A dozen or so South Africans stand on the same quadrant of the traffic circle that leads out of St. Francis Bay towards Humansdorp. There’s a small rain shelter nearby. It looks like a bus stop, but there are no buses here in St. Francis Bay. There is no public transportation at all. There are just thumbs, and the choices drivers make.
I picked up my first hitchhiker here on my previous visit to St. Francis. On my way to dinner one afternoon, two women on the side of the road put their thumbs out. I stopped. The place they were going was not far from the restaurant, so I took them all the way to their destination. Often, you just take people to the nearest major intersection, and they try again. They get closer and closer to their final stop in fits and starts of generosity and good fortune. While I drove, these two women conversed in Corsi, the pops and clicks melodic and soothing. A week later, I would be without a vehicle for a few days, hungry, and out on the side of the road, walking with my own thumb out. Cars drove past, their occupants working hard to not make guilt-inducing eye contact. Some drivers shrugged in apology. Until there was the red flash of brake lights that sent me scurrying for the passenger door in gratitude.
But hitchhiking is dangerous, right? And so is picking up hitchhikers?
The most dangerous part of hitchhiking is being in a car and around other moving vehicles. The authors of Freakonomics have an excellent podcast on the topic here. And there are some stats here. Of course, there’s risk in everything, but stranger danger is odd considering that most people are murdered by someone they know, often quite well. The same goes for rape. We do an amazing job of fearing the less dangerous things. Swimming pools are murderous inventions, and yet we keep digging holes in our backyards and filling them with water.
The truth is that the economy here in St. Francis Bay couldn’t operate without a network of hitching. The jobs and those who need them are kept distant from one another. I’ve never seen such heartbreaking wealth disparity in my life, nor such set boundaries for keeping people apart. Boundaries both physical and cultural. It makes me want to cry every time I drive past the township. It’s a jumble of homes straight out of District 9. And that’s not to paint these people as miserable; there is joy in the townships. Children kick soccer balls back and forth, and adults laugh at jokes. There is smoke from good meals. There is joy, but also a very difficult and brutal lifestyle that involves walking miles every day for work and dragging branches and driftwood even more miles to cook and warm homes.
Not far away, you have gated neighborhoods on manmade canals. You have mansions that sit idle save for two weeks out of the year. There are philosophical and economic discussions to be had here, but those discussions don’t help people who need work get to work today. In the here and now, what helps is a tap of the brakes. That red glow on the side of the road is as warm as any hearth.
I see long dotted lines of women walking from the Cape back toward the township or the circle beyond. The distance is enough to make your FitBit pass the fuck out. I see a cluster of men standing on the side of the interstate with folded bills in their hands and pleading looks on their faces. The money says, “I’m not going to rob you.” The look says, “If I don’t get a ride, how am I to live?”
I pick up one man on my drive to Cape Town, and we have half an hour to chat. Most drives are short, and you just get a name, where they grew up, what they do for a living. Roger and I had enough time to talk about his family. He was visiting his parents, which was why he was so far away, but usually he hitches twenty kilometers every day to get to his job with the park service. He works on a platform station looking for signs of fire. He has a wife and two kids, and he beams when he talks about them. I drop him off near an overpass. When he offers me the money for the lift, I decline, and again his look tells me everything.
You can stay busy picking up hitchers here. On that six hour drive to Cape Town, I picked up half a dozen people, always someone holding out money, which was a sort of ticket never torn in two. Never accepted, but the it showed intent. One day, I was heading to the boatyard to check progress, and the weather was just spectacular. This was back in May, on my previous visit. On this occasion, I picked up three women at the Cape. Housekeepers, whom the owners of these estates could not live without. We were nearing the circle, where I would drop them off and they’d have to wait for the next car to come along, but I decided, Fuckit, I’ll just take them all the way to Humansdorp. It’s just twenty minutes, and I’ve got the time.
The ladies were thrilled. And as we were about to drive through that circle heading out of St. Francis, I joked that we had room for two more (we didn’t really). That’s when they pointed and tapped the headrests and asked if we could pick up their friends. One of the women had luggage, so I got out and popped the boot. While I did, these five women somehow squeezed into spaces meant for three. My rented VW Polo was bottoming out with every pothole. The six of us laughed and chatted all the way to Humansdorp, and when I got out to retrieve the luggage, I had to go through a congo line of embraces. Bus tickets have nothing on gratitude lik.
Yesterday, I had this crew with me.
The only danger we had from hitching was me operating a camera while driving a manual from the right side of the car while going however fast kilometers mean on the wrong side of the road. Or dying of laughter. We all had the giggles. Except for the lady in the middle seat in the back. Middle seats suck everywhere in the world. There’s nothing funny about them.
Today I’ve got some errands to run. I’m damn lucky to be able to run them when I want, where I want, without having to walk and hitch. Over the course of my life, I’ve hitched dozens of times. When I lived in the Bahamas, traveling by sailboat and without a car, it and walking were my only choices. The only thing that’s ever happened to me by hitching is making new friends and feeling an immense sense of gratitude. Most people in the world are awesome. Most things we do have an element of risk. We just tend to ignore statistics where convenient. Just as we find it convenient to ignore people and treat them like statistics, even when the math doesn’t add up.
I don’t need your money. Seriously, I’m set. I’m going to write about my travels no matter what. But people have asked, so here you go.