ask her if she’ll go on a date with us,” said Travis’s friend.
The boy scuttled away and returned looking sheepish. “She just turned and walked away,” he said nervously.
“Fine, go buy me a Coke,” the Old Boy demanded.
By that evening we had drunk more than just Coke, and I spent the next day’s six-hour bus ride to Johannesburg sprawled across three seats with my head against the window, clutching a bottle of fruit juice and fending off The Spins, as miles of countryside, eucalyptus plantations, and rest stops slid past my window.