“Molo sis. How are you,” said the lady with a head wrap, oversized t-shirt and long paisley print broom skirt.
I had already peeped the tattered fabric, rolled up into a bundle and tied around her waist. And I already knew what was inside of it. That’s why I had every intention on just smiling politely and telling her, I’m good. But before I could curl my lips, she told me her name: It was Grace. And before I could tell her I was good, she copped a squat in the sands besides me.
I sighed. Now I was stuck with her.
I wasn’t trying to be rude to Grace. Honestly. I just wanted some time to myself. Some time alone to enjoy Mzansi Africa.
It was just supposed to be a quick walk around the beach. A break from worrying. A chance to stick my feet in the water before I got back to writing. And worrying. But the first person to disturb my peace was short dude in a green skully cap. He offered me nearly an ounce for $50 USD. I talked him down to $20. Although I would be dipping into the last bit of money I had for my travels, I felt it would be foolish to pass on such a good deal.
We found a secluded spot by the rocks and fired it up. As we pass back and forth, he told me all of his woos. I had heard similar sob stories from men who looked like him on the other side of the ocean: there is no work and he can barely make enough money to take care of himself.
But when he “makes it.” he was going to request some land from the chief, build a house and fill it with a wife and a bunch of children. As much as I wanted to appear interested, these conversations always had a way of blowing my high. I hate emotional labor. I never understood why men wanted to share their problems with me as if I don’t have enough woos of my own?
He ask me if I could live with him in his dream. I decline several times, before abruptly excusing myself. I let my high carry me across the warm sands and into the even warmer waters. It is clean. Way cleaner than the waters down The Shore in New Jersey. I cautiously stick my toes in. Before I knew it, I had submerged my legs in its depths as high as my dress could go without being obscene. I splashed around. I laughed. I jumped waves. I marvel at the sea shell I found, only to freak out when I discover there was an actual animal living inside the hull. I looked around and noticed people staring at me. I realized that I was the only Black face there. I felt nervous. And watched. I retreated to the beach, where I sat in the sands and did my best to tune them all out.
And then she arrived.
Grace sat a few moments longer smiling awkwardly at me. I knew what she was here to do; I knew she wanted to sell me beads. Before Grace’s arrival, my peace had been interrupted by two ladies with similar deceptive smiles and tattered fabric bundles.
Their names were Emily and Mary. And they called me sister too. They wanted $40 Rands a piece for the three bracelets and four anklets they had picked out for me. But I had haggled them down to $200 Rands total. I didn’t want the beads. I couldn’t afford the beads. But I also didn’t want to say no to those women neither. It’s was in the way they pleaded with me. I thought it was a fair compromise. But they thanked me flatly to my face and left cursing behind my back in their native tongues. I couldn’t make out much of what they were saying, but none of the words, tones and gestures seemed akin to sister. I felt horrible.
Everything I read prior to taking my journey told me to haggle. It was the African way, they assured me. I had been on the continent before. In Ghana, West Africa. Haggling there was a way of life. It was also a sign of respect: too low and it was an insult; too high and you’re a sucker. But here amongst the rural hills of the Wild Coast, haggling didn’t feel right.
I was thinking too much.
About their families, or what I imagined their home lives to be. And about apartheid, which had retreated slightly, only to regroup and form alliances with an equally oppressive economic tyranny. You see its handiwork all over South Africa. And this beach front, sixty miles away from Umthata, which is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, was no different. It was said that this unspoiled part of the Wild Coast was becoming a popular spot for not only tourists, but for expats too. Mostly the European kind. Pastoral economies were both being traded-in and forcefully replaced. Massive sized estates were being erected in short distances from mud and straw huts. Both life and business in the village came second to catering to the interest of foreigners – be it beads, weed or romanticized sensibilities.
I thought about how Emily and Mary could have been village mothers from the more isolated parts of Transkei. And how that $40 rands per piece probably went to cloth the kids, buy food and pay for fees at nearby NGO schools.
