Monday, September 28, 2009

It's a small world, after all

Last Friday, after spending the entire day killing time in Nhlangano (investigating vacation plans online) while waiting for my paycheck to be deposited into my account (it never happened, that’s why I’m back today), I boarded the last possible kombi back to my community around 4:45pm. Unfortunately—this is how public transportation works in Swaziland—it didn’t leave until the last passenger boarded at around 6:15. Now, it’s spring in Swaziland, which means it gets dark around 6pm, and I’m supposed to always be HOME before dark. And it wasn’t just dark, there was a fine, blowing mist, and it was so foggy that the driver (who I was seated next to) couldn’t see more than 2 feet in front of the kombi. Add to that the fact that the kombi had exactly 1 headlight (and a dim one at that), 0 defrosters and 0 seatbelts, and both window cranks were broken off so we couldn’t even open the windows. And the MTN cell phone network had been down for about 24 hours, which means that if we had an accident there was no way to contact anyone. As the passenger sitting closest to the driver, it was my job to periodically wipe the fog off the inside of the window with the driver’s hat, which made the situation only marginally better.

Naturally, because I kept reaching over him to wipe the windows, the driver and I got to talking. He introduced himself as Siyabonga (“Thank you God”) and asked me why I was in Swaziland, how I like it, if I’m married…all the usual questions. And then he asked me if I’d ever lived in Durban, which was a surprising deviation from the usual interrogation. I told him that yes, in 2007 I went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal for a term as part of a study abroad program, but that I hadn’t been back since. And then he asked me if I liked Amarula, which is a creamy, Bailey’s-type South African drink made from marula fruit. I guess I looked at him strangely, because he explained himself. Apparently, he used to work at The Cellar, a wine store where I used to buy wine frequently. On my last day in Durban, I went in and bought a bunch of little bottles of Amarula to give as gifts, and apparently he was working that day. And remembered me. And then ended up driving my kombi in rural Swaziland 2 years later. It’s a small world.

Anyway, the 45 minute drive to my bus stop took nearly twice that long. Usually, when I don’t get to my community until after dark, I just call one of the teachers at my school and they meet me at the bus stop and drive me home (it’s a 15-20 minute walk down a dirty/mud road), but the cell phone network was still down. And there was no way I was walking home that night. Plan B: I asked Siyabonga if he could possibly drive me home, which he agreed to do. After we dropped the rest of the passengers off in Hluti, we turned around and headed back in the direction of my bus stop…which we drove past twice (once in either direction) because the visibility was so bad.

Finally, 2 hours after nightfall, I made it home. And Siyabonga got stuck in the mud, which Eliza quickly splattered all over my dress. But at least I have a new (old?) friend in my community. And he has a car.

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly you know that this story is not that ridiculous in the scheme of public transportation horrors in Swaziland. Most kombis (public mini-buses) would be deemed un-roadworthy in the US for one or more reasons. First, they’re supposed to seat 14 people but kombi drivers usually put 18 passengers, a driver and a conductor and maybe some extra kids on them, which means that you’re one of 4 people sitting on a 3 person bench seat (this is why I try to sit in the front). They all have 3 doors—two up front and a sliding door on the side—but most doors only open from the insider OR the outside, not both. (Not like child locks, they’re just broken.) Often, sliding doors are tied on with rope and sometimes they fall off while driving or, more often, when you try to open them. Windows in the front are usually stuck open or closed because the window cranks are broken off and it takes someone with a pair of pliers to change the window’s position at all. If you’re lucky, one of the back windows is completely missing and has been covered with a plastic trash bag or packing tape, which means that it makes a terrible noise when we’re cruising down the highway. There are usually two big speakers (like from a home theater system) hung from the interior roof of the kombi, which serve only to blast gospel music and rip the back of your shirt as you try to get on or off. The maximum number of seatbelts I’ve ever seen in a kombi is 2—the driver and the passenger—but even those seatbelts didn’t have working seatbelt latch things, so when kombis go through police checkpoints the driver and passenger put the seatbelt across themselves like normal but just sit on the buckle because there’s nowhere to buckle it. If the police notice this, they make the driver give them a bribe—usually half of the trip’s total revenue. (This bribery system is also how these faulty vehicles get licensed in the first place…) Most of them have to be push-started at the beginning and a few times along the way when they stop to drop off passengers, and many break down without reason a time or two during the trip. Oh, and at the end of the month (pay time) most of the men, sometimes including the driver, are not only drunk, but drinking on the kombi. Kombis are also the scene of a lot of strange behavior, including incessant sexual harassment, drunken brawls, the beating of children, transportation of farm animals, etc. One volunteer told me about a kombi she was on where the driver stuffed a live cat into the glove box so he wouldn’t scratch the other passengers.

But, rest assured, it’s worse in Mozambique. (Erin, Jess and Brittney, I hope you’re reading this!)

Also I still don’t have Swine Flu, which is both good and amazing because everyone else (including people on my homestead) seems to be getting sick. I’ve set up a hand-washing station in my house and I’m avoiding sick little kids in general and snot in particular, which is really difficult because I think they’ve been in various stages of sick and snot-faced since I arrived. Oh Swaziland.

Anyway, that’s all. Hopefully I’ll get my camera, which I loaned to a fellow volunteer, back sometime soon so I can post some photos again. But now it’s Famous Bowl time.

Love from the Swaz!


Erin said...

I think the bus ride will be the most daring part of our trip!

39 days!!!!!!!!!!

Flo said...

Hey Justine,
I've been reading a couple of your posts! I hope your doing really well, your blog is wonderful!
LML, Flo