Two questions for you:
First question—what’s the worst thing you can imagine happening immediately after you buy a used car?
What’s that you say? You drive five kilometers and the car breaks down on a highway exit ramp? In the dark? In Johannesburg?
Second question—guess what happened to me last night?
So there I am, zipping down the M1 in Ruth, my newly purchased blue box on wheels (“Toyota Avante” is actually Japanese for “box on wheels,” didn’t you know?), when suddenly I catch a glimpse of the gas needle, which is hovering near empty. But I’m only driving three exits and surely the man who sold me this car would have told me if the car I bought didn’t have enough gas to make it three miles, right?
So I come to my exit and as I’m rolling down the exit ramp, Ruth makes this asthmatic wheezing noise. Then she shudders a weak old lady shudder and just stops moving.
Ruth, I say, c’mon, girl, there’s a petrol station just around the corner. Keep your head up.
But she’s having none of it, doesn’t want to go anywhere, thinks this highway off ramp in the dark in Jo’burg is the greatest place in the world to be. So I throw on my hazards and do a quick assessment of the situation. I’ve owned this car for ten minutes, I don’t have insurance yet, and I’ve just run out of gas on the side of the highway. I decide immediately that I will title my forthcoming autobiography, “Are You There, Murphy’s Law? It’s Me, Ryan.”
Then I get out to look at what’s going on. Meanwhile, two gangly street kids have emerged from who knows where and my roommate Anna, who drove me to pick up the car, has stopped behind us. The four of us peer under the hood—which is blasting smoke at us—pool our mechanical knowledge, and come to a sophisticated conclusion:
Meanwhile, another car pulls over and a man jumps out to ask what’s happening. I start spewing random disconnected words at him, “Car. No gas. Stopped. Ruth. Just bought it. What’s an Avante?”
…to which he nods sagely and says, “well, I have a petrol container. I’ll go to the filling station and get you some.”
Quickly I run a cost-benefit analysis:
—If I give this guy 50 rand ($7ish), he might just take it and drive away, never to be seen or heard from again and that will be one less Chipotle burrito or case of Diet Coke I can buy in my life.
—If he actually brings me gas, then I’ll have gas and I won’t be out of gas anymore so then I can drive my car full of gas.
And the benefits take it!
Long story short, the guy does, in fact, bring me back 50 rand of gas, and then proceeds to make a funnel out of a coke bottle and fill up my tank. So then I get in my car, start the engine, and drive away, good as new. And that’s where the story ends!
Actually, the car still won’t start. But Mr. Petrol Buying Man won’t be foiled that easily and before I know it he’s yanked the battery out of his own car and is using a wrench and a screwdriver as conductors to try and jump my battery. At the same time, he’s assigned the two street children, who are practically giddy with excitement at the unfolding drama, to collect some water from a broken sprinkler into an old Heineken bottle and feed it into the radiator. When neither of these things work, he suddenly leans into the hood, puts his mouth around some kind of tube, and starts to suck.
Anna and I let out a collective gasp. “What…” she chokes out, “are you doing?”
“Just trying to siphon the gas into your tank,” he says frankly, and then yells something to the little boys in Zulu. Before we can say anything else the two of them are alternating doing the same gas-sucking thing.
I decide to do another quick assessment of the situation. I’ve now owned this car for forty five minutes, I still don’t have insurance, and I’m about to be responsible for the death-by-gasoline-inhalation of two little boys. Yeah, that sounds about right.
After a little while longer of this, Mr. Petrol Buying Man gets in the car and tries to start it himself. As the engine coughs its sad little I-won’t-start coughs, he turns to me and says dead seriously, “this is a very nice car you’ve got here, a very good one.”
Thanks? I guess?
Then I look up to see that another car has stopped and two more men are coming towards me. They yell something to Mr. PBM in Zulu, he yells back, and suddenly they pull out a pair of jumper cables.
So then they rig up the cables, jump my battery, and I get in and drive away good as new. And that’s where the story ends!
Actually the car still won’t start. And now a true Jo’burg-ian lightning storm has started around us. So the sky looks like it’s cracking open, it’s starting to rain, and Mr. PBM now has a new plan. He’s going to tow my car home. With his car and a little piece of rope he has. Did I mention the part where it was dark and raining?
“Wait,” Anna says, pointing to his little white Nissan. “That car can pull this car?”
“Yeah,” he says, “no problem.”
In case you were wondering, it turns out by “no problem” what he actually means is “several problems.” Some of these problems include: the rope keeps snapping, the towed Avante rear-ends him, my GPS takes him on a wrong turn away from my apartment, he has to drive for like seven kilometers in first gear.
Also in case you were wondering, being the driver of a car that is being towed is a terrifying experience/the closest I’ll probably ever come to the feeling of being in a bobsled race.
Finally we pull into my apartment complex and Anna, Mr. PBM and the security guard push Ruth the rest of the way in while I steer the comatose car toward an open parking spot.
