Dear Emerson, Of Safety and Security

Dear Emerson,

I write to you from bed. Today became an unplanned rest day, due to the fact that my sisters and I are struggling with varying severities of food poisoning. Clara’s got it worst–after a morning of vomiting, she actually fainted in my arms as we were waiting for our Uber to arrive in the heat of the midday sun. She told me “Sophie, I can barely see anything…” then “Okay, now I can’t see anything at all, just bright white light,” and then I ran to her as her body began to crumple into the side of the building she had previously been gripping on to for balance. If you’ve never had the experience of having a loved one collapse in your presence, I don’t recommend it. It’s terrifying.

The positive side to this whole mess: it’s been sweet to take on the role of caregiver–one that’s so comfortable for me, and a way I love to communicate love. Emerson, I think we’ve talked of love languages before, but now I can’t remember what your primary ones are, and I’m curious! I identify first and foremost with Acts of Service, and the rest of my immediate family identifies their number one as Quality Time. And believe you me, we’re getting LOTS of time together; Acts of Service aren’t so built in to the travel structure, and require a bit more disruption from routine to perform. Running to the store for supplies (sprite, applesauce, saltines), and then making a big pot of chicken rice soup for dinner, fulfilled my desire to give in this capacity. I am remembering now when I broke my foot, and you came and brought me a rotisserie chicken.

Safety has been on my mind a lot since arriving in South Africa. Emerson, I wonder if you feel as safe as I do in Portland. You and I are both on foot and on our own fairly often, and for me, I generally am pretty fearless–no matter what hour of day or night. I deal with challenges that feel inevitable to me, in our city that’s rife with homelessness: being harrassed by folks for money, occasionally yelled at or even briefly followed. I had a guy match my loping and loping gait as I was walking down NW 21st several months back, and as I walked from Johnson, to Irving, to Hoyt, he stayed with me, rambling nonsensically, smelling of feces, responding to my “I’d really like to walk by myself now” with a snicker and an aggressive “Yeah, you would, wouldn’t you?” Between Hoyt and Glisan, I caught up with two broad-shouldered, polo-wearing men; I nestled myself between them, feigned familiarity and began an animated conversation until my pursuer finally pealed off in the other direction.

So yes, I have moments of feeling unsafe. But scares like this never make me reconsider evening solo strolls. Should they?

There are so many stories here of people being mugged, stabbed, raped. Carjackings are common; more common seems to be . And the wild thing is, it feels really safe during the day. With the bright sun shining, and the city pulsing with activity, it’s hard for me to believe that the spirit of the place transforms so dramatically when the sun goes down.

But the locals have confirmed this. The massage therapist I saw in Cape Town moved here from Germany in 2007, and told me she adores the city–with the exception that she feels so restricted by her inability to be anywhere outside solo at night. She shared a story of being at a pub no more than a minute from her house, and having to always have an escort take her back to her apartment. When I pressed her–really? Always?–she said that ever since a woman was raped essentially on her doorstep, yes. Really. Always.

The armed car robbery thing is another frightening one. Our family friend in Johannesburg described a situation where her husband was driving, and she was in the passenger seat. Stopped at a traffic light (called “robot” here–I know, really?!), one man made a huge commotion on the driver’s side of the vehicle, and while their attention was averted, the other bashed through the passenger side window with a knife, grabbing a purse and other valuables from underneath the seat, and stabbing our family friend’s arm in the process. This was on a normal day, in a normal area, on their way back from a normal outing. It ended at the emergency room.

Stories like these, and so much more, are an important wake-up for me. I know there are places in the states where people tell similar stories, but for me, in all of the cities that I regularly visit, I’m not concerned about the window of my car being bashed in while I’m in it. And Cape Town in particular is, for most extents and purposes, a Western hub, with a vibrant downtown area, an energy that pulsates with excitement and activity, a vibrant arts and dining scene. There are a dozen gyms within walking distance. A dozen yoga studios. Hundreds of restaurants and bars, with food from all different nationalities. There’s some of the most spectacular natural attractions I’ve ever encountered: the shoreline with breathtaking beaches, the cliffs as backdrop, and Table Mountain looming majestically overhead. Our Airbnb has a pool out front, a separate bathroom attached to every bedroom (plus some! This makes the total house bathroom count a whopping 6), fabulous vintage furniture and art, and an upstairs balcony overlooking downtown. But our Airbnb also has walls so high you can’t see out; a multi-step alarm system (with the capacity to secure the front gated entrance itself, the entire outside area, and the front and back doors to the house; an armed response team that arrives within 5 minutes if the alarm is activated (they drive around in bulletproof vehicles and, yes, carry very big guns). 99% of the houses in our quaint neighborhood have tall and imposing and impassable concrete walls on all sides, most with electric fencing running along the tops.

Something about the fragility of feeling physically sick has made me think even more about these things. It’s uncomfortable enough for me to feel vulnerable, either physically or emotionally; coupled with a reality of not being able to protect myself–to literally be reliant on the protection of the security system, an armed escort, fierce electric fencing–is humbling. I also know that part of the reason I do generally feel so safe and supported in Portland is because of folks like you, who live in the neighborhood and I can lean on in times of crisis and mundane melancholy alike. I remember when I broke my foot, and you immediately asked “How can I help? What can I bring?” You came and brought me a rotisserie chicken, among other things, which was absolutely perfect. In text check-ins, when I tell you things aren’t so hot, or I’m struggling with something, you’ve immediately responded with “When can we hang out? Let’s grab dinner and talk it out.” Love of this type, to a gal who’s a sucker for Acts of Service, is priceless. Thank you, Emerson. Thanks for showing up when your presence is most welcome. Your gestures of affection and kindness and care mean the world to me.



PS This picture was taken yesterday, on the beach in Cape Town.

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