Dusty Roads: Mapping Toilets

One of Dana Snyman’s books with descriptions of his travels Op die Agterpaaie has an introduction where he unfolds a Shell Map of South Africa and traces his journeys along its roads and back roads,  reading all the cryptic notes he jotted down on the well-used paper. And it always makes me smile to read that introduction, not only because I love his writing, but also because I often come across similar journeys mapped out in my black and red A6 exercise books.

So I’m doing something similar today, but instead of opening a faded map with a glass of wine, I fill the plastic mug with coffee and flip through the battered little notebook I always carry in my handbag. Somewhere towards the middle, scratched out with a blunt pencil, the pages are filled with a recent road trip through the Eastern Cape, tracing names like Mt Frere,  Ugie and Alice. Next to the names (of met pyltjies wat wys waar die Steers of die kerk by die verkeerde dorp se naam neergeskryf is) are useful things I wanted to remember for future trips. Here it reads Wimpy in hoofstraat and KFC by die garage. Other bits are reminders of incidents or memorable sights, those moments from which stories are strung together: mooi ou kerk (pretty old church), uitkykpunt by grondpad langs hotel (view point on gravel road next to hotel), motorfiets met krukke (motorbike with crutches) (?!).

But even more cryptic and urgent scribbles fill the bits in between: R2 Toilet, skoon R1 toilet (clean one Rand toilet) and binne-in winkel by Engen Garage (inside shop at Engen Garage). I give you: The Toilet Map of the Eastern Cape – Northern Route from Kokstad to Jeffreys Bay and back through Hogsback, Queenstown and Matatiele. 

Logging the rest stops like this, suddenly reminds me of another journey way back when I studied in Germany for a bit and traveled during the holidays. After a trip with a friend from Cologne to Leipzig I was going to go to Berlin, before returning to Stuttgart for the semester. But somewhere along the way I had caught a bad cold and didn’t feel up to traipsing around a big city like Berlin. So I opened the map in my crumpled purple and golden Let’s Go Germany!, closed my eyes and pressed my finger on that little corner where Germany meets Poland and the Czech Republic. My destination was a town called Zittau.

When I open that Let’s Go today, you can still see all the places where the pages are wrinkled from getting lost in the rain. Scribbled phone numbers written down after calling the tourist office in Zittau. Circles or crosses at places visited. Numbers of buses and trains. Notes in the back of the time we got stranded in Villingen – a town that didn’t make it to the guide book. Anyway, before I get carried off to the story of Villingen or Zittau, this story is actually about my trip from Zittau to Berlin afterwards on a little local train network called the Oberlausitz.

On this jolly little train going up to Berlin along Germany’s border with Poland and the Czech Republic, the announcements on the train are in different languages and as it squeaks around the bends you can actually imagine it sticking its toes across the border. A tiny little Polish woman with dark, beady eyes and a headscarf stands next to me in the swaying toilet queue. Jy weet mos hoe daai treinvloer onder jou kan beweeg soos ‘n bootjie. En almal in die ry staan en tuur in die verte asof hulle maar altyd so vir tydkorting rondhang buite ‘n stinkende deurtjie om hulle “moves” te oefen. The little wrinkled face turns to me and starts talking in what sounds like very heavy Sächsisch. Proud of myself that someone can mistake me for a German speaker, I lean into those sounds, listening in the way that reminds me of tuning an instrument or catching a moth on a curtain. Slowly, careful and with a tense concentration that almost feels like precision.

She’s on her way to Cottbus or somewhere to do her monthly shopping and starts listing which products are cheaper to buy in Germany than in Poland and the other way round. A vague memory of potatoes and coffee. Soon the conversation steers to our present situation: of course one has to make use of the train on the toilet – because it’s free. I, the broke student, agree in my best, most gravelly German noises. She can list them: all the places along that line where the toilets are free. Behind that station there, inside that building there, on the trains… I give you: The Map of Free Toilets along the Oberlausitz. The story is quite funny; but to this day I’m very moved by that conversation. The urgency of her tone, helping the young girl on the train with such meticulous detail: “Kohlen sparen”, she called it. Saving coals, kole spaar: dialect for saving money. For a few minutes, she made me a local.

Squinting at promising-looking boulders, signs pointing at fast food outlets and queues at revolving doors at garages; I clenched these scribbles out of a pencil, and told my Eastern Cape road trip buddy that story of the train toilets. Dana Snyman looked down at that map of his, and wrote about how it’s all about the people he meets along the way and their stories. That Polish lady and her story I’ll never forget. But as close the notebook and stuff it back into the bag, I realise that it also holds the promise of “next time”. Why else map a toilet on a dusty road?