Close For Comfort: A Personal Essay
It was a fiercely windy morning when I headed to my first day of work in Cape Town, South Africa. As I walked up the main street of Observatory, my new neighborhood, I neurotically checked the small map clasped in my hand every block. I was so preoccupied that I nearly missed the looming figure of Table Mountain rising above me and the city. All I knew was that I needed to find something called a minibus station-- home to neither busses nor a station.
I chided myself for my nerves. The idea of getting lost shouldn’t scare me so much. This wasn’t the first time I’d travelled alone. It was, I realized, the first time I’d be working for a real publication though. I was a junior in college and beginning an internship at The Big Issue Magazine, armed with nothing but the direction I should walk, a street name to tell the driver, and a warning to never, ever get in an empty minibus unless I wanted to get robbed.
That didn’t help the anxiety.
I knew immediately when I made it to the right spot. Minibuses are actually minivans customized to fit as many people as possible. Bucket seats are removed for benches made of milk crates, wooden planks, and a bit of fabric. The side walk-ways are fitted with single milk crate seats that make getting stuck in the back a bad idea. Minibuses, being a competitive industry, also come with a hype-man to holler at people on the streets, only happy when the van is so full that someone is sitting on the driver’s lap. The “young and cool” minibuses paint their vans with graffiti stencils and blast EDM to entice customers.
When I spotted the minibus “station” it was three vans on the street corner, yelling at pedestrians and each other. By the time I crossed four hectic lanes to get to the vans, the first two had pulled away, satisfied with their cargo. The minibus still waiting held only the driver, the promoter, and a lone man in the far back row. I hesitated, thinking ‘It’s not completely empty... Does that count?’Ultimately, the fear of being late to my first day won out and I hopped in, heart in my throat and questioning my priorities.
Behind me came a group of schoolgirls, about middle school aged, and already in their uniforms for class. They laughed and chatted loudly in Xhosa, and my heartbeat slowed. I sat quietly, enjoying the language and their energy until I had to tell the driver where I was going-- that is what gave me away.
The loudest girl snapped her head back to look at me. “You are American?” she said, somewhere between a question and an accusation. The rest of the quick ride consisted of me answering yes or no questions about America:
“Are you a cheerleader?”
“Are you rich?”
“Have you ever seen a big bear?”
“well, yes, actually.”
By the time I reached work I had almost forgotten to be nervous.
For rural-folk, it can be hard to navigate any city, let alone a South African city. In the first few weeks my head was swimming with advice about how to stay safe from all the people who would want to take advantage of me. For trains, it was to not travel alone. For both trains and minibuses, it was to never get in an empty one or ride at night. Even taxis were unsafe alone after dark.
It was my black South African coworkers who were most worried for me. They knew my pale skin and obvious accent made me an easy target. My white South African colleagues cared, but the cautionary advice didn’t come as naturally. They had cars, and gated homes, and while they were used to the high crime rates-- most had been robbed before-- many of my black friends and coworkers saw it each day. They knew the conditions that drove people to desperation. It was something that they had to accept, even if they didn’t want me to be the next victim.
Yet, despite the crime rates and the warnings and the advice, the South Africa that I experienced in my months was best represented by my first morning on the minibus. Loud, open, and quick to get to the friendship. I found that in Cape Town, you don’t stay a stranger for long.
So each morning I wedged myself into a minibus seat with a few coins in my pocket and a shared a ride with the men, women, and children of Cape Town. While my legs were far too long for comfort, minibuses quickly became my favorite form of transport. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie that comes from hurtling down a main drag, swerving between lanes, while squashed in the middle of a 5 person row.
My last minibus ride, on my last day of work, was just like this. As I sat, knees to my chest, I looked up and noticed a sticker that said, “Maximum Capacity: 32 Persons.” Struck by the absurd notion of adding more people to the already crammed van, I pointed it out to the woman next to me.
I laughed at the sign, and she laughed at my surprise.