DATELINE: December 14, 2020, from Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast.
In my younger days when I was in the Peace Corps in Botswana, I hitchhiked as a means of transportation. I know, pretty stupid. Yeah, but it didn’t cost anything except for petrol chip-ins, and was a survival tactic for volunteers who live on pretty lean resources. The first school break when I was a teacher I decided to go to Letsotho for “holiday” with another Oregon-raised Peace Corps volunteer, Carol (name changed to protect the innocent), who was becoming a good friend. Then a third-wheel volunteer, Inga (name changed, blah, blah) who also taught in the same Kalahari frontier town that I did, sort of invited herself. It was only tolerable because Carol was going to be there, making it fairly easy to completely ignore Inga. She was a pain in the ass, a very weirdly evangelical 25-year-old very tall tennis playing virgin from California who had the same boyfriend forever in the Sunshine State but wouldn’t ‘go all the way’ with him, but then fucked this 60 year fellow volunteer a few months after she met him and was in constant histrionics about it.
I knew because I had to live with her in a small room for several weeks before her housing was arranged when our tours just started. God help me was my mantra during that time. Her personality was dominated by a seemingly over-acted naivete, like an inexperienced actress might portray, but it was actually just her goober, authentic self. Inga was stared at a lot in Botswana by the locals because she was a big-boned, six-foot-two-inch blond who was gangly and what my mother would call horsey looking.
Well, Carol got sick and couldn’t go to Lesotho at the last minute so I was left with doing nothing over the break or traveling with Inga. I chose the later, but in hind sight that was not prudent.
The whole trip was one strange experience after another, which is at least a short novella. But I was thinking about one part of that trip the other day when I was reviewing how I had handled certain situations in my life. Some things I wish I had done differently, been a better person, been a smarter person. And also things I think I handled well and where I did not take advantage of a situation or a person when I well could have.
We had taken a lift from two white South African business men at the border post in Botswana who had first taken us to their work place (where the bathrooms said White, Bantu, Colored) so they could check in, and then one of them took us to a low-cost Hotel in Johannesburg on their way home, as per our request. In the morning, Inga and I left the shit-hole hotel in Jo’berg, having survived one of those nights straight from a movie scene where the characters end up in a crappy room and hear screams and bottles breaking and sirens all night long. After the white guy from the day before returned and drove us near the freeway (he said he would the day before, likely from guilt, when he dropped us as the hell-hotel), we ended up running across it to get on the correct side that was headed in the direction of Lesotho. We had big backpacks and I’m not sure why we didn’t fall flat on the road get killed by a semi-truck. It would be like trying to cross I-5 or I-95.
A car stopped really quickly and it was a younger guy, probably in his late twenties maybe early thirties. He looked innocent and was aghast and amazed at two American “girls” hitchhiking to Lesotho. For the life of me I can’t recall his name, but I’ll call him Piet. I sat in the front seat and Inga in the back. Inga was quite often loud and inappropriate in what she said. I always just hoped she wouldn’t get us into too much trouble by being a typical white woman, unaware of the impact of her obliviousness.
Piet just happened to live within a few miles of the Lesotho border and could drop us off at the border post. As we continued on the journey of a few hours towards the tiny African island embedded in apartheid-land, I began to realize what a sheltered existence that this young man had led. To him, we were unlike any women he had ever met. He literally was in mouth hanging-open awe of the two of us hitchhiking, number one, and then that we would come to Africa and teach its children, so far from everything that we’d ever known. This was 1982, well before email and cell phones or even working landlines in some places. I was beginning to realize that South Africans, and whites in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia before a civil war) were very cut off from the rest of world. This was not just distance, but the countries and organizations who early on had boycotted investment, trade and other interactions with the King of all racists countries.
Piet wanted to hear all about what we did in Botswana, what our lives were like back in America before we came to Africa. He mostly talked with me as I was in the front seat. Already I could tell, as women can, that he had a crush on me. This always made me nervous and want to back out of the room. But since we were in a car, and we had to stay put all the way to Lesotho, I just had to handle it.
As we approached the small town he lived in, he began to insist in a very nice way that we have breakfast at his house before he took us to the border. I thanked him but said no thanks, but Inga, who was frequently thinking about feeding her tall body, said the opposite. Well, we ended up having breakfast in his very nice, large home, prepared and served to us by his African servants. His parents were deceased and he lived alone in a beautiful home. He treated his servants more like family it seemed like, introducing us to the two women we met, and he didn’t seem like an apartheid hardliner, but someone who knew things weren’t right in his country.
He also seemed like someone who had just awoken from living in another century and was learning all these new things from the strangers from the future. I couldn’t help notice how much he admired us, well really me. That crush thing was going strong. In all honesty, people crushing on you is flattering. But I also knew that if I bought into it, the scene would change really quickly into something that was harder to back out of. Before I knew it he was offering to give us a tour of Lesotho and to drive us back to Francistown in Botswana when we wanted to return. And we hadn’t even finished breakfast yet, which was a full on proper breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomato, toast, sweet rolls, yeah, really great for two starving volunteers who had not eaten this good for quite some time. It was hard not to eat with two hands moving at once. But I remembered my manners, and how uncomfortable it all was.
I also remembered that taking Piet up on all of his offer of being our tour guide and taxi would bring with it some obligations of connectedness that I did not want to bring on. The various scenarios formed quickly and in detail in my head, like a super computer developing the calculations to get man to the moon. That’s one of my top skills, although it can be a detriment sometimes, that is, playing out all scenarios in advance so I stay away from the sticky wickets.
When someone so quickly starts visibly crushing on me and offering up favors such as these, I can only see someone’s hurt and confusion in the future world, should I have taken advantage of the much more comfortable way we could have seen Lesotho, rather than the dumb-ass way we ultimately chose to travel. It would be inauthentic to accept these favors from such a worshiper of me as I knew it was misplaced. Piet had simply never seen anything like us American girls in his isolation in Boer-dom. He obviously had visions of seeing himself elsewhere, away from this small town and its smallness of a life. I was a ray of hope. He wanted to follow us, me, toward that escape from his prison. And I was pretty cute back then.
Part of me wanted to see how it all played out, but that was the vain side, the side that loves to be admired for just being little old me. But the pragmatic, Catholic-girl side which hides in the recesses came out riding on her white horse and swatted away the vain girl. I knew exactly what would happen to poor Piet if I led him on, knowing his crush was unrequited, and I just couldn’t let him drive us back to Francistown in his comfortable, airconditioned luxury, and then never to speak to him again. That was just plain mean. But I knew Inga wanted to do it. She said, “He wants to do it, it’s his choice. It doesn’t matter if he drives us back for nothing and we just good-riddens him.’ I can’t say I’ve never been mean in my life, because I have. But I just couldn’t do that. Plus it was too complicated and messy. I wanted more freedom than having to deal with that. Just the conversation in the car would have been too cloying and phony for me to survive it without any harm.
After many thank yous and a promise that we would call him from the pay phone when we got back to the border so he could drive us wherever we wanted to go (which was a false promise I already knew), Piet dropped us off at the border post not far from his house, and he watched from his parking space as we went through the passport checkpoints on both sides and began walking down the road into Lesotho. He looked like a sad, little boy as I glanced back up at the parking lot, dust in the air from a passing lorry. He waved with such hope. I waved back in obligation and politeness.
I wonder what happened to Piet and if his meeting us made him get out and explore the world. I hope so. He deserved to adore someone who would adore him back. Cheers, mate.