I also thought about my own mom, grandma and granny. Black women who too struggled unjustly in a system created for the supremacy of others. Granny never made it past the night grade. She spent a number of years working as a domestic for a white family before retiring as a candy dipper at a local chocolate factory. Grandma had a high school diploma and got a slightly better job, punching keyboards down at the Navy Yard in South Philly. Mom had two years of college, two kids and three jobs. I had it easiest out of all of them. College educated. Skilled. Childless. I wanted to wield whatever economic privilege I had in this situation respectfully. But I missed the mark. I probably should have just said no.
“No Grace, Emily and Mary already tried. There are no sales here,” said Esther.
She was the fourth person to interrupt my peace. I had only met her 10 minutes before Grace’s arrival. She was seated further up the beach and witnessed everything that happened between the other bead sellers and I. As they walked past her blanket, cursing the stingy coloured American, she laughed and offered them a couple of coins as compensation. One of the women turned around and yelled smartly back in my direction, “thanks, Madame.”
I swallow hard, hoping to bury the embarrassment.
A few sad and dejected moments later, Esther came over with her beach towel and other personal items. We exchanged the pertinent: our names; where we are from; and what brought us to the coast. She was from Cape Town and of Dutch and Swedish descent, although she only claimed the Swedish side. Her disdain for her heritage was one of the reasons why she was alone and away from the others on the beach that day. I told her I understood, although my separation from the others was not by choice.
“Oh an American. I thought I noticed an accent, but I couldn’t figure out where,” she said in amusement. “We don’t get many Americans.”
I found her statement odd considering my bunkmates were Americans. We made more small talk before she asked if I could watch her things while she took a dip in the ocean. I smiled and told her I could. “Good because these people steal,” she said before running off to the water.
I was caught off guard by it all. Which people: the mostly pale skin Europeans who simmered and sizzled under the South African sun or the dozens of locals who sat along the shady edges of the beach? How could she say such a thing? Worse, how could she say such a thing like that to me? I am Black too, just like the people she expected me to guard her purse from.
Little did she know that back where I came from, people thought I was the type to steal too. And just like these Black people here, some of us did. We steal out of hungry. We steal out of vengeance. We break into their homes and steal their televisions, microwaves and pets too. We sure do. We steal their cellphones when they’re not paying attention at restaurants and perm kits right off of their store shelves. We steal their welfare benefits and deductions on our taxes. We even steal time off from work by claiming “we sick.” Heck right before arriving at the coast, I had to borrow a wall electrical adapter. We steal for the same reasons they steal. Because we can. And honestly I could reach into her wallet and steal her chump change if I really wanted to. And yet here she was, smiling up in Grace’s face like she trusted her.
Unaware of all Esther said prior to her arrival, Grace smiled at her right back. “What’s you name,” she asked her.
Esther told her name. Grace grab her wrist and held it up to her own. “Almost,” she said, highlighting the contrast in Esther’s pale pink hue with Grace’s dark sun kissed arm. They chuckled. Grace asked Esther where she was from and she told her.
“Oh you South African. I no try you,” she said. They shared a couple of words in Grace’s native tongue. This delighted Grace. “Yes, you my sister. You are from here. You already know. These other people,” she paused to spit on the sands. “No.”
They laughed again. I felt uncomfortable.
Grace turned her attention back to me and began speaking in Xhosa. She frowned when I didn’t respond. People have been doing it to me since I arrived in South Africa. It is certainly understandable: Round face, dark skin and a flat nose, I resemble them. But I can’t speak the language. In JoBurg and Durban. Folks didn’t seem to mind when I mumbled through an ill-pronounced greeting. But here in the coast, I was beginning to understand that expectations were a lot greater.
“She is not from here. She is an American,” said Esther who seemed to enjoy pointing out our geographical differences.
Grace gave me the once-over and then shook her head in disbelief. “No, no, no…,” she kept saying. Then she howled. She laughed like she had already figured out the punchline. “An American you say? Ha-ha. Where in America you from?”
I told her Philly. She looked at me confused. Esther shook her head and exhaled before adding, “It’s in America, Grace.”
Grace looked at Esther suspiciously and back at me. “But you a Black?”
I nodded. Then I told her our people were the descendants of the enslaved from West Africa. She nodded like she understood, but then squinted. “So you get on airplane and fly over?”
