Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Dancing On My Own

Yesterday, this was my Facebook status update:

Just had my bank card stolen by a group of men. By the time I got to my computer and drove to an internet café to call TD Canada Trust via Skype, they had already made 10 withdrawals. As I waited on hold, crying with frustration, lots of people stopped to ask if I was ok. One man, who overheard me talking to the bank representative, tried to give me R500. I told him I couldn’t accept it and he told me not to let my pride get in the way. I refused again and told him that just the gesture was kind enough.

Just when I wanted to get frustrated with humanity, strangers wouldn’t let me! People are so compassionate it blows my mind.

Back home in my “real” life, I don’t use Facebook very often.  I only used it for the typical stuff – procrastinating when I should be studying, stalking boys to analyze their dating potential, etc etc.  Here, though, I post something almost every day as a way to stay “connected,” as lame as that sounds.  I never thought much of social media before, but now I really appreciate every comment and “Like” from my friends back home.

I guess part of me is afraid that my friends back home will forget me.  Or that no one misses me.  Or that I’m losing touch with everyone.  It’s amazing how much one stupid little “Like” helps assuage my fears.

Despite my newfound dependency to Facebook, however, I still try not to post emotional stuff.  There are places to deal with emotions and the internet is not one of them!

On the other hand, I know people back home want to hear South African horror stories.  It doesn’t matter how much I tell people “I love Joburg!” they don’t really want to hear it.  They want to hear about the muggings, shootings, and robberies.  So I decided to throw them a bone and share that something bad finally happened.

So what’s the story?  I’m actually really embarrassed to write about this.

At 5:30pm yesterday I was at a weird little bank alcove beside the parking lot of a grocery store that I frequent.  There are two ATMs in the alcove, although I rarely use them.  When I walked in, there were four men standing in line.  I had my bank card in my hand and stood well behind them to give them privacy.  One man was on the phone and went to stand at the entrance of the alcove behind me.  I thought that was odd, but took a step forward because I thought it was a normal line.

One of the men gestured to the second ATM and told me to use it.  “Aren’t you in line?” I asked.

“No, go ahead.”

I took another step forward and turned to him.  “Are you sure?  Aren’t you waiting?”

As I was looking at him, a second man said, “You can use this one” and took my card out of my hand and put it in the machine.

Like I said, I don’t use this particular ATM alcove often.  But I’ve used enough ATMs here that I can recognize which ones give money and which ones provide other services.

“No, that’s the wrong machine,” I said as I pushed cancel to get my card out.

“You have to push ‘Correction’ then enter your PIN,” the first man said.

“No, there’s something wrong.  That’s bullshit!” I started to get angry,

I entered the wrong number a couple times.

“No you have to hold this button while you enter your PIN,” the first man explained.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” I started to panic as I pushed “Cancel” and “Correction” and “Escape” over and over.  But the machine wasn’t spitting back my card.

“My card is stuck in the machine!  You got my card stuck!” I accused the man.

“It’s because you’re doing it wrong.”

“No!  What did you do?!”

I knew the situation was bad and unfortunately I allowed myself to get flustered.  I focused on arguing with the man who was telling me to enter my PIN instead of the man who had taken my card out of my hand.  I let my anger get the better of me as I stood there and told him he was wrong instead of thinking rationally.

I finally entered the same number twice in a row, my actual PIN.  Maybe he was right and there was something particularly wrong with this machine?  By that time three of the men had left and I was left with the one trying to “help” me.

As soon as he saw the same number twice he told me to call the bank to come fix the machine and took off.

I called the bank.  The representative said there was nothing she could do, that I had to leave and go to a Standard Bank first thing in the morning and they would send someone to fix the ATM.

“I’m not going to walk away from my bank card!  I think the men have tampered with the machine and will come get it out later.”

Now I’m going to admit something really bad.  In my anger, I thought something like, They can’t send someone because it’s after 5pm?  I thought people in this country were POOR.  Don’t tell me they can’t hire a technician to fix this problem. This is ridiculous.  This country has absolutely no customer serviceThis would never happen in Canada and half our population isn’t unemployed.

Over the next few days, I’m going to have to sift through my personal prejudices and come to terms with them.

Yesterday, though, I didn’t say any of that to the bank woman.  Instead I hung up on her.

Then I called one of my friends who’s an accountant as Standard Bank.  I thought maybe she could pull some strings or at least give me some advice.

She told me to call my bank right away and cancel the card.

I should’ve done that immediately, but instead I went into the store beside the ATM alcove to talk to the employees.  Not that I drink a lot or anything, but I’m on good terms with the people who work at the liquor store.  I asked if they’d heard of similar problems with the ATM before.  No, they hadn’t and they also told me to go cancel my card.

I talked to the security person outside.  “Will you keep an eye on the bank machine and make sure no one tampers with it?”

He was frustratingly non-committal.  He murmured something like, “Oh… that ATM gives trouble sometimes.”  As I was speaking with him, I saw someone else put his card in the ATM, make transaction, and get it out.

Only at that point did it dawn on me that the man who took my card never actually put it into the machine.

