Friday, October 28, 2011

CA Car Rental, Part Three: An Unlikely Hero

The third in a three-part series. Part one is here and part two is here.

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?"

"Um, no."

"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.

"Hello, David?"

"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.


"Listen man, we made a deal. We said thirty fi-" David cuts me off.


"David, we made a deal yesterday. You agreed to thirty five hund-"


"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."


"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-"


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'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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

CA Car Rental, Part Two: Grinding my Gears

The second in a three-part series. For part one, click here.

The son-of-a-bitching car has no gas pedal.

I point this out to Rasta, to which he enthusiastically replies "Oh." I don't bother to ask whether or not he noticed the pedal was missing when he delivered the car to us not three minutes ago (the metal rod that the pedal attaches to is in place, so the car is marginally functional). When I ask what he's going to do about it he responds "I don't know. You should call David". So I call David, who asks to speak to Rasta, who then informs me that he is going to get the car fixed at a nearby garage and call me when it's ready. I go into the fast food restaurant to lunch on a milk shake and french fries, vegetarian options being limited. Sarah and I write postcards while awaiting his call, and I am still supposed to be at work.

Ninety minutes later we pick the car up from Rasta and are on our way. It turns out to be a smooth-riding vehicle, and we are so relieved to have a nicely running car that we overlook the fact that it lacks a rear-view mirror and its registration sticker is not only expired but clearly transplanted from a different vehicle. Also there is a hole where the stereo once was, patched up with a piece of cardboard that has been colored black with a marker. Like the two other cars we have been given, the fuel gauge is resting on the red when we take possession. We decide to drive it at least for the weekend, after which we will decided whether to keep it for the duration of the month, or sever our ties with CA Car Rental and ask for a refund of the balance of our rental, due to the shoddy nature of what they have been giving us.

We are still in possession of more vehicle than our rental fee + deposit is worth, so I feel confident that I will come out ahead in the not-entirely-implausible event that CA Car Hire turns out to be a fly-by-night operation and closes up shop while I have a car of theirs. And we do have all of the freedom we were hoping a car would bring us, while paying far less than we would with any other nearby operation.

We spend the weekend exploring beaches, surf towns, and roads precariously etched into mountainsides that drop sharply into the waters of False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The car treats us well and I move up from novice to intermediate when it comes to driving a standard. After a few days we both feel that it is safe to exhale.

Then Wednesday comes, and a tire blows.

It would seem that the cue-ball shiny go kart tires on the Golf don't hold up so well when nudged against a curb during a parallel park. After some deliberation we decide to take care of it ourselves and avoid testing CA Car Rental's "24 hour roadside assistance guarantee" or giving them a reason to hang on to any deposit money. A further complication arises when we discover that the spare in the trunk does not fit on the car. While it proves to be an afternoon's headache, the tire is eventually fixed at a garage for R25 (about three bucks and change, Canadian). But not, I should add, before it becomes a certified gong show involving a group of homeless men, a Baptist pastor, a bag of groceries and some stolen tools.

A couple days later we head into our third weekend of CA Car Hire patronage, feeling exasperated but grateful for a car nonetheless and making the most of it. Saturday afternoon sees us at a nearby nature reserve, hiking to some hidden mountain waterfalls and watching for leopards and honey badgers (none to be found). Coming back from the hike we opt for a pizza from our favourite take-out joint, nestled in the corner of a strip mall at a busy intersection which is on our way home. Sarah is driving, and as she turns left into the parking lot, the car exudes a grinding sound so loud that I can only assume that somewhere along the way we have run over a bag of Ski Doo parts and are now dragging it behind us.

"Harty, what was that?"

"Ummm...I don't know. Pull into the parking lot anyway, it was probably just a one-off thing." I am pretty sure it wasn't.

We pull slowly into the lot, and as we make a left turn into a parking space in an empty row, the grinding comes back. It is clearly coming from somewhere around the wheel well on the front driver's side, so I get out to take a look.

The bumper has been a little bit loose since we picked the car up (with no rear-view mirror and an expired registration that belongs to a different vehicle, complaining about a loose bumper seems like splitting hairs) so I start to tinker with it in an act of maintenance that is the vehicular equivalent of jiggling the handle. A bystander jogs over after watching and hearing us turn in.

