Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cape Fear?

Hello everyone!

I have been in Cape Town for two weeks now and today is the first rainy day - I can handle that ratio! It's good to see some good old fashioned rain.

Anyways, I'm not writing a weather report. I was going to write about my epic trip down here with the lovely Martina Sudowe, but I'll do that later in the week. My past three days in Cape Town have been stressful yet enlightening and I feel the need to share.

I'm not going to go in chronological order. Instead, I'll unveil my messy few days in Kill Bill fashion - starting at the end, returning to the beginning, and stopping somewhere in the middle. The most recent and significant event of my last few days was being mugged last night. That sounds dramatic, and I really shouldn't have made it my facebook status as suddenly everyone thought I had been thoroughly attacked. But there isn't really anything else to call it. I will say, however, that (a) it needed to happen and (b) it really didn't come close to ruining my day.

I'm a big fan of the "God works in mysterious ways" rule. Most of the worst things that have ever happen to me have needed to happen for me to become the semi-functioning, almost-stable adult that I am today. This was yet another case of that. I was in a hurry to go and have a quick drink with my good friend Erin, who lives right up the street here in the city bowl of Cape Town. We both live above hotels and it's literally a 90 second walk from one to the other. It's kind of like "LOTR: The Two Tours" meets "Barbie."

Anyways, I speedily threw on some clothes and shoved some money in my pocket (I've abandoned a wallet because its kind of an obvious target and it also doesn't fit into any of my tight pants). As I rounded the corner to Erin's building, I paid no attention to the fact the street was completely abandoned. Dumb move one. I get to her buildings glass doors and peer through - locked, and no one sitting at the security gate. I assume Erin is running a second behind, so I pull out my shiny silver phone and start texting away. Dumb move two.

I look over as an extremely thin street dweller rounds the corner. He looks through a garbage can and then comes my way. At first he just stands there looking at me expectantly. He was wearing a yellow vest, so I thought maybe he was a parking attendant. "Yes?" I asked, seeing if there was something specific he wanted.

"Change?" he asked, his voice weak. He didn't look drunk or drugged, just hungry. I think maybe I've gotten so jaded by living in a country with such poverty that I refuse to ever think of handing out anything but coins. I searched my pockets. No coins. "Sorry, I don't have anything" I said. He just stood there. I tried the age-old elevator trick of pretending I had something vital to do on my phone, hoping he'd go away. Dumb move three.

I looked up, as he was obviously still staring at me, and saw that his eyes fixed firmly on my phone. Whoopsie daisy. I turn to the glass doors of Erin's building and try to push them open. No luck. I look at the call box and cannot even fathom how to reach her to "buzz me in". When I turn around again, the little guy was gone. I thought he must have found someone else to pester.

I couldn't help but think of "Beauty and the Beast" - when the prince at the beginning turns the beggar woman away, she curses him. Yikes. I should have given him some money. But they always tell you ("they" being locals) especially in your own neighborhood, or you'll never get any peace. Which is probably a good point, regardless of the outcome of my tale.

Then I spot little guy return from around the corner, this time with a taller, stronger (but still starving and about half my size) guy in tow. Ruh roh. I looked around for some sort of something to defend myself with. Then I spotted my pocket, which had a R50 note (only about 7 bucks US) sticking out of it for the world to see. Mistake four.

So, there I was, basically fishing for homeless people, with my shiny phone in one pocket and my money hanging out like bait of the other one. The boys both looked starving, and the must have been like 15 years old. The new, bigger one asked if I would like to buy something off of him. (Instead of panicking, I thought - this is just like Beauty and the Beast!)

"No," was all I could think of to say. I love how those lines of extreme wit just come flying out during stressful encounters. While I didn't want him to turn me into a beast or a teapot, I also didn't want to catch a disease from whatever her wanted to sell me. Luckily for me, it turns out that the "selling something" excuse was just a clever opening for him to put his hand into his pocket and pull out a knife.

I was scared, but not really for my life. I'm pretty sure the knife was to small to kill me. It just looked so dirty that I couldn't imagine getting stabbed with it. Ew ew ew. I whipped out some cliched line like "think about what you're doing, son" - which in retrospect seems a bit dumb. Everyone who's ever said that in a movie has gotten killed.