Like I said, I’ m embarrassed to tell this story.

I raced home and grabbed my computer.  I drove to the nearest coffee shop, ordered a cup of tea to get an internet slip, and called my bank via Skype.  By now, about half an hour had passed since the incident at the ATM.  I was on hold for 10 minutes before I got to talk to someone.  He froze my card and said there had already been 10 transactions in the last 45 minutes.  I started to cry and he transferred me to the Fraud Department.

I knew that in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal.  I wasn’t hurt.  I wasn’t scared.  But I was frustrated – mostly with myself for letting it happen.  Furthermore, whenever something bad happens, I get incredibly homesick.  My heart constantly aches for home, but incidents like this make me so lonely it physically hurts.

Consequently, I over-reacted.  I sat at the coffee shop and cried.

In the movie Bridesmaids, the main character tells the mean girl that she’s an ugly crier.  I’m one of those people: my eyes become narrow slits and my nose somehow swells to 8 times its normal size.  I don’t cry often and I try to do all my sobbing alone, in private.

However, these five weeks have been really tough.  Car troubles, trying to find somewhere new to move (difficult with no vehicle), an unhealed broken foot, boy troubles.  I’ve done a lot of crying and too much of it has been in public places: stranded on the side of the road, in my car, at work, at coffee shops.

Crying at work really killed me.  As an engineer in a male-dominated workplace, I try hard to stay emotionally level so that no one will accuse of me of being too moody like a “typical woman.”  Luckily, though, my boss was in a meeting when I broke down into sobs.  My coworker gave me a hug as I apologized and said, “Bethany, you’re not a robot!  You’re allowed to have feelings!   You’re allowed to be upset.”

Immediately Robin started playing in my head: “I’ve got some news for you.  Fembots have feelings too.  You split my heart in two.”

Once again, yesterday, this fembot was crying in a public place.

But you know what?  I know everyone back home is tired of hearing this, but I really, really love Joburg.

A lot of people stopped to ask if I was ok.  As I said in my Facebook post, one man even tried to give me money.

I refused over and over.  He told me that he had gotten the money unexpectedly and would like to pass on the favour.  Again, I told him that I didn’t need the money, but his gesture and kindness already made me feel better.

Which it did.  Everyone was so nice to me that I couldn’t help but smile through my tears.

Eventually I got ahold of my bank’s Fraud department.  As I tried to explain to the woman what had happened, I started to cry again.

She said, “Calm down.  It’s ok.  Take a deep breath then tell me what happened.”

“I’m sorry!  It’s just that I’m so far away from home right now…” I started to say, then thought, Whoa Beth.  This is not the person to dump your homesick sadness on.

I got myself together (another Robyn song! and told her the story.  She said that all the money would be returned to me within the next 3 business days and that they’d send me a new card.

So, in the end, it wasn’t a big deal at all.  Mostly it was an inconvenience.  Yes, it could have gone a lot worse.  As I’ve told the story to my South African friends, the most common response has been, “You shouldn’t have gotten into a confrontation.  Men will kill you over smaller things.”  But, as I wrote before, I wasn’t scared.  At no point did I feel like I was in danger.

To be honest, though, I kind of think it was worth it.  Even though I’m super embarrassed that I let those men pull one over me, it was comforting to experience so much kindness yesterday.  Like I said, the past few weeks have been brutal.

The hardest part about living in Johannesburg isn’t fear for my personal safety; it’s being away from home.  And that would happen no matter where I lived, even if it was Paradise.

Yesterday morning I Skyped with one of my friends and told her about all the shit I’d been going through lately.  Afterward she emailed me the following message:

“I love you too, as much and as big as anything.  Just remember how many people who love you you’re coming home to.”

Hours later, as I waited on hold with my bank, I kept thinking about her words.  I kept thinking about compassion and kindness and love.

I don’t know how to express how grateful I am for the people in my life.  Strangers often tell me that I seem really independent, moving across the world on my own and remaining smiling and energetic no matter the circumstances.  But they don’t know how much love I have in my life, holding me strong whenever I stumble.

Thank you.

To my friends and family back home, to the new friends I’ve made here, and to the concerned strangers that stopped: thank you, thank you, thank you.  You give me strength and make me brave.

As another good friend emailed me recently, “Tides change.”

And she’s right.  I have a vehicle now, I found somewhere to live (with an awesome roommate), my foot will heal – and so will my heart.

One more Robyn song for everyone back home: 

I’m gonna love you like
Like I’ve never been hurt before
I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible
Your love is ultimate
Now again it’s taking over
This is hardcore
And I’m indestructible


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4 thoughts on “Dancing On My Own

  1. Frank Yeh on said:

    Beautifully written Beth. All dramas we experience in life will eventually enrich our lives and become great stories to tell. We miss you here. Home is where you can always return to and still be loved.

  2. You continue to amaze with your resilience and honesty. A resounding ‘Like’ –
    (and a gazillion hugs)

  3. Phew! What a story!! I really hope those guys didn’t take too much out of your account. Be safe there! Be strong. 🙂

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