At the Petrol Station

After several hours in the car, seeing only huts and termite mounds along the N2 highway in rural South Africa, my husband said he was going to have to pull over. No one liked the idea, stopping by the side of the road would make us vulnerable to other people and animals, but we had no choice. Then, just as we drove over the next hill, a petrol station appeared like a mirage, complete with toilets.

The boys approached the toilets first. With coin in hand, they followed the toothless smiling woman to the men’s room. A few minutes later it was our turn. My daughter and I smiled at the woman, saying hello in Xhosa, “Molo.” She smiled and laughed, offering us toilet paper and waiting outside the stall as we took turns using the clean, flush toilets.

Our next petrol station experience was cleaner and bigger. At the Shell Station Union City in Mthatha, we entered the large new and bright restroom and discovered several stalls with flush toilets. A woman attendant sat by the sinks, and we left our coins in the tip jar on the counter after washing our hands.

A few days later, as we drove north along the western boundary of Lesotho, we stopped in a small town looking for petrol and a place to relieve our bladders. It was early, about 9 a.m., and at the first station we stopped they didn’t have any petrol. We continued to the next station where we were told the same thing. Finally we found petrol at the town’s Shell Station. While my husband and son sat with the car, my daughter and I went in search of the toilet. We walked around the side of the building where one of the workers led us to an African man who controlled the keys. Skinny and older and speaking no English, he led us through a gate and down a walkway between high white walls. Reaching up to a ledge, he lowered a small cardboard box and held it out to us. The box contained toilet paper and somehow he made me understand that I was supposed to pay him and take whatever paper I needed. I paid him 2 rand, and he unlocked the “women’s room.” The large and spacious white tiled bathroom was filthy. One of the stalls had no door and no toilet seat. Inside the other stall was a door but no latch. The tile floor was broken, and the faucet didn’t work. We left in a hurry.

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