And so, it has begun.
Every expedition I go on starts with a long and rather tedious part, out of the known world. The layers of civilisation must be peeled away one by one – urban suburbia, dotting out into farmlands, now with their late-autumn load of ripe crops, punctuated by swaths of rural towns, each next one less certain of whether it wanted to be a town or a village or just a lose gathering of settled people. The nature of the terrain changes too, from the rounded hills of the highveld, now in their beautiful autumn plumage of faded yellow flecked with dark-green groves of trees, to savanna woodlands, flecked with autumn here and there, and then finally to the Kalahari scrubland with its drought-stunted trees and shrubs, still too busy trying to survive to start worrying about the season.
In these hours nothing much is demanded of the mind. It is a good time for thinking, I told myself, to explore fresh perspectives on the vexing questions of life and identity and state of mind; come up with some profound insight, some calming conclusion, or to embroider stories that could later be sculpted to beauty on paper. That would be a sensible and productive way of spending so many hours of inaction, of course, and I tried, but I kept leaking away into puddles of senseless doodling – obstinately recurring scraps of songs from Dylan, Kristofferson, Baez, Cohen, Donovan, Stevens and the like that I had once droned to the strumming of my cheap guitar, snap-shot images of people I had known, cringing moments of embarrassment I had endured, puzzling or amusing situations of misunderstanding… There was no structure, no purpose, no utility. It was a waste of good time. No, but it is the decoupling, the unwinding that the mind needs, I told myself (a bit guiltily), and I let it go where it wanted.
I was entering the Middle World, between the Civilised World and the Wilderness. It is a dichotomous world, with bits of both. It is driven by a yearning and a fierce ambition of the people to be like those suave and sophisticated denizens of the Civilised World – oh, if only one could alert them to the true nature of it – and they have arrived, somehow, at a set of ideas of what that means. It is peculiar, sometimes charming, sometimes amusing and mostly, to me, saddening, because it is an aberration of their true identity.
Then, deeper into the hinterlands. Not yet the wilderness, where Nature keeps a regular, if often tumultuous rhythm; still the Middle World. Here it is mired in a state of interminable ruin, brought about by decades of civil war or corruption and maladministration and careless neglect.
I find it, at times, depressing, but it has a character of its own, with a unique hopefulness and vibrancy – a trading area, sprung up on the edge of some former colonial town that had become too ruined for further habitation. It is a throng of ramshackle little shops jostling for a front to the road – each not much more than a mud-plastered lattice of sapling and thatch and bits of tin sheeting and plastic and wood board hobbled together with rusted nails and wire. It is frothing with activity – people buying and selling, mostly socialising. Some sellers, who could not find a place where they could wedge yet another little shop between the others, have simply displayed their goods on the road, spread on a blanket, or on empty plastic containers.
The shops are all open plan, and always open, at any hour. They all sell basically the same goods – almost anything: basic groceries (and surprisingly sophisticated items, like specialised infant formula too), cooking utensils, bicycle parts, clothing, kitsch underwear and costume jewellery, toiletries, (warm) cool drinks, sweets, condoms of dubious reliability, and, importantly, alcohol, some locally concocted, some commercial.
Moving through the area is an intense experience. One has to wade your vehicle through the activity and anything that has the appearance of a potential customer, and that includes anything that is not a known local resident, is immediately beset by a crowd of shopkeepers and others that hope to sell or scrounge something or want to show off or are merely inquisitive. It is all very loud and persuasive and merry as each tries to capture your attention by outdoing the other with offers and questions and quips and jokes.
I knew that, if I would actually respond with anything more than a nod and a smile, I would be lured into buying something I really don’t need, and to discover afterwards I had paid far too much in the monopoly-grade currency, or had been handed back far too few of the limp-fingered and barely legible notes as change (they had long given up coins). But that I would only work out some way down the road. By then my money would have disappeared and they would have had their laughs and I won’t feel like re-running the terrible road.
It has its pleasant surprises too – a repair shop, where I could save myself the hassle of having to fix a puncture that night. The proprietor went to work on my wheel with more or less the same tyre levers and hammer, but he did it in half the time I would have taken.
Next to my vehicle, also half in the roadway, was a truck with a long and hard life behind it, undergoing a major repair job. A new (old) gearbox was being made to fit. But an adaptor plate between the engine’s bell housing and the gearbox first had to be manufactured. A piece of steel plate that had had an earlier life too, happened to be lying around, and the necessary modifications were under way, using a large angle grinder with disk worn almost to its quick, and a hand drill, drill bits so blunt that it was more like using a punch.
I stood watching the proprietor work on the tyre. He was good at this job, and quick. But the skills he had learned here were not relevant in the civilised world, where different methods and different tools are used. His skills fitted only here, in the Middle World. I shook his hand afterwards, clasping it warmly with my left too; I am not sure he understood why.
I didn’t wait to see the outcome on the truck – it could take days – but I wouldn’t be surprised if I came across it later, precariously chugging away.