Tuesday, September 26, 2006

culturally immersed in the back of a kombi

“Look at Edward. This is so embarrassing.” Gisella, my language teacher, was displeased. It was a few hours after swearing-in and Edward was plugging away at an elderly Mercedes sedan that had seen better days, the kind of perpetual tinkering with automobiles that is so much a part of life here. The only thing was he’d stripped down to an undershirt and we were sitting in the parking lot at the Safari Court hotel where a delegation from the World Food Program were also hosting a conference.
“That’s ghetto. Does he know we’re not in Katatura?” In Katatura it’d be no big deal to get involved in an afternoon’s struggle with a recalcitrant engine. Of course Gisella was always claiming that things were “ghetto.” Serving Oros –African Kool-Aid – “ghetto,” riding in donkey carts -- “ghetto,” etc.
Here in Otjituuo all of the above are practiced, diligently. One of my neighbors observes a nightly repair/séance with his 80s Toyota mini van. I wonder if it’s even become a question in the household what the husband is going to do. Or if he comes up with a “problem” with the car every night: “Oh, that Volkswagen steering wheel I put in the van isn’t working out,” then the next night “I’ve got to change the spark plugs with some from Mr. Verimuye’s tractor” followed by “Honey I’ll be out front. I’ve got to weld the seats back down. And I think I’m going to try that steering wheel again.” Our principal has been indulging in the national pastime recently although it’s because he hit a warthog with his hatchback. I think he killed it.
It reminds me of some other car habits here. If you are traveling anywhere, hiking by “public transport,” you’ll be sure to notice these quirks. First of all – “public transport” means getting into someone’s car who happens to be going to another town This is not a formal taxi driver. It’s someone who is driving for another reason and picking up riders means he can pay for the trip plus make some money on the side. Which means if you are along you agree implicitly to anything else he’s planned for the ride.
Once a near riot broke out in a kombi when the driver made an unannounced “turn” in the location. I remember the people were yelling at the driver, I wasn’t the only one who was wondering what the hell was going on. So we pull up to this house after driving for about twenty minutes through the location and then he just pops out of the car and goes inside. So everyone, about fifteen people, are just waiting inside the van. This lasts about thirty minutes by which point people are actually getting out and going into the house. The driver comes back and starts up the car without any explanation – people are furious but he doesn’t care at this point because we also pick up and squeeze in one of his relatives who we drive to another house before getting on the road to Windhoek again. It’d be like you’re on a cross-town MTA bus which then inexplicably goes to a subdivision in Hoboken, the driver gets out and walks into his aunt’s place, goes inside, and then twenty minutes later emerges with a bag of Doritos and a cell phone charger.
The driver is always a he. I have never been driven by a woman. I don’t think I’ve even seen a woman driving here. Back to Taxi Land. When you approach, especially if you’ve got bags, aggressive touts will seize you like the guaranteed fare that you are.
“OSHAKATI! OSHAKATI!” Something about me suggests Oshakati. I’m not sure what that is. At this point you find out the cars that are going to your particular destination. If I get annoyed with the aggressiveness of the touts I might reply with some perverse answer like I am trying to hike to Luanda just to get them to shut up. At this point you need to make an educated guess about relative safety and proximate departures. Like if there are two memes with a baby and a sullen teenager then you might want to hop in. Then upon seeing what appears to be the driver, no, is in fact the driver, drinking a 500 ml Tafel Lager. He’s also gesticulating angrily among fellow taxistas and blasting Namibian kwaito. But you might be waiting for another three hours if you decline that ride.
Now of course, you will wait until the car is full, that’s elementary. But after that fifth elusive passenger is persuaded to come in this car which is going “now-now” you’ll then make a turn to buy petrol. Even if you were waiting for one hour, you’ll wait to get gas until afterwards. Even if you were in fact at the gas station the entire time; gas always comes after the passengers. Not top off – just enough to get to the destination. It’s like in the early days of automobiles before tanks could accommodate much gas. What’s interesting is that even on a long-haul trip, like say Grootfontein to Windhoek, where all the passengers pay up front, the driver will still choose to only fill up enough for each leg, so you’ll actually get gasoline three or four times on a five-hour trip. And if you’re lucky your driver might enlist you in forcefully rocking the car back and forth while the gas is being pumped. I’m not sure what that does exactly. Part of it I’m sure is just the taxi culture. It’s what’s done. When you pull in to each town there is the one particular gas station where everyone does the partial refuel thing. I don’t know how the other gas stations make ends meet really.

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