"It's not your bumper, mate."


"No, it's the wheel. It's loose. Looks like your ball joint is shot. Watch." And with that he reaches through the open driver's side window, grabs the steering wheel and gives it three quick shakes back and forth. As he does this, the front driver's side wheel wobbles like Boris Yeltsin at closing time, so I can see why it would be grinding against the bumper. This could be a problem.

We head inside and enjoy our pizza. As we emerge I make the potentially dangerous decision that we will drive the car home, slowly. It's only about ten minutes away, and I'd rather have the car at home and deal with things there than have to worry about finding somewhere secure to leave the car and getting home after dark on a Saturday (no real public transit, remember). We cruise home with the hazard lights on and the car half on the shoulder. Sarah is at the wheel while I take on the duty of shrugging apologetically to everyone who has to pass us.

More texts and phone calls back and forth with David. I imagine he is as sick of me as I am of him at this point. He arranges to have a mechanic meet us at the gas station off the highway in Jamestown - the neighbourhood where we live - first thing on Monday morning. I am aware that he and I have different ideas of what "first thing" means, so I let work know that I'll be late.

Monday morning we get the call that the mechanic is at the gas station. We hop in the car, limp down the road, pull in to the parking lot and I spot my new buddy Rasta - everyone's favourite pint-sized, mumbling, dreadlocked mechanic - inside. He is buying two bags of potato chips, apparently having somehow worked up a hunger at this early hour. I explain to him the problem: wheel grinding against the bumper when turning and, in a new development, a sharp pulling to the left. He takes the car for a spin around the parking lot, which corroborates my story. He gets out and looks underneath the car, and is rather surprised to see a front control arm which is snapped like a twig, its now-two pieces pointing limply at the ground in 45 degree angles. I don't know much about cars, but what I know about the English language tells me that a "front control arm" is probably something that you want in one piece.

Rasta shows annoyance at the fact that someone has clearly welded the arm back together, rather than replacing it when it broke previously. We offer to give him a ride to a garage, to which he resolutely replies "No. I need to stay here and work out a plan."

Might I suggest finding a new employer?

We trade cars with him and pull away in yet another VW Golf. This one is bright white, with a rear-view mirror, working radio and legit registration. I feel like a show off. This is car number four in a little over two weeks, and I am starting to think that the CA Car Rental people are just really patient scammers who keep out-of-towners in marginally functional cars as a way of pacifying them before stealing their deposits. I can't come up with any other rational explanation for how these people operate. I silently resolve to not hand back the keys to them until I have my deposit back in full, despite the fact that the contract gives the company seven days to refund the deposit after a car is returned. I am forced to reconcile my inclination to count down the remaining days I have to deal with this company on the one hand, with my desire to not wish away my time in South Africa on the other. I continue to focus on the positives at this point, as we once again have a car that will get us from point A to point B (for now, anyway). We have also realized that the occasional weekend rental from an upstanding agency will certainly suffice in the future, as we aren't using the car much during the week.

We periodically cruise around in the white Golf over the next few days. Thursday night we decide to make an after-dark run to the grocery store in Jamestown to grab a couple of things for the weekend. Sarah drives, and I open the gate at the top of our steep driveway, waiting for her to pull out so that I can close it behind us. I do a quick walk around the car before jumping in, making idle chit chat as we pull away.

"Sarah, are the headlights on?"

"Yeah, why?"


"Don't tell me there are no tail lights."

"Nope, no tail lights."

"Jesus Christ."

This is the last straw. I have been patient bordering on pushover with these guys, but there is now no question that I need to get my money back in my hands and end this thing ASAP. I plan to get in touch with David on Friday morning to arrange an exchange: I'll give him back the car, he'll give me back my full deposit plus a refund for the final week's rental (which I am bailing on), in cash, on the spot. I do not anticipate that he will take kindly to this proposition, but I know that I won't accept anything else.

To say that he does not take kindly is an understatement. I could not have anticipated just how contentious things were about to become, nor could I have foreseen the unlikely hero who would emerge to save the day.

