You Will Take This Mini Road Trip: Microstates Edition

Dashing through Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino in a MINI Cooper, listening to the Immaculate Collection and eating gummy bears on a week-long race to catch a flight to Malta is a great idea that you have had and now you have to follow through because you have told everybody you are doing it.

Dashing through Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino in a MINI Cooper, listening to the Immaculate Collection and eating gummy bears on a week-long race to catch a flight to Malta is a great idea that you have had and now you have to follow through because you have told everybody that you are doing it. 

You need:

– One (1) MINI Cooper, preferably red. Preferably.

– One (1) GPS thing.

– Zero (0) paper maps because see above.

– One (1) non-refundable, non-changeable airplane ticket to Malta, per person.

– One (1) pretty hefty rental deposit forfeited if you bring back the car late.

Your red (!) MINI comes with an American sorority girl-voiced GPS which you promptly name ‘Heather’. She has a little bit of vocal fry and can’t really pronounce foreign things but she doesn’t care. She plows through de-vowelled Slavic words with the careless confidence of, well, an American college girl. Which is actually why you call her Heather, because of that one time that you met an American exchange student who said she was “fluent” in Spanish but she spoke it like a Minion, and her name was Heather.

ANYWAY. The MINI Cooper has no booth space really but you don’t need booth space because you are sophisticated and unencumbered by practicality. Heather guides you out of the city and you nip through rush hour traffic and towards Liechtenstein without any bloodshed. You are in a red MINI Cooper and you all look so cool, cruising in your red MINI Cooper among everybody else in their boring cars and shrieking to ‘Chandelier’ in your MINI Cooper which is red.

Congratulations, you have made it to the Austrian border! You stop to buy that highway vignette sticker and you stick it on the windshield and suddenly the car won’t start. It just sits there blinking like a moron. It leaves you stranded there on the side of fucking nowhere and you swear like a movie prostitute and you try to open the bonnet, which takes you twenty minutes because nothing in this ridiculous car is intuitive. Nothing. The warning light flashing on the dashboard is designed by an abstract expressionist, so there is no human way to interpret what is wrong. Is the car hot? Is the car thirsty? Who knows?

You hate the hateful MINI Cooper.

You swallow the remnants of gay pride still held among the car occupants and you phone your closest heterosexual male friend, literally begging for advice. No, it’s not the petrol (I mean, honestly). Yes, you guess it could be the oil. No, you don’t understand the blinking light. Can he come over to Austria and have a look? (He can’t.)

And then someone touches something and the engine starts again for no fathomable reason and you floor it just in case it fails again. You have wasted a lot of time and you are now resentful and fearful of the MINI Cooper in equal measure.

Congratulations, you have made it to Liechtenstein! It is very wet and it looks as if a fistful of houses had been dropped on a  Swiss valley, which is basically Liechtenstein. You drive through Vaduz in a nanosecond. You blink and you miss the castle (there’s a castle). You take the stupid MINI Cooper up the hills and you park it where Heather tells you. You eat horse for dinner.

It’s the morning after, and you wake up to a gorgeous green and grey view of the Alps outside your window. You are refreshed and in a wonderful mood as you zoom across Switzerland on your way to Andorra, and just as the memory of the previous day’s technological meltdown starts to fade, Heather begins to display an abyss of pure nothingness where France should be.

Your GPS has deleted France.

You get completely lost in France. It rains furiously and you cannot find the highway. The back windshield wiper stops working. You run out of gummy bears. You would cry but you are the only one in the car who can speak French and you have to keep your shit together and ask for directions from people with regional accents.

But zipping through the French mountains in the MINI is a beautiful sensory experience, so it doesn’t matter so much that you don’t know where you are, that you may be driving backwards towards Estonia for all you know, and you have added like four extra hours of driving time by the time you make it to your night stop in Montpellier, and when you crash the car against a roundabout curb it doesn’t even leave a mark, so there may be a God after all, albeit one that clearly dislikes you.

