When Vince pulled over smartly on the main road of Beaufort West on a stultifyingly hot afternoon, and said, Cops, I knew exactly what the problem was.
I don't even know what we were doing in town. Shopping. What could we possibly have needed on our second day out of Cape Town? Beaufort West is just a stone's throw from the gates of the Karoo National Park, where we were camping. Shampoo. I had forgotten it. And we had left our special he and she soaps (for he and she ablution blocks) in Cape Town, too. So we needed to be clean.
As the cops walked over in that deliberate cop way I thought of everything that could go wrong. I should have been driving so that I could lull them with my Free State-intoned Afrikaans. Vince doesn't sound local. He sounds like fresh tourist meat. They wouldn't like our American and Canadian driver's licenses. They would suggest bribes.
I hissed at Vince, It's the platessssss.
The number plates. I told my father. I told him a hundred times. He is a man with excellent judgement in so many areas, but he has this weakness. He likes fancy number plates. So the 4x4 we were driving - his - had a font deemed illegal by our road standards, kind of pointy and effete at the angles, and the arrangement of numbers was in two's, with no dashes. On a yellow background. All wrong.
Illegal, in short.
They're staying, he said, I like them.
You don't want illegal plates in a country where you can be pulled off the road for this offence and subjected to the whims of a bored, underpaid and ill-educated traffic poh-lice in the middle of nowhere. You just don't. I'd had to go through this before in the same car and was let off by a kind Xhosa cop in the Northern Cape - exceptionally kind as I was not carrying my license at the time, either. That was luck. You don't test it.
The lady cop said in Afrikaans to Vince, This is a routine stop, Meneer. The plates on Meneer's car are illegal.
Vince handed her all the paperwork on the car, including letter of permission, in response. Time to switch to English.
Yes, we said. We knew the plates were illegal. My father's plates, he likes them. What can we do?
You can remove them and give them to me, she said. Because if you don't, she said, he will just put them back on.
We were to be given a summons, and would have to drive around without plates until they could replaced.
I explained that we had a long way to go, and that we would now be pulled off by every cop who saw us, sans plates. Would her summons explain our case to them?
She thought for a bit. Conferred with her colleague. Ok, she says, Follow me and I will take you to a place where you can get legal plates. It's too difficult to explain how to get there. I will waive the summons...
Wow. Off the hook.
So much for my preconceptions.
They spun a U-turn in the middle of town, so we did too, and followed meekly, the car now naked, the bystanders (it's a very small town) and beggars watching our departure wistfully.
We got new plates, and I wondered (not so fleetingly) whether the cops got a cut from the shop. The guy said he'd had 3 customers just that morning, at R200 a pop.
A chatty and completely but innocuously insane man off the street talked Vince unintelligibly through it all. One of just dozens of loungers and strollers and hustlers on the streets with no employment and apparently no prospect of any, ever. I gave him a tip. He walked off, chatting happily. The shadow of intense poverty fell over our whole trip. But we couldn't tip the whole country.
Good to go. I was so happy to have these. More manly, I felt. In keeping with what this truck is, which is a worker, not a wuss. And she/he proved it, later, by saving our bacon.
We drove carefully out of hot, dusty Beaufort West, with our shampoo, soap, and number plate.
My dad called as we entered the park gates again. Uh oh, I thought - he's heard... But no. He was calling to tell us to dump our stash of 12 bottles of wine before we entered Lesotho.
Why? I asked.
Because it's illegal to take it over the border, he said.