Trust in South Africa
Travelers’ Tales’ new anthology, “The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vol. 9,” edited by Lavinia Spalding, contains a number of stories that explore the intersection of expectation and reality on the road — and the riches that are sometimes revealed there. The tale below, by writer-photographer Amanda Jones, is a particularly poignant example set in South Africa.
I stared out the airport window. Dusk was approaching, rain exploded on the ground, and hunched, glistening figures lurched through the downpour as if under attack. The sky was steely and raked with wind, and the thought of being caught in this hostile city alone with no cash for a decent hotel struck me with paralyzing dread,
For three long days I had been traversing Africa, trying to get from Niger to Kenya where I was to meet a friend and depart on safari. The bulk of those days had been spent bribing sour officials, battling malarial mosquitoes, and sitting wretchedly in filthy, stifling-hot airports. I had come from three tough but rewarding weeks in the Sahara, and the great beauty and monstrous insouciance of the desert had left me with a feeling of serene detachment. It was the closest I had ever come to achieving a Zen-like state of mind.
But by the time I reached the Congo, that hard-earned peaceful detachment had gone, replaced by a sudden loathing of travel. Now, nineteen hours behind schedule, all tolerance had fled.
Arriving in South Africa, I had 25 minutes to catch my fourth and final flight to Nairobi. But when I dashed off the plane at Johannesburg’s airport, I was greeted by an obscenely lengthy queue snaking toward a line of passport control booths.
South Africa, a crucible of long-quashed anger and a now-flailing backlash, was in turmoil. World press had seized on the stories of crime, violence, and internationally linked corruption. In response, South Africa’s authorities were forcing all visitors, even those in transit, to undergo document inspections. This delay rang a resounding death knell to my safari plans.
When I turned from the dreary airport window back to the crowded room, a young man was lingering beside me. I stared at him stonily, in no mood for small talk.
“Hullo,” he said cheerfully. “Can I help you? You look in need of some assistance.”
I judged him to be in his mid-twenties, possibly ten years my junior. Short, slight, and brown skinned, with a South African accent. He was dressed in jeans and a beer emblem T-shirt, with a well-used backpack slung over one shoulder—the global uniform of a traveling student.
“I doubt you can help,” I replied dismissively. “I was supposed to be in Nairobi tonight. I had to be in Nairobi tonight. However, my plane is about to leave without me.”
“Oh dear,” he said. His eyes showed genuine sympathy. “Right, well then, let’s see if there’s anything we can do about that. Come with me.”
The young backpacker moved off briskly but I remained where I was, confused, embarrassed, and reluctant to lose my place in line. He stopped and gestured for me to follow. This time I did, although hesitantly. He cut to the head of the line, approached an official, and spoke to her in Afrikaans. She regarded me coldly but said nothing as I walked past without showing any documentation.
“Wait here,” he instructed, indicating a row of seats. “Which airline were you on? Right then, let me see if I can hold that flight for you. Won’t be a mo’.”
As I sat there waiting for him to return, I struggled to imagine who this youngster was that he could circumvent immigration officials and stop airplanes.
He returned shaking his head. “Sorry,” he said,” it’s gone. It was the last one out tonight and all the flights tomorrow are solidly booked.”
I obviously looked stricken.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get you on a plane. I’m Ron, by the way.” He stuck out his hand.
Who was this “we” that could get me on a flight? I looked him in the eye. “Ron, I was wondering…how did you know I needed help back there? Do you work here? What is it you do?”
“FBI,” he replied, as casually as if he’d said “janitorial staff.”
He was on loan, he explained, to the South African government by the United States. “Illegal immigration, drug smuggling, terrorism, that sort of thing. We’re here to train their authorities. My job is to mingle with crowds and look for anxious people—suspects, in fact. And you looked rather anxious.”
“You thought I was smuggling drugs?” I said, horrified.
