Durban’s sky isn’t always ominous, but that day, it was grey and dirty. “Just like the rest of this god-forsaken city,” I muttered to myself, self-pity oozing from my pores. Right after it happened — when I suspected the worse — denial supplied me a few moments of (false) hope. My heart raced, my arms trembled, and my eyes welled with tears. The pit of my stomach knew what my brain refused to acknowledge: I’d never see her again.
In between deep breaths, I retraced my steps from the afternoon: “I got out of the van, opened my surf bag, removed my changing towel, and put it on. I was about to put my right leg into my wetsuit when I saw the guys needed help moving the surfboard trailer, so I jumped up to lend a hand…”
I tortured myself with all the usual questions grieving people ask themselves: What was I thinking? How could I have been so foolish? Why didn’t I prioritize her safety? My brain struggled to remember how her face looked. If I’d known that would be the last time I’d gaze into it, I’d have savored the experience, committing each detail to memory.
She never forgot what I looked like.
She lit up every time she saw me. Or at least once she was certain it was my face looking into hers. I’ve tried to accept that my fingers will never caress that expansive touchscreen, or her “squoval” (part-square, part-oval) edges again. By now, my iPhoneX is surely in the hands of another.
We went to great lengths to get her back. Sam, one of the trip leaders, suggested the Find My iPhone App. Dan, one of my surf coaches, opened the app and handed his phone to me. A login and a password later and the three of us huddled around a screen, watching “Gold Dust’s iPhone” travel further and further away from the green dot indicating our location.
Dan took off running toward the police van slowly patrolling the promenade. I ran after him, my toes clenching the flip flops, desperately trying not to lose them during our hot pursuit. By the time I caught up, he’d already managed to explain the situation to the law enforcement personnel: three women and one man, who were official enough to be dressed in uniforms, but not official enough to be carrying weapons. Even though I’ve seen more heavily armed mall cops, we jumped in their minivan and followed the tracker into Durban’s bowels.
At this point, I’d like to dispute a comment made earlier this year by another American about “s*$@hole African countries”. I can only speak for South Africa, but in the ten weeks I was there, I took in so many picturesque landscapes that they became common place. Each stop on our trip — Plettenberg Bay, Jeffries Bay, East London, Coffee Bay — upped the ante. Just when I thought my mind couldn't be blown open any further, we'd stumble upon an even more extraordinary ocean view or sunset waiting around the bend.
In addition to the beauty, I also witnessed extreme poverty. Living in Chicago, I see daily reminders of economic disparity, the plight of the working poor, and homelessness’ grim reality. I thought I’d seen the low end of the poverty spectrum, but I saw conditions there that took my understanding of desperation and lowered it.
Traveling from one famous surf break to another, we passed through the poorer townships surrounding these tourist destinations. The miles we logged through South Africa’s terrain remind me more of road trips through the United States than I expected: the endless rural fields would blend right into the Midwest, except for the mountains and changes in elevation that look like the Appalachians on steroids. After a wide expanse of fields, crops, and hills, we’ll stumble upon clusters of shacks made of corrugated metal and an occasional cinder block. On sunny days, laundry hung out to dry added bright pops of color here and there. Some townships looked even more somber, just by the amount of refuse strewn about. In the absence of infrastructure a government typically provides its citizens, the trail of junk would lead to a substantial pile of junk -- what appeared to be the township's de facto landfill.
I’m painfully aware of the gaping holes in my own country’s safety net, but in comparison, American poverty is ground floor poverty. What I witnessed, to continue this analogy, opened a door to reveal a stairway leading to a basement. While I can’t fathom it, I suspect there are additional levels of poverty below the ones I saw — as I didn't travel to the areas on the continent experiencing the destruction of ongoing civil conflict.
Making our way through Durban’s dingy streets, my brain struggled to hold these two truths: my newly expanded worldview showed I’m the benefactor of privileges I didn’t even know I had, and the emotions that come with having personal belongings stolen thousands of miles from home. Add to this the that the very items I’d need to arrange replacements (my smartphone, my wallet) were inside my stolen bag.
The two law enforcement women (think church ladies with badges) bickered over how to read the iPhone tracking device, unsure which of the dilapidated buildings was housing my boosted phone. One women kept asking me, “Do you see your bag anywhere? Do you see it?” while the other one yelled at the man driving the van to pull over and park. As she opened the sliding door to get out, she asked Dan for his phone so she could continue on with the search.
“I reckon that’s a bad idea,” Dan’s responded, as he rolled a lock of sun-streaked hair between his fingers. “This is place looks dodgy,” he explained, “and you don’t have a gun.”
“You’re safe!” she reassured him. “They can’t touch you. You’re with us!”
I don’t know what was more baffling: the idea that she could protect us (two white surfers clearly out of their element) or that she could possibly be convinced that what she was saying was true. Either way, Dan refused to relinquish his phone. She could use the phone — as long it didn’t leave his hands.
