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April 02, 2005

Scum-Dodging on Long Street

Cape Town, South Africa

Saturday, April 2, 2005:

I woke up at 4:30 AM because I was scheduled to be picked up at my hotel between 5:00 and 6:00 by a company specializing in a type of tour I will not specify at the moment. Suffice to say that I did not get to go on the tour that day because the company screwed up processing the information directing it to come get me. More on all of this will follow in another two entries.

After getting ready, I decided to wait for the arrival of the mini-bus at the 24-hour internet cafe directly under my hotel. While I browsed the web, I noticed several somewhat shady-looking guys in their 20s come in and settle in the chairs by the door, some four or five feet from where I was sitting. Despite their appearances, they didn't seem to be threatening or for that matter all too concerned with anything other than the quiet conversation they were having. After sizing them up I kept doing what I was doing. Nevertheless, I was aware that there weren't any other people in the place except the one guy working behind the counter.

Some five or ten minutes later, I looked up. A guy I hadn't seen before, probably between 25 and 30, had walked up to my desk and was standing on my right (which just happened to be where the door was). He was scruffy and unkempt, dressed in a dirty battered sweatshirt and sweatpants. "Hey there brother," he said in a low voice, "how you doing?" His eyes were red and he looked like he might have been drinking or else on drugs.

"What's up?" I said.

"Man," he said, "I was, umm, wondering if I could, uh, check your bag there," he pointed to my black messenger bag, which I had placed under the desk I was seated at. It contained some clothes, some books and my digital camera, all of which I had packed for my trip that day.

I was confused but alarmed. What did he mean "check" my bag?

"What do you want?" I asked --- calmly, not rudely. "I'm not sure I understand."

"I want to see if I could check your bag, man," he said. Then, stumbling for words, he continued, "Its a nice bag, you know, and them --- those guys [gesturing toward the four or five men seated nearby, who didn't appear to be taking an interest in our conversation] --- are not such nice guys, and there might be something in it they might want."

"So you want to see what's in the bag?" I asked.


I tried to follow this tortured logic as quickly as I could in half a second. Apparently, he was telling me that he wanted to look in my bag to be sure that it did not contain anything that the not-so-nice guys nearby might try to steal from me, were they aware of the bag's contents. I wasn't sure if this guy was part of the group of not-so-nice guys, in which case he was making an overt threat, or if he was not a part of the group of not-so-nice guys, in which case he was was trying to see if I would fall for his ridiculous story or else just feel intimidated enough to give in and open my bag up there so that everybody could see my camera. Whatever the case, this seemed clearly the prelude to a robbery attempt.

My half second was up. "Sure, no problem," I said enthusiastically as I began to stand up. "Just give me one second here to finish this up." I squinted at the screen as I stood, as if in deep thought about whatever it was I was looking at. I picked up my bag from under the desk and threw it over my shoulder.

The guy seemed confused. "You don't have to move or anything," he suggested politely.

"Oh no, its no problem!" I said, as if horrified that he might be worried needlessly about causing me an inconvenience. "Just give me one more second here..." I clicked the link to close down my internet session.

I then turned and walked a brisk four steps out the door. While the guy (and his possible friends) could have cornered and robbed me in the internet cafe, there were dozens of security guards out on the street and I knew I was safe there. In fact, the other guys in the internet cafe didn't seem to take any interest in me as I left (I was worried I would have to run to get through them).

I spent another hour waiting for the van in the lobby of the hotel before calling them and finding out that they would not be coming. I had gotten up at 4:30 and gone to the cafe for nothing. Since then, I never go there early in the morning or late at night with anything other than a couple of rands in my pocket for coffee.

Posted by Joshua on April 2, 2005 02:42 PM
Category: South Africa
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