Foreign Is As Foreign Does

<span style=”font-style:italic;”>I wrote down these thoughts some 20 months back when I first moved to South Africa.  I had been there not 3 days.  For me it is interesting to read now- harrowing first emotions/impressions of a country that, little knowing at the time, I would proceed to fall deeply in love with.  It is ironic that I felt initially so imprisoned in a country that would soon give me an altogether new and different kind of freedom.  These first few days were the initial basis for Paratoxic.  Of course, the song started to take a different shape as my experience began to change.
Insomnia.  Safety. Fear.  These are the words that are eating a hole through my head like locusts mowing through a tender harvest.  Its 2:30 AM. I cant sleep.  I have just moved in today into my new place.  I share it with 3 other roommates, but none of them have moved in yet.  Its beautiful, there’s no question- big, spacious, nice bedroom, my own bathroom, pool in the back, nice yard, gated parking…but that was during the day.  Now its 2:30 AM and it feels like Im in a cemetery.  Its deathly quiet and I all I can keep hearing are the three words in my head. Insomnia. Safety. Fear.

Insomnia.  I cant sleep.  I curse myself for not bringing the Smiths, Louder Than Bombs.  I imagine Morrissey’s delicate moan swimming through my ears and onto the tips of my eyelids, dropping them down ever so gingerly with every subsequent wail.  “Sing me to sleep, sing me to sleep.  Im tired and I want to go to bed”.  The house isnt furnished yet but Ive managed to unpack my clothes and I do have a bed.  This adds considerably to the emptiness.  Ive had quite a few conversations with a number of people about the city and its habits over the last couple of days, but it is only now that I’m processing what Ive heard.  I know why I cant sleep.  I tell myself its the jetlag- and it is, partially.  I didnt think it would take this long for my body to find its daily rhythm- shit, back home, I can sleep anytime, anyplace, anywhere- just ask those who had the pleasure of going to school with me.  But its not just the jetlag- its that everything Ive heard and learned in the past few days is kind of scaring the shit out of me.  Not continually, but there are moments, a brief second here or there where I feel like Im a sitting duck.

Safety.  Johannesburg, I am learning, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world in terms of crime.  Sure, there are several other places that are considerably more unsafe because of war-torn conditions or some form of political strife.  But excluding these cases and observing strictly a city’s crime rate- apparently, there are not many cities out there that can hold a candle to it.  Mugging, burglarly, breaking&entering, car-jackings, and murder (gulp) are common.  My house is a decent house in a decent area.  However, just like every other house in this community and almost every other community in Johannesburg, it has a high, full gate surrounding the entire complex.  As well it has sharp spikes (real, thick, pointed, prickly, painful spikes) bolted all across the top of the gate and wall.  The gate is heavily locked and can only be opened electronically.  The side door has 4 different locks on it- each testing a different ability in a burglar’s arsenal for picking locks.  Every window has full thick metal bars across it, almost like in a prison, but they are smartly painted white to avoid the comparison.

I suppose it all seems a little horrifying, but Im told if you follow a few simple rules, you should be fine.  But a false sense of security here will only lead to your own doom. Here, ignorance is not bliss.  Over-confidence and naivety are punished.  Awareness is everything.

My landlord told me earlier today, as we talked over a beer on Sunday afternoon, that he has lived here 18 years without mishap.  And yet,  he explained to me how one of his best friends was held up at gun point about two blocks over from where we live, not 3 days ago.  All he was doing was pulling up to his girlfriends house.  They were waiting in the bushes for him.  It was 7 PM in the evening.  As well, he told me, both his parents have been carjacked.  This is the thing about this place- you just never know.

Fear.  It now 4 AM, I have to be awake in 3 hours.  So here I am lying in bed.  Thinking, processing, worrying.  I have entered zombie mode and am experiencing that brief disconnection with myself you can only achieve in the wee hours of the night through the delirium of your own consciousness.  I know deep down, Im okay.  Its just that the Golden Rule of Johannesurg haunts me- you just never know.  It isnt an intense or overwhelming fear; rather its a feeling of helplessness in the face of the unknown.  After all, nothing has happened.  I am not faced with a crisis.  But I know what I have heard, and I am afraid of what I might see.  Also, Im alone. It’s funny- I think for a moment about how good I actually have it.  In actuality, this is nothing.  I think of those places in the world that are completely war-torn and devoid of law, order, and social concience.  How scary it must be.  But I suppose that is why we are products of our environment.  I come from a culture of considerable openness and individual freedom.  I have mostly lived life the way that I wanted to live it and have generally never had to account for the possiblity of my rights and freedoms to be violated.  My, what I have taken for granted all these years!  Canada now seems to me a distant Hiltonian utopia- let’s call it…Shangri-Blah- but a utopia all the same, in this way at least.    This is my final thought as I start to fade finally into the world of the sub-conscious.

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