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PILGRIM

I have traveled to many different places in my life but my solo journey to South Africa in August of 2005, was the only genuine pilgrimage I’ve ever undertaken.

It was a sacred journey for me, one that at the age of thirty-six, I had waited my whole life to embark on.

From my journal, August 2005:

…I am about to board my flight. Why does it feel like I am going home when I am traveling to the other side of the world, to a place I’ve never been?

The week before I left, I cut off my shoulder length hair and gave myself a buzz cut. It was also something I had always wanted to do, so the timing felt perfect.

When I arrived, I was a pilgrim on the other side of the planet.

Leo, making me feel right at home.

When I then met all of the other volunteers, I immediately felt like I belonged.

“We want to belong as we travel.” – David Whyte Consolations

My entire trip was a genuine pleasure. It was everything I dreamed it would be and more.

Daily drives before dawn and again every evening around sunset to find and track the lions were the highlight of my time there, as was seeing all the other magnificent creatures running free across the vast wilderness.

But it wasn’t until I boarded a bus for my return home that my real African adventure began.

…My last night here has arrived. Full blood red moon. Jesus, this is going to be hard tomorrow. I’ve got nothing left to distract me from feeling my feelings and that terrifies me. I don’t want to leave this place yet. I don’t ever want to leave. How on earth will I? Africa is the missing piece of the puzzle called my life…

It’s my last morning in Africa. I just watched the sunrise for the last time (well hopefully not for the last time haha), then I said my sad tearful goodbyes before setting off for the bus station in Tzaneen with Hendrick and Janine…

It became apparent pretty quickly that Hendrick (one of our guides at camp who was charged with dropping me off since everyone else on the reserve had that Sunday off), had no idea where he was going, and it didn’t help matters that the low gas light came on about a minute or so into our drive.

I was starting to get pretty nervous, but we eventually found a petrol station that was open, topped off the tank and were once again on our way.

By the time the three of us arrived at the bus station, my bladder was about to burst. There was no terminal there, so Janine (my fellow volunteer and bunkmate for the week) and I, set out to see if we could find a public restroom somewhere in town.

What we found was a communal open pit tucked behind one of the buildings. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I did what I had to do.

A few minutes later we were back at the bus where I said my final goodbyes and watched the two of them drive away, then hauled my bags over to the luggage compartment on the side of the bus, and boarded.

The exact moment I stepped on, something didn’t feel right. Jesus was on the radio, that was my first clue. My second was the looks I was getting from the all-male occupants scowling at me.

Before I knew what was happening, the bus driver made his way back to confront me, demanding that he see my ticket.

When I hear him say, “No, no, no, no, lady, you’re on the wrong bus,” my heart sinks, I break out in sweat and begin to panic because I have no good idea what to do.

I am quickly escorted off the bus where I see another man – a man that had been talking with Hendrick moments earlier – approach me. He exchanges words with the bus driver as the driver roughly tosses my bags out of the compartment and onto the rich red earth, then turns to me, takes my arm gently and says, “No worries,” (a phrase I was well accustomed to hearing from every South African, by then).

“I know where your bus is,” he says. “It’s at the Translux station not far from here. I’m sure it hasn’t left yet. I’ll take you there. No worries.”

I don’t have time to think. Henrick and Janine were the only ones left at base camp for the day, and it will be almost an hour before they make it back. This kind man is offering his help to me and is the only other person near as I can tell in the whole town who also speaks English, so I accept his offer to drive me there.

When we arrive at the station, there isn’t a single bus in sight. I have missed my ride to Johannesburg airport which is still more than seven hours away from where I am.

When he turns to look at me, he asks what’s wrong with my eyes. Asks why they are leaking. Hot tears are pouring down my cheeks. Technically I am not crying, but I am powerless to stop the flow now that the dam has let go.

He asks me where my husband is. I tell him I am trying to get home to see him. He tells me everything will be OK. He tells me he is going to help me. “No worries,” he says.

He tells me he’s going to take me to a taxi service and explains how I can take a taxi to the next bus stop in Pietersburg where I will be able to intercept the bus I should have been on. He tells me it will cost me 35 rands. I tell him I have no more money. No more rands anyway, only American. He tells me to wait in the car while he goes into a small store next door. His friend works there he says. She will help me.

She does. She says she has never seen American money before, but she feels like I am trustworthy, so she exchanges my $10 for 60 rands.

He takes me to the taxi station, but before he leaves me there, he explains my predicament to the taxi driver who assures me (halfheartedly) that he will get me there in plenty of time. I thank him profusely for the kindness he has shown me, shake his hand and give him what is left of my money after I pay my fare, then say goodbye.

Now that I am on my own again, I realize there isn’t a single taxi in sight. I ask the driver how soon before the next taxi gets there. He points at an old, and I mean very old VW bus. My bags are crammed in as opposed to being tied to the top of the bus along with everyone else’s. All that is missing is a chicken strapped to the roof. I am asked to sign his book. Once again the driver is the only person who speaks English. An hour later we are finally on our way.

“No worries!” he shouts over the seventeen other passengers.

