To Banter with the Bogeyman
A sheep blared. A pony whinnied; a star flickered and disappeared somewhere in the northern sky. I was scared witless. Horror swept through me like a touch of black silk against the skin as he breathed beanstalk words and wrapped me in sentences of smut.
I recently received my first dirty phone call on a tiny archipelago of Scotland: the Shetland Islands. An odd place for such a thing to happen as it supports more sheep than people. Even though I saw the comic side of it later on, at the time it served as an apt reminder that if beauty was in the eye of the beholder, security was in its head.
The following day my neighbor chuckled reassuringly: “It’s alright” he said, “he never does anything about it.” “This happened before?” I gasped. “Aye!” came the bemused reply. I was awe-struck: nobody here locks their doors. Ladies don’t pinch their handbags between their knees under restaurant tables. Late at night girls stop at red traffic lights and stay put until it turns green. During Sunday lunches the baby naps in the backseat and nobody doubts that it would still be there 30 minutes later, in the same place in the same car. They are to my South African soaked perceptions as I am to them: odd. But I can still not get myself to unlock my rugby scrum in front of the cash machine to chat with the old lady behind me. “But,” I protest in my head, “she can see my pin number! I’ve got pounds in there!”
“Common sense” Italian philosopher Vica Giambattista stated “is judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire nation, or the entire human race”. Safely tucked away in your own country it is easy to believe that what you accept as commonsensical is similar for everybody else. That is, until you leave. When you find yourself in a foreign scenario your everyday characteristics appear different. Suddenly you are the stranger, not only because you are out of your country, but because in some way or another you can never quite get your country out of you.
One of my favorite things about South Africa is its contrasts, like a cocktail of different colors and tastes, but most likely with a good kick to make it more memorable. The scenery ranges from awe-inspiring mountains to infinite planes. The oceans that hug it are freezing in the west and deliciously mellow in the east. Pancake filled, rainy-days make up the winter in the south while bone-shaking thunderstorms reign in the northern summers. All the while a friendly, happy bunch of people of all sorts and sizes walk on its earth.
Considering the enthusiasm of the outward appearance, close onlookers might detect a tiny edge in the cheerfulness. It might be an extra look over the shoulder or a clutched hand over a bag; South Africans take personal security seriously. Even though some state that the nation is more scared than it should be, a debatable opinion, a certain group of people who do not take the same madcap precautions appear more at risk: tourists. In October 2003, a South African paper (The Sunday Independent) reported on strong correlations between tourism and crime. According to the article by Ashley Smith “…tourist areas appear to suffer disproportionate levels of crime while within many tourist areas, tourists appear more at risk than do locals…”
Consequently it could be a good idea for visitors to approach the country like the people who spend most of their time there. So, while you taste wine in the Cape, party in Johannesburg, dip your body in the abundant sunshine, or enjoy any other of the abundance of activities available, keep the following three things in mind:
1. Don’t be an easy target
Unlike Burger King and Pepsi, you can be sure to always find one thing in South Africa if you are looking for it: trouble. Do not display your valuables. Items like jewelry, cell phones, wallets or anything similar should be kept hidden or closely guarded in public. Along the same lines it is never a good idea to walk around alone at night, especially females.
Be especially alert when handling cash in public, or even better: try not to. Don’t let anybody near you at the ATM and don’t use ones that are remote or remotely suspicious.
2. Be prepared
As with any trip, sort your insurance out before entering the country. Remember to leave copies of your passport and other important documents with friends or other safe places.
Do your research. An invaluable source of general safety tips for tourists can be found at the region of Kwazulu-Natal’s tourist information website.
Before you attempt it, understand that public transport in South Africa is not always the most reliable way of transfer from point A to B. Not to be used on a tight time-schedule, it adds meaning to the words that life is a journey and not a destination. Using one of the abundance of mini-cab taxis is not highly recommended if you’re not with somebody who’s done it, or before you’ve at least scoped out the ones in the know. In addition to the set of hand-signals you have to use to stop it you also have to give the driver a shout if you want to get off.
A friend from the area is also a good idea if you want to visit places like townships. You can alternatively contact the local tourist office for an organized tour. You’ll be safer, supporting local business ventures and get a close-up look at the best spots with somebody who knows where they are going.
Lastly, if you are the unlucky victim of a crime, do not put up a fight. In such loaded moments it is better to give away possessions than to lose something irreplaceable.
3. Never make assumptions
In a crazy/beautiful country like South Africa anything goes. Stop at one traffic light and you will see a whirl of road rage, banter, beggars, window washers, entrepreneurs, street children, students and newspaper sellers. A bright multi-lingual buzz wrapped in a mÃ©lange of mellow sunshine. Anybody could obviously be out to grab your bag, steal your car, hit you over the head and run away with your camera. Or they could not be – obviously.