“You Black, got on airplane and fly over sea to come here” I nodded again, but this time added a smile. I thought she would be impressed. Instead her face grew serious. “It must have cost you a lot to come over here, huh?”
I’m silent. It was a question I did not have a short answer for. While the average return ticket flight to South Africa was over $1000, my round trip flight cost me less than $400. My good fortune came courtesy of an error deal found on the Internet. My trip was being finance through a combination of not paying the water bill and the last six hundred dollars in my saving account. I mostly stayed in dorm room in hostels, which averaged about $12 bucks a night. I spent most of my days writing blog posts so that I could have food to eat while there and pay my car note back at home. South Africa was a huge risk. Yet South Africa was supposed to be the great escape from it all. My lost job. My stagnant writing career. The heatless winters. The very real threat of losing my home. The broken relationships. The anger. The loneliness and isolation. The severe depression, which the counselor diagnosed me with. The pure savagery of it all. South Africa was supposed to be my refugee where I could write, think and hopefully come back a changed Charing – or I could not come back at all.
Before I could speak, Esther spoke for me. “Thousands Grace,” she said as she shook her head. “It cost a lot of money to come here. Lots.”
I nodded again.
Grace stared blankly for a few moments, as if she was still waiting for someone to yell, psyche. But when it didn’t happen, she started slapping her knee and testifying in Xhosa.
“Ah sistaaaa. Me someday be like you. I fly up,” she said as she pointed to the sky and gestured “over.” Then she nodded. I nodded too.
For a moment I thought we were finally connecting. We were ancestral sisters of the continent, once separated by a vicious history and overpriced airplane flights, reunited again on the beaches of the Wild Coast. I’m home, sis. And now we can catch up. I smiled at her.
Grace returned the gesture with an even bigger smile. “I get you passport,” she said before rubbing her skin and pointing to her face. “You like me. I get you passport and go over the sea to America.”
My smiled disappeared. I couldn’t believe what the fuck she was saying to me. Grace laughed and started testifying again in Xhosa. Then she continued, “I get $15 thousand Rands and you passport. I go to Umtatha and make me own passport. And then I go over the sea.”
Grace then held up a single necklace with a brown stone attached to it. “You buy now.”
Grace smiled widen. I rolled my eyes.
What she think this was? North Philly? She had to be crazy to think I had come all the way to Africa to get punked out of my money. She turned her attention to Esther who was propped up by her elbows on her beach towel and looking entertained by the entire exchange. I was expecting Grace to give her the same hustle she was trying to give me. Instead Esther got a compliment.
“Bag is nice,” Grace sung as she rubbed her fingers along its leather seams.
Esther smiled pleasantly and thanked her. My mouth dropped. For a second, I thought they both were running a con on me. “See you smart girl. No one grab you stuff with this bag,” said Grace, as she glared at me over her shoulder.
Admittedly it was a nice bag. All leather with thick reinforced leather straps and bottom, I wanted such a bag like that for my travels. But I wanted a lot of things. I looked down at my own green canvass shoulder bag with the thin flimsy straps. I never felt so unprepared and unaware in life.
Grace turned her attention back to me and smiled. “I like you shoes,” she said as she pointed to the purple Pumas, which rested beside me in the sands.
My face perked up. “Thanks.”
Grace nodded. “I want you shoes.”
I frowned and shook my head in the negative. “Well that’s too bad ‘cuz you can’t have my shoes.”
My sneakers were nothing fancy. They were just a pair of Pumas I had gotten them for less than $30 USD off the clearance rank at one of the chain discount department stores several months before my trip. But they were much nicer than the oversized sandals she had on her feet. For a second, I contemplated giving them to her. But I had only brought three pairs of shoes with me including a pair of leather flip-flops and some faux combat boots. And I hadn’t really wore either of the other two. Instead I was always in my Pumas. I walked around most of JoBurg and up and down mountains in Drakensberg in those Pumas. I needed those sneakers and I be damned if she thought she was going to take them from me.
Grace ignored me and turned her attention back to Esther. “Buy my beads,” she said as she shoved the single stone necklace in her face. Esther smirked.
