Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hitching in Mpumalanga

Not only is Mpumalanga one of the coolest names for a province (ma-pu-ma-lang-a…I couldn’t stop saying it…was just randomly blurting out for no reason), but it is also home to some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Beautiful scenery is good and fine in and of itself, but I like to experience the scenery, not just look at it. Hence, I took to hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, rock sliding, running, and hitch-hiking my way through the vast province. And I ate my way through province too, which is known for its pancakes (see the pancake filled with pork and peaches in Graskop) and biltong, the fatty dried meat that makes your veins pulse with grease.

After leaving Siphiwe and all the others in Soweto, I headed on an overnight train, on which I was pitched a poetry book by a Nigerian missionary (he was very nice, though). Over the next week, in Waterval Boven, I lived with Alwyn, his wife Reetha, baby son Luke, and quasi-neighbor Armand (he's basically part of the family). They took me in for 5 days and cooked me hot meals, gave me a bed, and let me mooch off their internet and other facilities. During the day I would rock climb on some of best climbs in Southern Africa and kayak and do other things, like hiking through the ruins of a lost civilization. I called Waterval Boven a small town, but Alwyn corrected me with "village". Conspiracy theories were big - 9/11 came up and shape-shifting reptiles in US public office was a topic of conversation.

From WB I hitched the rest of the way, first to Sabie, a pancake-laden town known for its mountain biking trails and waterfalls. Accordingly, I biked about 50 km the next day, stopping for swims at the various falls. Next I found myself in Graskop, which I planned to use as a base for a three-day hike in Blyde River Canyon, the third biggest canyon in the world. Unfortunately, the canyon was closed for "upkeep"...which sounds as ridiculous to me as it does to you. If I got caught without a permit, I could be arrested. So, instead I biked and hiked my way around the beautiful area...just a thought: don't try to hike 25 km without socks. I'm a moron.

From there I started hitching my way back south to Nelspruit and then to the border. The entire experience was extremely relaxing and liberating - definitely what I needed after being cramped up in an office. You lose your humanity. Some of my best times in the past several months came on this bout of hitchhiking. There was Alan, who bought me a Coke and then took me on a tour of the sugar factory to which he sells drives and said that if it was a week later he'd take me to the others he sold to. And there was "Hippie Dan", as I call him, who picked me up in his beat up work truck just as he was cracking a Black Label, continuing to explain to me that he tried to get a few beers in on the way home because his daughter didn't like him drinking at home. Apparently he wanted to get a cigarette or two in as well, as he was rolling them on the steering wheel as he drove. At the same time, I was holding a sheet of glass because the back was full with his tools and a couple of his black workers. I was quite lucky to catch him at the beginning of his journey. Hippie Dan also told me that he hadn't paid taxes in 12 years - the "stupid" government was too inept to come after him in his home in the hills that didn't have electricity.

It's hard to explain the freedom you feel standing in the bed of fruit truck, traveling 50 mph through the curvy roads that cut though the mountains and low-lying clouds. Wind in your hair. All your belongings in your pack. No laptop. No cellphone. No responsibilities. No idea where you will be staying once you land in the next town. At that moment, life seems to make sense. It really makes you ask yourself, "What am I doing with myself?" It makes life in the office, student loan payments, that latest report that was due, and the next project, seem pretty insignificant. For that moment, it is insignificant. I get nostalgic when I watch movies like Into the Wild, where people are just living with no worries but their bed and the next meal.

Part of me wants that life, to leave this constant obsession of thinking about my next move in life - what company to work for, which people to network with, how to target my resume. But I think the daily hassles and "career" stress that I'm sure are not unique to just me are what make this freedom so significant. If I lived like Hippie Dan (minus the job, hence even hippier) every day, I bet it would lose its luster. I think I'm the Type A crazy who needs to be busy or I get bored - I need to be producing something, having some impact. At least this is what I've found so far. Some people can change the world "spreading love and peace" and disengaging from mainstream society. That's great. I don't think I'm that guy. At least not yet. Give me some more months tramping around Africa and South America and I'll get back to you.

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