“No, no,” he answered earnestly, smiling. “I just thought you looked like a fellow American in need of assistance. But you’re not American after all, are you? You must’ve lived there quite a while now, although you weren’t born there. New Zealand, right? You fooled me, I had you pegged for American.”
I was shocked. He hadn’t seen my passport, nor was I wearing running shoes, baseball cap, designer labels, or a collegiate sweatshirt—all dead giveaways of Americanism. He was correct and yet had gleaned all this by the few words I’d spoken. I suddenly felt exposed and defensive.
“But you’re not American either,” I accused him. His English was thick with Afrikaans. Even his vernacular was Southern African.
“I am. I’m from El Paso, Texas. Been here four months now. Languages are sort of my thing. Afrikaans most recently.”
Observing him more closely, it occurred to me that Ron was the perfect undercover agent, if that’s what he could be called. With his mocha skin, brown eyes, and brown hair he could have been African, Arab, Mexican, sub-continental, or South American. How extraordinary it must be, I thought, to be able to fit in anywhere. Being blond, pale, and tall, my entire being shrieks “foreigner” in most parts of the world. Ron, on the other hand, would be unremarkable in pretty much any crowd.
“Look,” he said kindly, “you’re probably tired. Do you have somewhere you can go? I know a hotel. It’s not too expensive, and it’s clean, safe, relatively close. I could drop you off there, it’s on my way home. We’ll pick up your luggage—they’ll send it through now that you missed the flight.”
I was at the point where I had to decide whether to trust him or not. Women traveling alone are persistently faced with this dilemma. Rather than be paralyzed by suspicion, we learn to rely on the murmurings of instinct, calculate the risk, and then in the end hope like hell those instincts are correct.
“Do you happen to have any ID on you?” I asked. “I don’t doubt you, but, you know, it’s just smart…”
He pulled out a plastic card with FBI printed in block letters, his name, and a photo. I peered at the photo. He looked completely different—he was, indeed, a true human chameleon. The situation suddenly seemed surreal and I resisted the urge to laugh. I knew people like Ron existed, but only on television or in movies—never in a reality of my own.
“I can take you to the hotel,” he said, “but there’s one thing I have to do before we leave. You can come along if you like.”
I had nothing better to do—and by now I was extremely curious. I followed.
We stopped at an airport restaurant where Ron purchased pizza in large quantities, explaining the situation as he took the money out of his wallet.
“We arrested some Pakistanis this morning. They were trying to get up to Nairobi on fake passports. We’re deporting them tomorrow. Just thought I’d drop by and deliver this to them. The police can’t afford food for deportees here.”
I was surprised by how much he was telling me, and even more so as I followed him behind the security doors and through the inner workings of the airport. No one bothered to ask who I was or why I was there. People nodded at Ron but asked no questions about me. Perhaps they assumed I was a suspect.
We entered a barren concrete building adjoining the airport. A long, narrow corridor was lit with fluorescent light and littered with cans and cigarette butts. There were no windows, only opposing rows of closed doors. I began to feel uneasy; how quickly I had turned from blithe traveler to a character in the gritty, behind-the-scenes realm of crime and law enforcement. I was unnerved.
A policeman stood guard outside the Pakistanis’ room. He unlocked the door as Ron approached, and we entered. Through a serpentine haze of cigarette smoke I saw three men crouched on a narrow bed and another two on the floor. They were in their thirties, dressed in dark Western clothing. Their eyes were as black as onyx and hard with anger and defeat. Ron set the food on a table, speaking a language I did not recognize, probably Urdu. The men muttered. One said something and Ron dug into his pocket and tossed him a pack of cigarettes. The man inclined his head in grudging thanks. We left the building in silence.
“You must be hungry, too.” Ron said cheerfully as we re-entered the airport to get my luggage. “Come on, we’ll stop on the way to your hotel.”
