Stories of South Africa

First Encounter#

43 hours. That was enough time to transport me from the place I called home to the towering mosques of Istanbul and to a city encapsulated by flat-topped mountains. And finally here I was, in Cape Town, South Africa—the city I dreamed of while I read Long Walk to Freedom and the country where the Spanish Armada declared world victory in 2010. “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros” the conquistador’s shirt read in blue on white.

As Deeper by Holly Rey (still one of my favorite songs) replayed in my head, I arrived inside my house on the intersection of Burg and Hout Street. I unpacked my bags and relished the surroundings that would be my new home. Above my bed hung a beautiful photograph of elephants. The living room was spacious and contained a full furnished kitchen.

After settling in, I stuck my head outside the window. I wanted to explore my surroundings, so I took a trip by foot outside my door. I moved my wallet to my front pocket as I was instructed by previous travellers, my hands scuffling through the pockets every few minutes to make sure of no unnoticed changes.

The streets of the City Bowl can get truly chaotic, especially around dusk. With this comes challenges not only in navigating them but understanding your surroundings. When our eyes encounter the foreign, we often first notice the absence of familiarity. Our mind focuses on what’s new, what’s different, what’s changed; it’s how our mind organizes chaos. It’s why the most accessible visual features sometimes go unnoticed. In examining this difference, we sometimes discover beauty that captures our awe. Other times, we find some commonality in the new that relates to our previous experiences, and our encounter yields feelings of relief and gratitude for this newfound relevance.

My initial impression of Cape Town did not elicit any of these reactions. The sight of the unfamiliar stripped the familiar and what remained consisted raw fear. Alarm bells flared in my mind as I observed a world I did not understand. Men in yellow and orange vests fixed their eyes on my movement despite my attempts to avert their gaze. They yelled and clicked at me in a language I did not understand. Groups of women wearing large paper banners drifted around the corners of the streets. “Gold for Exchange” their signs read.

They would ask me,

You got any gold?”

Their occupation never made much sense to me—who would ever try to exchange gold in these streets? I started calling them Gold Women. Right next to them, a child in ragged clothes followed a black woman wearing a suit and presumably making her way back home. His only hope of catching up to the woman’s larger strides was to shuffle his feet quicker. Even the birds that ate the left-over crumbs looked different. Their beaks had a more orange tint on an indefinite contour. Their wings displayed a more radiant set of colors.

To a local African watching me navigate the streets, I must have looked like an idiot. Every few seconds, I turned around, constantly monitoring my sides and back to ensure that no one would hurt or pick pocket me. While walking not looking forward, I would inevitably bump into poles and curbs but somehow not completely trip over.

Within a couple minutes of going outside, I found myself dripping in sweat. Keep in mind, this was in the middle of winter. I was drenched in fear. By the time I had made it past three blocks, I was gasping for air. Overwhelmed by all the chaos and new things around, my mind pretty much shut down. I saw figures, streets, cars, and objects but I stopped recognizing them. My walk could not have been more than 30 minutes but I returned feeling so mentally fatigued that I could not remember large parts of my journey until I got a good night’s sleep.

My reaction may seem overblown to someone who has never experienced this. Yet to most people from the Western world who has never been to such a place, I am sure that they would find the experience frightening, especially when travelling alone in the dark.

My interactions with the unfamiliar persisted throughout my entire stay. It was the unfamiliarity of the land which labelled traffic lights “robots” and hot dogs “boetwoers”, where the unemployment rate flirted with the 30s and a foreign street with swapped up lanes. It abounded with Gold Women, drug addicts, and the homeless, and knives and clubs ruled its law during the night. A broken metal cage and a glass barrier guarded my front door. Behind all existed a house I had to live in and govern alone.

The fear of the unknown dulls in the mind as you learn to manage it. You learn to question it and your reality gradually morphs to accommodate it. Your sense of people becomes more acute and you learn who to trust in the streets. At the same time, you come to understand that the streets change as the sun lowers, and that you must be more aware of what is around at these times.

After a week or so, I found myself confidently navigating through the streets and shopping for groceries.

Getting Mugged#

Tiger’s Milk had a special discount for the day. The seasonal 1+1 deal meant I got an entree with a takeout. At 80 rands (~$6) I got to cover lunch and dinner.

Tiger’s milk

I should have known that carrying food openly was never a good idea. A week before, I had been afraid to walk around with a backpack. This fear subsided as I learned how to navigate the streets. The ritual consisted of the following:

  1. Avoid looking at your phone and showing it.
  2. Take long strides and walk confidently.
  3. Stare straight while you’re moving and know where you’re going.
  4. Know which streets to avoid at night.
  5. If you’re followed or want to check the phone, go inside a shop.

The ritual was my bible, and so long as I abided by it, I would remain unharmed.

After finishing lunch, I stepped outside the restaurant, carrying my box containing extra food. I passed the immediate corner. Little did I know I would attract several homeless people, who were waiting for the tourists in the corner. They started gesturing at me, some desperately yelling, “I’m hungry” and others threatening me. I attempted to walk away from them as quickly, towards home. When the instinct that I should sprint hit, it was too late. They surrounded me and blocked my way. I tried turning the other way only to be met by others who narrowed my way.

The realization that I was surrounded, that I did not have a route to escape, hit hard. At a loss, I screamed, “I’m going to report you guys to the police!”

To this, one of them replied, “This is Africa, there is no police.”

They took everything of value from my backpack. This part of memory, the scenes in which my backpack was ripped apart at the mercy of another’s gain, is blank in my mind. The backpack was pretty empty, so the most valuable thing they took was an umbrella. I was carrying a laptop, but it was strapped in deep so it wasn’t noticed. Because of the rough treatment my backpack received, my laptop became unusable. And despite all the things they took, funny enough, they didn’t take the food.

Afraid for my life and stripped of my possessions, I ran the rest of way to home. The realization of having been mugged did not strike me until I reached home. When it hit, there was nothing more to sob.

It was not only my backpack and possesions that had been stripped. My moral dignity as a human being amounted to nothing measured against their hunger. I was merely an objective leading to their satisfaction, but one that they could not afford to forgo.

How I know this—in the eyes of the robber, I had seen fear. I saw a disdain for his own actions that could not trump his primal needs for survival. But survival does not care about the rules of morality. It simplifies and reduces your needs to the primary. It pits your need for nourishment against the rest of the world. Hunger unattended consumes the soul, and morality becomes a luxury. And to the certain hungry, since the world has already abandoned him, he finds no refuge in its justice.

The poverty of the soul is the greatest of its kind.

Made with Hugo by Sonny Mo

Stories of South Africa