“I already got my beads in Cape Town,” she said as she held up her wrist, revealing a several strings of beaded bracelets.
Grace chuckled. ” Oh I forget: You from here,” she paused to laugh at her own joke. She continued on, “But you don’t have these lucky beads.”
“Oh is that what you’re calling them now? Lucky beads,” Esther asked sarcastically.
Grace smiled, “Oh they lucky. You buy, you keep you shoes.”
They started laughing. I did not. More than the attempted extortion, I hated the camaraderie Grace felt she had with Esther. So what they were both from South Africa and Esther could speak a few words here and there in Xhosa? So what she wore traditional beaded jewelry? Esther was a privilege white woman from Cape Town. Her people were descendants of people who not only took the land by force, but set up a set of political, social and economic standards, which still affected Grace’s life to this day. She had the privilege of just driving here. She had the privilege of buying up as many beads as she wanted. I did not. So why was she trying to hustle the money from Esther?
I was hurt. I wanted Grace to like me. She was supposed to like me. I was going to make her like me. I told Grace I would buy one piece and that was it. Her face lit up.
“Give her the Xhosa price,” Esther demanded. She talked to Grace like she was her supervisor, overseeing a sale.
Grace tapped Esther on the knee. “No, I give her the foreigner price. $50 Rands.”
“20” I quickly retorted.
Grace stared at me indignantly and back at Esther. “She’s stubborn. No, you give me $40 Rands and you keep you shoes.”
“No I give you $20 and I keep my shoes anyway.”
I could feel the anger welling up inside of me. I’m from Philly. We had to be tough. I sized her up and quickly came to the conclusion that if needed, I could hold my own against her. I looked over at Esther who sat quietly engaged in our back and forth. It got me thinking: two Black women from two continents arguing over the equivalent of $4 USD. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. I relented slightly.
“…$30 Rands, but that’s it. I don’t care what you say Grace. Take the money and go,” I said as I dug in my canvass bag and returned with exactly $30 Rands. I put the money in her face.
Grace looked at it, thought about it and then snatched it from my fingers. She smiled triumphantly. “Thank you.”
“Whatever,” I snarled.
Grace’s business here was done. And with no other sale, she gathered her beads, retied her bundle around her waist and rose to her feet. Before she left, she told Sister Esther to take care of herself and to remember to use sunblock.
She also took one last shot at me. “Before you leave here, I take you shoes and you passport,” she paused and pointed to the sky. “And then I go over the sea. To America. Like you.”
I nodded. “Good luck with that. I hope you make it. But you ain’t taking my kicks or getting my passport though.”
And with that, Grace was gone.
I sat silently with Esther watching as Grace dangled her lucky beads in front of the faces of white sunbathing tourists further up the beach. I took note at how pleasant and almost apologetic she was towards them even as they adamantly refused to buy. I wanted to be disgusted by her shamelessness, but I also sympathized. So much of our survival as Black people, no matter where we were in this world, depended on making white people feel comfortable and unbothered. This system made us all opportunists.
“This is why I never bring money to the beach,” Esther said smugly.
I rolled my eyes. I was about ready to ditch moneyless-ass Esther at the beach, but she told me she had a truck. And she invited me to tag along with her on the hunt for the Hole in the Wall. The locals call it izi Khaleni, or ‘Place of thunder.’ Legend had it that the hole was created by one of the sea people, who had fallen in love with the beauty of a young Xhosa woman who lived in a village on the other side of he wall.
However many tourists didn’t care about any of that mythology. Instead they sought out the Hole in the Wall for cliff jumping and other thrill seeking agendas. White people call sport what I called risking life and limp doing dangerous stunts in foreign lands. Still a ride was a chance to get away from the backpackers and go experience a new part of the Wild Coast. So I told her I would go.
As we walked back to the backpackers, I asked Esther where she learned to speak the native tongue. She told me that she was a teacher who primarily taught Xhosa children how to read and write in English. That’s how she learned to pick up a few basic words.
“The kids love me. And they sort of trust me. I am the only white person they have ever met who is not scared of them. That’s why they see me as more African than you,” she said, answering a question I never asked her.
