Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Monday, March 5, 2012
In the meantime, I highly recommend Longreads for, as they accurately put it "the best long-form stories on the web."
Monday, February 20, 2012
Continued from here.
With visions of Johannesburg squarely in our rear-view we started making our way out of Gauteng province and through Mpumalanga, towards Kruger National Park. As multi-hour car trips go, this one has to rank among the most underwhelming in my life. The landscape was flat, vast and unchanging. The only notable breaks in the monotony were nuclear power plants at regular intervals and a packed, very Westernized shopping mall in perplexing proximity to absolutely nowhere.
We had booked a guided sunset drive at Kruger to start at 5:30, and as the afternoon stretched out and the drive took longer than we had anticipated, we started watching the clock a little more closely. We pulled into the parking lot at Kruger's Crocodile Bridge entry gate at around 4:00, and with only one other family in the office getting their permits and paying their entry fees, we thought we had plenty of time. We were wrong.
The long rectangular office was sparse and silent, with three largely uninspired South Africa National Parks employees sitting behind the counter. Dated posters hung on the walls, while brochure racks sat empty and ceiling fans waged a futile war against the stifling afternoon heat. The simple act of paying our entry fee for the week and confirming our in-park accommodation and pre-booked game drives turned into an hour-long ordeal thanks to the woman who was “helping” us, whose attitude could generously be described as disinterested.
As we were getting sorted out, a mini bus crammed with fifteen or so native South Africans pulled up, its passengers excitedly spilling out while a few spokespeople came into the office.
“We have come to see the animals!” one of the group excitedly declared, while others stood next to the vehicle and sipped liberally from bottles pulled out of the cooler they had with them. More than one of them were unsteady on their feet, and the park's employees didn’t seem too keen on letting them in to the park.
“You don’t have enough time to come in on a day pass,” the most senior among them explained. “The gates close in ninety minutes, you can’t get across the park in that time. And besides, you have been drinking.”
“But we paid a lot of money and came a long way. We just got lost.”
“You should have looked at a map.”
Some of the passengers were clearly drunk and not bothered, while others were disappointed that their adventure to Kruger seemed to be ending at the entry gate, especially after they had shelled out for the mini bus ride and come some distance. South Africa is full of born and bred locals who have never seen its most iconic sights. It is rare for someone selling animal sculptures in one of the country’s towns to have seen the flesh-and-bone versions of the cheap, mass-produced likenesses they are hawking. I thought it a shame to see this group of residents get turned away.
“OK, we will come back tomorrow,” said one especially deflated young man. That prospect seemed dim.
By the time we finally had our accommodation and permits sorted out and drove to the dusty and seemingly post-apocalyptic free-for-all camping area, we had less than ten minutes until our guided game drive was set to start. I threw the tent up in record, frantic time (with no assigned campsites, we needed to assert our space) and we each took a quick bath in bug dope after donning our long sleeves - malaria being a bitch best avoided.
We sprinted the hundred meters from the campsite to the meeting point for the game drive, on the wide swath of road in between Crocodile Bridge rest camp's modest gift shop/restaurant and even more modest two-pump gas station. We arrived frazzled and sweaty. "Slow down, you're in Africa," a fellow guest told us. "You're throwing off the balance." Realizing that we were in no danger of missing the boat, so to speak, we both took a few sheepish and calming deep breaths as we climbed into the back of the game vehicle: an oversized, deep-green pickup with a canopy over several rows of benches in the bed, an aisle running down the middle, and no glass behind the cab. We plunked ourselves down on the right hand side, halfway back.
While they are an added expense, guided drives are a near-necessity in Kruger. Park roads are closed to private vehicles before sunup and after sundown (at nighttime, overnight guests are confined to Kruger's rest camps, which are the only parts of the park that are fenced in), so the guided drives are the only way to get around the park at those times when the animals are most active.
Our fellow passengers consisted of three small groups of people. One was led by a wordy forty-something mother who would wear two different hats over the course of the drive, each of which perfectly matched her club-ready teal tank top - a garment which left little doubt as to the volume of her two most prized assets. She was adamant that she ride in the cab of the truck next to our driver and guide (whom she insisted move his rifle so that she could sit down), rather than in the back with the sinners and gluttons. She made it known almost immediately that she had become bored with the large number of lions she was seeing in the park, and she came equipped with a novel and iPod, I suppose in case we suddenly changed course and decided to take a family road trip to Des Moines rather than spend the evening wildlife watching in Kruger.
