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The South Africa Diaries - Part III

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Last summer I received a travel grant from The Gladstone Memorial Trust for a trip to Tibet. For various frustrating bureaucratic reasons, I never made it to Tibet. However, the Trust generously allowed me to keep the grant for a different trip - one to South Africa with friends from college. I was required to write a travel report of my experiences, which I thought I might share on this blog. This is part 3, about our last few days of the trip, in Cape Town. If you're interested, check out part one and part two.

Cape Town

Just before we carried on to our final destination, Cape Town, we stayed briefly in Stellenbosch. The increase in affluence along the coast had been perceptible, but in Stellenbosch became quite pronounced. We visited a few wonderful vineyards in wine country, and pretended that the liquid from Sainsbury's we quaffed during term had supposedly taught us a thing or two about wine. Every now and then I thought I did actually detect pineapple and mature oak on the nose. But generally by glass number three I could only detect whether the wine was red or white. It was still delightful, though, I warmly recommend the experience.

Our first sight of Cape Town was after nightfall, as our bus pulled round a bend on a hill and there it was, a vast network of glittering lights sprawled over the seafront beneath us, a brighter reflection of the night sky. The big city beckoned us in with the thumping music from nightclubs and restaurants, and throngs of people milling about the streets. Our hostel was slightly out of the way, nestled on a hill between Table Mountain and the bustle of Long Street.

One of the absolute highlights of the trip was a tour of the township of Langa. Our guide was a cheerful fellow named Chippa. We started at the District Six Museum, where Chippa gleefully posed for photos on a relic of a bench that proclaimed it was for "Europeans only". We began exploring the township at the Langa community center, which housed an arts education center to teach young people crafts that could afford them a living. We went into a local supermarket, completely encased in bars and bolts - you had to ask for something through a tiny hole and pass your money through. We went into someone's house - it had just enough room to hold a single bed and a table, with a narrow strip of space in between, home to a family of five. We saw elderly ladies blackening goat heads - a local delicacy, their faces painted yellow for protection from the smoke. We were followed by a troop of delighted children, who wanted to show us their dances and the few words of English they knew. We sat in a smoky room, sharing homebrew with some locals. It was both eye-opening and very enjoyable. The people in the township were surprisingly happy about us looking into their homes.

Our second last day in Cape Town - and the whole of our trip - turned out to be the most memorable, for both good and bad reasons. We took an early ferry in the morning out to Robben Island. I had predictably been reading Long Walk to Freedom for the entire journey, and so this visit was an incredible culmination of everything I'd learned about this country. It was both a sad and uplifting experience, walking through the hallways I'd read about and seen photos of. Our tour guide was a larger than life persona, an ex-political prisoner, who had been in Robben Island for his activities with the MK towards the later years of Mandela's imprisonment. His velvety voice boomed through even the largest cells as he told us his stories. Much of what he said I'd already read about, but it was amazing to hear him speak of Mandela interacting with him directly. He always said Mandela's entire name, Nelson Rolithashaha Mandela, as a sign of respect, we figured. I felt touched by the respect he accorded this man - where I come from, inspirational leaders seem to be a thing of the distant past, and politicians are people the media destroys and the public disdains. I wonder if this was because politics had evolved, or because it had degenerated. Either way, I left Robben Island with my head bowed in humbleness for the political prisoners. To have persevered through all of that, and to have kept your mind focused on the struggle without caving in - to have given up your family and your life for a cause - it's something close to inconceivable for me, and I am deeply touched their strength of spirit.

In the afternoon that day, three of our friends went off to do the celebrated skydive over Table Mountain. Less adventurously - or so we thought - my friend Lizi and I chose to explore Cape Town by foot instead. The Robben Island ferry had dropped us off at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, an area packed with high-end shopping centers and up-scale café-restaurants. We had lunch at one of these, and I felt slightly out of place as a backpacker counting out our remaining rand - we were near the end of the trip, there wasn't a whole lot of cash left. We asked for directions and a map from the tourist center to the Bo Kaap, and were assured by an impeccably dressed and polite tour guide that it was about a 15-minute stroll away. So we wandered through Cape Town, discussing things like graduation and jobs, commenting on the posh hotels we passed, and how incredibly wealthy Cape Town seemed compared to the rest of South Africa. We came to a crossing and consulted our map, and decided to take a turn to cut to the road we wanted to be on.

I don't really know at what point we realized things weren't quite right - I don't think either of us, at any point, was even remotely considering the possibility that we were in danger. We'd just passed a yacht club, for God's sake. But we passed a man who was lingering on the street, looking at us. He gestured for us to walk on to get to the next road. We did so, foolishly in retrospect, and came to a patch of grass next to a busy motorway, with a half constructed bridge over us. I think the realization was simultaneous - one, there were clusters of homeless people gathered around on the ground, who were raising their heads to look at us, and two, a group of about five men were advancing on us.