Will Lassie save Timmy from the evil car renters? Click here to find out in our thrilling conclusion.

Monday, October 24, 2011

CA Car Rental, Part One: Waiting on a Rasta

It is early on a Friday afternoon, and I am sitting on a curb in a parking lot. Behind me, a constant stream of locals flows in and out of a fast food restaurant and convenience store. In front of me, a chaotic ballet of cars jockey for position among the gas pumps and parking spots, while attendants in matching hats and jackets scurry in all directions. The sun is unimpeded by clouds, and even though the calendar says that it's still spring, I haven't felt a summer day this hot in a long time. If this weather was a person, it would be Shania Twain: hot for a Canadian. I am supposed to be at work, rather than sitting in this parking lot, waiting for a delivery.

Heat radiates upwards from the asphalt and I start to sweat in the afternoon sun.

I don't know the name of the guy I am meeting, and the transaction has been set up by a third party whose business card curiously omits his last name. "He knows who he's looking for," my contact person assures me beforehand. When I call him back after his guy is late, he responds with "I'll call him and check, but he knows to look for you. If you need to spot him, he's sort of a Rasta man." And so I sit in the parking lot awaiting the delivery guy who I realize I had previously met during a meeting a few days ago, when he was introduced to me in all his dreadlocked glory as "Rasta". Clever.

This all feels dangerously under the radar, but when you rent a car from an undercutting operation in South Africa, I suppose that sketchy deals in parking lots are the cost of doing business. Indeed, Rasta is not bringing me something weighed by the gram and sold in plastic bags. Rather, he is delivering me a car. My third car in a week from the questionable operation known as CA Car Rental.

Let's back it up.

For a combination of financial and environmental concerns (it is really easy to be a self-righteous environmentalist when you are on a modest budget) I had not planned on using a car while living in Stellenbosch, save for occasional weekend rentals. It soon became apparent, however, that this is a spread out community sorely lacking in reasonable options for public transportation, and conventional taxis as I know them are non-existent. There are "mini-bus taxis," which I take to and from work, but they can be tantamount to seventeen-person death cans with flashy paint jobs, and cannot be relied on for consistency in scheduling, nor do they venture to many of the places I have been hoping to explore.

We need a car.

With buying price-prohibitive, we discover a few options for long-term rentals, some of which are budget outfits catering directly to students and international workers. Based on price, availability and online reviews, we narrow it down to CA Car Rental, based out of Cape Town but willing to deliver to Stellenbosch, about an hour down the road. The company has a generic website and a somewhat disconcerting lack of an online presence in the digital age (though it is my sincere hope to help them build their online brand identity with this post). Still, after some deliberation and discussion with their employee "David" (name that was given to me but may not be real), we arrange to have a car delivered to us one Friday afternoon for a one month rental.

On Thursday afternoon David calls me and asks if we could move things to Saturday, as the car he had promised me would not be available until then. No can do, I tell him. We need the car in order to move out of our hostel and into our new home, which is a few clicks outside of town. Fine, he says, and offers to bring me a temporary car smaller than the one I had reserved, which we can use for 24 hours and then trade on Saturday for my proper car. I say that is fine, but inform him that I will be withholding half of the rental fee until I am driving the proper car. I am already getting the sense that I have to be extra vigilant when dealing with this outfit.

The company prefers to deal in electronic funds transfers, but those requires a South African bank account, which I do not have. I check with David to make sure that we can deal in cash up front, and he readily accepts. I have to make two ATM trips to get the combined rental feel and deposit, which total somewhere around $900, Canadian, or R6,200.

On Friday afternoon David arrives at the hostel and we retreat to the picnic table in front of the sliding glass door in the kitchen to conduct business. Jeans and a slightly torn Springboks rugby jersey are his unconventional uniform, although with the price I'm paying I don't exactly expect an elderly man with a British accent in a proper chauffeur's get up. David is tall and stocky yet boyish in appearance, and certainly personable. He has with him with a bearded, dreadlocked and almost silent sidekick that he introduces as his mechanic, Rasta, the man who I will meet in the parking lot a week later. I resist the urge to ask Rasta where he got his name from, and he mumbles obediently when spoken to as he does some final tinkering with our short-term rental. The car is a bright green VW Golf sitting on rims with its windows tinted and a muffler that seems to do more amplifying than muffling. It looks and sounds like the third place finisher on Pimp My Ride: South African Redneck edition.

