The Unfamiliar Country
Akrasia: [ancient Greek] translates as “to do something against one’s own better judgment.”
I met Thabo standing in line at Durban’s main long-distance taxi rank, under a hot rain on a steamy morning, along with several thousand more of the city’s seasonal, itinerant laborers waiting to board a taxi home on Christmas Eve. In my 18 months of volunteering in South Africa, during which I have traveled exclusively by public taxi (or kombie), I have never had to queue up. Imagine my surprise at finding two thousand other clamoring souls equally displeased with the situation.
The South African public taxi system deserves an entire book written about it, so full of fatuous mechanisms irreconcilably teamed to what is fundamentally a charmingly straightforward system: lined up in bays according to destination, you find your desired taxi, take a seat in the 16- or 22-passenger van, and wait for it to fill up. One person to a seat, the same flat rate, and no animals (usually). And while they are slow, often times cramped and hot experiences, there’s no denying the simple wisdom of the system that ultimately functions vastly more effectively than elsewhere in Africa.
It was an unfortunate persistence of rain that morning, resembling a light spitting but carrying the full hidden weight of a London drizzle. Like a slow wave, the rain rolled down upon the crowd, a wet blanket in a warm room. In the two hours and seventeen minutes it took to find safe harbor in a taxi, Thabo and I spoke intermittently at first but then more frequently, casually moving beyond the usual broken exchanges of English and IsiZulu that characterize my visits to the city. Soon we had teamed up in a tacit agreement of cooperation, a comedy spy-duo speaking in unintended code to each other. But character is the unmasked self, visible to all who look, and we quickly recognized a friend in each other.
Rarely has a South African rank looked more like its continental cousins. Underneath the relentless pull of the rain, the crowd soon turned sour. Angry shouts peppered the air, shoves were traded in line ahead, a driver somewhere laid on his horn. Suddenly, a mother appeared, clutching a suitcase in one hand, the other peculiarly empty. Distraught at the misplacement of her child, her face frozen in an etiolated mask, she called loudly and long for her little one. Like a wounded soldier searching for a limb, she wandered hopelessly up and down the lot. When the dispatcher of a large kombie behind us bellowed for three more, Thabo grabbed me and a young woman, babe in arms, and ran. A leg up, another down, my 30 liter backpack in between, I rode an unpleasant seven hours to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.
During the ride, Thabo and I barely spoke, except during a break at a petrol station, as he rode up front next to the driver, myself in the main cab pinned between the door and an ineluctably large Gogo. This sufficed, though, as I was content to spend the journey imagining the restful sojourn I would finally have upon arrival at Coffee Bay that evening. Only it never came. Instead, it was switchbacks and hairpin turns, the unfriendly drum of rain upon the aluminum roof, bright red brake lights, and eventually the dark of night, as it descended upon the taxi, still several hours from its destination. Suddenly it was past 8pm on Christmas Eve in the Transkei (the former homeland name still used, affectionately and otherwise, for the province of Eastern Cape), and I was only just completing the first leg of my journey.
Thabo and I and a small group of others who had equally failed to anticipate our late arrival stood together at a 24-hour petrol station, discussing our options. Privately, I weighed mine. Aside from January 1, Christmas is the only other day of the year working-class South Africans receive off, and Mthatha is not the sort of town one wishes to be stuck in on the eve of the biggest party in rural South Africa. Industrial and sprawled out, without accommodation, its real purpose is as a restocking station for travelers headed to one of several towns along the Wild Coast, including Coffee Bay. I had nowhere to go, no means to get there, and no favors to call in. In short, I was screwed.
As I stood there, trying to decide just how bad a spot I was in, Thabo walked over, explained he had organized a lift to his home in the township of Libode outside the city, and would l like to spend Christmas Eve with him. Tomorrow, he’d point me in the right direction of the taxi I needed to take; tonight, we’d celebrate with his friends in the township. What was on the surface a generous and compassionate offer from a sympathetic stranger was, in actuality, a dangerous proposition. Soweto is a township. Cape Flats is a township. Townships are the chronically poor, crime-addled, mob justice-ruled result of the Group Areas Act of 1950. They were the source of the ’76 student uprising, the last place the Apartheid police force couldn’t crack; sovereign states within South Africa where no white dared venture.
I found myself, after a short ride and a muddy walk, thirty minutes later, going round robin with a motley bunch of Thabo’s mates. Sitting inside his government-built, two-room RDP house, my bags padlocked in the bedroom, nicknames like China (his eyes), Piece (on the shorter side), and LadyBoy (don’t ask) flew in my direction, all while unquantifiable amounts of cheap brandy were downed with great rapidity. Soon I was wearing someone’s beanie, my mesh fedora having puckishly defected to Piece’s crown. There was a dance-off, in which I foolishly competed and easily lost, an extended visit to the local shebeen, where I was paraded around as Thabo’s teacup Chihuahua, and more brandy and Black Label than I care to recall.
Through it all, I fought to keep my wits, resisting the slow inanition of the evening. I limited my own consumption, kept to my favored gunslinger stance of back to the wall, and never let Thabo out of my site. Still, it wasn’t difficult to recognize my own casuistry at play, my willful ignorance of the situation’s fragility. In reality, had the festivities devolved into a fractious mess, I had no redoubt to which I could retreat, no route to high ground. Still, I stayed, and this is, I believe, the very essence of Peace Corps.
It’s difficult to say when, but at some point recently I became comfortable enough to willingly put myself in uncomfortable situations. Though I had serious reservations about spending the night in Libode, the alternative was to resign myself to the commonplace, to acquiesce to that small yet persistent voice that trumpets prudence over passion. One must have a dictum, and in Peace Corps it seems plain that it ought to concern itself with the exploration of all avenues of an adventure, even those suggestive of Akrasia.
The next morning, after a tour of the township and an informal tête-à-tête with local dignitaries, I made it onto the taxi that brought me finally to Coffee Bay. Whether or not it was that uncontrollable Grecian urge, I stayed that night in Libode because something told me that’s how one lives, in the active sense, as we were designed to. Speaking of his impending death, Chris Hitchens once referred to “entering the unfamiliar country” as a final journey we must all take one day. I prefer to think of that elegant turn of phrase as a mindset, as a pilgrimage, and one I make at every opportunity.