“No,” the security guard says suddenly. “You can’t park in that spot. It belongs to the tenants of apartment 24.”
In another life, in another country, I might have pointed out to him that I had a broken down car and there were other empty spaces around so the owners of apartment 24 could probably find another place to park if they needed one. Somehow though, I know that won’t fly in South Africa, so I just say okay and we wheel the car further back into our apartment’s spot.
By this time, Mr. PBM has been with us for about three hours and all I can do is thank him over and over again and offer him an outrageous sum of cash for “gas money.” He takes it sheepishly and then just drives off as I’m telling him for about the fifth time that this is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I now realize I don’t really know what the etiquette should be when a stranger does something insanely, mind-blowingly selflessly kind for you.
Anyway, in case you were wondering how this story ends, when I got home I called up the man who sold me the Toyota. Luckily for me it turns out he wasn’t actually the evil used car salesman dad from Roald Dahl’s Matilda but an honest Afrikaans guy who had no idea that that the car he sold me was headed for the gallows. He apologized profusely and said he’d cover all the repairs. Today he sent out his mechanic, who diagnosed poor old Ruth with bad arthritis and a blown gasket, loaded her onto a tow truck, and drove her away. He’s promised she’ll be back tomorrow stronger than ever.
Oh, and as the mechanic was checking her out he turned to me and said, “my sister, this is a great car.”
Thanks? I guess?
A couple years ago when Andrew and I were in Prague we visited the Franz Kafka Museum. It’s a great museum overall, but there’s this one particularly memorable point in the exhibit when you cross through what feels like an endless office. The walls are lined with file cabinets, some of them open and spilling papers, and from somewhere in the background a phone is ringing again and again.
In other words, if you looked up “soul-crunching” in the dictionary, you’d get a description of that room. And then the definition would say, see also: South African bureaucracy. (Or don’t, if you value your sanity).
Take, for example, the DMV here.
If you’re a foreigner in South Africa and you want to drive here you need something called a Traffic Register Number. There’s no real equivalent in the US system as far as I know, but it’s basically a way for the government to enter your information into their license database so they can keep track of you.
No problem, I thought, I can do that.
So I showed up at the DMV one morning when it opened at 7:30 and explained what I wanted.
“Alright,” the man across the counter said. “I just need to see proof of your address.”
I was expecting that demand, if only because it seems you can’t do anything in this country without providing proof of your address (this includes get a cell phone). So I’d brought along some of my landlord’s old bills showing the address of the apartment, along with my ritzy, official-looking letter from the U.S. government explaining why I was in South Africa. I monologued about why I didn’t have anything else and tried to coax him to push me along.
But there must be a global training attended by all DMV employees in every country in which your soul is sucked out through your nose and replaced by a permanent scowl, because this guy just shook his head. “You’ll have to come back,” he said, “and next time you have to bring a letter from your landlord explaining that you live in her apartment and a copy of her passport.”
And with that, he sent me on my way.
So I shuffled out of the building, went home, and called up the woman whose apartment I’m renting. Long story short, she emailed me the documents I needed and a few days later, I ventured back out to DMV-ville.
This time when I got to the front of the line with my roommate Anna, we laid our documents out triumphantly, sure we were set and ready to figure out what the next step was. But the man behind the counter just looked at us incredulously.
“Alright,” he said. “I just need to see proof of your address.”
“But…” I started, “this IS proof of my address.”
He shook his head. “This won’t work,” he told us. “You need something else.”
“But this is what they told me to bring,” I said.
“No,” he said again, this time more firmly. “This won’t work.”
By this time, however, Anna and I were pros at doing battle with South African institutions/companies/people who refused to believe that we actually reside where we reside. For instance, a few days earlier, in the absence of any other acceptable proof, we’d finally convinced an teller from our bank to come to our apartment in person and observe us, you know, living there.
Yes, it had come to that.
But that meant that when we headed out for DMV adventure number three we had bank statements in hand. Something official! Something with our names on it! Nothing could stop us now!
And in fact, this time through, we passed muster. DMV attendant guy stamped our documents and pointed us down the hall to another office where we handed over our paperwork to a new set of your friendly neighborhood life-hating crochet-y department of motor vehicles employees. This all looks good, they told us. Just come back in three days to get the number.
The finish line! We could see it! We were running towards it! Nothing could stop us now from joining the ranks of the Traffic Registered! Or whatever.
Well, folks, today was the day. I went back to the DMV (trip #4, I might add), grabbed my newly minted Traffic Register Number, and bolted for the door.
That’s probably why I didn’t realize until I got home that where the paper should have listed my address someone had instead typed in a string of jibberish, formed apparently by taking the component parts of my address, hacking them to pieces, and then rearranging them in a completely random order. You’ll be glad to hear that my address is apparently: Ryan Brown, No. 30 Boulevard, Hypark Close, Hyde Park, Johannesburg.
Spoiler alert: This is not my actual address. Not even a little bit. Which the DMV people might know if they’d taken a quick look at that thing I had to bring them. What was it again? Oh yeah:
PROOF OF MY ADDRESS.