After signing a contract and getting David's business card (no last name) I watch him count the money I hand to him, aligning and stacking the hundred rand notes in separate piles. This is the only attention to any detail he exhibits. The business being done, we head on our way, excited to be leaving the hostel behind for a more permanent abode. The car is a stick shift, and given that my manual transmission skills are lacking, Sarah takes the wheel. I am promptly informed in no uncertain terms that what the car has in style, it sorely lacks in functionality. We look forward to making the switch for our proper car on Saturday afternoon.

David and I text back and forth on Saturday and I abide a few excuses as to why he is running late. He eventually tells me he is in town and asks where I can meet him. I remind him that I have suggested multiple times that we meet at the Shell station near my house, but he insists that he is unable to find it and inquires as to why I can't just meet him at the bar where he is waiting for me. Fine.

I should mention at this juncture that I was not raised in a barn, and have engaged in enough questionable behaviour of my own to develop a few street smarts over the years. I knew from the get go that I was dealing with somewhat less than a straightforward operation. Having said that, as long as they provided me with a car which I could sell for more than the deposit they had taken from me, I knew I was in OK shape and could come out ahead in a worst-case scenario. That said, selling a stolen car was a situation which I was certainly hoping to avoid.

We arrive at the empty upstairs bar and find David and his "driver," Jeff (must have been Rasta's day off) each on their second beer, smoke rising from the ash trays in front of them. We head outside to exchange cars: the VW Golf gets traded for a Daewoo Cielo, a Camry-sized four-door sedan from South Korea. My historical relations with Koreans have been generally enjoyable, so I superimpose some residual positivity onto the car. After some initial problems getting the driver's seat adjusted I hand David the balance I had withheld pending delivery of this car. "Oh shit, I forgot all about that. I guess that's what two beers will do to you." I feel it is less likely that I am being scammed given that the other side forgot to ask for my money. I also regret offering it to him.

We shake hands and go our separate ways, again with Sarah driving. We pull out of the parking lot and start to cruise the streets of Stellenbosch, which are muted and sleepy on a gray weekend afternoon. We aren't long out of the parking lot before the car starts lurching like a carnival ride in a death rattle. You would think the thing had squares for wheels, the way it is jumping and pausing. Shifting into second seems to alleviate the problem, but first gear remains a challenge that, when compounded with some questionable structural issues, make for a car that is, well, not of the ilk we had been hoping for, and not really drivable. I immediately call David, but his phone has been turned off, and there are no other phone numbers to be found for the company.

The next day I am able to rouse him, and have barely finished telling him what a joke this vehicle is when he offers to swap it out for me. This bout of top-notch customer service perplexes me, and I wonder if their motto should be "CA Car Rental: Our cars are crap but we sure are polite!" After more back-and-forths over the next couple of days, during which time Sarah and I are able to use the car but not necessarily enjoy it, David and I agree to exchange cars on Friday afternoon in the gas station parking lot in downtown Stellenbosch, where I sit on the asphalt in the hot sun, waiting for Rasta when I should be at work. He is late because he went to the wrong gas station.

He eventually shows and presents us with a teal VW Golf (no, not the first one we had) that he has just picked up from a previous renter. I thank him and take the keys and we go our separate ways. I am forced to run back to the Daewoo and jump in front of it as he pulls away, however, after sliding into the driver's seat of our replacement car and casually noticing that one crucial piece of equipment is missing.

But what piece was missing? Will Rasta get all MacGyver on the car and save the day? Click here for part 2 featuring the answers to these and other burning questions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

In Treehouses and Cottages

The house was described to me as a trailer standing up on one end. It would turn out to be a rather apt description, but while on the phone in Ottawa, talking to the man who would become my landlord in Yellowknife, it was hard to conceptualize. I moved North thinking of that place as a possibility in my housing search, but when it soon became apparent that a) there were almost zero vacancies to be found in Yellowknife in September of 2010; and b) that the location, design and size of the house were perfect, we moved into the standing up trailer and called it home for the next twelve months.

