Back in ZA

I thought I’d been selected for a secondary search.

The man motioned at me from behind the table, lulling me away from the security line at Johannesburg’s Oliver Reginald Tambo International Airport—and so I grabbed my bags and dropped them on the table.

But it was all just a ruse—as I stepped closer, his uniform came into focus—not that of a security officer, but the vest and slacks of a shoe shine man.

He pointed at my boots and shook his head with a frown, as if the scuffs and mud I’d acquired back in Rwanda were some kind of unforgivable infraction, and that he, the shoe shine guy, was my only viable hope for a real and swift penance.

“Come, come—sit right here, it’ll only take a minute!” He was earnest; his tactics effective. I could have waved him aside and walked past—I had a flight to catch—but instead, I followed him to the leather sofa chair and kicked my feet into his face.

Admittedly, my shoes needed help. Just 24 hours ago, I’d been tramping ankle deep in gorilla poo in the volcanic jungles of Rwanda. Now I was standing in Africa’ busiest and shiniest airport, feeling unwashed and small.

Every year, 18 million passengers pass through JNB and I wondered how many others had fallen for this bait and switch at security.

“How many shoes do you shine in a day?” I asked the man at my feet. Already he was busy with a wet cloth, wiping away the dust of travel.

“About 35,” he answered, twisting open a can of dark brown polish. “The first 15—all that money goes to the owner, but everything after that I keep. You’re my 35th customer today, and I’ve been working since 4:30 this morning, so I’ll probably leave after this.”

Sithembile was from Eastern Cape but moved to Jo’burg to find work. Now he worked in the neighborhood of 10,000 pairs of shoes a year.

“So you speak Xhosa?” I asked.

Sithembile laughed, “Yes I speak Xhosa,” he pronounced it correctly, with a deep click. “This is my first language—do you speak any?”

“Sorry—I wish, but I only know a few words—enkosi,” I thanked him with the only word I actually knew in his language.

“Very good—how do you know this Xhosa?” Sithembile looked up from my shoes, now painted like wet chocolate.

“I listen to Zahara all the time, so I learn some Xhosa that way. How many languages do you speak?” I asked.

“Seven, at least—let me count,” Sithembile dropped my feet from his grasp and begin naming them: “Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Tsonga, Sutu, Ndebele, Afrikaans, English. Yes, seven more or less.”

“You speak Afrikaans?” I asked in disbelief. “And Sutu?”

“Ja—it’s easy. All you need is a friend who speaks that language, and then you just learn that language,” he went back to my shoes, and then told me how each language came into his life—friends or family who introduced him to a new way of speaking.

My shoe shine cost 25 Rand—and as I walked away, I shook Sithembile’s two hands and said, “Enkosi” again and again. Then a blonde lady took my seat and kicked up her tassled red boots and I boarded my plane for Cape Town.

Two hours later I was filling out paperwork for my rental car, while the attendant and I waited for her computer to think.

“I am sorry—the system is just so slow today,” she apologized.

“It’s alright,” I told Princess (printed on her nametag). “I used to work customer service on a phone line and our system would crash all the time. It was always so awkward.”

Princess was bashful—her skin was dark and smooth, her hair twisted into dozens of tiny dreads that fell about her face and her teeth smiled perfectly white.

Together we waited for the system to reload. She asked me where I’d come from and I told her Rwanda.

“To see the gorillas—have you ever seen gorillas?” I asked, then pulled out my phone and began showing her pictures of the gorillas I’d met the day before.

“Oh my god—look at their hands!” Princess shrieked. She called over her colleagues and pointed at my phone, “They have hands and fingernails just like people!”

My phone got passed around while the computer froze and crashed and Princess inquired about my favorite TV shows in America.

“Actually I don’t own a television,” I confessed.

“Wait—are you one of those people that thinks sitting around and watching TV is a total waste of time?” she cocked her head at me.

“Yes! “I concurred, “That would be me.”

“You mean to tell me that you don’t even watch Friends?” Princess feigned shock.

