Hidden sanctums in the Southern Suburbs

July 31, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

Touching down in Cape Town, South Africa I had no idea that on my first day I would almost go to jail there. Almost, that is; I was saved by the man who could have sent me there. I was eighteen years old and on my first travel-abroad journey; clueless, reckless, and naive where I could not afford to be. These fateful traits were however balanced out by no small amount of luck delivered in the form of an inspiring local family. To them I owe my freedom, great memories of Cape Town and a fresh world perspective.

The easiest-to-obtain mode of transport is the moped. In some places in the world such as in South Africa, they are also known colloquially as scooters. As soon as we landed, I made no delay in seeking one out. For a small fee, I rented one fine specimen of the fleet and began zipping around the roads of Cape Town on it, leaving my travel buddy trailing behind in a rental car that carried our luggage.

Fast forward a couple hours of flitting through traffic, we were separated by a wrong turn and I was suddenly driving lost and alone through an unfamiliar area. Low-lying houses, groups of young black teenagers and piles of street-side garbage flowed past me in the uniform landscape of a derelict community; as seen from the yellow dirt road.

And then I crashed my scooter. A van in front of me braked unexpectedly, and I rear ended them unceremoniously at forty kilos an hour. And that, in short, is how I came to meet the Phala family in a run-down neighborhood in Cape Town.

I tried to shake off the remnants of shell-shock; the crash had left the other car undamaged but had flung me violently forwards and then under my scooter. I kicked the destroyed moped away from me and shot out from underneath the wreckage. I stood up in the middle of the road looking down at my hands and then frantically left and right, disoriented. In the heat of that moment my brain was able only to express my disbelief and panic through a torrent of loud cussing. I barely noticed the sound of sirens as a policeman who had witnessed the affair in the next lane arrived via U-turn.

There’s not much room for misinterpretation in hearing, “You can’t stay here, you’re going to get robbed or beaten up,” coming directly from the mouth of a cop – we were in a pretty rough neighborhood all right.  I later learned that the area is known as Mitchell’s Plain – you can find it on Youtube. To my outrage, instead of asking whether I needed medical attention I was told to ‘breathe into this tube here’.  This must have been a sight – I was still wearing my helmet, standing in the middle of the road in an adrenaline-rushed state trying to make sense of what this policeman was shouting at me. I felt like I was having another episode of shell-shock. He must have assumed that I was a standard tourist, obnoxious and guillible, for he began asking me repeatedly if I wanted to go to jail. It was here that the van owner intervened. The man declared cheerily that we knew each other and that cop should do us a favor by escorting us as I slowly motored my totaled bike to the van owner’s house – where we would be off the streets and wouldn’t have to worry our safety and could recover and file an accident report later. Buying the friendly tone and eager to get off work, the cop agreed, seemingly forgetting about me. I think Peter Phala saved me from a night in a station cell.

It turned out that his family was preparing to celebrate a birthday that evening. I would have thought that crashing the family’s business van festivities night would warrant a cold and businesslike reception, but instead the Phalas warmly invited me to stay for cake.  My recollection of their place in Mitchells Plain is of looking up from my scooter and seeing a little white two-story house. Family members gathered by the front window alongside two friendly (but excited) dogs being restrained by the collar. Mrs. Phala and her sisters insisted that we be looked over for injuries and given a glass of water. There was not a hint of annoyance at the traffic accident nor that I was an outsider and a gatecrasher, and I was introduced to the extended family minutes before the lighting of a birthday cake that had been laying dutifully waiting. It had ‘Happy Birthday, Mom!’ on the icing.

The rental company sent a truck to collect the totaled scooter within a few hours, and it was dark when I left, my head swimming with wonder at the turn of events. Being the house guest of a man I had just been in a traffic accident with was not the awkward experience I had anticipated. I had just played with his two dogs, shared music with his son-in-law and had dinner with his entire family.

It was organic, genuine South African hospitality. The Phala’s goodwill, generosity and enthusiastic spirit came to us as a surprise at a time of need in a place famously condemned for its crime rate and gang infighting.  Their household felt like a hidden sanctum in a bad part of town; a beacon of goodwill tucked within the chaos of the Southern Suburbs. Peter Phala probably saved me from a night in a jail cell; who knows what could have happened to me there, or stranded on a South African roadside with an undriveable bike?

It’s good to know that help, shelter, grace and friendship lie in wait wherever you go, hidden and tucked away among the danger and chaos of the world around it. The next time I am abroad, I hope to again experience and reciprocate these things that tourist dollars cannot buy. Leave it up to chance and good faith, and you will find it.