I am sandwiched in between two enormous old women; I secretly dub them the grandmothers. There is a small child sitting on one of their ample laps. I am sure this little boy has never seen a white person before. He is mesmerized with me. Every time I look over to smile at him, he shyly turns away. The engine sputters, threatens not to start, then backfires loudly, and we are off flying up and down and over and through lush green mountains. I can’t see the speedometer, but I know we are going fast. Very fast. Much to fast for these mountains.

Suddenly the bus slows, and I see everyone craning their necks to see out the tiny windows. We pass another VW bus laying on its side apparently having flipped over while navigating the narrow turn. The two grandmothers burst into laughter. Not surprisingly this does nothing to set my mind at ease.

By the time we arrive at the Translux station in Pietersburg, I cannot feel my arms or my hands and have to work hard to get my circulation going again as I watch the driver toss my bags to the curb and speed off.

I am in a daze as I wander around looking for the bus I was meant to be on. Another bus driver spots me and opens the door of her bus to ask if she can be of help. When I show her my ticket, she tells me my bus has already left but that as luck would have it, she is also driving to Pretoria and offers to take me to the next stop to catch my bus or continue on and take me there herself if I miss connecting with it again.

I thank her profusely and climb aboard. I am the only passenger on the bus which makes my heart sink. If I have to wait for this bus to be full, I will never make it to Johanseburg airport in time to make my flight. Sensing my panic and seeing that my waterworks have been turned back on, she laughs softly and explains that she’s ready to go when I am. She tells me that she was supposed to be transporting an entire football (soccer) team but that their game was canceled so I will be her solo passenger. “No worries!” she says.

As soon as she starts driving, she turns on some beautiful African music, and I lose it. I have gone from being crammed into an African taxi with sixteen other people to having an entire bus to myself. The music isn’t just pulling at my heartstrings; it is plucking them out violently one by one.

An hour or so later, we are at the next stop where I finally meet up with the right bus. My bags are transferred for what will be the last time as I make my way up the stairs and take my seat among the rest of the crowd. Unlike the last bus, on this bus, every other seat is spoken for. The bus is full to capacity, and we are soon on our way for what will be the last (bus) leg of my journey. When I finally arrive in Pretoria, I am met by someone from the volunteer organization who will be driving me the rest of the way to the airport.

When I get there I am told that the catering company that would normally be serving us a meal on the flight, is on strike, so I am given a voucher for food at the airport, but because I am vegetarian, I can find nothing being offered to eat with the exception of candy bars.

Since leaving the reserve early that morning, I have had a single orange and a peanut butter sandwich that I packed to take with me. I am ravenous and am forced to wander around the airport asking for help to find some real food.

Before long, I spot a large door on a lower floor that’s marked for British Airways passengers. I open it slowly and tentatively and am met with a friendly smile from a woman who appears to be in charge. She explains that I am in the first class lounge, so I apologize and am about to leave before she takes my arm and says, “No worries. I’ll make an exception for you but just this one time.”

When she pulls open the next set of double doors, I feel like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are buffet tables on each side offering dozens of different dishes, hot rolls with butter, stacks of fancy desserts, more food than I am prepared to take in, visually or otherwise.

I am tentative and shy at first, but when I spot a mound of steaming hot rice and vegetables, I go for it and fill my plate. She laughs and instructs me that I am welcome to make myself at home. She tells me everything is free, the food, the bar, the stacks of ice cold water bottles, the spa.

The spa? Could I have heard her right? I’m told I have time to shower if I like, that there are robes in the adjoining dressing room.

I make my way over to a very comfortable couch and inhale my meal then chug down an entire bottle of water before heading to the spa. Once inside, I use the bathroom then splash cold water over my face and neck before quickly exiting. This is clearly not my world. I do not belong here. On my way out I stop to grab another bottle of water to take with me then thank the woman for her unexpected kindness before heading back upstairs and back into the chaos of the airport.

From the time I left the reserve that morning until I reached my final destination (my front door) the next day, I had been traveling for thirty-three hours.

Despite spending almost every day before that with wild lions and hyenas and dozens of other dangerous animals at our doorstep, my last day in Africa was more thrilling (and exhausting) by far.

“Most of all, a pilgrim is someone abroad in a world of impending revelation where something is about to happen, including, most fearfully, and as a part of their eventual arrival, their own disappearance.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was a pilgrim, all alone abroad, relying solely on the kindness of strangers.

I never asked the kind man who helped me, for his name. I will regret that always. But I will never regret one moment of my pilgrimage to Africa, and I will forever be grateful for the kindness extended to me by complete strangers. I’ve often wondered whether or not that kindness would be reciprocated in the states if our circumstances were reversed. They may say, “No worries!” but I do. I worry about that a lot.

From the end of the first page of my journal:

…My longing for Africa is my longing for the place that leads me back to myself, back to a sense of genuine pleasure to be alive.

When I opened my journal to refresh my memory before writing this post, I was reminded of this:

It’s 50 rands. More than enough to cover my taxi ride that day, but I never thought of it. It was safely tucked inside my journal, a treasured souvenir of my beloved lions to take home with me.

Africa has so many stories to tell. This one is mine, and I will treasure it – I will relish it – always.

 

NEXT WEEK: PROCRASTINATION

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

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