It’s been said that crazy things happen to me – falling out of a car, being evacuated from two countries in two weeks, nearly plummeting to my death, being locked in my apartment with no electricity and dead electronics and a whole other lot of situations that are now apart of my story repertoire.
Recently I heard this saying, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” I had to repeat that phrase over and over in a South African bus station as justification for the delayed start to my much-anticipated New Year’s vacation.
A group of PCVs and I decided to spend a few days welcoming 2013 in South Africa. We could lie on the beach, eat delicious and unavailable-to-us food, take frequent showers and relax with a few First World comforts. The plan was to take an overnight bus to Port Elizabeth, stay till the first and then hope over to Jeffrey’s Bay for more beach before heading back to Lesotho.
Our bus was scheduled to leave 10 p.m. from Bloemfontain, SA, but I wanted to get across the border and hit up the mall for a bit of shopping and a nice meal before the long ride. We split into groups and, because of transportation struggles and other errands, my friend Cait and I didn’t get across until the afternoon. Then we waited several hours for the taxi to Bloem – a two-hour trip – to fill. When we finally arrived around 5:30 p.m., all I wanted was a cold beer and to be at the mall but Cait suggested we should get our tickets first. Hot and tired, I was annoyed at this suggestion but my practical side prevailed and we agreed it was better to take care of the task now then later in the evening.
She pulled out her confirmation numbers for both the departure and return and I realized I only had a number for coming back. I remembered that I never got one for the way there for some reason, but tried to hold panic at bay until it was my time, fully confident the ticket fee had been deducted from my account. However, when it was my turn, the clerk could not find my name for that evening’s bus. He printed my return ticket and then double checked but he had no record of me.
Initially, I thought that maybe there was a glitch in the system and my reservation didn’t go through. OK, I will just by another seat. Anxiety took over when he said that the bus was full and suggested I check the other four bus lines for an available seat. Everyone was booked solid.
At this point, Cait and I saw our friends Tara and Elizabeth who were waiting for a bus to Cape Town. Tara, per experience, suggested I check into airline tickets and Elizabeth gave me her phone to do so as I do not have an SA SIM card. Plane tickets were about $350, too much for someone without an income.
I begged the clerk to check again and, although he still couldn’t find my name, he said he would call the host on the bus and see if there were no shows in Jo’burg, where the bus was coming from. As he did that, I checked my bank account then shoved the screen on my recent actions into his face so he could see that the money was definitely taken out. If I paid for it, I wanted a seat. He got on the phone with a service rep – why he didn’t do this an hour earlier when the problem first arose is beyond me – and found out what happened. The ticket I bought was for the 10 p.m. bus to Port Elizabeth but for the day earlier. And all seats were still full.
My jaw widened. Tears formed. My vacation seemed ruined.
The clerk, bless his heart, could see my distress and worked up a solution based on seats available during this peak traveling time. I could get on a bus that night that would take me to George where I would get a shuttle to Plettenberg, way west, nearly half the way between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town (or so it appeared on the small map printed on my ticket). I would then have to take another bus from Plettenberg to Port Elizabeth. This resulted in two bust tickets accumulating to three times what I paid for the original ticket and pushing my arrival back about 12 hours.
My other choice was to wait and see if there was a no show on the bus my friends were taking and, if not, I would have to find a place to stay in Bloem so late at night and find a ticket for the next night. I could have gotten a bus the next night (two of our party did that) but would forfeit what I paid for lodging in PE.
I asked Cait, Elizabeth and Tara what they would do, already knowing my answer. I gave the guy my credit card and booked the tickets from Bloem to Plett and then Plett to PE.
I boarded the bus an hour earlier than my friends and arrived at a Shell station in Plett about 9 a.m. I used the facilities to change, wash my hair, brush my teeth and freshen up. Then I inquired about the main shopping area and walked to the Market Square where I found several boardwalk-type shops. I had coffee and scone with some journal writing and then explored for a bit before stopping at the beach. I had lunch at a pub and then returned to the station to watch my bus (where I witnessed an accident). The bus came 30 minutes late, but I was able to board and enjoy SA’s famed Garden Route on the way to PE. It actually turned out to be a quite pleasant day.
My friends were incredibly sweet about the whole thing. Cait bought me that beer I desperately wanted and Kevin gave me his phone with an SA SIM so that I could update them along the way. They called a few times to check up and welcomed me graciously when I arrived. Caitlin bought me a cool drink when I was finally able to join them.
The rest of the vacation was not disaster free, sadly. I stepped on a piece of glass and acquired the second-worst sunburn of my life, both still causing pain today. Although overall it was a nice vacation, we agreed that Heather Mangan did NOT win this one.
To lose that extra money stung, but within 10 minutes of the solution I saw this as an adventure. It wasn’t the first time I was randomly stranded in a foreign city and I hope it is not the last. I got to see a different part of SA and explore a bit on my own.
When I boarded the first bust, thanks to the help of a really nice woman I met in the station, I was excited for the detour. I called my mother to tell her and, after cringing at how much I had to pay for the new ticket, she said something that I can’t forget.
“I can tell how much you have changed. Heather two years ago would have freaked out but you seem really calm. I am impressed.”
Sure, I did panic a bit but my emotions were definitely more in control more than they have in the past, and that is, I think, something to be proud of.
In the end, I got that realization, the adventure and a story. I am OK with being the type of person that these things happen to, as long as they are a bit cheaper next time.