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Guessing my way to Lesotho part 2

April 25, 2012

Day 2:
I must confess that I got a late start on this day, because I took time to eat the aforementioned breakfast (seriously, you should try it) and then I went to check out a flea market with other volunteers who were also on vacation. I bought a book for the journey, Love in the Time of Cholera, It wasn’t until 10 that I left for the Gautrain. Now, I had asked around the day before about how to get to Lesotho and no one seemed to know anything for sure, but eventually I found myself at a huge station I haven’t tried before. I asked at the windows of all the bus lines but surprisingly, they all told me they don’t go to Lesotho. It looked like my only option was the taxis again.

The taxi rank was huge but I was reluctant to let anyone help me find the right one because it was obvious that they all expected a fat tip. Eventually, specifically at the moment when I found a taxi under a sign saying “Lesotho” where they told me they weren’t going to Lesotho, I gave in and let someone lead me to a taxi. He demanded R20 and I didn’t want to pay him at all for two minutes of work. He gave me the impression that he was friends with the driver and that they would arrange an unfortunate accident for me if I didn’t pay something, but fishing through my pockets and my wallet, I found that I didn’t have anything quite small enough to give him. I borrowed R10 from another passenger to give him and he left me alone.

The taxi took off soon after, and before it was completely full, which I should have known was a little suspicious. This taxi to Lesotho didn’t go to Lesotho, but rather it took us from the huge station to a little cubby hole of a private station for its company. The place was so crowded that the long lines we stood in for the window to buy a ticket blocked the path of taxis entering and exiting. It smelled of filth and urine. The portable toilets in the corner in front of the ticket window were busted, so kids just went on the concrete. The man at the window checked my passport, but instead of giving me a ticket, he wrote my name down on a register, and then I was instructed to wait off to the side. I spent a total of two or three hours just waiting there in line or not in line. I got bored and wandered off to find something to eat, but I didn’t find anything good close by so I came back. My fellow would-be passengers there warned me not to do that again or else I would be robbed.

Finally an appropriate taxi pulled in and I got on. I still wasn’t one hundred percent sure this was the right taxi, but people who had been in line near me were on it, so it was good enough for me. It took a few minutes for it to fill up, all the seats occupied and the aisle next to me packed with canvas shopping bags. A guy stepped in the doorway and started reading names off a register. I didn’t hear my name, but I had been through too much to feel any real anxiety about it.

“Robert?” the guy asked me. “Are you Robert?” The man at the window who checked my passport and written down my name had skipped my first name and written my middle name. This isn’t the first time this has happened and I don’t know why; I think it’s pretty clear that my first name is first. But I agreed to be Robert during this leg of the trip. Forgive me if I don’t think it’s important that a taxi company I never plan to use again doesn’t get my personal details right.

Then we were off. Now, I’m used to being the only white guy on these minibuses (indeed, the only white people I’ve ever seen use them have been other PCVs), but this was the first time I got an uncomfortable amount of attention for it, maybe because they were wondering why I would be going to Lesotho. When the taxi made its obligatory stop at a gas station before going anywhere, a custom that was starting to get on my nerves, I could here them narrating in Sesotho what snacks I had bought for the ride. But for the most part they left me alone, except to tell me to close the window. Most South Africans seem to have a personal and bitter grudge against fresh air.

The view wasn’t nearly as impressive as is driving through Limpopo or Kwa-Zulu Natal. Halfway there, we were stopped by police, who checked everyone’s passports even though we weren’t at the border yet. The officer greeted me in Afrikaans and I froze, unable or unwilling to remember what I was supposed to say. Then he said something in Sesotho and I responded, much to the awe of the other passengers. They opened up to me a bit after that, and after seeing my American passport.

Something was happening that would have worried me if I had the energy to care. It was getting dark. The process of getting on a moving taxi and getting to the border had taken a lot longer than I thought it would. I thought I would get to Lesotho and find a backpackers, or if it was early enough, find a bus to my final destination. But it became clear pretty soon that by the time I got there, it would be too dark to see.

And so it was. I was expecting to stop at a town, or at least see some shops around the place where the taxi stops, but the final stop was just an informal taxi rank in front of the border crossing, not even part of a town as far as I could tell.

“Is everything alright?” a guy wearing a cap asked me through the window.

“Where are we?” I responded.

“We’re in Lesotho,” said a woman behind me. She clearly didn’t think the gang of guys outside the window were people I should be talking to. We got off the taxi and she also made it clear to me that she didn’t think I should be traveling so late if I don’t know where I’m going. I hadn’t planned to, of course, which I guess was the problem.

“I’m going to Katse Village to visit my friend, who’s a missionary there,” I told her.

“Oh, he’s a priest? And who does he work with?”

“His supervisor’s name is, um, Mr. Flora.” I didn’t know anything about the guy except his name; I had studied Justin’s messages and directions pretty intensely during the ride.

The lady got on her phone, apparently with a Lesotho SIM card, and called her sister about my sister. “You’re in luck,” she said to me after getting off the phone. She probably didn’t say that but I sure felt it. “My sister works with Mr. Flora in Katse. Come with me and I’ll help you find a place to sleep for the night.” As we started to enter the border crossing, she even offered to let my stay at her place, which I gratefully accepted. I carried her bags through customs. Maybe she was right, and I should plan trips more meticulously. Or maybe there will always be someone like her to save me.

Getting through the border was easy, although we were stopped by an official because she didn’t declare the clothes in the bags I was carrying. “What have you got in there? Shoes? Do you have the receipts?” he asked, combing through the bags. Apparently you don’t need to pay customs in Lesotho if you can prove you’ve already paid sales tax. Maybe this is normal. I don’t know.

“I bought these for R200, but I’ll sell them to you for R500.”

As we stepped out of the well-lit border crossing, I could see that we were in something like a town, but I can’t say much about it except it did not seem like a good place to be alone and lost at night. We got in a metered taxi, a real taxi with four seats and a nice break from the minibuses, and it was a short ride compared to everything else that day.

At her house I met her husband and 6-year-old daughter. They fed me a plate of food, the same kind of stuff you find at a wedding or a funeral in South Africa, and gave me the daughter’s bed for the night. She had to be carried away, screaming “No! No! No!”, apparently all the English she knew yet. It was nice. And cold. Wasn’t expecting that. When they join the Peace Corps, they tell you not to have expectations, and I was doing a good job of that on this trip.

The taxi rank looked like it was carved out of the housing projects.

The taxi rank looked like it was carved out of the housing projects.

From → Lesotho, Traveling

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