Jean Barker

A South African fairytale

2013-12-27 14:29

Jean Barker

The minibus taxi careens along Obs Main Road, headed into Cape Town. MetroFM fades out a sad love song... the soundtrack to your life while the angry lady customer behind me complains up a storm.

“I may as well take the bus, the way you drive”.

The gaatjie laughed: “What's your problem. You bipolar or something?”

“I'm going to write a letter to the DA and complain about you.”

The driver speeds up, overtake another packed minibus in ahead of us, and screeches to a halt right in front of it. His target – two teenaged girls with shopping bags – aren't interested at all.

“You should just let me out here. I don't understand the way you coloureds drive,” the woman continues as we veer roadwards. I check her out. She's coloured too.

“It's just bad driving. You should be arrested.”

“ This is not bad driving. This is skill,” says the driver. “Like when I ride you.”

“Sies, you rude! Is this how you treat a customer? I ask you. Jusis.”

The gaatjie chips in too now: “Jy's bipolar. Die umlungu is maar rustig hier.”

This is true – I am. Actually I'm laughing my ass off. I took the main road taxi partly because it was the quickest, cheapest way to get to my 8.30am breakfast plans in Kloof Street, and partly because I'd generally rather be entertained than be safe. I'm not exactly the gold standard of good sense.

“Kyk! Kyk hoe rustig is die umlungu!” The gaatjie is pointing at me now.

“You coloureds you drive like animals! Just let me out here!”

They pull over and let her out at her street – Roodebloem. She storms off.

“She's schizophrenic manic depressive”, says the Gaatjie. “We know her.”

They turn the radio way up. We get to town. I jump off before the taxi turns off to the big depot at the train station. “Merry Christmas”, they say as I tumble out at the intersection of Buitenkant.

As I reach the sidewalk, I suddenly have a weird feeling. That's when I realise: I forgot my handbag on the taxi. I break into a cold sweat in the hot summer sun.

Then I run after the speeding minibus all the way to the station. I arrive, a mess, in tears and the place is pre-Christmas chaos, swarming with people, hundreds of seemingly identical white minibuses. A disheveled not-quite-gaatjie spots me.

“Wynberg? Claremont? Belville?” Then a pause. “You lost?”

“I left my handbag on a taxi.”

“Which one? Was it a white one?”

“I don't know, I ran after them but they didn't see me.”

“Oh... you left it on the taxi?”

The way he says Oh... makes me think there's no way I'll ever see it again. In it is my passport – with my impossible-to-replace US visa in it, my house keys, my phone with texts giving my address, my credit card, my US drivers license, my phone, and about R650 or so... all I care about is the passport, and the keys. The phone is an old Nokia 3310.

My new friend is soon joined by a bunch of other ravenous-looking guys, who follow me around as I run around the station carrying my laptop and camera.

They all tell me to just wait here for an hour and “The taxi will come back and if a customer hasn't found it yet then you'll get it”

Eventually, I obey. I stand. And I cry. People mill around me, asking for descriptions of the driver and route, but I can only describe the gaatjie's tight pants.

Every now and then one of them runs off with what information they can glean and comes back to reassure me I must just wait.

I just can't stop crying. Half an hour passes like this.

And then a dude comes back with an older man in one of those Cape Malay pants suits.

“What colour was your bag?” the older man asks.

“Brown, leather,” I say, hopelessly.

“About six hundred and fifty in it?” He beckons to me with a knowing smile.

I follow him into the depths of the taxi ranks, disbelieving, as he leads me up to a taxi window.

The driver hands me the bag: “Check it's all in there,” he says.

It Was. All. There. I gave the cash away immediately of course. This moment was priceless.

I'm telling this story because in the USA, we always hear only about the crime, and I've heard a lot of fearful stories from South Africans too. But it's important to remember that of the 2000-odd people in that taxi rank, for whom my handbag was a goldmine, not one of them stole a cent.

And twenty strangers searched for my stuff until they found it. I wasn't exactly a sympathetic character, with my touristy Big Blue bag of new clothing and my laptop and camera and my scared whitey tears. I was a perfect target.

Maybe they saw my crappy cell phone and thought “Shame, she's hit a new low here”?

Jokes aside, this also isn't the first time strangers have saved me – not even the first time on this trip home. A waiter had chased me down the street after seeing my backpack was open the day before.

When I accidentally abandoned my shopping bag in Vida Y Caffe two hours later, the barrista saw me freaking out and brought it to me from behind the bar saying only: “You have too many bags.”

And when I finally met my friend Ashlin for breakfast, I had the best story to tell her...

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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