What is my travel origin? What is the worst thing that has happened to me while travelling? What is the best? What are my passions outside of travelling? I’ve been thinking about last week’s travel prompts and have rounded them up into these next few blog posts, starting with my travel origin story.
Like all good stories, this one starts with heartbreak. In the fall of 2002, just turning 22 and coming out of a breakup, I was searching for an opportunity for independence, adventure and challenge, not to mention distraction. My school (University of Alberta) was offering term-abroad opportunities and I quickly signed up for the one which would take me the furthest away from my home. Seriously, that’s how I picked South Africa (or Zuid Afrika as it is known in Afrikaans). 6 months later I embarked on my first real trip to speak of, my first venture off the continent of North America.
The next few months would reveal my travel origin, the best and the worst of travelling and would shape my life, including future passions and goals. Not to mention I got a first-hand taste of the delicious drug that is travelling.
I was to travel with another student from my university, we had met shortly before departure, and she become an instrumental part of my travel origin story.
I can’t remember much about the flight, which is probably a good thing. I imagine this is the same mechanism that mothers instinctively employ to erase childbirth from their minds. If we all remembered the long, painful flights no one would leave home again.
What I do recall, 11 years later, is the way I felt coming from the airport to our hostel in Durban.
The weariness and excitement culminated in a sort of jelly-legged way, like how one feels after hours on a boat. Before I could even get my land-legs back, Melanie and I threw our stuff in the hostel and out for a walk. Seems rational to walk through a new town, jet-lagged and jelly-legged, with no thought of where to go or of our safety. I miss the recklessness, the openmindedness and naivety of my youth. I really do, even though that walk would end rather poorly.
What we didn’t know, what we could’ve known if we had been a bit sharper, was that that day was a holiday in ZA. This meant that the shops were all closed, the streets were quiet. Unbeknownst to us, we were not in the best part of town. This was all quite lost on us. After some time about the beach and town, we were heading back to our hostel, confident that our first day was a success and that we would only have a few more ‘hours to kill’ (isn’t that an awful expression?) before we could collapse for the night in our hostel bunk beds at a reasonable time.
Heading back to our hostel, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on the front of my body. It was the pull of my purse strap breaking, being pulled off my body. (Actually, the purse belonged to my ex-bf’s sister, a lovely and generous traveller and a woman I love dearly all these years later). Jen’s bag was gone, along with my bank card, cash and ID. (Some traveller’s instinct had me store my passport and credit card at the hostel before going out.) Within milliseconds, a dozen people came out of their homes and inquired about what happened. The jelly moved from my legs to my brain and I was at once bewildered and speechless. We tried to brush them off and attempted to make our way through the crowd back to the hostel so that we could collect our senses and figure out what to do next. I was so grateful to have Melanie with me.
The people who quickly gathered around us were angry that I had been robbed. Someone flagged down a local police car. Being the polite (and discombobulated) Canadian, I urged them to forget about it, that I was fine, and we would be on our way. I remember these minutes like they happened today. People, police were asking me what had happened, what I had seen, who I had seen. Some folks had run off down the street and dragged back a young boy, 15 at the very most, and said to us “this is the boy who took your bag, he was with the gang who robbed you, this is him, we found a knife on him”. Of course, I had seen no boy, and hardly cared at all who took my bag. He certainly didn’t have it on him, and I was increasingly aware of how fast this situation was spiralling out of control.
Seconds passed and the crowd had this young boy down on the ground, kicking him. Someone took their shoe off and beat him with it. They were screaming, punching, berating him. They were apologizing to me this whole time, saying tourists needed to be treated better and needed to be safe, all the while I was that insisting he was not the boy who had my bag, it wasn’t him. He didn’t have my bag, I pleaded with the police officer and with the crowd, please let him go.
Then the police officer, a white police officer in South Africa, less than a decade after the dismantling of the official Apartheid system, said something that still rings through my ears:
“This is justice in the new South Africa.”
This is justice. This is the new South Africa.
That police officer stood back and supervised – encouraged – them as they beat this boy. Melanie and I helplessly trying to put a stop to it. It became very evident that this violence was not new to anyone involved.
Melanie and I were herded back to the hostel, to collapse in exhaustion and sadness.
This is the story of my travel origin and remains the worst thing that happened to me while travelling, barely half a day into my very first trip. It is also the start of the stories of connection, friendship and awakening that would follow in the next few months. But nothing before and nothing since has opened my eyes the way that sunny, horrible afternoon on a Durban street did. I would absolutely never be the same again.