The driver and guide she cozied up next to was named City (yes, City): a tall, young, black man, whose crisply pressed, short-sleeved khaki uniform billowed off of his slight frame. City was soft spoken and to the point, but it was clear to see that he loved his job, and he would prove to be as passionate about the park's animals as anyone we would meet over the coming days.
On the first row of benches in the truck's bed sat the busty mother's similarly-endowed daughter, and the daughter's camera happy boyfriend. A few rows behind them were Sarah and I, while a couple similar in age to us was immediately across the aisle on the left. In the back was a family of five. Near as we could tell, we were the only foreigners on the drive.
City rose in the cab and turned to address the passengers, giving the stock "hands and feet inside, no littering" speech that is common to roller coasters, school buses and, evidently, sunset safaris. The excitement welled in Sarah's eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks as City listed the animals we could expect to see, speaking matter-of-factly and without a pandering enthusiasm. He then fired up the engine and took us slowly through Crocodile Bridge's towering gate and out onto the silent roads of the park, while the fading sun feebly breathed the day's last warmth onto the stunted landscape.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
"Sarah and Hart?! Sarah and Hart?!"
It wasn't our typical seven AM wake-up call on a Sunday morning, so we knew something was up. I said a groggy hello as I jumped up and made my way to the door.
"Your car's been broken into," he said, "and your door was open. I think they came into your house, too. They probably took your computer."
By this point I had pushed past him to look at the car, but Sarah was still inside.
"Yup," she said. "Harty, the computer's gone."
I walked around the back of the cottage, knowing what I would see. Or rather, what I wouldn't see. My bike had been stolen.
Son. Of. A. Bitch. (That is the family-friendly version of what I actually said).
It would seem that the thieves came up from the river out back, hopped the locked, chest-high gate and approached the rental car that sat beside our cottage. Sarah's parents are visiting for a couple of weeks - though they aren't staying with us, due to a lack of space - and the car is theirs. The thieves smashed the driver's window and then reached in and rolled down the other ones, so as to have access to the goodies inside without tripping the alarm by opening a door. And what goodies were inside, you ask? An iPod, two pairs of binoculars and some smaller odds and ends. We have been vigilant about taking everything from cars inside at night, but when we'd returned home late Saturday night, exhausted after a day of wildlife viewing in and around Table Mountain National Park, we omitted to bring some things in.
After helping themselves to what was in the car, they tried our front door and found it unlocked - again, we'd been tired and complacent after a long day. I have previously posted about the size of our one-room cottage (comparable in area to your basic kitchen/living room combo in a small apartment), so for someone to have come in while we slept is as brazen for them as it is unsettling for us. Once inside they made a quick sweep and did quite well for themselves: laptop, camera, another pair of binoculars, my shorts (including, as a special bonus: cash, credit cards, my driver's license and passport) and our jar of change which had swelled handsomely in the past few months.
Apparently the white noise from our fan drowns out more than just our neighbour's rooster, and neither one of us heard a thing.
After cleaning out the apartment, they grabbed the bike and a pair of my trail runners that were sitting outside (kindly leaving me with my dirty socks that were inside them), hopped the fence out back and made their way across the river and through the lemon grove on the other side.
Obviously, there is some self-blame here, as we'd been told to always keep our valuables out of sight (something that falls squarely in the "common sense" category) and my landlord had explicitly told me to keep the bike inside. "It will get stolen" he had told me. But bringing the bike into our modest digs made things just a little too crowded, so every so often I deliberately forgot to bring it in. Truth be told, we had just gotten a little too comfortable. Our neighbourhood is friendly and people of all stripes - shack dwellers and those in gated single family homes alike - have welcomed us with open arms. A quick walk down the street always involves stopping to chat with people we may or may not have met previously. Amid all of this warmth, it was easy to rationalise easing up on the exhausting level of vigilance which we had been warned to exercise at all times.
The police came relatively promptly, and took quite a while following the bike tracks on the other side of the river until losing them at a paved road. My shorts and passport were found down by the river, as was my bike helmet (gee, thanks) and the empty change jar. The police then spent over an hour taking detailed statements, before a forensics officer came and lifted prints from the car window. I am aware that most of this was an effort in pacification, but to a modest extent, it worked.
As is always the case when things like this happen, the biggest losses are the things that can't be replaced. Among other things, a good chunk of our once-in-a-lifetime pictures from our recent stint in Kruger National Park are gone. Beyond that, we lost all of the pictures from our post-Kruger country-wide road trip, and most of our other pictures from the past couple of years (the recent pictures were on a memory card in the camera, while older ones were on the laptop's hard drive). Sarah gets a real joy from the pictures she takes along the way, and they help to frame her memories, so they are a major loss for her.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Owing to those security concerns, once our post-dinner drinks had wrapped up and I was ready to make my way solo back to our room (Sarah had called it a slightly earlier night than I did), I took the locals' advice and flagged a cab to get me the four blocks back to the guesthouse where we were staying. A walk home in the summer breeze is usually a highlight of warm-weather nights out for me, but apparently for an out-of-towner in Joburg it is a dangerous luxury best not undertaken.
