Thursday, March 5, 2015

Locked in a toilet, and other stories.

What's traveling like? Specifically, what's traveling like solo, without a guide book and an inherent knack for getting into strange/memorable situations? Well, let me give you a sample of the last few days and you can see for yourself.

I left Cape Town with a heavy heart, and I certainly did not want to leave (for too many reasons to list here). But I can only control so much, and sometimes the almighty dollar and this journey push me reluctantly forward (I had about half a week's worth of bookings in Zimbabwe and Johannesburg to get to). So I take a bus line called Intercape, and while they are nothing like some of the nightmare buses I've taken in the past, they have a policy where they won't let a driver push past four hours of straight cruising without stopping and resting. So, awesome and safe on paper, right? What does it mean in real life though? This means that for an 18-hour bus trip, we stop EVERY two hours.

I'm a tall dude and it's already a mess trying to get good sleep on a bus. Add in a stop every two hours where the interior lights burst on and ruin any shred of hope of rest, and you have a living nightmare.

I am pissed. Patrick, the guy next to me sneaking gulps of Jack Daniels, is totally cool with it all.

I get back to Joberg around 7am (unlike the buses in Southeast Asia, they always arrive early here). My plan? Go to a theme park and get some rest. Of course, plans are a funny thing to have because they rarely work out. Intercape informs me that I must get a visa prior to boarding the bus to Zimbabwe the next day. I have no internet, as the city is in the middle of another load shedding, so I have no way to double check. I spend 50 USD (yeah, that's how much a round-trip taxi ride costs in this gigantic city) to get to the Zimbabwe Embassy. 

I wait for two hours in a line. 
The lady at the desk has no idea what I'm talking about. She sends me into a tiny white house and I wait for the "head" guy. He laughs and curses Intercape for telling people what they told me. He writes me what is basically a hall pass onto the bus.

So, no theme park and no sleep and the afternoon has faded away. I get some dinner and go to a documentary at a fancy movie house (it's called Shield and Spear and it is an excellent accounting of the current political woes in South Africa and how independent artists are fighting back. Well worth your time if you love documentaries about social change [especially through the arts]).

I get back to the hostel and am ready to crash. The guy working the door was asleep but wakes up when I knock on the outside office window. The hostel is surprisingly empty, as the last two times to this city, the hostel had been party central (and, yes, extremely fun). I'm the only one in the dorm I'm assigned to this evening. I take a shower and the inside toilet isn't working.

I go outside to a line of three makeshift ones. Which, to their credit, are super nice and fancy. The doors on them look like wooden outhouse doors (very trendy looking, actually) placed in the middle of the entrances, with about a foot's length between the bottom of the door and the floor and the top of the door and the ceiling. I go inside and hear a click on a strange automatic metal thing underneath the padlock.

I'm exhausted and think nothing of it. I go to the bathroom.

I then try to leave, but the strange automatic lock is snug and tight.

I stand there and start laughing like a maniac. I do my best McGuiver on the door. Really, all I need is a pen and I could have gotten out, but I have nothing but toilet paper.

I sit on the toilet and I'm still laughing.

Of course this would happen.

I fall asleep on the toilet and wake up about an hour (maybe two, it was hard to tell) later. Still locked and still no one around. I go to the door and squeak out a little, "Uh, is anyone out there?"

Silence and the city night answer.

Louder now. Still nothing.

I look down at the crack between the door and the floor.

Uhhhh. Screw it. 

I lay on my back and inch my way through like a mechanic going underneath a low-rider. Halfway through, and, yep, you guessed it, give that man a prize!, all of a sudden I can't move and the wood is pushed into my abdomen like a knife. You know those movies where people get stuck in train tracks and you scream at the TV screen, "Just pull your foot out!" Well, now I know it's never that simple.

Stuck is stuck.

Here I am in South Africa, half-stuck underneath a bathroom door, with only a t shirt and red boxers (don't ask) on.

This, friends, is my life.

A man from the other dorm room finally walks by, and, while I think I'm good at words, nothing can describe how hard this man laughed as he helped unlock the door to pull me through.

I can now officially scratch that one off my bucket list.

I finally get to sleep after three or four hours stuck in a toilet.

The next morning I wake early and grab another bus heading to Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. I eat at the bus station and meet a new friend, a Pastor, named Godpray who invites me to visit "the real South Africa". I promise to meet up with him again when I return to Joberg to fly to Morocco.

I board the bus, Intercape again. We stop just as much. At the Zimbabwe/South Africa border, I go through customs and declaration. They have no scanners, so we line all our backpacks and luggage in one large line outside the bus in order to have each one inspected. 

It's 4am.

We get in another line for another check and everyone is complaining. Next thing I know, o
ne man has a guitar and begins singing. Soon, the entire 50 person line is in a beautiful chorus, the moon is hanging bright overhead, and donkeys are moving through us. It's a gorgeous moment and I have goosebumps. It's a moment I will never forget and I think I had tears in my eyes (read: I most certainly did). This is the first experience in Zimbabwe when I realize that the people here are simply wonderful, even if the system here may not be.

We get to the city and it's seven hours until my connecting bus to Victoria Falls. I expect to wait in the lobby of Intercape watching Flight of the Concords and reading Lord of the Rings. Instead, a friendly taxi driver, Simba, starts talking to me. He helps me find a supermarket, takes me to his apartment for conversation and a soda, takes me to art museum (where I befriended two amazing artists who I'll return to and chat more next week), and lets me store all my stuff at his place until my next bus arrives.

People are wonderful.

I miss my bus and am standing in Intercape thinking, "Of course. Now what do I do?"

A friendly girl named Paula offers her place for the night. Her mom says no. But her husband takes me on a walking tour of the town the whole rest of the next day, at no cost and simply because they wanted to show me their city.

I find a $50 USD a night hotel next door and have no choice but to pay up (ugh). But I'm broke and scour the city (with all my bags on) for an ATM. An hour later and I still haven't found a working one. I try to drop by bars for directions but only get young, drunk kids flipping me off. Sweet.

I spend the night in the fanciest place I've been in for six months and sleep for 12 hours until the maid kicks me out at 10am so she can clean my room.

I find an internet cafe and this brings me to the current moment. Now I'm off to visit my new friends here!

This is what traveling life is.
Unexpected. Full of the most excellent of people. And never, ever boring.


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