A tourist in my own country

2007-12-13 00:00

I emptied my handbag of valuables, hiding them in the glove compartment, leaving only lipstick in my bag. Once in The Workshop, hubby and I sat down for a cup of coffee because we had time to kill. “What, no muffins?” he asked the waitress. She shook her head. “Carrot cake?” I asked hopefully. “No,” she responded. We ordered a strong coffee and a cappuccino, eyeing the empty glass canteens with disbelief.

I am mostly a Rooibos drinker — when I drink coffee I do strange things, like mow the lawn. Buzzing after my cappuccino, I dragged hubby across the street, jaywalking, clutching my bag instinctively under my arm and eyeing everyone suspiciously. It is not every day that we stroll through central Durban on a mission. Our destination was the United States Consulate, in pursuit of holiday visas that require the same paperwork as an everyday emigration to Oceania.

My husband hates to be late, so we arrived an hour early. We were sent away. We stood on the pavement feeling vulnerable. People swarmed busily around us, while the unemployed loitered. I knew that being stationary would turn us into sitting ducks. We wandered past the moulding colonial buildings and statues, relics of a different era. I spotted the Royal Hotel and suggested we head there for a bite. Inside, all is pristine and aesthetic. Friendly faces ushered us to our seats and we were promptly delivered delicious chocolate croissants, Rooibos and Earl Grey tea. I pretended to be a tourist. I felt like we were on a date, hubby and I.

It began to rain as we stepped on to the pavement and we ran, holding hands, across the street, laughing and enjoying the rain, the people, the danger and the city buzz.

“Look into the camera,” said the man in the foyer of the Old Mutual building. I tried not to laugh. Inside, photographs of Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush smiled ironically at us, and the stars and stripes hung proudly. An African guard broke the silence in the waiting room.

“There is a samoosa man outside if anyone would like to buy,” he announced cheerfully. A woman was ushered outside.

“I hope they scan those,” I whispered to Nick, “You never know what dangerous explosives could be hidden in a bag of samoosas.” She devoured five and offered one to her friend. They failed to explode, so we relaxed.

Back in the street I contemplated that being a tourist in central Durban is an invigorating experience. We crossed into Dr A. B. Xuma Street and walked through the market of bazaars selling cheap Chinese products. I held my bag with lipstick tighter as the crowds thronged around us. Fortunately, I was looking down when I saw him, the unconscious man. My foot nearly trod on his head, streaked with coagulated blood. I had to step over him, as I was crowded in that direction. He lay, dead still, his legs hanging over the edge of the pavement, while people stepped over him. A rotten cabbage would have elicited more reaction, maybe a turned-up nose or a look of disdain. To the people of the market, he was invisible.

I tried to stop, to take in my bearings for the police but my husband tugged me, as two strangers summoned him and his instinct of self-preservation kicked in. I asked a vendor stupidly, “Do you have a phone?” He stared at me suspiciously, jealously guarding his airtime. “Please phone the police, there is a man lying there, he could be dead or he may just need CPR,” I begged, but he looked nonchalant.

We ran back to The Workshop so that I could retrieve my cellphone from the car. I dialled 10111. I repeated the story. The voice said he would send someone. I wonder whether he did. I wonder whether they managed to resuscitate this man in tattered clothes, obviously the victim of an assault, or whether he was already dead when I stepped over him. I wonder how often people walk past bodies in the street or what tourists would think — but my romantic fantasy about being a tourist in my own country had been shattered and reality quickly set in.

• Kate Richards is a full-time mother, freelance copywriter and aspiring writer.

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