While in Johannesburg, I did quite a bit of driving. At first, it was tough. I had to relearn the rules of the road and essentially unlearn every rule I was taught to obey in American driving school. Maneuver the wheel on the right side of the car; use the left hand to shift gears, right to signal; don’t forget the wide, sweeping right-hand turns; make sure to land in the far left lane. Always land in the left lane. Driving was stressful, yet exciting, on the unfamiliar streets of Joburg. Even after a short session behind the wheel, I’d feel a bit drained.
After a long day of surveying the refugee camps, interviewing officials and locals, walking through endless blocks of treacherous streets, or all of the above, the last thing I wanted to do was drive. And most of the time, I didn’t have to. I was usually among a small team of local Wits University journalists. Judy Lelliot, a 14-year veteran of Jozi, was fully capable of hauling me back to my resting place virtually every time we ventured out. But sometimes she insisted I drive, with good intentions. You see, she had this crazy theory — one that actually made sense and one I had heard of years back. She believed that if, while with a headful of information bouncing around from a long day prior, I was able to relax my mind enough to drive home on the “wrong” side of the road, while in the “wrong” seat, using my “wrong” hand to shift, that I would actually stimulate creative thought. I’d be reprogramming my mind to learn a completely new, completely absurd trick. So absurd, in fact, that chemical changes were in play. Maybe neurons were firing in different directions, maybe I was using a different hemisphere of my brain, maybe I’d had an epiphany, maybe it was indigestion. I don’t know. I’m not a scientist, nor a doctor.
But whatever it was, I had tricked myself into believing that Judy’s theory made sense. And when I really thought about it, I could apply it to everything I was learning and experiencing in the completely absurd land I was in. With its streets that echoed 11 different official languages, its exotic wildlife that left me with a perpetual cold, its strange animal life that found a new way to call me out of bed each morning, its unfathomable hatreds that ran so deep it caused people to be ostracized into communities within communities, its levels of despair that seeped through dull eyes, leaving piercing imprints on the mind, and its horizons of hope that could be found in the youthful, engaging smiles of the country’s young people, South Africa left my mind forever reprogrammed.
When I got back to the States from my journey the other day, I had a lot of catching up to do — bills to pay, places to go and people to see. However, I was a little fearful that my own reintegration process into the societal norms that I had been traditionally programmed to live under would spoil the memories and teachings that I wanted to forever cling to.
I don’t want to forget. Just yesterday, I caught myself turning into the left lane of the road. I abruptly turned back into the right when I noticed my mistake. I couldn’t help but laugh. Thanks to my colleague and her wacky theory of creative control, I’d stamped a few memories in my mind.
I won’t forget.