Congratulations, you have made it to Andorra! Andorra is the best. It feels like home to you (because you are a Spaniard) with everyone speaking Spanish and street signs in Catalan and everyone being from across the border. Heather comes alive again, splendidly versed in Andorra’s every nook and cranny. She doesn’t know what Paris is, but she will find you every parking lot in Andorra La Vella. You will take what you can get. Also you will buy blue swimming trunks because you have forgotten yours back home and there is no sales tax in Andorra.

You back up through the Côte d’Azur and onto Monaco, listening to Madonna. Congratulations, you have made it to Monaco! Monaco is ridiculous but also nice — essentially if you can imagine a tacky monstrosity that’s also somewhat understated at the same time, that’s Monaco. You eat burgers by the bay at night.

The next day you are off to San Marino and it becomes your favourite part of the trip, down the Italian Riviera through Sanremo and across the bootstraps onto the Oldest Republic In The World. Congratulations, you have made it to San Marino! It’s all castles and peaks and more tightly wound roads, and you will have the best of times with the Italian language and counting cinquecenti and eating pizza and piadine for two days until it’s time to go. You will not want to go.

Heather is in a good mood and freestyles her way back up Austria, driving you head-first into Germany and a colossal traffic jam. Fuck you, Heather, you say with a mouthful of gummy bears. Heather doesn’t listen. Heather doesn’t care.

You make it home just in time to return the car, have a shower, a sleep, and hop onto the flight to Malta.

You will miss the red MINI Cooper. You will think of Heather. You will occasionally wonder who has got them both now, what other major European countries she has wiped off the map.

It will take you ages to burn off the gummy bears.

Air Zimbabwe, Maybe

There is an audible sigh of relief when a jurassic Boeing 737-200  pulls up to the boarding gate in Harare. I have learnt that flying Air Zimbabwe is an act of blind chance.

I called them weeks ago, still in Europe, trying to book a seat on their Harare-Victoria Falls morning flight. Air Zim has gone bust so many times in the past decade that Wikipedia hasn’t able to keep accurate track of whether they are operational or not at any given time. Sure, there is a website. The website shows a sort of schedule, and a ‘book’ button. No, it doesn’t do anything when you press it. So I called. And I called and I called and I called.

And it rang and it rang and it rang. For two days.

Nobody picks up the phone at Air Zimbabwe, until eventually they do.  A very friendly lady informed me that she wasn’t sure if the airline was flying at all at the moment. She suggested I tried to call again the day before I wished to fly. She then suggested I checked the bus.

There are buses, wonderful buses or so I am told, zipping between Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, and on to Vic Falls, doing the job that the national airline should be doing but can’t under the crippling weight of being Mugabe’s alleged private plaything. So I called. And I called and I called and I called.

And I wrote. And I wrote, and I wrote and I wrote. My friend in Harare called. And she called and she called.

And so that’s how I end up having to fly out of the country back to South Africa and then back in into Victoria Falls this morning. And that’s why the people gathered in the adjacent boarding gate are so relieved to see an actual aircraft appear.

It’s the simple things.

Harare Hop

hre1I am looking at the sun setting behind the Harare Gardens from my room on the 18th floor, and feeling very lucky to be here.

There are three power outages at the airport in the twenty minutes I spend queuing up in front of the immigration desks. It would be a longer wait but the clerk likes my surname, passes my passport around, asks me about Spanish football and welcomes me into Zimbabwe just as the electricity fails for a fourth time. Baggage carousels stop mid-roll as if in a half-meant coma. The waiting crowd lowers its voice in the semi-darkness and I wonder why we do that, grow quiet when the lights go down.

I walk into the sunshine rolling my battered bag under Chinese signs and a large portrait of Robert Mugabe.

hrecrowneplazaThe only road connecting the airport to the city is a barely paved single-lane trail. It’s enormously dusty and full of giant potholes that the driver tries to navigate. “In Harare, if you see someone driving straight, they are drunk”, he says and we swerve and we laugh and I nearly bite my tongue in half at the next pothole. Turning towards Park Lane we pass the National Reserve Bank. “It’s empty now”, he says, with a side-eye.

You get a lot of side-eye in Harare. A lot.

