August 28, 2007

Getting to Mthatha

In the spirit of Moses, who led the people of Israel through the wilderness before arriving in the Promised Land, and of Christ, who fasted in the desert for 40 days before beginning his earthly ministry, but mostly due to the delays of British Airways and my own misguided sense of adventure, I took an unorthodox route to Mthatha, South Africa, finally arriving at 12:40am on Sunday morning, more than 48 hours after I had started.

The flight from Toronto to Heathrow was uneventful. Somehow the check-in clerk in Toronto knew I was a missionary and said he would not charge me for bringing my guitar, which was my third piece of luggage (see economy, God's). I spent the 8-hour layover in London mostly biting my nails in anxiety over whether I'd be able to make my connection in Johannesburg the next morning. I had an hour and a half to clear customs, get my bags, switch terminals, check in to another flight, clear security, and get to the gate for Mthatha. I was even more anxious when I realized I was booked on the only flight into Mthatha all day so if I missed it I would be spending a night in Jo-burg.

I eventually realized a potentially more productive route than biting my nails would be praying a bit. But I didn't want to pray for anything as craven as "Please God, help me make my connection" so I said something like, "Dear Lord, I thank you for your guidance thus far and I pray you will watch over me as this journey continues." (It didn't sound that good when I said it.) I, of course, meant for this prayer to be interpreted as, "Get me on that plane to Mthatha!" but, as I would learn, it wasn't.

The plane to Jo-burg was delayed about 45 minutes but when I got on the plane to Jo-burg and squeezed into my tiny seat, a perceptive flight attendant said, "I notice you're rather tall, sir. Perhaps you'd like to be re-seated." I immediately agreed and he moved me up to a first-class exit row seat. I am not normally in the business of taking pictures of my feet but as I put such a premium on leg room on long-distance flights and was so immensely rewarded on this one, I had to remember the moment. I slept so well and could have done jumping jacks if I wanted to.

I had to rip myself from my comfy airplane confines in Jo-burg and start my sprint through the airport, a journey that was not helped by my misreading of a crucial sign that put me in the wrong customs line for 25 minutes and myriad other large and small details that all conspired to make me miss the connection by just minutes. It would have saved everyone (well, me) a lot of heartbreak if they had just let me on that plane, as it was still on the ground when I got there but they wouldn't.

As I was not particularly keen on spending a night in Jo-burg, I took the advice of my very friendly porter (my only friend in South Africa at the time) who said, "Fly to East London and take a bus from there to Mthatha." It sounded like as good a plan as any so I re-booked for East London and arrived soon after noon. The trouble with the plan, as I shortly learned, is that the next bus for Mthatha didn't depart until 10pm. So I had 10 hours to kill in East London, a pleasant place right on the Indian Ocean coast. It is the start of the "Wild Coast," an apparently gorgeous section of coastline (which I hope to be able to tell you more about soon.) I watched the surfers, saw a road race pass right by me, and generally tried to stay awake after two nights sleeping in the seat of a plane.

The trouble was the bus station closed at 5 so I had to go pick up my luggage by then and find a place to wait. When the ticket agent told me this, I assumed it meant the ticket window closed at 5 and I could wait inside on the chairs until 10. But when I arrived at 4:30, a nice woman also waiting for the same bus said matter-of-factly, "We will have to leave at 5 but this place [a drive-through fast food restaurant] is open 24 hours so we will not get robbed." Basic safety precautions like where to wait had not even occurred to me.

This woman, Lebo, soon became my first South African friend and we managed to convince the ticket agent to stay around until 6:15. Then I bought her dinner at the fast-food restaurant so we could have a place to sit while we waited. I'll write more about the conversation we had in another post as Lebo was an articulate and profound woman who had much to teach me (though she didn't know it) about her life as a black woman in South Africa.

The shoreline of the Indian Ocean is quite a cold place to wait in the spring, I learned, and Lebo was quite freezing the entire time. I had nothing she could fit into to offer her and I only rather late (and guiltily) put on my own jacket. But the astounding thing to me is that it is considered normal and every-day for people to wait for hours on end for a bus, outside, in a potentially dangerous place, without necessarily shelter. No other alternative - like a heated and well-lighted bus station - even seems to be in the realm of possibility. A friend of Lebo's in fact had given her a ride to East London from the town she was visiting because if she had stayed there the bus stop was in total darkness and would not have been safe.

The bus finally showed up. It was a traditional coach of the kind I am familiar with in the U.S. and Canada and I safely arrived in Mthatha. I slept in for so long on Sunday morning, even as the lawn was mowed right outside my window.

(Incidentally, I believe my prayer was answered.)


Anonymous said...

I hope you have a great time in Mthatha. I hope you are satisfied with your work.