All I had to do was read the introduction to The Best American Travel Writing of 2020 to immediately be inspired to write about my experience getting rat-faced drunk and happy in Cape Town in 2015. Can’t wait to see what inspiration comes from actually tackling the stories in that book!
Kay and I arrived in Cape Town toward the end of what to date had been a spectacular time in South Africa. We had done our 4 day safari at Kruger National Park, enjoyed a wonderful, if not occasionally frightening, road trip around the Western Cape including the wine district and up through the Karoo desert area. Frightening because as two white women touring South Africa alone, we were frequently told to keep out of townships (we made a wrong turn and ended up in one – twice), to keep windows and doors locked and never stop for anything to prevent car-jackings (hey, great photo ops supersede safety right?), keep the car gassed up always (we came super close to running out of gas in the middle of nowhere because Kay didn’t like the look of the one gas station we passed), and always make sure there are other people around whenever you do stop, especially if it’s at an ATM machine. Now we were finally in Cape Town as our final stop before flying home – me to Indonesia and Kay to Senegal.
No one had any particular warnings for us about Cape Town. With the both of us being highly experienced world travelers and having lived, as well as currently living, in many different parts of the world, we figured to just follow our well-honed instincts and we’d be just fine. Kay and I had a grand time walking around the city, its different regions, parks, and museums, and simply enjoying the ambiance of this beautiful city. On our second night there, as we were just finishing our dinner at a street side café, I realized I was almost out of cash. Kay paid for my dinner and being a street wise native New Yorker, I knew not to go to the nearest ATM on a dark, quiet night to withdraw cash.
The following day at about 11 in the morning, I left Kay to go find a bank to get more cash and pay her back the money I owed. I found a bank with ATM machines located in its busy open foyer and with visible security guards. Easy and safe, I thought. Perfect. I walked over to the row of machines and took out my card to insert when a nicely dressed black man said to me to use the other machine if I had a foreign ATM card. So, I moved over to the machine he indicated. That was my second mistake. The first was feeling protected in the belief that a busy bank with inside machines and guards was safer than a street side ATM. So away I went, inserting my card, covering the keypad as I plugged in my PIN, and not noticing the same nicely dressed guy sidling up behind me, reaching over my shoulder, slapping the cancel button, grabbing my card as it was ejected, and racing out the door. I yelped! Did the guards do anything? Heck no. It took me a few seconds to even register what just happened. As soon as reality struck, my heart started racing and panic set in. I asked the guard for help and she just shrugged and said call the police. Meanwhile, I get a text message each time money is withdrawn from my Indonesian bank account. As I was trying to figure out what to do, the first text pinged on my phone. Ding. $333 withdrawn. Oh shit. I have to block that card. How do I do that from here? I tried my Indonesian bank help line but of course that doesn’t work internationally. I needed WiFi to send texts out of South Africa. That meant running back to my hotel. As I was running, ping 2 sounded on my phone. $333 withdrawn. Oh god, I have to move quickly.
I knew the daily limit for withdrawal was $1000 so whatever happened, I had to ensure that card was blocked at the very least before tomorrow. But even with WiFi, I could not get through to the bank helpline. I did have the WhatsApp number of a friend who worked at that bank in Indonesia so I quickly contacted her and begged her to block my card ASAP. While I was waiting for her to reply to my anxious text, ping 3 came through. $333 withdrawn. That meant my daily limit was reached and no more money could be withdrawn – today. As horrible as it was, at least it gave me breathing space. He can’t take any more money out of my account – today. Finally, Dina got back to me and made calls to block my card. Done. Now what should I do? I had no access to my bank account and could no longer withdraw money for my trip. Dina suggested I make a police report and the texts on my phone at least helped to verify that the money was withdrawn.
Back at my hotel, I told Kay what had happened. She was sympathetic and offered to lend me money to at least cover our remaining days in South Africa. When the police arrived, I filled out reports, described the incident as best I could. They handed me the report for my travel insurance claim and pretty much told me that there was nothing they could do and I was on my own. I should have been more careful. Apparently, robberies in the area are so common, that I should just be thankful I was not hurt physically in any way. The police assumed my travel insurance would cover the loss. So did I. Uh, no. My World Nomad travel insurance agent told me that had I been injured, they would have helped but for just plain robbery, forget it. Not covered. Seriously?! I should have had the guy stab me first? I already knew that my Indonesian bank would never cover the loss as an American bank would.
So, with Kay off somewhere shopping, all that was left was to calm myself down, head to the nearest pub and order myself a pint of ale. A mature woman seated at the bar near me asked what was wrong, as I guess I must have looked pretty glum. I told her what had just happened and to my consternation she directly informed everyone else at the bar. This group of total strangers then proceeded to come over and give me comforting hugs, buy me drinks, cheer me up spectacularly, and later, make sure I was escorted home to my hotel safe and sound. They had all experienced some kind of violence here too at some point and insisted I not let it get me down. Thankfully, I was not injured or worse, so cheer up! We drank, ate biltong, shared stories, and even sang and danced the rest of the day away as one great big happy, supportive Cape Town family of strangers.
Despite being robbed in Cape Town, I still maintain that it – and all of South Africa – was one of the most wonderful places I had ever visited and anyone who has the chance definitely should go.
Above: The wonderful people I met at the pub.
Below: Scenes from Cape Town, The road through the Karoo, and yeah, elephants blocking the road.