It all happened fairly quickly - too quickly for us to think. They didn't speak much English, and the man directly approaching me just said the words "phone" and "wallet" over and over again. Before I had time to react, he'd reached into my bag and pulled out my purse. I was vaguely aware that another man had ripped Lizi's purse off her. I was carrying a DSLR camera in my bag, the bulk of which the man with me must have felt as he put his hand in, because he immediately then hissed "camera - give me your camera".

They always say that when you get mugged, give them everything and don't fight, in case they're armed. I'd been inculcated this lesson a million times by a pair of worried parents of an only child. But in that moment, when I thought they were going to take my camera and all my memories from South Africa, I lost it. Apparently, when I get mugged, I fight. I realize now how incredibly stupid this was, but I didn't have time to think - I just couldn't give him my camera - there were literally thousands of pictures in that memory card. So I screamed at him, pulled at my bag, pushed him and hit him with all my strength, as he tried to pull the contents of my bag out. My jacket came out, as did my bottle of water and some bits of paper - but the camera remained loyally inside my bag. At this point both Lizi and I had started screaming at passing cars. One pulled over not far away, and our muggers let go, and ran away.

As chance would have it, the car that pulled over belonged to an off-duty policeman. He ran over to us and asked us which way they went, and sprinted after them. His wife called the police for us and calmed us down, after assuring us they weren't going to harm us. It was only after we'd had a few minutes to breathe that we realized that this policeman wasn't armed, and was chasing after 5 men who might have been. Thankfully he returned safely, as he couldn't find them. The next half an hour was blurry - at least 3 cars pulled over to ask what had happened. Strangers stopped in the middle of their days to make sure we were okay, and to assure us this wasn't supposed to happen - not in Cape Town.

I know that being mugged is hardly the worst thing that could have happened. All I lost was money and cards - nothing irreplaceable, and most importantly we weren't hurt. Perhaps I've been sheltered too much in our lives - but I can't pretend this experience didn't shake me. I think if this had happened any earlier in the trip, I would have forced myself to adjust my attitude, and face the remaining journey looking forward. But I had less than a day left in South Africa, I was tired, and I just sort of gave up. I remember lying in bed back at the hostel later that day, wishing I'd be on the plane already, inside a metal tube, far from danger, on my way back home, where it's safe. I felt bitter at how paranoid and careful we'd been in Johannesburg and Durban, and how I'd slept with every precaution even at the nicest hostels, (even in wealthy Stellenbosch, I'd carefully divided up my valuable into different bags) and at the feeling close to disdain I used to feel when people warned us South Africa might be dangerous.

I was probably making a mountain out of a molehill, but it was so very tempting, as I had sat in the police station, with two tired looking officers who barely blinked when we said we'd been robbed, to sit up on my high horse and declare that this country just wasn't as safe. A voice in my head (which sounded suspiciously like my mother's) began to dismiss all the plans my wanderlust had drawn up for me for more of this part of the world that I had just discovered. It would have been much easier to let the sourness that was threatening to envelope me taint my whole image of South Africa.

The police had asked us to describe the men who robbed us. I couldn't remember much - the only detail my mind seemed to cling to was that the man who approached me had an enormous rip in his lower lip. It was unnaturally swollen, baring raw flesh. His lip was literally rotting from the inside. It wasn't just from a fight or a cut - it was diseased, and not healing at all. I could only begin to imagine how much pain he must have been in, and I remember vaguely thinking he could maybe use the money that was in my purse to get that checked. That image was somehow not that scary at the time - only terrifying as a memory. And I suppose it is this very image that reminded me, as I sat on the bench of the police station, trying to stop shaking, that I couldn't just blame them, that I couldn't let this be my last impression of South Africa, that I couldn't let this change the country I fell in love with.

I thought of the policeman and his wife, who had driven us to the police station. We'd asked for their names, but preoccupied as I was I'm ashamed to say I've already forgotten. But I've not forgotten their kindness. I remember Lizi saying that she didn't think anybody in London would have pulled over if we'd got mugged, let alone chased after the culprits. I thought about something the director of a charity I was working with earlier in the summer had said to me, just a month before South Africa, across the globe in Hong Kong. "The only difference between you and someone suffering is circumstance." I very didn't deserve to make these judgments simply because I happened to be born somewhere else. I couldn't forget all that I'd learned in the three weeks of my journey.

I thought about why I went traveling in the first place, about why I'd applied for this grant - why I'm doing this degree. I thought about the passion I felt on that evening of debate, when I screamed at my friends for the rights of the underprivileged. I thought about the over-used Mandela quote that still reverberates truth - "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." These thoughts were clearer, easier, the next morning when my friends convinced me to venture to the top of Table Mountain. The sun was shining, and Cape Town looked so beautiful from up high. I no longer doubted how much I loved this country, and how much it taught me. For giving me this gift that can never be robbed, I am grateful to the Gladstone Memorial Trust.