Conversations from Cape Town

The guy next to me at the Mariah Carey concert


“Let me tell you something about Africa.

Nigeria will steal your money.

South Africa, it’ll steal your life, just for the sake of a penny.

But Benin? It’ll steal your soul.”

This was in reference to the voodoo that’s the national religion of Benin-which I said was the first place I’d like to go in Africa next.

The taxi driver

“Let me tell you about a girl I met,” began a driver, a local South African though non native to Cape Town. “She finished school and met a man and ooh, they were so in love. So happy. They met right here, at this spot. And after a few years, they had a little girl together. And then one day, when their daughter was only a year old, he said he wanted to leave. And you know what? That girl, she told me, she didn’t beg him to stay. She had her respect. She had her education. She went out and got a job. She didn’t need him, no way.”

“You know what that story tells me? Education is everything. I’m going back to school now, myself. In counseling. But a woman needs an education.” He said, “Because let me tell you something. Us men, we ain’t never satisfied. We can have the best woman in the world, and we won’t be happy…so you need to have your education and be ready.”

The homeless girl

castle of good hope

“Can I have some truffles?”

She and her friend approached me. I have a policy of saying no to beggars, developed after many years of being approached and then feeling duped after giving. Already, after my time in South Africa my social conscience was reawakened and I signed up to donate monthly to 10-12 different global causes. But this girl was different.

“Can I show you something?”

She pointed to a massive growth on her neck. It was a lump so large, it took up nearly the entire length of her neck.

“Could you buy me something to eat please? I’d be so grateful just for some cereal and milk. A box of cereal can last up to two weeks. You see, it’s very tiring, begging. I hate it.”

She was very sweet. Her teeth were nearly all missing. I said okay.

She and her friend came with me to the grocery store. Her friend was dark skinned-the girl, whose name I now forget, was coloured. These distinctions are important in South Africa it seems.

“My mom died of chemo” she told me. “The doctor told me I need it, but I’m scared.”

I told her that I knew people who’d had chemo and came out fine. “It’s not going to go away on its own.”

She smiled. “How old are you?”


“Oh! I’m 29. But you look so young.”

“You have a baby face,” her friend agreed.

“It’s because my life has been too easy.” I said, almost angry at the bald truth of it, looking into their old eyes and lustreless skin.

She grabbed the cereal and milk, and I told her she could get whatever else she wanted. People in the store were giving us looks. I asked her why they were looking at us.

“It’s because they judge,” she said. “They judge me.” She walked stiff, like a zombie. I don’t know why she shuffled like that.

“Can I get truffles? They’re my favorite,” she said.

She led me over to the refrigerated section and pulled out a whipped cream dessert. Then she grabbed a big bag of sugar.

“Do you eat that sugar plain?” I asked, somewhat shocked.

She grinned, nodded sheepishly. “I have a huge sweet tooth. It’s how I lost all my teeth.”

“Why don’t you get fruit? That’s sweet, but it’s healthy for you.”

“Can you help me?” she asked. “I don’t know what to get.”

We grabbed a big bag of oranges and went to checkout.

I constantly kept clutching at my bag because to be frank, I was afraid she would try to pickpocket me.

She noticed. “Keep it in your front,” she advised. There was something about her that was so sweet. I still can’t put my finger on why. Perhaps because you are what you eat.

I told them the address of the LDS church. “Just convert,” I advised them. “They’ll take care of you after that. They’ll help you find jobs-anything you need.” The problem was that the church was far away, and for them even a 17 rand train ticket was expensive.

I don’t know what to do with these people who have such bleak situations other than refer them to an organization with money whose only requirement is that you profess belief. It’s all I have.

I cried all the way home.

Later, I looked it up. Sugar cravings are a way of coping with drug withdrawal.

I don’t know her full story, obviously, but if you’re homeless, as she and her friend were, and dying, as she appeared to me to be, drugs would be a way to ease the pain of existence.

The hairdresser

“Are you happily married?”

It was a brazen question to ask my hair stylist, but after all, she had already volunteered she was cheating on her husband and the father of her daughter. She shook her head no.

“Are you going to stay with him?”