“No—in my country, Friends stopped airing in 2004. Also, I could never reconcile the exaggerated laugh track with the mediocre dialogue.” I was being honest.

Friends stopped airing here, too,” Princess looked forlorn, “But what about Rikki Lake—you like her?”

“Oh I adore Rikki Lake, she’s the best!” Again I was being honest, and Princess smiled.

“But she’s got the weirdest people on her show! A girl who’s only 17 with three children! How is that possible?” Princess wanted me to answer this question, but all I could do was shrug my shoulders and go back to programming the GPS in my hand.

Driving into Cape Town was fast and easy—the radio flipped from Afrikaans to Xhosa to such thickly-accented English that I went back to the Xhosa station. Table Mountain rose up before me, like a picture frame around the most pleasant city in Africa. I rolled down the window and picked up the wind from the ocean. I was happy.

Only in the lobby of the Cape Grace hotel did I realize that I was actually a mess—my clothes stained with streaks of body salt, my wild hair stuffed under a baseball cap. Three weeks in ten different countries had left me disheveled and slightly exhausted. Only my shoes looked good—and so I bathed away the grime and found a nearby hair salon where Shamig with a “g” took a pair of clippers to my head.

“Your hair is getting very thin on top,” he circled his index finger in the mirror and tried to sell me some miracle shampoo that would change my fate of male pattern baldness.

“Don’t show me any bottles over 100 ml,” I shot back.

“Why not?” asked Shamig, producing a family-sized shampoo bottle that cost more than my haircut.

“I can’t take it with me—they will confiscate it at the airport,” I explained and suddenly imagined a corps of TSA agents with full-bodied hairlines.

Shamig clipped away at my hair and told me his story—how he’d left Jo’burg for Cape Town ten years prior, how he was Muslim, born and raised in South Africa, but his parents came from India. Afrikaans was his first language, but he spoke Arabic, too.

“In South Africa, we don’t pay any attention to skin color or language,” he instructed. “If you want to know where somebody is from, you look at their last name—that will tell you everything.”

“What does Shamiq mean?” I asked.

Shah-meeg—with a ‘g’” he corrected me. “It means ‘Gates of Heaven’—or wait, no—it means the ‘Gatekeeper of Heaven.’”

A ring of my fallen hair lay in a circle around my chair, with another pile in my lap. The gatekeeper of heaven continued to snip away the dead weight from my head while recounting the picturesque details of his pet cat, Coco Chanel and her delivery of five tiny kittens that very morning.

“They are all black—well, mostly black, with some white on them,” said Shamiq while pushing wax into my scalp and sculpting the mess into the unmistakable hairstyle of a Hitler Youth.

Back at my hotel, I wet my hair down and tried to get it to look less racist before grabbing a cab into town. After three weeks traveling, my suitcase smelled like warthog and saltwater stew, and I hoped to reboot my clothes at the Laundromat. Only it turned out not to be a Laundromat at all, but a laundry service (“I Love My Laundry”), where they did your laundry for you for just 10 Rand per Kilo and served Korean vegetarian dim sum while you waited (“I Love Africa”).

“Phone?” asked the man behind the counter—but my phone was gone. I patted all my pockets, dug through my suitcase of dirty laundry and even tried to remember leaving it back at the hotel, but my phone had vanished. Either I had left it in the cab, or else someone had stolen it off me on the street.

People had warned me about Cape Town—that it’s not as safe as you think. But the attendant and I called the cab company and told them that my phone might be in the cab, and they said they would send the driver right back to the Laundromat.

I waited for an hour, ate a pile of delicate kim chee dumplings, then stood out on the street, waiting for the cab driver to return with my phone. I have only lost my phone once before—dropped from an airplane into a field of giraffe—and somehow that situation seemed more hopeful than this one.

“What kind of phone was it?” the attendant asked.

“iPhone 5,” I answered, and he frowned at me, as if there was not a chance in hell that I would ever recover it.