After that story, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve also had some trouble getting access to the university library at Wits (among many other similar logistical hurdles here). When I showed the librarian the letter the history department had given me stating that I should be given library access, he shook his head.
“Alright,” he said. “I just need to see proof of your address.”
“Alright,” he said. “There’s just one issue.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“This letter says you should be given access to the library, but it doesn’t say whether you should be allowed to check out books.”
And then I lunged across the table screaming, “what do you think I plan to do at this library, bake lemon bars???”
By which I mean, I said, “Okay, I’ll go take care of that.” And then I walked away calmly and didn’t even kick one puppy.
I guess I’m getting the hang of this. Maybe.
“The people who have the best time in Johannesburg are the visitors,” wrote Nat Nakasa in 1963. “I’ve seen them sniff and stare at the city’s narrow lanes where men smoke dagga. I’ve watched them enchanted by the opulence of the northern suburbs where whites live. [They] even find warmth in the squalor of the black slums. They look at Johannesburg from all angles…They ask crucial questions without getting emotionally involved in the town’s preoccupations.”
Since I started studying Nat Nakasa’s life almost two years ago, I’ve read this piece of his (“Johannesburg, Johannesburg”) several times and counted it among my favorites of his essays. But when I came across it a few days ago, for the first time since starting my Fulbright in South Africa, it felt completely new. Suddenly, this wasn’t a description of some hypothetical foreigner’s life: it was a description of mine.
As I’ve moved around Johannesburg for the past three and a half weeks, I’ve often been struck by how much more fluidly I am able to cross social boundaries here than a) I am in the United States or b) South Africans are. Because this city and this country aren’t mine, I am always going to be a little out of place, whether I am in an almost entirely black night club downtown or at a farmers’ market in (wait for it) the northern suburbs (where yes, it’s still the case that mostly whites live) or a conference at the university or Jo’burg’s China Town. I have less of a comfort zone to retreat into here and it means that I can jump around more, try more, look weird more, without feeling self conscious about it. Nothing is mine. Everything is fair game for exploration.
And it’s true, I can ask questions of South Africa society, questions about inequality and poverty and race and morality, that are much harder for me to ask about the United States, or rather are much easier to ignore when you’re sunk 22-years deep in them. At home it’s so easy for me to compartmentalize, but here, where I haven’t figured out the compartments yet, everything just rushes at me in a crazy sensory and mental overload that I’m constantly trying to sort through in my head.
Something that people constantly remark about South Africa but that I really can’t help but be struck by is the raw way that inequality is on display here. In Johannesburg, after all, the walls between the rich and poor are quite literal. This is a city where if you can afford to put a wall around your house, you do. And if you can afford to add electric wire to the top of that wall, you do. The entire suburb where I live is just streets lined monotonously with these kind of walls, some of them lined with knots of barbed wire, and the occasional house or business peaking out from behind them.
The apartment complex where I live is surrounded by an electric fence and has a 24-hour guard on duty, a kind of bizarrely South African opulence that my American self wants to believe is ridiculous and unnecessary and cruel. And sometimes, talking to South Africans, it can be very difficult to figure out the line between people’s legitimate fears and an endemic, society-wide paranoia that seems to grip everyone here. When I tell car-owning South Africans that I take mini-bus taxis, they frequently ask me if I’m scared or tell me outright that I’m crazy. Never in their lives, they tell me, have they been on one of those. Or they’ll tell me they don’t go downtown or they don’t stop at red lights at night or they don’t walk anywhere alone.
But then just when I’m ready to say these same people are being overly cautious or stupidly scared of their own city, someone tells me another story.
One South African I met told me the “only” crime he’d experienced was having his house robbed twice. Another time I was at dinner with a friend when he casually announced that a friend of his had his car hijacked that day. Several people I know have been mugged in broad daylight, sometimes on busy streets. There’s a life of intimate familiarity with being a victim of crime here that completely blows me away. What’s that expression? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
And I know that for whatever commentators will tell you, the escalating security arms race (fun fact: 1 in 14 new jobs created in South Africa this year will be for a security guard) isn’t something everyone wants. People don’t want to live like they’re in a war zone. But as one of my South African friends told me, you often have to. When she refused to put a wall up around her house, her house was burglarized. And after that her insurance refused to keep her on if she didn’t build a wall. So she did. It’s true of me too. Do I wish I could live somewhere less sheltered? Definitely. But do I feel safe here? Yeah, and that’s worth something too.
Last week when I was at this rather lavish conference that the US Embassy held for its Fulbrighters, I was talking with another American woman about the strangeness of the security measures here. And she suddenly said, “you know what, people say we’re going to get used to it, but I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t ever want to be okay with it.”
That really struck me because I think it’s an important element of my experience here in general. I want to sink in and get immersed, but I also don’t want to lose that outsider awe that allows me to see things that strike other people as ordinary. I don’t want to stop asking questions and being confused and straddling lines. Life is more interesting that way.