Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Gates of Johannesburg

If travel is supposed to be about opening doors, then this was not a good start. Nor was it an apt metaphor for breaking down barriers or crossing some sort of symbolic threshold. No, by any analogy this did not bode well. Less than 24 hours into what was supposed to be an epic, three-week pan-South African odyssey, and there I was in Johannesburg with a metal security gate just having t-boned my mint condition rental car. I stepped out to assess the damage, while the apologetic wince of the woman who had her hand on the gate's open/close button did little to smooth things over. I was not feeling pumped.

The trip had started smoothly enough the day before, with Sarah and I driving from Stellenbosch to Capetown and then flying from Capetown to Joburg. There, we picked up our rental car: a shiny, scratch-free four-door silver hatch-back with just enough bells and whistles to make me feel extravagant. The plan from Joburg was to drive to Kruger National Park in the country's extreme northeast for a week of wildlife viewing, and then take a two-week drive all the way back to Stellenbosch - in South Africa's bottom southwest corner - via the coast, covering a significant chunk of the country's bi-oceanic waterfront in the process. Previous lessons having been learned, the car was rented from a trusted international agency and at no point did I have to meet a suspected dope runner in a parking lot to trade vehicles. Movin' on up.

Before making the 6-hour drive to Kruger, we spent that first night of the trip in Joburg, enjoying dinner on a quaint second-floor patio and drinks at a buzzing two-room bar with fellow expats who, like me, are a part of the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Program. My social life in and around Stellenbosch had been uncharacteristically quiet to that point, so it was a real treat to see some familiar faces and compare notes at the halfway point of our South African experience. Funny, though, that at a table full of human rights lawyers working abroad, the conversation more than once turned to concern about the human rights ramifications of new legislation being passed back home. But while the topics weren't always pleasant, it was nice to be able to talk Canadiana with actual Canadians, rather than trying to piece together the current national consciousness by reading comments below articles on the CBC website (an exercise which can lead to no other conclusion than that we are a confused nation whose public school system eschews grammatical instruction in favour of name-calling and the indoctrination of politically extreme schools of thought).

I also appreciated getting a take on the city we were in from a semi-local group of people. While this is always something I seek out while traveling, it was especially appreciated here, because at first glance I had a hard time getting past the architecture of violence which pervades Johannesburg. By any measure, crime is an atrocious problem in South Africa: over 30 murders per 100,000 people annually, and sexual violence (most rapes per capita in the world, according to the United Nations), assault and property crime occurring in equally jarring numbers. Being the country's major commercial, cultural and industrial center, Johannesburg is also a lightening rod for criminal activity, and the towering security walls, spike-topped wrought-iron gates, and super-charged electric fences that fortify even the tiniest swaths of residential or commercial real estate in the city - many of them topped with gleaming coils of razor wire - serve as constant reminders of that. (I should note that tall gates and razor wire are common in Capetown and Stellenbosch as well, but the walls seemed that much thicker, taller and sharper on even the prettiest of Joburg's streets). As such, hearing my colleagues wax enthusiastic about the city and its people served to remind me that the fortresses the city's residents build for themselves do not tell anything close to a complete story of life in Johannesburg.

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.


Rachel SQF said...

Educational and, as always, entertaining.

I like the idea that you have two general 'settings' when it comes to upcoming life experiences: pumped, and as demonstrated by "I was not feeling pumped", not pumped. An oversimplification, I know, but that's what that sentence made me think :)

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