I walked back to Cape Grace, phoneless and disappointed—in myself and in this city that I loved. Travel is a roller coaster of ups and downs, with so many good people and a bad seed now and then, but I always trust that things will work out. For me, South Africa is the most optimistic country on Earth.

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Back in the shiny lobby, the concierge sensed my mood and asked if I needed any help. Hoon was dressed in a smart black suit and was totally Asian—probably Chinese, I thought, and then chided myself for my political incorrectness. “Race is a fiction,” I just learned, from a noted anthropologist, “We are all from Africa—as recently as 50,000 years ago, the first humans left the mother continent.”

But Hoon still looked very Chinese just like I look very American and I wanted to ask him if he spoke Chinese and if he did, if they received many Chinese guests at the Cape Grace Hotel, and had he ever been to this wonderful little place on Buitengracht Street that sells art and wine and does your laundry while serving you dim sum?

But instead I latched onto Hoon and whined about my lost iPhone, but before I had finished my saga, he was calling the cab company and getting down to business.

“I will notify you, Mr. Evans,” he smiled, and so I returned to my room, flipped open my computer, and clicked on, “Find My iPhone.”

And there was my phone, a blinking green dot, stuck in a back alley off Wale Street.

I reached for the hotel phone but it rang first—it was Hoon, reporting that he had found my phone, I had left it in the back seat of the cab, and that the chauffeur would be returning it momentarily. Sure enough, when I looked at the computer screen, the blinking green dot was making its way across town, towards the waterfront.

Hoon the Cape Grace concierge was faster than iCloud, and within five minutes, I had my very necessary iPhone back in my hand and began breathing normally again.

Nobody had actually stolen my iPhone, Cape Town is a perfectly safe city, and now I was craving sushi.

So I walked along the waterfront in search of raw fish. I was the only person to sit at the bar, and the sushi chef stared at me for a good five minutes before finally asking me what I wanted.

“Whatever you recommend!” I exclaimed, still basking in the glory of my recovered phone. “You’re the chef, be creative! I grant you permission to experiment on me.”

“Actually,” the young man whispered to me, “I’m not a huge fan of sushi—you’ll just have to tell me what you like.”

Usman was from Kuwait, but actually he was Pakistani, and he’d moved to South Africa long ago and although he didn’t hate sushi, he “was never a fan”, but that didn’t stop him from delivering flower blossoms made from translucent fresh-caught fish, doused in yuzu soy and sprinkled with pink salt.

And there I sat, alone at the bar, eating artfully-crafted sushi, dressed in clean clothes and just-polished shoes, my hair looking neat for once, my rental car parked outside, while tweeting to friends on my reclaimed phone.

Travel makes you dependent on strangers in strange places, and every day I am reminded how helpless I am without the genuine kindness and unaffected grace of the locals. In just one day in South Africa I’d had my shoes shined, my haircut, my phone found, and my clothes washed. Then I’d been fed and made to feel welcome, which is the greatest gift any country can offer.

South Africa welcomes 9 million tourists per year—a tradition that stretches back a century, to the great white hunters intent on shooting The Big 5 (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhinoceros). Today, the Big 5 has become a kind of safari checklist, but South Africa is far bigger than its five largest animals—or even its five largest languages or five largest cities. Once you start counting by fives, this country at the bottom of Africa feels like the biggest place on Earth.

In less than 24 hours, I have met the Big 5 —Sithembile, Princess, Shamig, Hoon, and Usman. These are my Big 5—each of them is unique, and each of them has already made my journey lighter and better. The more you travel, the more people you meet, and while each encounter feels more fleeting, the more your life is shaped and improved.

Anyone who knows Africa knows that we come back for the people, and while I might be lucky enough this time to see all of the Big 5 animals, I am simply glad to be back exploring this wide open country again.

This is an exciting place where wonderfully strange things happen—and for the next few weeks, this is my home. These are my friends, and I am confident that I will meet many more friends along the way, but for now I am just happy to be back—

—back in beautiful ZA.

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