I cringed. I had heard white American women talk like this before. The same nauseating self-centering they tend to do when talking about their work with “inner city” kids in places like Philly, Baltimore and Chicago. It is about their gratification and their validation rather than if the work they are doing was actually helping.
I too had worked in the “inner city.” In particular, in a neighborhood that I grew up in. And yet community work never felt rewarding, nor did I feel gratified. Most nights, I went home feeling frustrated, defeated and alone. I really wanted to like Esther. But it just wasn’t fair that she got to feel like a savior while robbing them linguistically of their culture. And it wasn’t fair that she got to feel more African than me, even though our countries racial histories and color should have made her the outsider.
As we continued our walk, I thought about other questions I had for Esther. In particular, why did she feel comfortable being so candid with me? Was it my American passport or was it my non-South African English accent? And how far did her comfort really go? Did she have any Black friends in Cape Town? Did she brunch with them on Sundays in Seaport or go to Zumba classes with them in the Observatory? Did she ever invite them into our home? And why didn’t she invite Grace for whom she allegedly had a more sisterly bond with, instead of me to the Hole in the Wall? Did I look like I needed a friend? Or was this just another opportunity to play savior ?
Before we left for the Hole in the Wall, I made a quick detour to my dormitory to change clothes and to hide my passports deep in my suitcase. After I changed clothes, I put the lucky beaded necklace I had gotten from Grace around my neck. Although I didn’t believe the beads to be lucky, I thought wearing them would ward off any attempts by future sellers to sell me anything. As I leaving out of the room, the cleaning woman was coming in.
“Molo sis, is this your room,” she said.
I nodded, barely returning a smile.
Normally I am nice and sweet to this particular cleaning lady. I even share a cigarette with her during her down times. But Grace’s ill-treatment of me still occupied my mind. And at that moment, I felt leery of anyone who looked like me. I wondered if she secretly hated me like Grace did? Then I felt bad for having that thought. So I sighed and forged a deeper smile.
“Yes Sis. This is my room.”
She asked me who was all in my room and which one was my bunk. I told her: four other Americans and two Germans. All in their early 20s. All white. None of who spoke to me. The middle one was my bunk. She smiled and promised to make up my bed nicely for me. I thanked her and gave her a cigarette.
As Esther and I rode up the bumpy hill and through the quiet terrains, I did my best to clear my mind of Grace. It wasn’t hard as the Wild Coast is as picturesque and serene as those westernized images of Africa wanted us to believe.
We rode through villages where children, in mix matched short sets and school uniforms matching the wall colors of nearby NGO schools, played along dirt path road. Their mothers sat idly around each other in lawn chairs outside of round huts. Oxen, goats and dogs roamed unrestricted. It was so indigenous, but oddly familiar. It reminded me of the Black women and children who sat and gossip on rowhome porches back home in Philly. They stared curiously at us. I wondered if it was the actual truck disrupting their calm banality or the camaraderie of color shared by its occupants that aroused their suspicions. I smile and wave at the them. Some waved back, but very few smiled.
“It helps if you speak the language like I do,” Esther said, once again reminding me that it was I who was the foreigner.
I let Esther do most of the talking on our ride. I listened attentively as she shared stories about her travels alone across the country. There was no denying she was a bold and interesting woman. Prior to visiting the Wild Coast, she had brought an Jeep Wagoner and turned its compartment into a living quarters complete with a bed and shelf space for all her clothing and books. She picked destinations on the random and set up camp at places she found interesting. She went to bed reading books under the stars and spend her days exploring, learning and poaching culture. She told me South Africa was just the beginning. She had plans to drive through Mozambique, Tanzania and Nambia too. And she was thinking about writing a book about it all.
I asked her if she ever got scared being alone out on such difficult to maneuver roads.
“Not really. People take care of me. And this is nothing. I was in Lesotho and I drove down an incline so steep, I thought for sure I was going to drop,” she said in wide-eyed amusement.
I sighed. I always wanted to travel like that.
