Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Now in Southern Africa

I think we need a break from social and political commentary. So, let's take a moment to explore the concept of time. I promise you it'll be less dry than these first three sentences, so you can wake up... now.

I like to tell people that, in my experience, there are three kinds of countries. There are countries that run on time, like Germany, Japan, or Singapore. Then there are countries where being on time doesn't matter so much, and most things are chronically late, like Mexico, Syria, or Thailand. Then there are countries in Africa.

I first heard the term “now now” in Zambia. Foreigners had taught locals the meaning of the word now. The problem is, Africans kept using it like the foreigners would use the word “soon.” This gets confusing when your question is something “when is this bus leaving?” So the foreigners invented “now now” to mean not soon, but now. Same thing happened to that as happened to “now.” For example, I was one sitting in a truck and told that we were arriving at my destination “now now,” just was we passed a sign saying it was 40 kilometers away.

So I should've been prepared when I went to catch my Greyhound bus from Umtata to Durban. 3:00 was the scheduled time, but my hostel in Coffee Bay told me it could show up anywhere between 2:30 and 3:30. So when I stepped off the 1 ½ hour shuttle from Coffee Bay to Umtata at 2:00, I wasn't too concerned, even as I saw a Greyhound bus pull away in front of us. At 3:30 though, I started to wonder. By 4:00 I was getting concerned. At 4:15, long after all the other companies' buses had left, I called my hostel. They gave me the Greyhound bus telephone numbers for their offices in Umtata, East London, and Port Elizabeth, plus a national call center I was told only to use as a last resort.

I called Umtata first. No answer. I called East London. No answer. I called Port Elizabeth, got a confused woman with a lot of static on the line who, after asking me to repeat my question four times, asked to call back in twenty minutes. I waited twenty minutes and then called back. No answer.

I called the national call center and was told the number didn't exist. I tried a few different combinations. Same result. I called Port Elizabeth again, twice, and finally got the same woman and static telling me they still didn't know and asking me to call the Umtata office. I told them they weren't picking up, and she said they should be there and answering their phones. So I called Umtata again. This time I heard someone pick up and an immediate click. They had hung up on me. I called again. No answer. I called a third time. This time I got a man who didn't know where the bus was because the driver and crew weren't answering their calls, and would I please call back in ten minutes. Nine minutes later, just before 5:00pm, the bus arrived.

The speakers were picking up engine noise, and a lot of the more elderly passengers were complaining about the lack of bathroom stops (despite the bathroom on the bus). The bus also played the same Will Ferrell movie twice (one I'd never heard of but that seemed to be a two-hour excuse to shoot a five minute scene where he gets into a shouting match with Mike Ditka). But, though over two hours late, we did make it to Durban.

In Durban, my friends explained the African concept of “just now” (roughly translates to “in a minute or so”). I asked them what you said if you wanted to say now the way foreigners meant the word. They said they couldn't think of a way to do it. Apparently it doesn't come up that often.

My advice if you find yourself in a place like this? Just go with it. Don't try to fight the system, you'll just make yourself angry.
Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. This reminds me of your post about obtaining a train ticket in India several years ago. Shall we presume by your last line that you were angry....or that you could see how a person with less travel experience might be? I could think of how interesting that is "over there" except for my recent too-similar experiences in endless voice mail loops with the bank and an insurance company. Still that is not the same as wondering where one is going to sleep at night if a bus doesn't show. Enjoyed your varied and interesting photos. lv, anonymom

  2. Very funny good post. Also I was thinking exactly the same thing about your post from India but the one I remeber was about mailing the videos via DHL/Fed Express and having to call a store in another city because the one in Puna did not answer the phone. Anyway glad you made it. How was Durban?

  3. I think South Africa is a nice place to visit too. I never been there that is why I'm so curious what is there and what tourist spot is best there. Looking forward to visit the place too. Nice post anyway.

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