“Quick,” I nodded to Jessica and her brother Tim, two young Americans I had put on the fifteen-hour bus ride from Cape Town, “come on. We’re at the border.” He had noticed a sign that said Ladybrand 10 miles in the other direction. So I checked with the driver and of course we missed the destination on our ticket. But it suited our purposes as we were heading to Lesotho, a small country completely surrounded by South Africa. A proverbial pimple on the face of your huge neighbor.
We walked to the South African customs. I handed the officer my Canadian passport. He flipped through it a couple of times and checked every page. “You come from South Africa, but you don’t have an entry stamp.”
“Wait a minute,” and handed him my Australian passport. Same swipe, same voting page.
“Sorry, sorry. I forgot that I left Argentina with my New Zealand passport.” I blushed to the roots of my red hair. After 103 countries, you’d think I’d at least know the routine. The customs woman handed me back my passport and admonished me like the slowest kid in first grade: “Remember to present your New Zealand passport when you leave.” Behind me, Jessica laughed. “You looked like a spy pulling out passport after passport.”
We passed Lesotho customs and walked towards Maseru. Suddenly I felt like I was back in Africa again. Yes, South Africa is also part of the continent, but a chronic two-week diet of high walls topped with live wire and security guards had me unsettled. There was an undertone of raw violence and I felt like I was under house arrest. Suddenly I was able to breathe and walk down the street without fear of being mugged, or worse.
At the taxi stand I asked a local for the fare to Maseru. One thing I’ve learned from traveling is that as long as you know what it should be, no one argues. Ignorance can end in a nasty argument. The driver took us to the tourist office which was actually a tourist shop and the staff couldn’t offer any help. Tim and Jessica headed to the taxi park that would take them to Semongkong, where they planned to walk.
What to do what to do? She hadn’t been able to book anything online that wasn’t terribly expensive. So I inquired and heard about Hotel Victoria. On my way I saw a travel agency that was up a flight of stairs on the way to reception. I loaded up with my carry-on and diaper bag, perfect with all sorts of compartments, and met Violet, a delightfully friendly and helpful woman. One of those types of people you instinctively know you can trust with your money and your passport.
The only thing on my travel agenda was meeting friends from Canada and Australia in Johannesburg on January 13th. So the kind of plan was to spend a few days in Maseru and then go to Swaziland and Mozambique.
“Are there buses or trains from Maseru to Mbabane?”
Violet shook her head. The only way was to go through Johannesburg. She ran out of Plan A. She searched for a couple of expensive rooming houses that seemed impossible to find.
So I thanked Violet and wandered through the center of Maseru, the two square blocks. I had a momentary deja-vue that I was back in Shendam, Nigeria in 1981. Every passing taxi driver honked at me. But that made sense since I was a white woman with luggage and everyone knows they don’t walk. But I didn’t take it personally as he did it with everyone else on the street too.
On my way to an internet cafe I passed Alliance Francais, an open-air restaurant. The cook assured me that he would be there until 15:00. It seemed like a good place to have lunch.
There is nothing exciting in the inbox that requires immediate attention. I checked places in Bloemfontein, a city in South Africa an hour and a half away, and it’s rumored to be one of the most boring places on the planet. Hmmmm, nothing very interesting there. But never mind, I’d go with Plan B and see what I could find when I got there, spend the night and take a bus back to Johannesburg.
Since lunch was going to be the highlight of my trip to Lesotho, I was going to enjoy every bite. And I did it. The chicken, rice, and some vegetables may not be the most exciting meal in the world, but it was the ambiance and atmosphere that made up for anything that might have lacked in flavor. And the people watching were fascinating. Drinking a locally brewed beer, which is another of my rituals in each country, although I don’t particularly enjoy the foam, on a hot day it quenched my thirst.
Finished lunch I headed back to the taxi park to go to the border. As I got out of the taxi, a salesman asked if I was going to Bloemfontein and led me to a waiting car. There was a small woman sitting in the front seat. A couple of vendors got together with a great mom. And I say big, as only Africa can produce. It took two rounds of bargaining and pleading to convince the petite woman to give up her seat to the one straddling the consul in the middle of the car.
Then we left. It was a new car and the guy drove well. On the way to Bloemfontein I switched to Plan C and said, “Please drop me off at the bus station.”
When I asked the Intercape clerk about the buses to Johannesburg, he said the first available seat was three days later. Similar to the next bus company. Then I found Eldo’s office.
“When on the next bus to Johannesburg?”
“Tonight at midnight.”
“Is there a seat available, is it a luxury bus and does it have a toilet?”
Yes to all three. As it turned out, I should have clarified the definition of “luxury”. And it should have been “Do you have a working toilet?”
I spent the night at the Barrel and Basket, sipping sauvignon blanc, nibbling on seafood, and using their free wi-fi to my heart’s content. It was one of those connected times where there was nowhere I’d rather be or anything else I’d rather be doing.
Then midnight came and he was gone without an Eldo bus in sight. When I looked back at the counter, the woman assured me, “It’s coming.” And she did, barely an hour and a half late. When she arrived, I seriously thought of staying in Bloemfontein for three days to catch the Intercape.
Eldo’s bus seemed mechanically questionable. Plus, it reeked of sweaty bodies crammed into close confines. The bus was full and people were scattered in various contortions of sleep. And it was dirty. The front seat was free, so I slid into it and propped my carry-on next to me. There was no way I wanted to part with that bag.
The bus backed up. Even though I’m an atheist, I did an Insulallah (Arabic by God’s will we would) just for extra protection and a bit of ju-ju chanting. Once on the open road, the driver drove as if he were behind the wheel of a sports car. When he started talking nonstop on his cell phone and texting, I got tired. So, in no uncertain terms, I told him I was going to report him for dangerous driving. He yelled at me that he was a good driver and I told him to try it. He cursed me out loud for being a white bitch, but he put his phone away and slowed down.
At 07:00 we arrived intact at Park Station in Johannesburg. It was hard to resist acting like Pope John and kissing the ground, but I managed to hold back. Barley.
Thirty-eight hours is a long drive just to have lunch in Lesotho. But I got a passport stamp, a meal, and a story. Bonds.