When I returned sober after only a handful of evenly spaced Coronas, Sarah was still awake. I was glad for that, as our room was quite lovely and I wanted to enjoy it before falling asleep. Character furniture was scattered throughout, including a sizable, ornately carved armoire with mirrors on its doors. A bricked-over fireplace with plush chairs facing it and a nearby antique writing desk oozed a classical energy. I felt like I should have been dipping my quill in an ink well and signing the Declaration of Independence as I sat at the solid wood desk next to the armoire to make my day's journal entries, and the en suite bathroom with sunken tub only added to the room's aura. In the daylight hours, birds chirped in the garden outside the room while the resident cat chilled on the roof.
Up early the next morning for the included full breakfast (a nice surprise, and something that didn't seem to make sense given the reasonable rate we were paying) and then out to the car with Kruger on our minds.
The parking area of the guesthouse was tiny: a barely functional patch of brick that gave just enough room to complete a nine-point turn before exiting through the solid-metal security gate. I opted to back out at an angle rather than turn the car around. Apparently, the employee with her finger on the sliding gate's controls thought I should have moved a little bit quicker, because I was only halfway out the gate - moving slowly so as to avoid a tree on the sidewalk - when it started closing in on the car with the sort of slow-motion inevitability usually reserved for B-grade horror movies.
The gate hit the car with a hybridized crunching noise that can only be described as the sound of a trip to Kruger being postponed.
Sarah and I both swore in a way that can only be described as yelling.
I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car to survey the damage, while the woman who had been operating the gate's controls stood back and let the manager deal with me. Christine, the manager, was a large, soulful woman with whom I had developed a rather jovial rapport during our 19-hour stay.
"What happened?" she asked, not yet seeing it necessary to rise from her chaise lounge next to the pool which was down a small, grassy hill from the parking area.
"Well, your gate hit my car, and I don't think I should have to pay for it," I responded, in a friendly but to-the-point tone. I hoped that she would agree with me and that we could all remain on friendly terms with good vibes prevailing.
Christine rose to her feet and ambled over to take a look, her relaxed attitude helping to keep the situation mellow.
Mercifully and owing the design of the gate, the only nick on the car was a circular scrape about the size of a South African five rand coin (or Canadian toonie) just above the rear passenger wheel well. A crowd had gathered and one bystander taught me the useful trick of buffing out scratches using a corner of t-shirt soaked in the car's hydraulic fluid. Still though, the scratch remained. If it was my car I probably wouldn't have cared too much, but I wasn't so sure that the good folks at the rental company would share my laissez-faire attitude, so Christine and I negotiated a modest cash settlement on the spot. With that, Sarah and I were on our way, cash in hand, with the scratch quickly becoming not only an endearing birthmark on the visual surface of our trip, but also a helpful way to tell our car apart from the many others of similar size and colour which populate South Africa's roads.
Kruger National Park, here we come.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Friday, October 28, 2011
Even the most agreeable of Canadians has his breaking point, and the lack of tail lights and subsequently discovered absence of seat belts in the back of the car has pushed me past mine. I call David on Friday morning.
"David, it's Hart, how's it goin'?"
"Good Hart, how are you?"
"I'm not happy, man. The car has no tail lights."
"What do you mean? The tail lights are out?"
"Yeah, both of them."
"Alright, give me a half hour, let me call you back."
"No. Let's just be done with this. How about you come get the car, give me my deposit back and a refund for this final week and we can just go our separate ways." I have zero interest in rolling the dice on a fifth vehicle in three weeks from CA Car Rental's fleet of joy.
"Alright, let me talk to my boss."
A couple of hours later, he texts me (texts are reproduced verbatim):
"Hi boss says you can return car and monies will be refunded as per lease agreement."
I have no intention of driving the car to Cape Town, which is what he is suggesting here. Furthermore, I am not interested in conducting things "as per lease agreement," as it is skewed heavily in their favour in circumstances like these, and is so porous, legally speaking, that I could use it to strain my mac and cheese. I decide to high-road it with my response, being polite while playing a little bit dumb.
"Good to hear, thanks David. I know this is not your fault. Let me know when you can meet me with 3950 in cash for my deposit and final week's rental fee."
