Driving on the left. Multi-lane roundabouts. Zigzagging minibus taxis. Unpredictable robots.
Just some of the hazards of driving in Pretoria.
Another hazard that we heard a lot about when we first arrived, both from the US Embassy and from locals, was the so-called “smash and grab.” It is crucial that you not have any valuables visible while driving because criminals are sometimes known to shatter the windows of cars stopped at traffic lights just to reach in and snatch a purse, GPS, cell phone, etc. Our car, in fact, is outfitted with special film on the windows to thwart such an attempt, so for the first several weeks we always drove with our windows up.
Now that the temperatures are rising nicely in Pretoria, and now that we are absolute masters of the motorways, we are becoming braver with the windows. Since we are always vigilant about not having valuables in sight, the only real “dangers” are the people asking for change on the corners and the entrepreneurs hawking their wares in the middle of the street.
But to call these folks mere “panhandlers” would be too pedestrian. No, in Pretoria, anyway, they fall into several colorful categories:
- The basic panhandler – This guy (it’s usually a guy) can be found in almost any major city. “Spare change?”
- The creative panhandler – This guy (it’s usually a guy) uses humor or artistic ability to create a cardboard sign intended to grab your attention and compel you to give a little something. There are a couple we see often. One reads, “Crime DOES pay, but I’d rather not be a criminal.” The other features a silhouette illustration of a bird – a la the Twitter logo – and reads, “This is a bird. I didn’t know what else to draw.” OK, maybe not so creative.
- The Afrikaner panhandler – This guy (it’s usually a guy) wanders barefoot, in true Afrikaner style, from robot to robot asking for money. The blonde, buzz cut bloke at Schoeman and Duncan just puts his hands together in prayer; the squat, mustachioed man at Middel and Queen Wilhelmina holds a sign insinuating that his job was stolen (read: by a black guy).
- The trash collector – This guy (it’s usually a guy) stands at intersections with a plastic bag and asks if he can take any trash from your car in exchange for a few rand. An actual business transaction.
- The mother & daughter – Most often, it seems, encountered at stoplights near shopping centers and/or grocery stores, a young mother and usually very young child will ask for change or food. Legit or not, it’s almost impossible to deny them. Just ask Jenny.
- The sunglasses guy – You could be driving with your most flamboyant neon Wayfarers shining like headlights and these dudes will still stick a pair of Canal Street Specials in your grill.
- The cell phone charger guy – What the…? Is that man holding Medusa’s severed head? An inky squid? Oh, no, it’s just a tangle of cell phone chargers. No thanks. I’m good.
- The vehicle registration disc guy – OK, so every car in SA must display its registration information on the windshield. It’s a little, round piece of paper with a barcode, commonly called a “disc.” The paper is adhered to the glass with a plastic device called…I have no idea what it’s called. But, you can get one of these things with just about any image or logo on it, like the make of your car, checkered racing flags, whatever. The smart sellers will pull the Kia one off their board, run up to the window of the Rio and yell, “Hey, baas!” Which begs the question: Do people love Kias that much? Ferrari, yes. BMW, sure. Kia? I actually saw someone buy one of these on Friday.
- The DVD guy – Exactly what it sounds like. Bootleg DVDs. The other day, I apparently Smurfed out a signal that I wanted to Smurf the latest Smurf Movie DVD. Smurf ya later, bru.
- The “I’ll sell whatever I can get my hands on” guy – Again, these guys aren’t a novelty, globally speaking. Chicago has them. It’s just fun to see what’s for sale at the corner of, say, Hans Strijdom and Garsfontein. Dora the Explorer beach ball? Yep. Winnie the Pooh window shade? Check. “That’s funny! I was just out driving around wondering where in the world I could find a classroom-sized map of the human muscular system. Thanks, my china!”
- The Springboks jersey guy – You can almost always see these guys near malls and sports shops. They have bootleg (or discontinued, at best) rugby jerseys on hangers, and do brisk business on Fridays, when all good South Africans are meant to support the Bokke by wearing something with SA Rugby on it. I’ve even set aside my detestation for grown men wearing pro sports jerseys to faithfully wear my Springbok World Cup 2011 jersey every Friday. I had mine on this past Friday, but, just like their bespectacled brethren, it didn’t stop these guys from giving me the hard sell.
- The chicken heads – Young, white guys and girls dressed in red shirts and fluorescent, feathery headgear. They seem to just be handing out information, trying to sell something. When the hawkers and the chickens are trying to share an intersection, there could be 15 people bobbing in and out of traffic. It’s distracting.
- The Michael Jackson – The creepiest of them all. We first saw this
guy girlkid on Atterbury Road near Menlyn Mall. Dressed in black capri pants and gray hoodie – and, most importantly, in total whiteface – this person will spin, pose and moonwalk for your stoplight-waiting enjoyment. And, of course, a few rand, if ya got it. The King of Pop may be dead, but his spirit – in the form of sweat-streaked, chalky makeup – lives on.
While none of these characters come close to the guy on the sidewalk in Chicago, who, when he failed to entice me with “black porn” tried to switch gears and sell me socks, they do make driving in Pretoria significantly more interesting.