My Really Really Incredible and My Really Really Ridiculous Time in Port St Johns . . .

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Africa » South Africa » Eastern Cape » Port St Johns
December 3rd 2008
Published: December 5th 2008
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Yesterday, just before dinner time, I arrived in Port St. Johns. PSJ is a small town, 100 kilometres off the highway, along the Wild Coast. The town centre is very small - two main streets - but hectic, completely packed with people. My hostel is 4 kilometres outside of town and is an absolute tranquil oasis. Here I’ve found everything I thought I was going to find in Coffee Bay: beautiful natural surroundings, quiet and picturesque hostel, friendly people and hammocks on the hill!

While there was still a bit of daylight left, myself and another girl who I met on the shuttle, walked down to the beach. It has the very original name of Second Beach. There are three beaches in the area - any guesses on their names? It was overcast and a rather moody sky, yet behind the clouds, as the sun set, it pushed through some faint colour. The water softly lapped onto the sand. I tested out the water - still cold, but getting warmer. It was lovely down there.

Back at the hostel, I made myself some dinner, then wandered into the lounge to check out the books they had. I sat at the piano bench, flipping through a magazine. Then I ended up in a jam session! I was playing piano along with a guy from the Netherlands and a bunch of locals played drums. It was so much fun. Considering my love for creating art from improv - dance, vocals, contact, movement - you’d think I would have done more improv with music. I will now!

I went to bed last night, wonderfully at peace and happily looking forward to a full day ahead.

The plan for today was to pop into town, go to the bank, come back to the hostel, go on a hike to a nearby waterfall, learn how to make Xhosa bread and then go for a sundowner at one of the hills outside of town. The bank trip was absolutely necessary: my cash had run out, the hostel was cash-only and in order to get cash with my emergency replacement card, I have to go in to a teller - there is no PIN number, so ATMS are useless. I went into town for 9am, opening time, planning to be back for the 11am hike. However, the banks had different plans for me . . .

There are two banks in town: Meeg and Standard Bank. Meeg was the first I came to. I could not even go inside however, because the line for the tellers was backed up right out the door! And this was a tightly packed line. There had to have been at least 70 people in line. I stood in shock for a moment, then turned to the bank employee/guard at the door. I tried asking him if he knew if the bank would take Visa. He didn’t seem to understand my question. Nor did the other employee who was trying to organize the line-up inside. (While many people speak English, PSJ is mainly a Xhosa community and my accent doesn’t help anything.) I decided to try the other bank.

Standard Bank’s line was nearly as long. And it was even more chaotic inside. There was no employee to herd the line-up, so it just sort of snaked it’s own way through the building. It took me about 10 minutes of squeezing through people to even figure out where to cue up. But I joined the line. After about 20 minutes of waiting, a bank employee came out, said something in Xhosa, then there was a mass exodus to the door. The line was half as long - excellent - I moved up. The bank employee then came to me and said that their system was down, so they couldn’t move any funds. He asked if I was there to make a deposit; I said no, withdrawal with Visa. He said they couldn’t help me while the server is down and they didn’t know how long it would take to be fixed. It had been down since yesterday.

Feeling defeated, then determined, I headed back to Meeg to that monster of a line-up. I don’t know how it’s possible, but it was even longer now. But I joined the cue. And there I remained. For 2 ½ hours. That is right. TWO AND A HALF HOURS.

It was like waiting in the longest line at the amusement park, except that there wasn’t the anticipation of an exciting ride at the end of it. If anything, my anxiety only grew . . . What if this didn’t work?

It was nuts in that line. Imagine 70+ people in a line that snakes back and forth through a bank lobby that is approximately 15 by 15 feet. There are 2 tellers. And everyone when they get to the tellers take about 10 minutes, give or take. (I had nothing else to do; I started timing individuals and forming averages.) Elderly women sit down on the floor wherever they are in line, as it is too draining to stand. Babies strapped to their mother’s backs wake up crying; mothers swing them around front and breast feed on the bank floor. People come in and search for any familiar face and hand over deposit slips and cash, asking others to do their deposit for them so they don’t have to wait in line.

There was a near full-out brawl about 45 minutes into my wait, directly behind me. About half a dozen people started arguing, all pointing at me and at each other and back at me. It’s all in Xhosa, so I’m clueless. The teenage girl in front of me looks at me, smiles and whispers “Who was behind you in line?” I had no idea. Apparently the only white girl in the bank makes a good marker to claim to be your spot if you nip
Where the Music HappensWhere the Music HappensWhere the Music Happens

The lounge at the hostel, with the piano and drums (the morning after).
out to do another errand.