It was a quirky place, with a bright blue exterior and three levels stretching into the Northern sky. The first level had the bathroom, closet, wardrobe and water tank, which was in its own room off the bathroom. The tank was necessary, as above-ground water lines in that part of Yellowknife mean that in the colder months water gets delivered by truck semi-weekly and pumped directly into each residence. Heading up the steep, ladder/stairs hybrid would take you to the main level, with a living area and a kitchen that was small but had room enough for a full sized fridge and oven, along with plenty of cupboard space and just enough counter top. Up another nine steps/rungs, and you would be in the sleeping loft. On that level, I could just barely stand up at the top of the stairs against the front of the house, before the roof sloped sharply towards the back wall where it met with the floor. On perfect winter nights I could see the northern lights out my bedside window, while in summer, the midnight twilight snaked its way past the curtains and made for a disorienting presence while the leaves of birch trees obscured the view out the second and third floor windows. The landlords' part of the house, which was connected to ours via a deck out a back door on the second level, backed onto Ragged Ass Road.

It sat across the street from the edge of Great Slave Lake, and came with landlords and neighbours who embodied a generosity of spirit that is rare even for a tight knit community like Yellowknife. In a word it was perfect. We were spoiled in that tall, skinny home that I nicknamed The Treehouse, and it made for a tough place to say goodbye to with the knowledge that finding a similarly ideal spot in South Africa might be a challenge.

Yellowknife has since given way to my new home of Stellenbosch. "Stellie" is a multi-faceted small city, with two of those facets - wine money and university students from affluent families - making for much higher rent than I had anticipated or budgeted for. Despite two weeks of house-hunting that was assertive bordering on all-consuming, we were still living in a hostel without any solid leads when a friend of a friend of a friend suggested we take a look at her friends' place in the community of Jamestown, 6.5km from downtown Stellenbosch.

Jamestown is a curious community that sits off one of the main autoroutes that crisscrosses this part of the Western Cape. Immediately upon turning off the highway, one is greeted by a gas station, BMW dealership, gated community and small, indoor shopping mall. Hardly the stuff of the African immersion that I came here seeking. But immediately upon passing these roadside commercial sentries, a very organic community presents itself.

The gated community sits on the left hand side of Jamestown's main road - Weber's Valley Road - and is the first thing one sees when turning off the highway. One step further into Jamestown - and almost spooning with the gated community - is an informal settlement, or what one might call a shanty town, for lack of a better term. Here, shacks cobbled of wood, brick and scrap metal cascade down the hill from Jamestown's main road, but their patchwork appearance does not paint a fair picture of the permanence and resilience of either the structures themselves or the neighbourhood which they comprise. It is a small settlement, only stretching about two city blocks down from the road and one across, but is a centre of activity throughout the day.

Continuing on past the informal settlement, Weber's Valley Road stretches for another kilometer. On the right hand side, a half dozen equally spaced roads rise abruptly uphill and connect with secondary roads to form the small, irregular grid of residential streets where most of Jamestown lives. Single family homes abound. On the left hand side of the main road, individual families own plots of land rolling downhill towards a modest river. Most of them have crops planted in fields that, size-wise, fall somewhere between "Canadian backyard" and "small farm." There are a few very basic convenience stores on either side of the main road in town, where you can buy individual cigarettes, kerosene lamps and the usual assortment of empty calories and toothpaste. The last convenience store before the end of the road features a dusty pool table and two aging arcade games that are many years older than most of the children who pump them full of coins. It also sells hot, handmade vegetarian samosas for R2.50 apiece (around thirty five cents, Canadian). Aside from the three convenience stores there is no other commerce once you get past the shopping mall, which feels like a world away once you are safely out of its shadow. Near as I can tell, its primary clientele isn't Jamestown locals, anyway. Mountains, modest in stature but harsh and jagged in appearance, keep the community hemmed in on multiple sides and cast shadows of their own.