Over dinner at a local restaurant, we talked mostly about Ron’s job. I could tell he was trying to impress me, but he did it in such an open way it was rather endearing. He spoke twenty-three languages, could tell time by the sun, was an expert in martial arts, and had never been seriously attached to a girl. He had been posted to cities all over the world, but he was tired of airport work. What he really wanted to do, he told me, was be an air marshal on international flights. Professionals, he explained, were hired to sit in the center of the plane with a loaded gun in case of hijacking or other disturbances. “It rarely happens, and you get paid quite well.”
Despite my insistence, he refused to let me buy dinner, telling me to save my money in case I should be stranded again. Later, he dropped me off at a modest hotel somewhere on the outskirts of the city. He had been every bit the gentleman.
As I left the car he leaned over and said, “As far as tomorrow, I checked on flights and there’s one leaving at eight in the morning. It’s full, but I can arrange to get you on. I’ll pick you up at six.”
“No, no, no,” I protested. “You’ve done enough. I won’t get you out of bed at such an ungodly hour. You really are too kind, Ron.”
“I insist,” he said. “I’d rather know you got there safely, and anyway, you’ll need me to get you on the flight. Sleep well.”
He was there at six, as promised, armed with the same cheerful smile.
At the airport Ron disappeared, returning with a boarding pass. “Got you on. The airline thinks we’re deporting you, but you shouldn’t care so long as you get there. There won’t be any record of it, don’t worry.”
I wasn’t sure how to thank him adequately for all he had done. He’d undoubtedly broken rules for me, or most certainly bent them. I wondered if he’d bumped some other traveler from the flight, and I felt momentary guilt.
As he walked me to the gate I asked him something I’d wondered the night before.
“Why did you feed those men? You paid with your own money, didn’t you? I mean, they looked terribly shady. Are they terrorists? Pakistanis hate us right now, don’t they? Are they even Pakistanis?”
Ron sighed, and his chin dropped. I felt as if I’d said something dreadful, something terribly disappointing. He stopped walking. “This job,” he said, “has taught me that our presumptions about people are rarely true. We have so many preconceptions, especially about foreigners, but they are nothing more than fear of the unknown. We quite comfortably make sweeping generalizations about entire nations of people. These people we suspect of being evil, most are just students and deadbeat dreamers and artists and teachers and greedy businessmen—the same characters that populate all societies. And then some of them, a tiny portion of them, are actually individuals with intent to harm others. But we foolishly judge them all by the few who are bad.”
Ron was becoming heated, staring vacantly ahead. “I bought those men food,” he said, “because in all likelihood they are simply seeking an improved life. And even if those five individuals aren’t innocents like most of the folk I encounter, even if they are real criminals, then a show of kindness may help, just a little, to debunk their preconceptions about us. Until we can prove them as bad people it is simply kinder to trust their intentions.”
“Besides,” he added, “everyone has to eat.”
I gave Ron a quick, awkward hug and was escorted down the gangway by the airport police. Although they believed they were deporting me, they treated me gently. There was no public scene with handcuffs, as I’d dreaded, nor any strongarming. They simply carried my bag and escorted me to my seat, whispering something to the flight attendant, who looked at me with surprise. It was raining hard outside, and the wind still gusted, but the city no longer felt hostile. It hadn’t changed since yesterday, but I had.
Amanda Jones is a travel writer and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her travel stories have appeared in Town & Country, Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveller, the Los Angeles Times, the London Sunday Times, Salon.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, Brides, Food & Wine and Vogue Australia, among others. Her short stories have been published in several travel anthologies, including “Salon.coms Wanderlust,” and Lonely Planet’s “The Kindness of Strangers.” Amanda has also done story development for National Geographic television and her photography series “Timeless,” black and white photographs of African tribal peoples, was exhibited at the United Nations film festival. She has worked on staff at Vogue magazine and was formerly the editor-in-chief of Antiques and Fine Art. She was born and educated in Auckland, New Zealand.