At the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll admit that this experience has satisfied every cliché anybody’s ever used to describe their life-changing experiences abroad.
In Maputo, we were held hostage at a shebeen. Earlier, a local had enthusiastically pulled a plastic lawn chair up to our table, assuming a position as part of our entourage. But barred by our inability to speak Portuguese and failing in our attempts to communicate in debauched Spanish, we remained largely oblivious of our fellow audience member’s continued presence behind us. Nathan had moved his chair to within two feet of the TV screen, anxious to catch every second of the action as our boys, Bafana Bafana, played Mexico in the opening match of the World Cup. Meanwhile, Bettina and I interrogated our new Cambodian-French-Canadian footie fanatic friend.
But while our eyes remained glued to the soccer players dancing across the screen like mosquitoes abuzz, our clever friend ordered beer after beer, under the false conjecture that it was our treat. When the time came to pay our tab, we obviously refused to pay for our drunken accomplice. So naturally, the employees locked us within the premises, guarding the door like bouncers. A confusing chaos ensued, fueled by communication barriers. The waitress furiously punched keys on her calculator, showing us the tab our friend had racked up. We futilely argued with her until we realized that the amount in contestation was a few measly bucks. We paid up, largely because the urgency of the hunger pangs raging in our stomachs (and the amazing seafood that beckoned) weighed heavier than the matter of principle.
Hours later, our drunken friend reappeared, having recovered from his babalas. Racked with guilt for making us pay for his beer while he basked in drunken stupor—and realizing that he may not have left the most desirable impression on his foreign friends—he offered us a token of reconciliation. “A coke?” he questioned earnestly. We kindly refused but to no avail, and he returned minutes later with two cans. He insisted that we accept his gesture: “Keep it. For the memories.”
In all honestly, I’m not quite sure what fate that Coke confronted, whether it was left atop a deserted table or salvaged by another indulging spectator. But this somewhat bizarre encounter, at the time no more than a pain in the ass, I will now undoubtedly reflect upon fondly.
Midway through my time in South Africa, I experienced what I’ve since jokingly dubbed my “quarter-life crisis.” It forced me to revisit and challenge my perceptions about, vaguely speaking, life. My college-bound self thought she had all the answers—or at least 89 percent of them. I thought I’d figured things out, that I knew exactly where that road I’d begun treading would lead.
Now, I know that I’m not even close. I let go of my prematurely conceived notions about who I am and what I want, and it was the best thing I could have done. As Woodstock-esque as it sounds, I danced to the beats of Bob Marley, trails of cigarette smoke encircling me, the inescapable scent working its way into the fibers of my clothing. Kwaito music blared from speakers in Tembisa, as I fumbled to follow synchronized steps in the midst of a cluster of dancers (a young man eventually began whispering the upcoming steps in my ear, saving me from further embarrassment). I walked up and down Seventh Avenue hundreds of times, where I exchanged greetings with so many familiar faces—the patron at the IT café with the blonde hip-length dreadlocks; the street vendor who offered to make me a beaded masterpiece countless times; Sebastian, the waiter with one heck of an afro, at SIX.
I know that I’ll likely continue to surprise myself, as I re-evaluate what I think I know. I know that that’s OK. I know that—barring any further near-death experiences (this is another story that, unfortunately, I don’t think any blog post could do justice)—I’ll have years to figure it out.
And I’ve come back with an paradoxical sense of both clarity and confusion. There is no definitive moment when all these revelations exposed themselves to me, as it often occurs so effusively in the final pages of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Instead, these revelations came gradually. Many times, I’ve surprised even myself, only confirming that one should never say never.
I hoped South Africa would stand to validate what, for the past ten years, I’ve thought I wanted to be. In the end, it did and it didn’t. Now, I relish the fact that there isn’t just one path. I’ve come back inspired by the stories of others’ travels. And if I can muster the guts to do it, why not follow in Nathan’s footsteps, delivering pizzas, saving up for months for the journey of a lifetime, initially landing in Joburg and booking only that first night at a B&B, then backpacking through southern Africa?
I learned to live in the moment, to let go of my inhibitions. It’s been a whirlwind. And I will treasure it, keep it. For the memories.