It was not nearly daybreak and I was in a cold, dark van by myself. The only other person was my driver and tour guide, Sbu.
At this moment, he was just “the driver”; not yet my friend and “tour dad. I had gone against my derision for organized tours and signed up for a four-day tour of the famous Garden Route, hoping to meet people and experience the South African coastline with ease. Worryingly, Sbu, in his traditional African garb, told me that there was only one other person going on our tour. I immediately pictured a large, middle-aged man who I would struggle to converse with for four days. But instead, Igor was a 27-year-old student from Kazakhstan, who had been living in LA. I wasn’t yet sure if we would get along, but he wasn’t creepy and that was satisfying enough. Our van drove out of the night and into the sunrise. Sbu told us the recent history of South Africa, and I rudely, but comfortably fell asleep.
After a fast stop for gas station coffee and recently warmed sausage rolls, it was two or so hours till the next stop and we began to discuss our lives, as people do when they realize they are stuck in a moving vehicle for an undetermined amount of time. Sbu and Igor were both younger than me, but I didn’t feel as though that was mentally correct. Both men were serious, philosophical thinkers, with a lot of life experience under their belts. And Sbu wasn’t one for throw-away, small talk.
“What are your biggest challenges in life?”, he asked us, with no preamble.
I was taken aback by his question, but Igor immediately began to answer him. Igor spoke about being an immigrant in America. Because his home country ends in -stan, he gets questioned in the airport and his visa is always in the air. Trump’s new immigration laws make it harder for Igor and his foreign classmates in LA to get an H1-B visa for work. These are highly intelligent, young people that we are losing in droves. They can’t stay in the States and so, they take their talents elsewhere.
My own life challenges seemed inconsequential so we kept talking about Trump. Sbu was extremely interested in our opinions and how exactly this rich man with no experience in politics came to be our president.
Igor and I didn’t need to be asked twice to give our thoughts. We both became fired up and heated speaking about why Trump had so much support from the poor and forgotten who wanted to stick it to the government, how liberals and conservatives are now reduced to stereotypes in the media, and our thoughts on many liberals becoming overly militant and not open to hearing the conservative side. Igor and I are both very liberal, but because we had both lived abroad and traveled extensively, we were able to look at our own political group from an outsiders perspective. Sbu was stunned and also shared his anger with the ANC and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. Sbu spoke of corruption in the party and how Zuma isn’t leading, but there is no one right now who is capable of leading the country. Sbu believes that the ANC would not let an outsider win an election because then all of their corruption would come to light and some of them may even be jailed.
Sbu spoke passionately about how the people need higher pay, not just more jobs. They need education and the villages need infrastructure. Not everyone wants to travel to Cape Town for work. They want opportunities where they already live and have a community. Sbu has lived in the townships, but he was happy there and he says many that live there are too, but they need more resources. I suggested multiple times during the trip that Sbu go into politics. I could see how much he cared, he has youth on his side, and he’s full of ideas and promise. That is what countries in need of change need. But, Sbu was not interested.
“They would try and kill me. No, never. I am happy with my life. I would be unhappy in politics,” he said, shaking his head at me.
We stopped at Ronnie’s Sex Shop, which is not accurately named. It’s an oasis of a bar on the side of the lonely road, but there are no sex toys to be found. Only an excessive amount of bras and underwear hanging from the ceiling. Story is that Ronnie had a big rager of a party and one of his friends decided to paint the word “sex” on the Ronnie’s Shop sign. The rest is history and tourist attraction fame. I loved this little bar and enjoyed a Black Label beer with Igor. Sbu had the task of doing a photo shoot for both of us around the little rooms of the bar that were covered in Sharpie.
Back in the car, the conversation turned to relationships, as it always does. Sbu had been with his girlfriend for nine years, but was not planning on marrying her until he had enough cows for a dowry. Igor was in a long-term relationship, but because he was in the process of moving to London for school, they had decided to make it open. I was still smarting from opening myself up to someone who I knew would only let me down. The optimist in me never fails to jump, no matter how far the fall may seem.
I spoke to the guys about the situation, explaining that what hurt me the most was the total lack of honesty in the end (not only to me, but to himself and others). They agreed that honesty was key in relationships and that it’s always better to be honest because some lies can manifest and grow until they become too massive to survive. For Igor, honesty was the only way he saw his open relationship being able to work. Sbu went off on a tangent about how his girlfriend always tells him she loves his gifts, but then he never sees those shoes he bought her again….sometimes, it seems, a lie can be kindness.
