Cape Town, South Africa
I am at the end of my two weeks here and have had wonderful weather with all kinds of good food. During the weekday, the downtown is alive with office workers, street vendors and the horses of security guards who are widely used due to the high crime rate and dearth of actual police. There are also the ubiquitous “pamphleteers” handing out fliers on everything from salvation to penis enlargement. Having reached the downside of my years (fifty), I have started having more of an interest in the former in lieu of the later.
On the weekends, the empty downtown is like a 21st century version of Peru’s Machu Picchu except that here the white people have fled and the natives are reclaiming the streets. Though I have never felt threatened, at times I’ve found myself yearning for the “safety” of South America. My guidebook says not to walk the streets at night. Sound advice. If you are out after dark, you’d better RUN.
Despite this risk, there are a few down-and-out women who hover about the hotel at all hours to panhandle the visitors. Their persistence has inspired me to devise a unique way to try and ward them off: The Mentally Deranged Tourist.
This was an ambitious undertaking. Imitating mental illness is no walk in the park. To begin with, the act has to be believable. While incoherent, mindless babbling sounds good in theory, it won’t sell. If I were that off-the-wall, I wouldn’t be down here staying at a comfortable hotel. I’d be in some institution, heavily sedated. Or still working at my old company, waiting to be outsourced.
It is also important to select a fake illness that works best for you. For example, Manic-Depressive takes too long to develop and often leaves me in a foul mood. Multiple personalities can be fun and entertaining, however keeping track of them can drive a person crazy (but wait, isn’t that what we are trying to achieve?).
After some trial and error, I eventually decided I was most comfortable with paranoia. In fact, it has proven to be such a natural fit that initially I became concerned, then decided that I was simply being, well, paranoid about my choice.
The next step was selecting a topic to be afraid of. Otherwise you end up coming across as merely ill at ease. Like former President Nixon whenever he tried to loosen up and mingle with the general public.
So what could I be frightened about? I began by considering some of my hobbies, since I would be halfway knowledgeable about them. I like to cycle, but acting like mountain bikes are out to get us strains credulity. On the other hand, I am also into stargazing and especially enjoy identifying the planets. Suddenly, my theme was staring me in the face: Aliens from Jupiter.
The resulting conversations turned out to be more of a sumo match than any kind of confrontation. I discovered early on the importance of focus and keeping the other person off balance. When they would first come up to me, sticking a paper cup in my face and asking for money, I would ask if they had ever seen the lights in the sky. As they began their woe-is-me litanies (and they do have an impressive repertoire), I suddenly plunged into the terror of an imagined alien encounter. If they continued their importuning, I began pointing to people on the streets asking, in an increasingly agitated state, how can we know if they are really human?
The results were mixed. The first “opponent” left after shadowing me for only a few yards, a confused look on her face that I found gratifying. The second followed me all the way around a large plaza, peeling off twice to panhandle other tourists who looked promising, but eventually returning. This disoriented me. In the past, when women left me for someone else, they never came back. But towards the end of our little game, as I entered my hotel, I could tell she was at least getting annoyed with my routine.
The third one, to my surprise, believed my UFO abduction tale! (This, I imagine, is how TV evangelists get started.) It made me realize that black people in South Africa — and all my panhandlers were black — often still view whites as authority figures. I finally just told her I wasn’t going to help her. She thanked me for some reason and went on her way.
After a few days, I ditched the act. While there are unfortunates back in Seattle who can make this look easy, it took far too much energy for me. Better to simply say “no” gently and firmly.