Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dante's Inferno Right Here in Africa

Photo by Jennifer Stewart

How can I ever forget that day? The day Mr. Wolf the car salesman handed me the keys to my very own very first new car. Fiat Uno 1100, Fire! I felt the earth move under my feet, I felt the sky tumble and fall, yes I did. Heart thumping I carefully opened the driver's door. In slow motion I settled in behind the wheel, revving up my inner thrill.

The world around me faded as I closed the door, turned the key. Ooh, hear that powerful engine's throaty purr. Oh so smoothly I pulled out of the showroom, then floored it. Fiat Uno? Heck no, MG sports more like!

In my first brand new car I headed for the open road of my first real holiday. Real African summer holiday. Granted I only had one day, but hey, this was going to be the best day's holiday of my life!

Within an hour I'd left the hot-as-hell-and-nowhere-to-escape city behind and was flying like the wind. What did I know of what lay ahead? Zero. What did I care? I didn’t. The thing about African summer in the city, you just barely make it through the day, body hot and falling-down-dead lethargic, like your flesh is candle-wax too close to the stove. And bones, you haven't got any, there's no structure to you, just this melt-down happening way beyond your control.

There was no way I was spending my first day as the proud owner of an MG alias Fiat Uno slumming it around the city on a day that promised temperatures in the 100's. I would drive out of the city onto the open road, up towards Johannesburg, through the Karoo, go as far as I could. Maybe I'd take tomorrow off as well. The art of dangerous living.

Have you ever driven through the Karoo in a heat wave in a car which doesn't have air conditioning? Let me tell you first about the Karoo. It goes on forever, the road as straight as a ruler. It gets almost unbearable, no matter what you do. That road, it goes on and on and on without relief, and as for the heat, if you close the windows you suffocate, but if you open them the hot air sears your lungs, dry-heat burns your mouth.

Even water doesn't help. How could it? It's hot in the bottle, anyway. Still, you try it and you shout in frustration, your throat is a furnace. I was trapped in the inferno before I could say Jack Rabbit. It'll get cooler, soon. Soon. On and on and on and on I drove, through dry, dusty scrubland. No trees, no animals, no people. Just the straight road and the heat. It's not going to get cooler. Ever.
Seconds dragged themselves lead-heavily, milestones passed interminably, face red, blood pounding, body a hot and sweat-sticky hell. That's when I knew, it's never going to end. The ferocity of my longing for the open road in my new car, it stopped the world, turned it on its head.

I would forever be trapped in a Dante-type open-road-Inferno. I didn't even fight it any more. I was stuck in a dry-heat warp. I spoke the words out loud I forgot the damn air conditioning. My voice sounded strange and eery, throat heat-gravel. I stayed silent and my thoughts shouted burningly, searing my brain.

The tarmac shimmered. Was that water? No, fool! Time stretched sluggishly, life became a slow-motion mirage, the straight road a hallucinated river tormenting me with a never-to-be-fulfilled promise of cool quench to my searing body-thirst.

It will never end. The words became a mantra. Something had happened to the workings of time. It had really stopped. Was I moving, was I imagining it? Hot air in my face, hot air down my dry throat. Please god let it rain, please, I'll do anything. No rain. It doesn't rain in the Karoo. If it did, the rain drops would boil. It can never end.

 Then suddenly it had. Ended. Somehow there was no slow getting towards that ending, it just happened in a split second, I'm sure of that.

The torture was miraculously over. Out of the blue it was evening, and have you any idea what that means? It means the sun had set and I had arrived at a small hotel awash in an oasis sea of green soft moist grass, huge willow-green cool trees, cool on my face, cool under my bare throbbing feet, cool water drenching the thirst of my sweat-sticky body, cool crisp linen on my luxurious bed.

Then I heard the thunder, and Oh Sweet Heaven. Cool rain.