I found out we had other things in common. She too was a single jobless Westernized woman with no children and a mortgage she no longer wanted. She too had been depressed. And like me, South Africa was her great escape. But that is where our commonalities ended. Unlike me, she did not lose her job. Instead she got to hand in her resignation to her employer and tell them that she was off to find herself. They, in turn, told her to take all the time she needed and that her job would be waiting for her when she got back. Her highly sought after middle class neighborhood made selling her house easy. She had parents who were willing and able to chip-in for her frivolity. And right before she left out to find herself, she found a boyfriend.
I sat quietly in awe of her freedom of spirit. I feel inspired. I felt envious. I felt unaccomplished. I felt it was bullshit. I tell her that. She shrugs.
“It’s nothing really. All you have to do is plan, make travel a priority and put God first,” she said.
I had been planning to travel throughout Africa and write about my adventures for years. But then God laughed. He chuckled when I told Him that I would stay at my non-profit job a little bit longer and hope that the good feelings, which Esther were allowed to have, would somehow manifest itself in my community work. The non-profit lost its funding a few months later. He snorted and called me silly when I told Him my plans to sell my house. The house sat on the market for over a year. Apparently, no one wanted to pay fair market value for property in the ‘hood. He damn near bust a gut when I told Him my plans to save money. Then He broke the heater followed by the pipes in the house I know longer wanted, or could afford. I told God my plans on selling a manuscript, which I had been working on for a couple of years. Surprisingly He did not laugh. But the agents and publishers who passed on it, most certainly did.
What I wish I could explain to Esther was that planning is a privilege spared to those who could afford to have their plans fall through, and try again. The only thing I could afford was hope. That’s what got me to South Africa. Hope. But instead I said nothing. And I continued to bite my tongue as she shared more of her travel stories.
After a 10-minute hike down a hill, we made it to the The Hole in the Wall.
The name is deceiving. It’s really just an archway in a large sandstone formation out in the Indian Ocean. It was likely caused by years of erosion. Still, it is one of the most fantastically breathtaking things I have ever experienced. I wished I could have been spending the moment with my best friend, instead of Esther. She should be on this trip. She too dreamt of traveling back to what was affectionately known back home as the Motherland. But she is a twice divorce single mom who had four kids to think about. So she didn’t have that privilege.
I stayed around the Wild Coast for a few days longer than I had originally planned. The money from my last writing job had not yet been directly deposited into my account, which meant I could not pay the running tab I had accumulated at the backpackers. I did my best to enjoy my time including hanging out with Esther, but I all I could think about was money, or the lack thereof.
On my second to last day at the backpackers I hugged Esther goodbye. She was packing up her truck and heading up North to Durban with some Spanish girls she had met. Before they pulled away, she made me promise that I would take that long journey through the continent like I had always dreamed. My mouth vowed that I would, but my heart had its doubts.
On my last day, I paid my tab and got on the early morning courtesy van back to Umthata where I would take the no-frills commercial bus down the coast. It’s was an hour and 45-minute van ride back to the city. I was joined by my white American and German roommates as well as their Dutch friends. We exchanged glances and quick smiles, but we do not talk. Instead they reminiscence and compared their time with each other at the Wild Coast.
It started out with good memories: cliff jumping, surfboarding, hooking up with the random strangers at the bar. But then the conversation turned to talk about the thefts: cellphones, money, jewelry and laptops. As loudly told by one of my former roommates, someone even had the nerve to steal her phone right from on top of her bunk as she slept.
I fingered my lucky beaded necklace. It wasn’t me.
As they continued bitching about their stolen property, I thought about my grandma and granny who died never experiencing life outside of Philly, let alone the United States. I also thought about how my first trip out of the country wasn’t until 26. It was to Jamaica. I thought about how I didn’t get my first passport until 28. And how my mom didn’t get her first passport until she was 48. We took a trip together to Brazil. That trip would be her first and thus far, only time out of the country.
I thought about Grace, Emily and Mary too. And I thought about all the Black women who send me messages privately through my Facebook account, telling me how much they admire me. They said I was bold and brave for doing what so many of them felt was out of reach.
For the first time, I smile.
Although my money woos and personal misgivings are still heavy on my mind, somehow I feel privileged. I had not only made it to South Africa, but I got to keep my passport, purple Pumas and electronics too.
And it only cost me $30 Rands.