At the ostrich farm, Igor cemented his place as my “tour husband” because he had to take pictures of me posing with the ostriches, standing on an ostrich egg, and getting a “neck massage”, aka having ostriches terrifyingly close to my face while they ate pellets. I didn’t have much interest in ostriches, but I was fascinated to learn that ostrich eyes are bigger than their brain, one ostrich egg is the same as twenty-four chicken eggs, and to survive an ostrich attack, one must lay on the ground and hope it just jumps on you a couple times and goes away. Igor wrote furiously in his notebook about the multiple ways to survive an ostrich that wants to kill you. Throughout our trip, he would ask our guides about how to survive animal attacks. I have no idea what he is planning…
Igor and I also got to go on a tour of the Cango Caves, which were discovered by Dutch farmers in 1782. They actually used to have concerts in these caves (good acoustics, man) but drunk concert-goers were breaking off pieces of the formations and they had to end it. Sbu had been waiting for us in the lobby of the tourist center and he seemed ruffled when we came back. He had been watching a sports game with another black tour guide and a white bartender had come over and changed the channel of what they were watching. Sbu let it go, speaking about how we all have good and evil in us, and it’s not that man’s fault that he is like that. He is only sick and cannot be blamed. Personally, I am quick to anger, especially towards anyone who treats others as if they are below them. Yet, Sbu was continually understanding and said he gives anyone a chance. Although I am older than Sbu, he said many wise things that made me look at myself and my own actions. This is why I travel. To meet people that shake up my own world views and stagnant ideas.
Bloukrans Bridge Bungee Jump is the highest in the world. Obviously, I was like NOPE, but Igor is an adrenaline addict. Sbu and I went to the viewing cafe, while Igor headed out to risk his life. The weather was misty and cold, or as Sbu and Igor now called it, “Hannah weather”. I had explained to them that I was cursed and it now seemed to be true. Where I went, bad weather followed.
But, the bungee jumpers did not stay away and there was a long line on the underside of the bridge where Igor waited. Sbu and I had time to kill so the discussion turned to trust in relationships and the evolution of love. Sbu thought it was fine to know your significant other’s passwords and to check their phone, but I was very against this. Sbu went on to tell me that you can never “unlove” a person and I also disagreed. I explained my idea that once I have loved someone, I will always care for them, but the love changes. It’s never the same as it once was. It is, for lack of a better word, a “halflove”. Sbu was adamant that my “halflove” notion was craziness.
“You see that person you used to love and your heart will feel the same. Whatever lies you have told yourself, they are gone”, he said.
I smiled and conceded, but felt as though he was being sweet and naive.
Tsitskamma National Park is full of adventure sports and we opted for quad riding. I’d never gone on a quad, but I’d driven a scooter around Thailand so I thought, I got this. I definitely did not “got this” because I hit a fence and further down the road, a tree. I was the only girl in a group of Igor and South African guys, so everyone seemed really concerned about my ability to make it to the lookout, but I pressed on, even with a massive bruise forming on my leg. I refused to give up or have to suffer the indignity of riding on the back of one of their quads. The pain was worth it because the lookout of the ocean was top-notch and we watched the sun slowly go down together.
We’d already covered politics and love on our trip, so it seemed only right to talk religion. Igor is an athiest, Sbu is agnostic, and I called myself “spiritual”, but I’d been raised Christian. Sbu is unhappy with religion because whenever he asks questions, he is only told “that is the way of God” or not given an answer. He believes in facts, but does believe in something bigger. Igor’s way of thinking is that we shouldn’t have to have “God” to be moral and that religion can be good for community, but produces a lot of dangerous thought. I talked about seeing the church I grew up in do so much to help the less fortunate, but I also had memories of being told I was evil for wearing a ying-yang necklace. We all agreed that there can be good that stems from religion, but that it should not be institutionalized.
The road trip ended with an overnight at a safari lodge. Once we checked in, I drifted to the pool to sun myself, Sbu went to his room, and Igor went to call home after some vigarous laps in the cold water. We would go on to see elephants, hippos, lions, and cheetahs in the late evening and cold, brisk morning. We’d eat eland, the African equivalent of deer, and walk along a stunning beach that was covered in penguins and makeshift homes for them. Soon, we’d say goodbye and promise to add each other on all our social media accounts.
No longer strangers, but connected through the strange and unique experience of driving in a van together in South Africa.