My fear of reality was relaxed by my fear of death a little.
A study abroad and a committed effort to avoiding reality landed me in the middle of nowhere Africa at the age of twenty. Immediately after finishing my studies in Cape Town and breaking the unfortunate Christmas-ruining news to my parents, I headed to the Transkei in early December for an African winter.
The Transkei, a.k.a. the wild coast of South Africa runs the length of the country’s eastern edge and is visited by the Indian Ocean, every day and every night, and always has since the end of Pangea. The coast is littered with relatively small, relatively remote “communities” that consist of a hundred rondavals housing agriculturalists and their families on rolling green land that ends abruptly with steep one hundred foot cliffs. There are no malls, hospitals or state government really.
I was deposited at the top of a dirt hill next to a totally rusted out truck that had attracted a number of African kids; at the bottom of the hill rested the ocean and The Coffee Shack. I had come for the Coffee Shack, which was more or less a kitchen, two lavatories, a storage locker, an enormous bar and a camp area for traveling white people, mostly from Europe and Australia, with an American here and there- which usually invited some degree of eye rolling.
I had come through with my study abroad two months prior and my classmates and I had fully enjoyed The Coffee Shack. It was right against the ocean. The beer was ridiculously cheap. The bar was like a worm hole you went into and could not leave without an attractive heavily accented, genetically blessed European. There were community meals, pool tournaments and fieldtrips to various hiking spots and surfing . There was no internet or television, and no immediate telephone or discussion of what the future might hold.
It is a well known fact that hostels have difficulty maintaining staff because of the nature of being a hostel. Therefore, it was with no particular effort on my part that I was hired as a bar tender for the Coffee Shack and was paid with a few Rand and a free plot of land for my tent.
I had every fourth day off and this time was usually spent reading in my tent, sun bathing or hanging out with my coworkers- who were an interesting melee of internationals about as interested in reality as I was. For the most part, I spent my time with an Israeli girl my age who frequently got so fucked up on something that she would lapse into Hebrew and talk about pool for hours on end. Thinking this was just the effect a little home grown pot had on her, I indulged and then spent the next two hours in my tent, unsure of what my name was and writing cryptic letters, with a slack jaw and a little bit of drool running down my mouth. My interest in all drugs was indefinitely suspended after I slept that off.
Her interest in drugs was un-curbable, but her capacity to bar tend was absolutely quelled by whatever was in her system. My boss found me in my tent, pulled me out, made me observe the glassy eyed Israeli stooped over on the bench, mumbling shit to herself in Hebrew, and informed me that I would be covering her shift.
I hated day trips and not because it wasn’t cool to see remote parts of Africa or get free surfing lessons while somewhat drunk on free beer; I hated day trips because my African Nemesis led them.
African Nemesis and I never liked each other from day one. African Nemesis was a real life white South African raised in a part of South Africa with very few whites. And he had a real low tolerance for Americans and this American had a real low tolerance for people that some call “moody” and some call “assholes.” He was, at times, very nice and very charming, but for the most part, he responded in grunts to questions and frequently had unnecessary outbursts for no reasons. Added to this, he let a disgusting little varmint run around on his shoulders and head at all times.
But, more than disliking African Nemesis as a person, a moody person, I hated these day trips because while I dispensed the beer, he lead them either on foot or by car and he had the one and only quality that I truly disliked about Africa and that was an indifference for life.
That particular morning, he was in a “slump.” He sat at the table playing with his varmint well into an hour after we were supposed to leave, and not speaking to anyone. After awhile, he decided he was ready and he, six tourists and myself lumbered into a very old land cruiser and began our destination.
I sat in the back with the tourists; African Nemesis operated in the front, alone, with his varmint sitting on his shoulder, smoking a joint and constantly having to shut the door which kept springing open. He was hauling ass up a steep mountain side that ran parallel to the cliffs that marked the land’s edge. People were complaining about the speed and their nausea. Attempts to change the subject or tell them we didn’t have that much further were quickly lost on the people that demanded to know how much longer we had.
He smiled at me, but it wasn’t friendly, and he shut the door which had popped open again. He said nothing, but turned the wheel in such a way that the cliffs which were about a half a mile away were no longer a parallel landscape, but a destination.
Not wanting to give him what he wanted, I let out a long, annoyed sigh and sat back in my seat, shrugging to the tourists, who had noticed the direction of our vehicle. He never said anything, he just continued to pet the damn thing on his head and accelerate. We lumbered over terrain as fast as we could, racing toward his idea of a hilarious joke. I watched the horizon close in and ignored the disgruntled, borderline hysterical, cries of the other people in the vehicle.
There was really nothing I could do if luck had put me in this fucking suv with a man that probably wasn’t suicidal, but was crazy enough to take us to the cliffs edge at full speed. I looked out the opposing windows, at the landscape escaping us, and wondered how much further he would take this joke.
People were growing more hysterical, which lead me to believe the cliffs were getting closer. Someone finally said, “Asshole”, but in a calm way, which led me to believe it was okay to look; a minor change in the steering wheel had us riding on the very edge of the cliffs, so that we were parallel again. He looked over his shoulder at me, smiled, and took a long drag on his joint.
There was no visible road between our car and the cliffs. If we hit a large rock or he was distracted by the animal on his head, or the pot or the door, there was no error for margin. Two girls in the backseat were holding hands. An Irish guy kept asking him what he was doing and telling him he was crazy. He persisted.
And, then, finally, he adjusted the car so that it was moving inward again.
Even though everyone talked about it at camp that night and acknowledged how ridiculous it was, I was fired six days later for refusing to take anymore day trips. That was okay. My fear of reality was relaxed by my fear of death a little, and I returned to the United States shortly thereafter.