The Zulu Hitchhiker

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Did you ever find yourself in a situation that seemed to be trying to tell you something, but you never discovered its secret? This encounter, during our vacation in South Africa this past April, remains an enigma.

The day after visiting the Anglo-Zulu battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (a few hours’ drive northwest of Durban), Kerry and I set off in our barely adequate rental car from the lodge (think serious 4X4 territory in a Hyundai!) We’d been sleeping in a traditional Zulu beehive hut perched on a ridge overlooking an astonishing valley, where monkeys scampered around on our straw roof and the surrounding vegetation, no civilization in sight. But the middle of nowhere is always somewhere to someone, right? We bade farewell to the friendly manager of the lodge, Bruce, and his associate, Naya, crunching and creeping along the pothole-ridden dirt roads leading back to the “highway” (I say this in the most euphemistic of terms, where pavement was an unexpected and rare blessing.) About 10 kilometers (7 miles) down the gravel path past Elandskraal, we saw a pretty young woman, dressed in brightly colored fabrics, hair tied up in a scarf, holding a pink pocketbook, walking down the road. We had encountered numerous hitchhikers over the preceding days, but up to this point, we hadn’t stopped. On impulse, I suggested we give her a ride, at least up to the main road, where she might be able to catch a bus to her destination. Wherever that might be.
We came to a halt. The woman jogged over to our car and let herself in the back seat, and I asked her where she was headed. At first she just smiled and said nothing . So I pulled out the map we were using and showed it to her, asking, “Are you going to Dundee? Are you going to Ladysmith?” and pointing at each place as I said it. And she stared at the map as if I had given her a bowl of spaghetti and asked her the circumference of the Earth! I inquired about Dundee again since it was the nearest town, but she shook her head. Finally, we heard (I think this is what she said) “Near Ladysmith,” which was 60 km away and the direction we were heading anyway. So she sat very quietly in the back seat with a small smile on her face, and we drove on. I speak a few languages and get by in a few others, but Zulu is not among them…. Every once in a while, I would ask her in English where she wanted us to take her. She didn’t seem to understand, but we managed to exchange names – hers sounded like “Nympha.” It slowly dawned on us that she may never have seen a map before, but she seemed happy with our route. Kerry drove down a rather bumpy (but, wonder of wonders, paved) road leading towards Ladysmith, stopping now and then to avoid the cows and goats wandering in and out of our lane. Eventually I had the idea of calling the lodge and asking Naya, who spoke Zulu, to translate for me and find out where we could take our passenger. I reached Bruce, who put me through to Naya, and then handed my iPhone to the back seat to have Nympha talk to her. At first, she seemed reluctant to take it, then finally put it to her ear. As she spoke to the woman at the lodge, her whole expression changed. She looked irritated, unhappy, tense. After a moment she passed the phone back to me. Bruce was on the other end. “She says she wants to go to Dundee,” (we had just traveled 25 minutes in the wrong direction!) and so we started to turn the car around. Suddenly Nympha grew agitated, put her hand on Kerry’s shoulder, and pointed forward, in the direction we were already going. We didn’t know what to do, but ended up turning around and driving back anyway. It seemed worse to whisk her 60 km away from home because of a misunderstanding. We all sat silently, driving east again, back where we had come from, past the livestock, past the scrubby landscape, and pulled over at the intersection with the main road to Dundee, where a few other people were standing around and where traffic came by in all directions. I pointed north and said, “You want to go to Dundee? It’s that way, I hope you get a ride! Good luck! Goodbye!” Our passenger got out of the car slowly, looking at me with an unfathomable expression in her eyes, then turned away. We drove off, back towards Ladysmith again, wondering what had just happened. We imagined various scenarios. We imagined she was just enjoying the ride – a friend told us that Europeans never pick up Zulu hitchhikers. We imagined she hoped we would take her in and give her a job and a new home. We imagined a secret lover for her in Ladysmith. We wondered if she was running away from an abusive father or husband. But all she had to do was to tell Naya at the lodge that she wanted to go to Ladysmith, or wherever, and we would have taken her with us. Then we asked ourselves if picking Nympha up, driving west then backtracking, had taken us out of the path of danger, of a traffic accident. Or if it led to an encounter that changed her life. Or if it was just weird and puzzling and meant nothing. It felt all the more surreal, discussing it in our high-rise Durban beachfront hotel room that evening, overlooking the Indian Ocean and surrounded by creature comforts.

We will never know, we can never know – and we will probably never see our Zulu hitchhiker again. So why can’t I stop thinking about it, why do I insist on assigning meaning and mystery to a random encounter? Or was it random at all?

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