Jean Barker

America, the dangerous

2011-08-12 08:15

Jean Barker

I lived in South Africa most of my life, but I've only ever been the victim of violent crime or threats of violent crime in Europe and in America. True story. My experience is probably the exception rather than the rule, of course.

That doesn't mean I've never experienced crime at home. My home was robbed when I was a kid, again when I was 28. I'm used to living with an alarm or security. I've had my handbag and cellphone stolen more times than I can count. Before the Nigerians and Congolese moved into Cape Town and started guarding cars, my car window was broken about once a month, guaranteed. But that's just stuff - most of it can be replaced. And most among us (there are exceptions) can survive day to day without a phone or a handbag.

But when it comes to physical threats to my person, I've somehow dodged the bullet. Only in foreign countries have I ever felt my life was at risk.

Nothing too bad has happened - yet. In fact, it's been mostly ridiculous. I'm alive, aren't I? Starting small, I had £10 stolen in a back alley of Brixton, when desperate junkie broke a beer bottle against a wall and advanced towards me, until he held the broken glass edge inches from my chest. After a few moments' defiance, I gave up the cash and ran.

A few months later, I was hitchhiking from Prague to Amsterdam, when a truck driver picked me up. We stopped to sleep, and he pulled out a bottle of cheap champagne and a box of chocolates, and tried to assuage his loneliness by force.

A taxi driver in Maputo, Mozambique, made a very aggressive move on myself and my friend Jinty was touch and go when he locked the car doors, accused us of refusing to have group sex with him because we were racists. But we got away that time.

There's so little crime where I stay now, that when a guy on a bike with his leg in a plaster cast goosed a girl on his way past a few months ago, the university sent out an e-mail memo to all staff and students. A visit to the closet police station WANTED board reveals only a few armed mingy robberies - of banks. Of course they've all taken place on the cross street closest to where I chose to rent.

So it was going really smoothly for me, until last week, when a crazed cosmetologist (that's hair and make-up) started phoning in death threats against me. It's hard to say (without going into details that would reveal his identity) how I managed to cause him to want to “beat my ass”, curse me to his god in tongues and swear he was coming to get me. But I do seem to be a magnet for this stuff, even in Orange, where the police outnumber the criminals.

This has all made me realise that, no matter how dangerous your home country is, you tend to know the rules when you're on home turf. So does that mean I'm safer in South Africa - ranked No 1 for homicide worldwide - than I am in the safest countries in the world? I guess so. At home, I know where to walk, and what shoes to wear in order to outrun danger. When I'm in a foreign country, I'm as clueless and vulnerable as a British tourist in a Hillbrow massage parlour.

Though I'm middle class and therefore able to use money to protect myself from what many South Africans experience, I'm not one of those South Africans who lives in a gilded cage - life is simply not worth living that way. I ride taxis. I walk around alone and unarmed at night in Sea Point, carrying my laptop. But I know when to lock my doors and how to tell a foul mouth from a true psychopath. So the worst it's ever been is some gaatjie telling me he'd like to plant “his carrot in my garden patch” out of a taxi window, or a group of street kids trying to herd me off Long Street into a side alley late at night.

But death threats? Please! Who's gonna call me up when my cellphone's already been swiped.

In any case, I've fled California for a bit and am hanging out with a friend and her family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the land of a form of politeness known as “Minnesota Nice”. Everything is green. They don't attack every piece of living grass with mowers and vacuums like they do in California. The houses are those double story ones out of American movies about 12-year-old boys flying away. Nobody has prison haircuts - except the odd off duty military man. People wear helmets when they ride their bicycles - and they ride them on the roads instead of on the pavements.

I feel very safe in the land of “please” and “thank you”. “Minnesota nice” is kind of like being covered in maple syrup and left to doze in the warm afternoon sun. Awesome...until the bees come for you, of course.

- 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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