Thursday, June 17, 2010

what happened at the traffic department

Hearing "Cooler as Ekke" on my way to my learners license made me realise I would pass it. It was a sign from Jack Parrow himself.

Nevertheless I have pit of fear in my belly and read and re-read my learners book. Someone is playing "Waka-Waka" on their phone and I feel a little surge of patriotism and another good feeling about the test. The waiting room for the learners license test overlooks the Randburg taxi rank ("E-News Welcomes You to Randburg Taxi Rank" in Sesotho and Zulu and the occasional joyful Vuvuzela hoot) and is packed full of people of all ages and colours and sizes all looking distinctly nervous except for a white teenager wearing shorts and white lace-up shoes. Her mother says she will wait for her in the car and the girl sits on the corner of a row of seats and doesn't speak to anyone but looks like she is assured this one.

She is. She is the first one to leave the testing room after her paper has been marked correct (or correctly enough to have passed). The testing room is babysat by a large, bosomy woman with glossy hair extensions and dark lipstick who kicks out two applicants during the session (one for cheating, the other for not having her ID). I can't help thinking that her bulky curves are like armour against all the angry, over-grown children who are forced to come back and write tests like they are back at school.

She sits with her back to us marking the papers and calls the failures to the desk from over her shoulder. They leave only just holding themselves together. As she marks the other papers, she calls over her shoulder for each of the rest of us to go to the waiting room. The result is confusing. Half of the people in the waiting room don't realise that they are the ones who have passed. There is a giggly, red-cheeked white woman wearing lace-up ugg boots and sharing all the details of how she crashed her ex-husband's car into her wall (she's been driving for the past ten years without her license) and how she is going to move in with her "boyfriend" (I struggle to reconcile that word with the roguish, tall, white-haired man sitting next to her with his hand on her knee).

I am sitting next to a South African German in his forties. He has a lisp and tells me he does marketing for anti-aging products and then that he is taking his learners for a motorcycle license. I want to ask him if he is having a midlife crisis, but I don't.

We wait in the waiting room for half an hour after the test is finished talking and feeling relieved. The young man I was sitting next to before I went in smiles at me: he was shaking before he went in. He sits in the corner talking what I think is Sotho with five other men, and I end up talking to the German man, the giggly woman and a coloured woman with an infectious laugh and a sunshine personality. We see the armoured lady walking toward the office and all start to feel excited about the fact we think we will soon be leaving. We wait another forty-five minutes, making chit-chat about traffic departments and driving and the soccer.

The lace-up girl's mother arrives and she gets up and stands outside with her mother, waiting. Someone comes with our papers and calls out our names in order and tells us to line up with R45 our ID photo and our ID. The laceup girl's mother and her daughter are finished with the process and gone before the rest of us have lined up. I wish we all had mothers like hers and that she had helped all of us get out there early.

We wait another forty-five minutes in the queue and try to guess what is taking so long (do we have to lick the shoes of the people signing our papers and thank them for taking almost three hours to issue us with papers? Do they re-mark the test in front of you before they give you the paper?) I ask the German man why he is moving back to Germany and he tells me it is because his children are at the right age: he has ten-year old twin boys. And his wife was shot and killed in a hijacking two years ago. I feel my heart shrink in my chest. He smiles and says maybe they will move back one day.

I reach the front of the queue and am issued with my learners license and a single square of single ply toilet paper to wipe the fingerprint ink off my thumb. We all find it funny that it is this small square of paper that is the traffic department's final gift to us.

I blow a kiss to everyone as I say goodbye and wish we had speant the time waiting for the license more productively. I am thinking a group-choreographed dance piece to "Waka Waka" that we could have recorded and sent to FIFA as encouragement and as part of general world cup excitement.

I get my learners signed by a woman who is arguing with a queue of angry people waiting for eye tests on my way out. I leave through the now-deserted ground floor which bars anyone else from coming in even though it is only 3.45. The security guards seem surprised that I say goodbye as I walk out into the afternoon sunshine.

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