"The deposit only gets returned 7 days after the car gets returned. Let me know when you can return the car."
"No, I will need the deposit as soon as I return the car. I have had this one for four days and barely driven it. I know what the lease agreement says, but given the condition of the cars you have given me, I will not hand the car over until I have my full deposit back and refund for the final week." David has a snowball's chance in hell of getting the car from me before I have all of my money back in my hand. Things are on the verge of getting testy, but at this point I feel entitled to draw a line in the sand, so to speak.
"I will talk to my boss. You will have to return car and pay us for delivery as we only do free deliveries on monthly rentals."
"This was a monthly rental until you gave me four shitty, unsafe cars."
In response to this, David claims that all of the cars I have given back to him were immediately rented out to other customers without complaint. Given the front control arm situation of the last one, among other things, I find this hard to believe. I tell him as much.
A few more texts go back and forth. My initial request was for R3,950 for them to come get the car. After some more negotiating, I suggest R3,500, with me therefore paying for both delivery and collection of the car. I am willing to budge somewhat in order to get my money back in my pocket and CA Car Rental out of my life.
"He said you can bring car tomo and get R3500 refund in cash."
I tell David that I won't bring the car to Cape Town, as we have been dealing in Stellenbosch all along, and my offer of R3,500 factors in their standard delivery costs. We go back and forth a few more times during the rest of the afternoon - with David insisting that they are being altruistic and never acknowledging that they have been giving me horrible cars - and arrangements get finalized. I will meet the driver in the usual gas station/fast food parking lot in Stellenbosch at eleven o'clock the next morning. I make a point of confirming that the driver will have R3,500 in cash for me. David says that yes, he will.
Sarah and I awake early on Saturday to take a scenic drive along the coast and try to drain as much gas as we can before handing back the car (we even consider trying our hand at siphoning at one point). We make a scheduled stop so that I can buy a bike - something that I would be doing whether or not we were keeping the car. At twenty after eleven, I pull into the parking lot. Amid the frenetic weekend morning buzz of people and cars, I spot Rasta over by the gas pumps. We greet each other like old friends.
"Hey Rasta, howzit?" I ask, having adopted the local slang.
"Good. Do you have a South African account?"
"Oh, well Boss [David] gave me his bank card, but there's a limit of two thousand. We can't give you thirty five hundred."
"Well, that's a problem. I'm going to need thirty five hundred to give you the car back. That was what David and I agreed on." And we had. Explicitly and unambiguously.
"OK. I'll call him."
Rasta gets David on the phone, and quickly passes the phone over to me.
"Yes Hart, do you have a South African account number you can give us?"
"No I don't."
"Do you have a friend's account number you can give us?"
"No, I don't David. I'm not from here and haven't been here long."
"Well, Rasta can only give you two thousand now."
"Well, that's a problem. I need thirty five hundred, like we agreed on."
"Hart, you will LISTEN TO ME," David is clearly within an inch of his boiling point. "I am sick of this and I AM NOT WORKING FOR YOU. You will give him the car, take the two thousand and we will get the rest to you."
"David, we made a deal here. Thirty five hundred or I don't give you the car."
Boiling point reached.
"HART I AM SICK OF YOU JERKING ME AROUND!" He is now yelling every word. "YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME AND MY BOSS'S TIME! WE DO NOT OPERATE LIKE THIS! YOU WILL GIVE THE CAR TO RASTA AND COME TO TABLE VIEW [Cape Town] TO GET THE REST OF THE MONEY!"
"Listen man, we made a deal. We said thirty fi-" David cuts me off.
"DID YOU READ THE CONTRACT? IT SAYS SEVEN DAYS TO RETURN THE MONEY AND YOU GIVE ME A BANK ACCOUNT NUMBER! DID YOU READ THE CONTRACT?"
"David, we made a deal yesterday. You agreed to thirty five hund-"
"DID YOU READ THE CONTRACT?! YES OR NO?!"
"Yeah, I read the contract. But I also know that we made a deal yesterday for thirty five hundred today. You agreed to that, and that is why I came here. I need thirty five hundred bucks before you get the car."
"HART I WILL NOT NEGOTIATE WITH YOU! YOU CANNOT ACT LIKE THIS! WE DO NOT OPERATE LIKE THIS AND I DO NOT WORK FOR YOU! WHY DID YOU GIVE ME CASH WHEN IT SAYS NOT TO IN THE CONTRACT?!"
