Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rough Exit

The maybe three and a half hour drive from Knysna to Cape Town takes maybe ten hours. I'm stopping and sleeping and trying to drink water. Chocolate milk. Juice. It's all awful. Google leads me into town through a tangled maze of places I should not be driving. Really should not be driving. But I really should not be driving anyway. This is now a haze, a dream-like state. I'm straining to focus on driving. I keep following the blue dot. I've called ahead. Arriving, my world quickly fades.

I remember handing over the keys to my car. "Don't worry, Doc, we'll take care of you." I remember talking to a doctor. Arriving at a hospital. Waking up on a table with an IV in my arm. "You've had two litres, so far. How are you feeling?" I'm not sure if I had been unconscious, or dreaming, or out of my mind. But yes, I felt better. My mouth felt wet. A couple hours later I felt hungry. In the morning I had my first cup of coffee in a week. My first slice of toast. I had been near death, with all systems beginning to shut down. The hospital wants to keep me, but I've got a PA to return, a car to drop off, a train to catch, and a flight booked to get me home for Christmas. They give me an IV cocktail of antibiotics, a massive prescription, and wish me luck. Rescued by the grace of a friend. Given a few more hours on my own, this tour would probably have ended forever.

With some difficulty I navigate the summer heat, and return my sound gear to Paul Bothner Music. My small PA feels enormous and heavy as I move it, one piece at a time, from my car to the loading area. I'm reminded of times past when this gear was bigger, and heavier, and I had to load and unload an equipment trailer after every show. I'm glad when the job is done. And very, very tired.

The Lux, running from Cape Town to Johannesburg. A fine train with staterooms, chefs and white linens.

It's 10:30 in the morning. Already the state workers in their uniforms have taken to sleeping in the bushes. Soaking up shade wages in the heat of the African mid-summer. Well, what else would they do here in the long heat of the African day? The sheer volume of miniscule tasks will never be done.

A burning land begging for water. Displacement. Residue of old shelters once built, once lived in, gone now. Broken glass and a few bricks vanishing into the rippling heat. Why would one stop here? What were their hopes and dreams? Was there a hope, a dream, any reason at all? Or no hope, no dreams, just walking, walking, walking, until disappearing away away into the faded colours of high summer. Anyone could disappear here. You don't have to be special. The sun is a great equalizer, and gives no mercy.

The train is, the conductor says, only about four hours behind schedule. I've written in an extra ten hours between the Johannesburg train station and the airport, so I'm not worried. African time. You've got to learn to gracefully wedge it into other zones, other schedules. Propped on pillows, I drink water and watch the landscape drift past. African rails run over cement ties, so the ride is a little rough and grinding. Rough and grinding. Rough and grinding. I had no idea that the locomotive itself was failing– finally grinding to a rough halt on a desert spur...

And now, "Oh, Mr. MacLean! We've had a problem with one of our locomotives. We will use an old one to push it to the next station, and get a man to try and fix it there." Suddenly my ten hours have been transformed, and I remain suspended in African time.

Me and all my gear. The heat rising in thick, shimmering waves outside. Recklessly, I bribe the porter to get me off the train. I should be in hospital, recovering, taking my meds. Instead I'm standing railside with a giant, wheeled bag I can barely move. Inside it: my guitars, my money, my laptop, my material world. It's just 250 km to the airport, and I could still make my flight to Munich. After reaching the nearest road, I begin a series of wild, local taxi rides.

I arrive at the airport an hour late. South African Airways are very helpful and sympathetic. "We can get you on the same flight in 24 hours, and you can make the same connection. There are seats available, and it costs exactly the same." All I have to do is get my travel agent to call them and roll the date forward.

My travel agent is a company called, and it turns out there is no way to reach them on line for customer service. I've got to phone them in North America, from the ticket counter in South Africa. This I do, and I'm put on hold for over 30 minutes until the international call time runs out, and the call is disconnected. Moments later my phone's battery hits zero as well. This is a pattern which will be repeated several times over the next 18 hours as I purchase and use hundreds of rand worth of airtime, exhaust it, exhaust the batteries of my phone, and bribe the cleaner guy to let me recharge it in his office. Finally I get a guy who says OK, it's taken care of, but I'll need to pay them a surcharge of $800 to make it happen. For the flight that costs exactly the same.

I sink into my seat, asleep before the wheels have said good-bye to Africa.

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