My husband and I travel a lot. We always have, as young backpackers then as a young family, then with work as we grabbed a bunch of fabulous opportunities around the globe. We are somewhat more settled now, having come full circle and literally emigrated in such a way that we circumnavigated the globe, east all the way until we returned home four years ago, back to Johannesburg where it all began.
Our story is long and complicated and beautiful and painful and I’m slowly trying to condense it into something readable, (even though in many ways our journey has only just begun). We have been through all manner of strife of many kinds and feel as though we are well versed and well balanced in so many areas and that we have collected a healthy respect for people of all kinds, and don’t jump to conclusions or judge.
So this week as we flew into Cape Town for a week of work for him and writing for me, we picked up our little hatchback rental and headed out from the airport for the expected hour or so drive out into the country to our destination. But as we neared our turnoff and saw the Friday afternoon traffic jam, my husband made the snap decision as he often does, to keep driving instead and asked me to quickly consult Mr Google and find an alternative route. The new route was only 2 minutes longer and took us off the next exit and asked us to turn right instead of left. The route was fairly simple with few turns and all major roads, but we were starving so dipped into a side street to find the closest KFC. But we didn’t turn slow down fast enough to make the sudden change, so took the next turn only a couple of houses down thinking that we would just go around the block and come back again.
It seemed simple enough, and we could see that we were in what could be described a “dodgy” area, but as we are adventurous, non judgemental (or try to be), I simply said these people are probably as nice as can be. It was mid Friday afternoon and school was out, the sun was shining, and the heat of the day was already subsiding, ….so the streets were full of people, many of whom were children and teenagers and most of the adults were women. There were balls being kicked, dogs and children squabbling and laughing, and while there were many people around, there were very few cars. The streets were single lane each way without the need for a white line down the middle. It was by no means a major thoroughfare, and the tangle of dead ends that we came upon as we tried to get around a single block confirmed that this was nothing more than people’s homes. It was struggling class suburbia at it’s best from what I could see; salt of the earth, rich in culture, survival at it’s best. There was a part of me that would have loved to stay, and to speak to the woman at the door with the baby on her hip who was laughing with her toddler kicking his ball, to have a meal with the family who were unpacking their meagre groceries from their walk to the local corner store. A thousand or more deep rich stories to be told around me.
But we were locked into this rabbit warren for no more than 2 or 3 minutes as my husband turned the car around and we headed out again the way that we had come in. Our wrong turn had been quiet the first time, but now that we were exiting, with the same people on the streets and the same kids playing with a ball, we heard a couple of gun shots behind us. Two shots fired one immediately after the other, and as we couldn’t actually see anything happening, in the second (or less) that it took to process it, we kind of looked at each other, registered that something had gone down, and for some reason assumed that it was over …and that is was a good thing that we were on our way out instead of in.
But in front of us a police siren started just seconds after the gunshots, and a police car came flying around the corner towards us, obviously heading to the gunshots behind us. It all happened so fast that there is no way that anyone cold have called the police that quickly and we suddenly realised as the second, third, fourth and fifth police vehicles came screeching around the corner too, taking up most of the road and blocking our exit, that something huge was going down and that their war and our exit had collided. We were the only car on the road in the 50 yards or so between the good guys in front of us and the bad guys behind us, the guns started up again and we realised that they weren’t in any way small guns… It also took less than a second to realise that at least two of the police vehicles were SWAT teams in cammo, full body armour and bullet proof protection, face masks, and MASSIVE artillery which was aimed in every direction in front of them.
It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that they had no idea who we were or that we were good guys, so my husband had one guy (hanging out the doorless vehicle like you see those army guys hanging out of doorless helicopters), lock eyes and gun on him as he came flying around that corner! We had to jump the curb to get around them and as the gun shots kept going for some reason we didn’t even look back. We just floored it and left as fast as we could.
We are still processing everything, and in a country where nothing but the worst of the worst makes the papers and news, the likelihood of us finding out what was going on was slim. So last night we googled the area that we were in, and sure enough there were a number of very small articles on what went down. Here is one of them. I’m pleased to hear that the good guys one, and it doesn’t sound like any lives were lots in the process.
I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not to write this. I am enormously protective of this country and I do not want to contribute to it’s negative reputation. But on Friday this was my reality and part of my goal in all my writing is to be honest, congruent, transparent and to keep it all real. For me it was a massive lesson that anything can happen to anyone anywhere, that our two worlds had collided and there was nothing that we had done “wrong” and nothing in that neighbourhood that was inherently “wrong”. I still believe that most of those people are good people and I would love to hear all their stories, have a meal with them, and spend some time there.
I was asked only the week before by another family on the expat circuit whether I would recommend this country as a posting for them and my answer remains unchanged; I can’t guarantee anyone’s safety in any country, but if you are prepared to take the risk on being anywhere on this earth and you have the opportunity to live in this country, then I’d grab it with both hands as we have done …