An hour and a half in, a teenage boy came and took the place of the teenage girl in front of me. He stepped in line, sighed and asked me how long I’d been waiting. An hour and a half. He shook his head. There were still about 30 people ahead of us. I asked if the lines are always like this. He said yes.

I can not fathom!!!!! Seriously, this is your regular bank routine? During that long wait, you can’t help but see people’s deposit slips - some where standing in line to deposit 130 rand or about $16 Canadian.

After two and half hours, I reached the front of the line. Mad scramble! Apparently all the people who’d fought about who was behind me hadn’t given up, they’d just put off the fight. The person at one of the tellers leaves, I step up and am told that the teller has to leave for a moment . . . back to the front of the line. The person at the other teller leaves, I step up and make my request: to withdraw cash with my Visa card. The teller
Hostel CatHostel CatHostel Cat

This cat loved not just me, but also my bed.
took my card, looked at it, looked at me, looked at it again and looked at me. Why didn’t I just go to the ATM? I explained. He asked for the PIN. I explained again. He said he needed a moment and disappeared. Now I’m standing at the empty teller with 70+ weary people staring at the white girl wondering where she’s sent the tellers. Finally, the man comes back and says I need to see the manager.

I go to the manager’s office and sit down. I explain what I am there for. And basically, I am told he can not help me. I still do not understand why. But he said he has tried before to help someone else with the same sort of card as me and it is not possible. I sat there in tears while he made a few phone calls to the bank in Mthatha (the town 100km back at the highway); they can’t help me either. I tried every possible thing I could think of with this manager, but nothing. I left Meeg Bank in a right state.

So I went back to Standard Bank. It was less chaotic now. Only
Open Air ShowerOpen Air ShowerOpen Air Shower

I LOVE open air showers! I haven't stayed somewhere with one since I was at Esalen, in California. This brought me much joy.
about 30 people in line. I went up to a window where a bank employee was doing some sort of paperwork and asked if their server was working. He said yes. One small relief. I joined the cue. I can’t believe that a wait time of an hour and a quarter seemed like nothing, but it really did in comparison to what I’d already waited through. Though at this point, my anxiety was out of control. I kept trying to come up with plans for if I was rejected here too . . . find a pay phone and try to call my Visa bank’s toll free number (which in itself is a hassle from over here) and beg them to give me a PIN number . . . see if the grocery store in town takes credit cards and offer to buy someone’s groceries to get their cash . . . find someone at the hostel who will later be somewhere else I will be and see if they will take my word for a loan . . . beg the hostel to trust me that I will send them the money I owe them for sleeping there . . . The only thing keeping my sane was trying to come up with options.

I get to the front of the line. I pass the teller my card. He looks at it, looks at me and asks for the PIN. Oh god. I explain. He says he’ll be a moment and disappears. Not looking good. He comes back and asks if I could please sit in the seating area at the side and he will get back to me. So I resign myself to the seating area, which is of course full, so I’m standing. I just crouched down and held my head in my hands; I was so . . . I don’t even know what I was at that point . . . But someone tapped my shoulder and I looked up and they pointed to the bank employee motioning for me to come back to the teller. I went back and stood there, watching two employees, go through papers and fidget with a contraption of some sort. One was on the phone. I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. After a few moments of this, he hung up the phone, wrote on a piece of paper, then slid it under the window to me. A credit card slip! I signed my name and passed it back. The next few minutes, I stood there and realized I was actually holding my breath. I breathed. The teller then slid my card, passport, credit card slip and 1000 rand under the window. “Do I need to do something?” I asked. “No.” I was stunned. I thanked him three or four times, then turned away from the window in disbelief.

After five hours, I had cash.

When I got back to the hostel and I went into the office to pay for my bed for the 2 nights, the receptionist asked me why I looked so awful. I just shook my head and said that it took five hours to get cash. She swore a nice little streak that was still such an understatement.

So now I’m back at the hostel and it’s almost 4pm. Not really time to do any activities. Not that I could really do any . . . sometime during the whole bank fiasco, rain rolled in. Even quiet time at the beach was out of the question.

But, I curled up with some good music and fantasized some choreography (a relaxing and creative thing I like to do). I made some dinner. I sat on the porch and looked through the rain out to the sea. I listened to some incredible drumming by the locals. Called a friend (who is in the country). And I felt that calm and peace start to find it’s way back to me.

Port St Johns is beautiful. I’d read in so many different books and guides that it is an addictive place where people come and never leave. They call it “Pondo Fever”. I can see why. I could stay here easily for an entire vacation and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

But bring cash.


7th December 2008

Oh Netter. I can't even imagine the frustration you must have been feeling. So glad to hear you have money again. Good luck in the rest of your travels.

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