The day was going smoothly (always a bad sign) and I just had one more errand to do before hitting the road for home – fill those two diesel barrels on the back of the pick-up. Not a complicated task.
It was off to a bad start when I pulled up to the front gate and it was locked. Yet, I noticed the jockeys were filling up barrels on two other trucks. I caught one man’s eye and gave him a look like “what’s the story?” with an upturned palm of my hand for emphasis. He motioned to come around the side. Of course! The side door! The secret side door that they never use except when I am sent to get the diesel! Yes, I’ll be right there. Thank you, sir.
Once through the secret side door, I pulled the pick-up around to the only open spot at the pump and stepped out of the car to greet a short, old, black man in a red and yellow Shell Oil T-shirt. Although it was not his, nor my, first language, Afrikaans is what we spoke to each other. It is the language most of Namibia speaks to each other, unfortunately, it is the second, and therefore more neglected, language I have learned here.
Then the nice fuel station man asked me what I wanted. I pointed to the two barrels on the back and said “diesel, asseblief”. (Luckily, diesel is ‘diesel’ in Afrikaans. ‘Asseblief’ is ‘please’.) The man then informed me in a slew of non-understood words that I needed to move the car forward. His arm gestures plus the fact that I caught the word for ‘forward’ helped me figure out his message.
After that task, I climbed out of the car to help unscrew the barrel caps. They were well-tightened so the man went off in search of a tool to loosen them. I grabbed the pliers out of the front seat and quickly twisted the first one off. He came back with a big smile and said something in a tone like ‘very clever’. I smiled in response.
As the barrels filled, I watched the other men waiting and how they joked and chatted with their diesel guys. I envied their ability to do so. It is times like that that I remember when I return to the States and start chatting with every cashier I get; enjoying conversations I previously had taken for granted.
Soon, my guy came over and handed me a little slip of paper detailing my purchase. He pointed to the office.
“Mevrou”, he started.
Miss, yep, got that part.
“Mumble mumble mumble toe, mumble mumble mumble ander kant”, he said.
Ok, the office is closed, I have to pay on the other side. “By Caltex?”, I asked, pointing to the Caltex station around the corner. (‘By’ is also an Afrikaans word though pronounced ‘bay’).
“Ja,” he nodded.
“Ok, dankie”, I said, my confidence in communication growing.
A little bit later the drums were full and he poked his head around to the front seat where I was sitting. “Tank, asseblief”, he said, and pointed toward the floor of the car, toward the lever to pop the gas tank.
Tank? Why the tank? I guess I get a free fill-up with my diesel. Cool, dude, thanks! And so, I popped the tank.
He repeated himself, “tank, asseblief”. So, I pulled the lever again, twice, just to be sure.
“Tank”, he said, thrusting his finger toward the floor. “Die tank!”
Yes, the tank is open! Fill ‘er up, man!, thought my frustrated brain, pulling repeatedly at the lever.
Meanwhile, my logical brain ruminated over what else this poor man might be trying to tell me. Tank……. tank…….tang! Die tang! He wants the pliers! There, on the floor next to the gas tank lever, was the pair of pliers I had used earlier to open the diesel drums. He now wanted to close them.
I damn near threw the pliers at him in my anxiousness to let him know I finally understood and smiled and chuckled a little bit. He did not. Then I walked around the other side of the car and closed the wide-open door to the gas tank.
A short minute after that, I was pulling out of the secret side door again. The diesel man was surely glad to see me leave.
Telling the story to Jay later that evening, at least I could laugh about it. I only worry that the people in our small town will begin to recognize me as that girl who says ‘3’ when they ask what day it is or hands them an apple when they inquire about the dog’s name. Everyone will warn their friends not to speak to me.
And then I’ll never learn Afrikaans.