Just before Weber's Valley Road peters out into unpaved private drives, there is a modern looking white house on the left hand side. Like the others on that side of the road, the land unrolls lazily from the road, making its way downhill toward the tree-lined banks of the river, with large gardens dominating the yard. Unlike many of the others, however, this one has a small cottage in the backyard. The cottage is the rental property we were brought out to look at by a friend's friend friend after two weeks in the hostel, and it has since become the home that I am writing from tonight.

The cottage is small. Tiny, really, nestled where the land levels out before reaching to the river. There is a single room for living, sleeping, cooking and eating, plus a bathroom. No shower, but an old-fashioned claw-foot tub with a shower wand does the trick nicely. On workday mornings I kneel next to the tub while leaning over the side and hosing down my brown mop, although every so often I'm up early enough for a full bath. The main room has a small wood stove in the corner, which we have needed on a few of the cooler spring nights. Those nights are becoming fewer and farther between, however, as the African summer and its merciless heat (from what I've been told) fast approaches.

There is plenty of outdoor living space that serves as a functional part of our one-room estate. Brick patios extend the living room out dutch doors front and back, with the front patio guarded from the sun by ground-to-overhanging-roof bamboo shades. Out back, an old-fashioned half-sized kitchen table under the overhang serves as my breakfast nook, as I crunch on cereal and watch the morning sun on the mountains. A small, old portable fire pit - for cooking or ambiance - sits on the bricks, while a hurricane lantern dangles from the wooden beams. Given how small our place is, the outdoor living areas are crucial. Indeed, without them we likely would have passed on the place.

The landlords have supplied some furnishings - kitchenwares and a few tables and chairs in a meticulous-but-retro aesthetic - but we are still trying to find others. There was no fridge when we moved in, but we were immediately able to find a waist-high fridge/freezer combo. It's just big enough for the two of us, so long as we are willing to head to the grocery store a couple of times a week. It should keep us eating fresh, which is a good thing, and we have already made friends at the Saturday farmers' market nearby.

We are still without a bed, and will likely need a futon or sleeper couch because of space issues. Meantime, we are roughing it on our camping mats on the floor. One of the first nights we were here, I awoke to a rather chilly cottage at 4:30 in the morning. I rose from my sleeping mat to crouch by the wood stove, stoking the fire and coaxing its warmth out to the four corners of my new abode. Sleeping on a concrete floor and stoking the wood fire in the pre-dawn darkness on a workday...this lawyer business sure is fancy.

There is wildlife aplenty, both au natural and domesticated. The landlords have four cats and three ducks that wander the property at will, and helmeted guinea fowl and Egyptian geese spend lazy afternoons snacking in the gardens. Otters have been known to come up from the river and prowl around at night, which is why there are three ducks when there used to be four. A spotted eagle owl sleeps in one of our bigger trees by day and makes the fields his grocery store by night. Our noisiest neighbour is a rooster belonging to the family next door, who every morning has me contemplating an end to my vegetarian ways.

We have been in the cottage for two weeks now, and despite a few crucial missing pieces of furniture - a bed and a dresser, most notably - are feeling nicely settled. It's 10:30 on a Sunday night now. The crickets are providing their own brand of white noise and the owl sang us his haunting tune a few minutes ago as we stepped outside to bring in hand washed clothes off the line. For now, this is home.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Down to the Crossroads

Two and-a-half weeks into my six months in South Africa and I am feeling unsettled. This is at least partly due to the fact that I am still living out of a suitcase, as long-term accommodation has proven harder to come by than anticipated, and until this past weekend I was sleeping in a hostel. And of course there are massive cultural adjustments that have to be made, regardless of how “westernized” the community where I'm living is. But unsettled doesn't necessarily mean unhappy, and a few early highlights have proved, if nothing else, to be welcome diversions from the decidedly unromantic drudgery of getting my bearings.

A few such hours of diversion happened last Friday night, when our new friend Tina - a warm and social 28 year-old Namibian who, when she is not running safaris, works at the hostel we were living out of - invited Sarah and I to see some live music. We didn't need to hear who was playing before we accepted the invite, but for the record it was a performance by Karen Zoid, the reigning goddess of Afrikaaner rock. Her music could rather accurately be described by a lazy critic as a cross between Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette, except almost entirely in Afrikaans (that Dutch offshoot being the dominant language around here). She was backed by three local guys with some serious blues chops.