"Well you were OK with taking the cash from me, weren't you? I am not giving you this car without thirty five hundred in my hand. I don't know what else to tell you. You agr-"
"THAT'S NOT WHAT IT SAYS IN THE CONTRACT! WHY DID YOU SIGN THE CONTRACT IF YOU WERE NOT GOING TO OBEY IT?!"
We go around in circles like this, with David acting like a child whose toy has been taken away while I firmly maintain my broken record stance. He refuses to acknowledge that he is trying to back out of yesterday's deal, and at one point threatens to call the police and report the car stolen. My scoffing response of "Fine, but the f***ing car isn't stolen, is it?" put that to bed immediately. People coming out of the convenience store start to stare as I become increasingly emphatic, and I feel just a little bit shady.
Around and around we go. Rasta hangs out, unfazed, while Sarah watches intently from a few cars over.
I feel emboldened, but am being careful not to get dragged down to David's level of discourse despite raising my voice every so often, and employing increasingly colourful language. Had they not given me four dysfunctional cars and been conveniently unreachable at various times, I might be a little more open to negotiating and trusting of them. As it stands, though, they haven't given me any reason to believe that I will get a dime from them once the car is out of my sight. I am sticking to my guns.
David chastises me for dealing in cash with them, even though he was only too happy to take it on the front end. He is insistent that I take the two thousand and give Rasta the car, after which point I can either give him a South African bank account number (he does not seem to understand that I did not have one when we started this charming little back-and-forth, and have not signed up for one in the interim), or drive with Rasta to Cape Town to collect the balance owed, thus leaving me without wheels to get back from Cape Town to Stellenbosch. Not interested.
"I WILL NOT SEND ANOTHER DRIVER OUT THERE JUST FOR FIFTEEN HUNDRED, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?! I DO NOT WORK FOR YOU, AND I WILL NOT NEGOTIATE WITH YOU! I'M SICK OF THIS!"
I'm not keen to negotiate either, as it is clear that it will get me nowhere. My time in front of judges in both the formal and makeshift courtrooms of the Northwest Territories during the preceding year sharpened my skills of argument and persuasion, but clearly I am dealing with an irrational character with little regard for civility. He insists that I put Rasta back on the phone ("YOU ARE WASTING OUR AIR TIME!"), and when I don't, he hangs up, only to call back ten seconds later in an attempt to circumvent me.
Rasta answers, talks to him briefly, and hangs up.
"So, what's the problem?" he asks, as if he is a curious passerby only just now arriving.
I tell him what the issue is. I say that I am sorry he is caught in the middle of a dispute that has turned somewhat nasty, as I know that he just works here, so to speak. Despite the fact that I'm not the one signing his paychecks, there is an air of impartiality in his understated demeanor that I find reassuring. He pauses and gives me a conspiratorial nod as the sun reaches its midday apex.
"Let me see if I can find some money. I'll call you when I have it."
Seeing no other glimmers of hope, and steadfastly refusing to hand over the car, I agree. We part ways and Sarah and I head out of town for a bit of a drive. We head due north, driving parallel to the mountains as we exchange the stunted, early season wine fields of Stellenbosch for golden brown pastures speckled with grazing cattle. I don't say much, reflecting on the scene that just unfolded and trying to figure who has the upper hand. I have their car and some stubbornness, they have my money and irrationality. The contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on, so that's a wash, and David doesn't seem to think that the fact that they have given me such brutal and broken cars is relevant. We seem to be deadlocked, leverage-wise. I wonder whether Rasta is actually trying to rustle up some cash or if he has just high-tailed it back to Cape Town.
After driving for a half hour without much change in scenery, we turn around, opting to visit the friends who staff the hostel where we stayed when we first arrived in town. Draining another hour's worth of fuel from the car gives me a small sense of control.
We have been at the hostel for half a beer when Rasta calls me.
"I am there."
"At the gas station? And you have the money?"
"Come meet me."
Back we go. I have no idea whether I am going to be greeted by a handful of money or a fist full of rage - though I am doubtful that Rasta himself would resort to violence - so I suggest that Sarah wait in the car. I approach Rasta's ride for the day: a dented, aging blue Camry with a Haile Selaissie t-shirt neatly splayed in the back window. He pops out of the passenger seat and immediately hands me a gangster-sized wad of mixed bills: 200s, 100s, 50s and 20s. My hands shake slightly as he watches me count it. Sure enough, 3,500 on the nose. I don't dare ask where or how he rustled it up so quickly, apparently without a working bank card. We exchange smiles and hand shakes and he mumbles something that I don't quite hear as we begin to part ways.
"Sorry, what was that?"
"I said don't forget us when you go back home."
Rasta, my friend, I don't think that's possible.