I passed by many things while walking from my grandmother’s rental apartment in Montego Bay, Jamaica to visit her in a hospital three kilometers down the road. A Hard Rock Café. Five-star hotels with aspirational names like Secrets, Breathless and Sunscape Splash. An old yacht club with abandoned boats sinking into a scum-filled bay. Luxury villas locked like prisoners behind steel bars. A taxi rank with drivers offering rides, drugs or both. A cruise ship terminal with idling jeeps and buses about to whisk vacationers on eco-tours. A police station with a long line of women and girls waiting to see their husbands and fathers who had been arrested in a recent wave of anti-gang raids. A restaurant where I once sat and listened to the pop pop pop of a nearby semi-automatic and tried to pretend it was fireworks. Fragrant gardens. Rank garbage. A gas station. People sitting in the shade of royal palm trees, trying to escape the heat of the day.
Despite all the things I saw, I mainly felt one thing. Fear.
I remember the exact moment when I decided that I would never go back to my family’s cottage ever, ever again.
It was August 2000. I was 16 and sick of visiting the dusty, drafty old place in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. Its incessant mothball smell was getting to me, especially because it never seemed to keep out the moths.
Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.
By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.
It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.