We had anticipated an indoor, soft-seated venue, so were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to find the show happening in an entirely open-air courtyard with bleachers at one end, an elaborate stage at the other and a bar along one side. We set up shop at a picnic table near the bleachers, under a persistent musky charcoal cloud being churned out by the braii (barbecue) that was a few feet away. The man operating the barbecue and selling the sausages cooked thereon was a friend of Tina's, so introductions were made promptly upon our arrival. When he said "nice to meet you" in Afrikaans, I thought he was telling me what his long and complicated name was.

"Sorry, what's your name?" I asked, seeking clarification.

"Barney," he said, looking rather like a Barney, with his patchy beard, and cigarette dangling from his lip. The chatter of the night out had started to pick up, so I wasn't sure I had heard him right.

"Did you say Barney?"

"Yeah, Barney," he offered, taking a long, slow drag off his cigarette, "like the purple f***ing dinosaur." He provided this nugget of clarification with the defeated disgust of a man who has long since accepted that the best way to get people to remember his name is by aligning himself with the twentieth century's most grating children's character (with all due respect to Sponge Bob).

The music began shortly thereafter, and was really quite good. Tina and her friend Lise - the owner of the hostel - had introduced us around to their friends, and we were quick to join the team towards the front of the crowd, off to one side of the stage, dancing on the grass and even on top of a picnic table as the night wore on. The band rocked hard, but with a measured intensity that left plenty of room to impress, and Karen had the crowd in the palm of her hand. I followed the cues and cheered and laughed at the between-song banter along with the crowd, even though most of it was Afrikaans and went a little deeper than my burgeoning six-word vocabulary (thank you, you're welcome and tractor-trailer).

The company was great, the music entertaining and the wine flowed like beer. As we were bulk-buying, we went with it by the bottle, which is rather cost effective when you are in the heart of wine country. By the time I made my way up for the final round, the bartender apologized that all she had left was the expensive stuff, which would run me about R85 (85 rand). I decided to suck it up and fork over what is the equivalent of twelve Canadian dollars for their top shelf bottle of red, and happily accepted the unexplained free shot of Jagermeister that came with it. (I should note here that wine is the only thing I've noticed so far that is fill-your-suitcase cheap. Most other food, services and consumer goods are comparable to typical Canadian prices).

When it came time for the perfunctory encore, the evening's star gracefully retreated from the spotlight and let her backing band shine as they ripped their way through what was really a cover of a cover: their rendition of Cream's Crossroads, which is itself a reworking of the great Robert Johnson's Cross Road Blues. It didn't quite fit musically with the rest of the night, but was my favourite tune of the evening, and in title alone has served as a theme song over the past week as I have navigated the geographical, personal, professional and cultural intersections at which I find myself.

The music over and the last bottle drained (I made sure not to waste any), we retreated, stopping for milkshakes before heading home. As we pulled up to the hostel – greeted by the unwavering enthusiasm of Lonwabo, the 22 year-old local who works the night shift – there was a touch of a premature come-down mixed in with the usual warm glow that follows one home after a successful night out. Our hosts at our accommodations had certainly been good to us, but by that night we were well past the point of “just a few days while we find something else,” and a return to the hostel was a reminder that a weekend of full-time home-hunting – likely with a headache for at least one of the days – awaited. I make no bones about how settled in one can get in just a few months, but it's hard to move significantly in that direction without a place to live.

Stable housing has since been secured, but still I remain unsure of what shape these six months will take. I am grateful for this uncertainty, for if I felt totally settled in by this point - contentedly in sync with the customs, climate and currency of this faraway land, and decidedly headed in one particular direction - then it would mean either that I was being disingenuous in my assessment of my situation, or that my South African experience wasn't shaping up to be as far outside of my comfort zone as I had hoped. Since, however, I am still finding my way through a sort of transitional fog, I can be certain that I have travelled far, and hopeful that there are great things around the bend.

The new accommodation is a one-room cottage on a pseudo-farm outside of town. More on that to follow.