Monday, February 2, 2009

Fort Beaufort, South Africa

Friends: Now that I'm well into the second week of my two-month circuit of South Africa and am over 700 miles beyond Cape Town, the locals are not as emphatic in telling me to "watch yourself", as they assume that by now I should know well enough. But it is still an issue, almost the theme of these travels, something that distinguishes South Africa from every where else I have traveled.

The owner of a small grocery store, one of those with all the items behind the counter, in the small town of Pearston, told me, "The fellas around here will leave you alone. They're okay. But I can't say the same for the Natal where you're headed. And I know, because that's where I'm from."

The Natal is one of the smaller of South Africa's nine provinces and is my next destination several days away, though I'll only bike through a couple hundred miles of its southwest corner on my way to Lesotho, a small country on a high plateau known as "the roof of Africa." Lesotho is entirely surrounded by South Africa. The lowest point in Lesotho is over 4,200 feet high, the highest low point of any country in the world. When I enter Lesotho I'll truly know I'm in Africa. Since the white culture dominates South Africa, I often feel I'm in Australia or the American West, except when I see handfuls of disheveled blacks loitering about who are prone to ask me for money. I doubt the blacks of Lesotho have been programmed to address whites as "sir." That is the case with only a small percentage of the blacks in South Africa, dating back to the apartheid era. It may be 15 years since the end of apartheid, but its effects are still felt. The blacks are slowly recovering their dignity and self-respect, but all too many still seem broken and miserable, down-trodden fourth class citizens that one must be wary of. I am told that in Lesotho I can relax and won't have to be so on guard and concerned about leaving my bike unattended when I go into a store. I've never had to be so theft-conscious other than when I was in Peru in 1989.

People go out of their way to invite me to bring my bike inside their store, even at the large supermarkets. Many shops and museums and even tourist offices have fully barred front doors that won't open unless buzzed. When I brought my bike through such a barrier to enter a book store, the owner didn't think it safe for me to leave my bike near the door, fearing someone might reach through the bars and grab something off my bike. I passed up one grocery store because all those lingering outside who offered, "Watch your bike sir," all looked like someone they ought to be on guard against. Maybe I'd be a tad less wary if I hadn't already suffered a near robbery. But it could have been the best thing to happen to me.

Nearly all the shops I enter have very hands-on owners. They warmly welcome me and ask what I'm looking for. Even in the large supermarkets there are very conscientious and alert managers in the aisles keeping an eye out. If I'm the only customer, they are eager to have a conversation. One owner of a small grocery store took a look at my bike and thought I needed a large reflective triangle on the back to make me more visible. Nor did he think my light tan shirt was bright enough to attract attention. I told him I ordinarily wear a much brighter orange shirt, but I was presently wearing this one because it had long sleeves and I was protecting my arms from the sun until later in the day. Then I pulled out my orange shirt. It met his approval. I told him it was my good luck shirt, as it had been given to me by a friend who had worn it while serving in the Peace Corps in Africa over 30 years ago. He was shocked that the shirt was that old, as it is an ordinary cotton/polyester button down shirt.

I told him I was a little surprised myself that my friend still had the shirt, but this friend was known for keeping stray items, knowing that eventually they could have some use. I told him my friend is famous in the Chicago cycling community for his bicycle shop, Quick Release, for having the widest assortment of old, odd parts in the entire city, as he throws nothing away. When other bike shops don't have some long out of fashion part or can't figure out how to repair some not so new bike, they all send them to Joe. It is no wonder that "Chicago" magazine named him the best bike mechanic in the city in their "best of" issue. Though, of course, Joe does not have the article posted anywhere in his shop.

I told this shop owner that Joe was very similar to many of the shop owners I've met in South Africa, who take such a strong, personal interest in their shop. Like many of them, his is a one person operation. Customer relations really matter to him. I told him how lucky I was that Joe's shop is just down the street from where I live, and that he likes to make certain my bike is in tip top shape before I take off for a trip. When he asked me when I was going to bring my bike in before this trip I told him I didn't think he needed to look at my bike as it hadn't had any problems on my most recent trip, a mere 850-mile ride to the Deep South of the U.S. But I thought better of it, and knew that I would be a fool not to let Joe give it a quick glance. He noticed that my derailleur hanger was slightly bent, explaining why I'd needed to do some double-handed shifting for certain gears for at least my last two trips. I just assumed that with 40,000 miles on it, it was simply showing its age. Now it shifts once again as if it were new. I'm constantly thanking Joe. Not only for that, but also discovering a few other minor defects that needed adjustment, including twisting together a frayed brake cable. He warned me to avoid scratches in Africa, as they can easily become infected and attract flies and other insects.

I've nearly put the Karoo semi-desert behind me. For the last 75 miles, since Somerset East, I have been amongst trees and cattle and some agriculture. Last night I came upon an unlocked gate leading to a field of head-high shrubbery-type trees that made for a fine secluded campsite. I was able to stop over an hour before sunset. I would have liked to have continued on, but I was being blasted by a ferocious headwind blowing in off the Indian Ocean. It was a sister to the notorious winds of Cape Town, known as the "Cape Doctor," for flushing all the particulates out of the region, and stirred up by the clash of cold air currents from the not so distant Antarctic and hotter temperatures of the Karoo. The wind had me in my small chain ring even on the flat. It took all my effort to even go nine miles per hour. It was the third straight late afternoon that the "Cape Doctor" type wind had suddenly materialized, putting an end to my designs on a big mileage day and leaving me utterly exhausted. I will continue heading due east for another 80 miles to East London, a large port and also prime surfing area. Then I will turn north and might have an assist from the winds.

One nice thing about these head winds is that they carry with it a hint of cool. Now that I'm leaving the Karoo, the sun is less intense and the temperature has moderated, though I could be in store for humidity. One of the delights of the Karoo was the occasional service station that stood alone in the middle of nowhere might have a free shower in its washroom. It brought Waydell to mind and her request on our last trip together that she get a shower at least every other day. I wondered if such a shower would have qualified. I almost hoped not, as it would have meant that we might have been able to stay at one of the enticing bed-and-breakfasts or small classic motels. I did pay ten rand (a buck) for a shower at a camp ground in mid-afternoon, but pushed on and wild-camped 25 miles down the road.

Later, George

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