Driving Through Soweto


Yesterday was an interesting day. In order to get to Soweto, and hang with my friend Amelia's family, I had to rent a car. Easier said than done in S. Africa, where everybody drives on the lefthand side of the street and sits on the righthand side of the car.

My girlfriend's cousin Ref accompanied me to AVIS Rent-a-Car, which had just rented out their last automatic before our arrival. Ref called around to some more dealers around town checking for automatics, but there weren't any available.

So I, being the fierce woman that I am, agreed to rent a standard and just figure it out. "After all, how hard could it be?" I added.

I must inspire a lot of confidence in people, because the dealer handed me a pair of keys to a cute little black VW golf. And after a cursory explanation of what the clutch, brake, and accelerator were, Ref left me in the parking lot as he dashed off to a meeting.

Several stalls, shakes, and screeches later, one of the AVIS guys explained how to ease back on the clutch while applying light pressure to the accelerator. Several more jolts and stops after that, another walked up and asked if I was studying for my driver's license. I assured him that I had in fact been driving for a decade, just never a manual. Then a guy from the pizza joint next door, Thomas, agreed to give me some lessons around the parking lot.

He was a lifesaver. Three hours and a couple of tests later (parking, accelerating, reversing), I was declared fit for the road.

I got out into traffic and my car stalled about a half block away from the parking lot. I couldn't get it started. As people started honking I hoped Thomas would come running to help, but he was nowhere to be found.

A few kind men watching from the side of the road pushed me off the street into a taxi depot and suggested I call my mother or boyfriend to come pick me up. As they walked off, a gaggle of local traders and beggars gathered to watch the spectacle, smirking as my car sputtered, stalled and stopped until I finally got it moving and on the road again. Thankfully, I barely stalled all the way back to my girlfriend's house.

Fast forward a day later when I declared myself fit to drive to Soweto.

Despite my ignorance of maps, I found some very kind people who directed me towards Soweto on the outskirts of Joburg. On my way to Zone 6 in Meadowlands, I took a wrong turn and ended up in an entirely different town. I stopped by a makeshift car garage where a bunch of twenty-something-year-old bright-eyed boys were cleaning and fixing up cars. After they explained how to get to Zone 6, I was more confused than before I stopped. Seeing the glazed look in my eyes, three of the guys offered to direct me there as though it were an ad hoc field trip. They hopped in and started giving directions.

The deeper you go downtown, the more crowded it gets. You immediately know you have left town because all the spaces disappear between the houses and each fence is ringed with barbed wire. There's also very little open space. Soweto is so crowded -- almost like a traffic jam. It reminded me of more of what I'm used to of my fam in NG as compared to staying in the suburbs of Joburg. The tin roofs, broken lightbulbs, and buckets for bathing -- but with the addition of TVs, ATMs, clubs, and internet cafes.

By the time we finally arrived at my friend Amelia's family's house, it was too late to see any of the sites, so we chilled a bit and tried to hit up a few clubs. There was The Ozone, The Rock, and White Horse, complete with neon flashing lights and red painted walls.

People in Soweto were living life, albeit crowded in to tiny spaces. I hope to make it back there someday, but maybe in an automatic.

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