He politely asked for some cash, and I reached into my pocket, coming out with an R100 bill. I tossed it at him, and it was such a sad sight to see them squabble over it like hungry puppies. I was feeling so badly for them. The older boy ended up getting it and he turned back saying, "If you have one for me, you must have another for him" - good logic, I suppose. I reached in and pulled out another R100. Why the hell couldn't I pick out an R10 note? I tossed it at them, the little guy grabbed it but didn't seem to happy. I was hoping they'd at least smile.

I expected them to follow up by at least demanding my phone or something, but instead the trotted off, even yelling thank you when they rounded the corner. I was in a bit of shock. I didn't feel particularly violated or anything, I just felt guilty. How could I walk into a street of poor people and basically flaunt money, having it hang out of my pockets and flashing my shiny phone around? I would have mugged me too, and then punched me for being so insensitive. I always think that because I don't make a ton of money, people will understand. But when you survive on a dollar a day, even a 25 year old's salary seems like a ton.

So Erin came down, we laughed off the encounter, and had some wine. All in all a good night.

A few days before, though, I had witnessed a bank robbery. If we're going for cliched phrases, I would say the appropriate one for this event is "to assume makes and ass out of u and me" - always liked that one. I had been trying to find paper cups for a picnic and had just negotiated three from the McDonald's counter. It was sunday, so none of the stores were open. I was walking back towards my building when I heard gun shots to my left. Yikes! I turned and saw police sprinting down the street after some very criminal looking folks. I kept hearing more gunshots and saw civilians throwing themselves on the ground. There was a low roar of panic in the crowd as people screamed and they continued to run, holding guns in the air.

I was truly shocked. The only violence I'd seen in the four months I've been down here was the one time someone tried to "smash and grab" my car and threw a brick at me. And it was such a bad throw that it was hard to call it violence - it was more desperation. I have come to know South Africa as a safe and well-run place for the most part, especially on a Sunday afternoon! (I suppose at this point I should have though "who robs a bank on a Sunday?" but logic escaped me)

I was trying to decide whether it would be appropriate to go into Sigourney Weaver mode and tearing off my shirt and running to help the wounded or if I should run screaming when I hear someone yell "CUT!" over a loud speaker. Was it the voice of God?

No, it was a man with a faux-hawk in a director's chair. Hadn't spotted him. And I watched in awe as he, with one word, managed to stop a bank robbery. Everyone cheered and started chatting. People stood up and brushed themselves off. Guns were dropped and gathered up by stressed-looking assistants.

Who knew they filmed movies in Cape Town? I can imagine that they get quite a tax break, but sheesh. And could they have at least put signs up? I know that, living in SA, you hear a few more gunshots than you do in say, Topeka, but they still aren't that common. A warning sign or information booth would have been a nice gesture. And then I could have prepared a way to throw myself in front of the camera and become famous.

The next day, I was chatting with a person from England on the phone for a work-related issue. This person was describing the likelihood of a person wanting to move to South Africa as being "very low" - and acting like I was talking about moving someone to Sierra Leone. As this person voiced their misconceptions, I realized that I'd felt the same in a lot of ways before coming down. Expecting violence, expecting disease, expecting it to be technologically and socially backward. And I have had such a dramatically different experience from those poorly-informed views that what would end up happening the next day, the "mugging," happened because I acted in a way that would be dumb in any city in the world. I got mugged because I was being stupid, not because I was in South Africa. And I was shocked to see the "bank robbery" because I actually do feel safe here. When that man yelled "cut!" I felt gratified, knowing that my opinion of my adopted country wouldn't be sullied by random acts of violence.

Anyways, I suppose I've written enough for now. I have to go desperately search for a laundromat or I'll be going to work naked (which might cut down on the possibility of future muggings - though lord knows what else it might inspire).

Have a fantastic day!



  1. Glad you're okay. Your "Beauty and the Beast" comments made me laugh.

    It's so interesting to hear your first-hand point of view. I'd never had an opinion on life in SA until I moved to England, when I began to hear about how dangerous it was. Louis Thereux did a documentary about it and my friends tend to use that as a reference point.

    Glad you're blogging again!

  2. Judging SA on a Louis Theroux documentary about violence in Johannesburg is like me watching his one on "Killadelphia" and judging the USA on it.