Walking around town you get the impression that the city is shaking its head after a blunt indeterminate shock. The loudness is a bit muffled, sort of like it was at the airport, when the lights would flicker shadows upon the presidential portraits. The mess is muffled too, the daily functioning and coming and going just hangs mid-step for the briefest of pauses. It’s only the beginning of the start, they tell me. The country melted down and it’s trying to reboot.

People like my orange shoes and they want me to trade them for all sorts of things.

Zimbabwe has stopped its implosion with a very uneven and unsteady grand government coalition and the adoption of a basket of currencies, among which the US dollar seems to be king. “The Zim dollar is, how shall I put it” a woman tells me, “inactive for now. Thank God.” And side-eye. Her friend nods. He named her latest child Morgan, she says. Side eye. “We’re all waiting here. You know. Waiting.” Side-eye.

When night falls, a few lights spring out spotting the dark in downtown Harare. They are fires lit inside tin barrels. A few people huddle around them. It’s quiet and beautiful and disconcerting.

Beyond my 18th floor window, as far as my eye can see, Harare is waiting.

iKapa · Kaapstad · Cape Town

It’s always the taxi drivers, isn’t it. Maybe I should be concerned, and I am not concerned.

The taxi driver in question is darting past Khayelitsha township on our way from the airport towards the Cape Town waterfront. We have started on a good note – I ask him if I can sit at the front with him, he tells me that he’s  glad I asked, wishes more people would sit up front; nobody seems to want to, he says; they probably do, I say, and surely they must, I don’t know where to rest my eyes, everything is so beautiful I wish there were no such thing as windows.

I have already forgotten his name, but I remember he knows how to say hello in the most polite Spanish, Norwegian and Hungarian. He seems as hungry for first-hand news from Europe as I am for South African ones. He drives me past the football stadium where the Spanish national football team trained during the 2010 World Cup. He is from Port Elizabeth. He wants to know what Johannesburg is really like. He takes a look at my El Al crossbody bag and asks me whether I think the two-state solution is really dead. He thinks I will like Cape Town.

cptgreenpointAs it turns out, I really do. I like jogging across Green Point every morning. I like the picnics at Clifton Beach with Belgian and French expats just met. I like the skewered crocodile that tastes like leathery chicken and the live bands on Long Street and the rainbow-flagged galleries in De Waterkant. I take a commuter train to hang out with the penguins at Simon’s Town. I start a collection of weird pâté cans -impala, crocodile, zebra, kudu, springbok, wildebeest. People take me to a braai or two and try to teach me Afrikaans. I ride those little kombi minibuses. I surmount patience I never knew I had at the Mozambican consulate. I reunite with friends I made a lifetime ago and half a world away.

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It’s a real eye-opener into the reality of what’s ubiquitously referred to as the New South Africa, perhaps even more so than Johannesburg, much as I would have expected it to be the other way around. It is here, after all, that I meet blacks driving convertibles and a white guy who used to be homeless, and the city seems far more integrated than I would have expected after the very obvious racial dividers between, say, downtown Joburg and the Northern suburbs. It’s almost as friendly as Joburg. It’s very shallow. It knows it’s gorgeous. It’s still dangerous as hell, but you just can’t bring yourself to believe it under the glowing yellow sun that makes everything vibrate, and I completely forget about the higher-than-Johannesburg crime rate until one lazy afternoon in Bo-Kaap I turn a street corner to see an American old lady getting her necklace stolen.

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So much of Cape Town is filthy poor, poor to an extent that my limited European brain cannot conceive. It’s beachfront houses and slums, swimming pools and tin roofs, Constantia and Khayelitsha, chatty bums wearing Zara and street muggings at gunpoint. It’s just so easy to get caught on the view from the top of Table Mountain and forget just how much of the best and worst of humanity are nodding neighbours that live across the street from each other, and maybe it goes a long way to explain this bizarre South African obsession with shopping malls. Every evening, I sit by the Waterfront and look at the sunset and think of how I don’t know anything.

When I get to Heaven, if I ever do get to Heaven, I hope it turns out to be Cape Town.