“Everyone cheats, dahling. The world is going crazy,” she said. Her skin, powdered white as snow, her hair, black and long, her eyebrows, perfectly plucked and arched. High heels, revealing clothes, tattoos. Her voice breathy, her walk sassy, a raw sadness in her eyes belied her cynical words.

“Stop by later, dahling, I’ll tell you how my date went.” I didn’t.

She got my hair just the color I wanted.


The prisoner on Robben Island

When you visit the island where Nelson Mandela was kept a prisoner for 18 of his total 27 years in captivity, you can meet a tour guide who was a prisoner there.

His movements were very rigid and jerky. He drew a box in the air with every sentence. His words came out robotic. He had his spiel and he did not deviate from it.

The prisoners there had to wear shorts in the cold wintertime.

The color of their skin determined the quality of food and drink they received.

The darker the skin, the less and more menial quality of food.

They all slept in the same room together, no beds, on the floor with a simple mat.

nelson mandela bed

“We have forgiven them,” the man said, speaking of his captors, “And as proof, we live together here now, on this island, in peace. We are neighbors.”

When we left, I asked to shake his hand.

The couple who both cleaned up other people’s sh!t


A guy and his girlfriend invited Ryder and I to join them to go fishing. We ended up going fishing for Ryder’s floaties rather than actual fish. He loved it. They went on and on about how he looked like her ex boyfriend’s son. They showed me a picture and I didn’t see the likeness, but you know how that goes when it’s your child. No one looks the same as your own beautiful progeny. He was a plumber; she analyzed bodies at crime scenes.

“The people here are so violent, they don’t just stab each other to death. They hack each other up,” they said.

Not my ideal job.

The man who didn’t take no for an answer

company gardens

A man came up to me just around the corner from the natural history museum, where Ryder and I had just finished in the Company Gardens. He showed me a handful of items. “Please buy one,” he said. I wasn’t in the market for batteries.

It’s a curious system in a lot of developing countries. People carry around a few random items and try to sell them, all day. What’s the likelihood that I’m going to happen to need whatever little thing it is that they have? I think I’ve bought something-once-some Kleenex. It’s like the direct opposite of Walmart.

Anyway, he played around with Ryder a bit and told me he had a son around his age. He kept asking for money and I kept saying no. Despite the fact that he said something that gave me pause, “Ma’am, I need to care for my son. I was in prison for five years. No one wants to hire a former convict. What am I supposed to do? Life is so hard for me. You don’t know how hard life is in the townships.”

I walked away because giving to grown men isn’t usually my first choice.

But I thought it had to be true. What chance does a reformed criminal have in South Africa? I don’t really know. It seems falling back into a life of crime would be almost inevitable.

I grabbed some specialty items from the grocery store to make tom kha gai. The man was there waiting when I came out.

“Come on, I saw you there, buying food. Please help me,” he said.

I couldn’t argue. I’d just bought two bags of food, one of which was a massive bag of kaffir lime leaves. I had plenty…of, well, everything. I gave him 50 rand and he left me alone at last.

The music therapist

I went with a music therapist to see what it was they did exactly. It was a children’s home. The children swarmed me, grabbed my hands, wouldn’t let me go.

“It’s because volunteers come from abroad, and they mean well. But they lavish them with attention, build a trusting relationship, and then they leave and let the children down,” said the therapist.

Filled with remorse at having done just that in India, I had to agree. “But why is it different to be a therapist and to stop having sessions?” I asked. “There is a goal to be accomplished, and there is a professional distance that is kept. There’s a schedule, once a week, and the child’s expectations are set.”

She brought in girls with autism. They seemed to love the music though they couldn’t speak to say so, they eagerly attempted to play the instruments. Then came the last girl. She was two years old and she didn’t play, smile, or respond.

“And they say two year olds can’t be depressed,” said the therapist simply.

Her parents had AIDS and she did too. The little girl was to be in the home for the foreseeable future.

The goal of music therapy-which, she said, had been successful with all her clients in the home thus far-was to get them communicating, get them out of their internal world and be able to have a voice and interact with their caregivers.

It was touching and inspiring. I’ve been accepted to a music therapy program in Germany and I’m leaning towards going for it.

Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 377 awesome articles for us.

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