Today is my last day in the South African town of George - after arriving in an ambulance at midnight exactly four weeks ago. I’m itching to get home but also a little strangely sad to be leaving. It’s begun to feel a bit like home.
But it’s definitely time to go. I’m becoming one of those people you sometimes find in small towns – the identifiable eccentric who shuffles along a predictable path, smiling and waving to the same people every day. “Look – here comes the stupid Brit who’s recovering from a bike crash… yes, he comes here every day…”
I’m here in South Africa’s fastest-growing small city for the worst of reasons – riding a gravel road (something I normally do once or twice a year) went badly wrong. Hence the ambulance... I broke some toes and a shoulder, punctured a lung and snapped most of the ribs on the left side, leaving me with a “flail chest”. I shrugged that off as a colourful term... until it was explained that it’s a very serious collection of damage with about a 25% mortality rate. Gulp.
Still, I’m one of the lucky 75%, thanks to the care I received. After a few days in ICU, I moved to a normal ward and then escaped the hospital, moving into the hotel next door while waiting to fly (there had to be two weeks between fixing the lung and getting into a pressurised cabin).
That’s when I started walking. I didn’t go too far at first. Just down the street and back. But each day I’ve gone a little further, walking in the morning and the afternoon, building up the distance each time. Along the way, I’ve been getting to know – or at least recognize – the people as well as the town.
Even here, in the town, South Africa seems to be a land of extreme contrasts. Each day I walk along the side of York Street, where old white guys leave huge pick-up trucks and gleaming Mercedes 4x4s in car parks marhalled by young black guys in hi-vis vests, hoping for a few Rand as a tip. Half the shops have metal security gates to restrict access – not just the gold-and-diamond dealer, in the arcade where homeless people sleep, but electronics shops and even the pottery where I bought a souvenir to take home. It all feels so safe as I hobble around – but then I'm advised not to go walking after dark. The houses look lovely - but most have signs promising armed-response security.
I’ve found my favourite coffee shop (Ground Control) – next to the hotel, so I can even go in and work on the laptop. I’ve become a regular – they even know my order… The clientele is mostly white, often young and usually animated, so it’s great for people watching. But so too is the fast-food joint beside the barbers halfway down the street, where they cook the boerewors (sausage) on the sidewalk, as the mostly black clientele laugh and joke – probably at my expense – with the lady tending the gas-fired grill.
If the boerewors hasn’t filled me up, I’ll stop in at the trendy bar on my way back to the hotel – not for a real drink but for a milkshake. Salted caramel, every time, the same waitress shaking her head at my lack of imagination. Yesterday, as it was my last day, I stopped there as I headed to see a friend in hospital and I treated myself to the big one – the Freakshake… 800ml of sickly loveliness that nearly finished me off. I didn’t need to eat that evening…
As I’ve been walking I’ve been seeing the same people – some in shops, sometimes I bump into nurses or staff who looked after me on the ward. I popped into Total Sport to see Ters, who came into the hospital to equip me with better footwear than my flipflops. As I’ve moved from hobbling around with a crutch to walking without the stick and then without my orthopaedic boot, people would smile and say “you’re looking well” or “how’s the foot?” Black, white, rich, poor – everyone I’ve met has been so friendly, so genuine, so generous with their time. It's the people who've made me feel at home – and make me certain I'll want to come back.
So I’ll miss George when I leave... but I need to get home. I’ve been here a month – three weeks longer than planned. It’s going to take three flights (changing in Johannesburg and Paris) and 24 hours, but it's definitely time to get going. It's time to get back to real life...