She marched off in the direction of one of the makeshift stalls, peddling goods outside a unisex barbershop. Within seconds, a woman ran up to one of them, screaming, “That man just robbed me!” Her facial expression indicating she was not impressed, the lead law enforcement lady motioned for her to back away.
“Go tell him,” she gestured toward the man driving our van.
I sat in the middle of the minivan, staring out the windows. Watching the ladies drag Dan from shop to shop, I’d seen enough episodes of Law & Order to know that if any of these people did have any information as to the whereabouts of my bag, they weren’t going to give it up without anything in exchange. I wondered if this was how they conducted all investigations, by going door to door, as though they were inquiring if the shopkeep had a particular item in stock.
“What’s that? No, you haven’t seen the murder weapon? Okay then, well, have a good day! We’ll check next door.”
As I peered out from the van, I could feel the desperation of the people inhabiting that place. I wondered what painful paths they’d lived through on their way to that locale being their reality. I believe we all do the best we can at any given moment with what we’ve been given. Had I been placed on the same journey as any one of them, and similarly equipped, I doubt I’d have ended up any further along.
I thought about my own recovery from substance abuse, and how that could easily have been me or worse, had I not experienced my own moment of grace six and half years earlier. I also acknowledged that this could still be my fate, should I neglect my emotional sobriety long enough to get to a point where I believe the lie that, “This time will be different.”
Suddenly, I saw a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child heading in my direction. I’m ashamed because I can’t tell you I’d have had the same reaction had I seen a child with any other skin color coming toward me. I hope to God I would have. I can’t say for sure — because I didn’t see any children in the vicinity.
The little girl stood in the metal shopping cart with another tow-headed sibling sitting in front of her. I assumed the man pushing the cart was their father because, of all the faces in the crowd that day, his was the only other white one, albeit heavily weathered and worn. He pushed them toward the direction of the main street, the shopping cart merely an industrial version of the strollers any other urban dad would use to transport his children through Chicago’s streets, on his way to drop them off at daycare before heading to work.
The loss of my phone and wallet felt unfair. However, seeing a child, so small and vulnerable, exposed to a world harsh enough that I could only view it from the inside of a locked police van, took my under standing of unfair, put it on an elevator and pressed the button for the lowest level possible.
I believe that everything is happening as it should, even if I hate the outcome or disagree with it completely. I believe that eventually, the dots will connect. Yet, some injustices are so egregious that my human mind can’t back up far enough in time and space to connect certain dots. This was one of those times.
I place moments like that in my cosmic parking lot, jotting down a mental note to ask the Universe for a more specific explanation of just how that particular injustice was integral to the greater plan. I hope there’s an opportunity to suggest a few alternatives. For now, the best I can do is feel whatever it brings up in me, let it go, and do the best I can in my own little microcosm to prevent a similar injustice from happening in my own plot of karmic land.
I bent my hand at the wrist, fingertips pointed toward my neck, and moved it side to side, indicating my decision to call off the search. Why expose ourselves to further risk for items that were already gone? We filed the necessary reports with the police, caught up with the rest of our surf group, and returned to the hostel where we were staying.
The next morning Chris, one of the trip’s leaders, asked if I’d decided to get a replacement phone while I was still in South Africa. I’d just assumed I would. With almost four weeks of travel left to go, how could I not replace it?
However, as we talked through the challenging logistics of getting a replacement iPhoneX, the option of going without a phone until I returned to the US seemed an increasingly viable option.
First, Apple products are even more expensive to purchase outside of the US because they’re imported goods. Second, if I chose to have someone purchase it for me in the states and ship it to me, it would still have to clear customs before we left South Africa later that week to head to Mozambique for the final leg of our journey. Finally, even if I did manage to procure the iPhone — or any phone for that matter — the data required to upload all the functionalities I’d wanted it for would be expensive and time consuming, even on a South African SIM card. Add to that the fact that I’d need a new SIM card when we crossed into Mozambique — and that reception in the area where we were traveling was spotty at best.
“When else are you going to have a chance to live life without a phone?” Chris asked. “If you found yourself in a genuine emergency, other people in your group will have phones and data.”
He had a point. Several of them, in fact. And we hadn’t even discussed how transformational I’d found previous digital detox experiences.
“You could definitely survive without it,” he suggested. “Maybe even thrive!” I don’t know what my outer expression looked like, but I was scowling on the inside.
Turns out, he was right.
The withdrawal symptoms lessened every day, so much so that I didn’t replace my phone until a few days after I returned home.
The things I missed most were truly creature comforts, like listening to whatever song I wanted, whenever I wanted to hear it. I missed snapping pictures to document my epic adventure — and sadly realized I'd wanted the photographs just as much for anyone bothering to look at my Instagram feed as for my own posterity. Of course, there are all the other handy way-finding, bill-paying, Googling, and time-wasting benefits a phone has to offer, but I quickly learned (or re-learned) analog methods for completing the same task. For example, I developed an analog version of the popular song-finding app, Shazam. Whenever I heard a song I liked, instead of opening the app to tell me what I was listening to, I'd ask the person driving what song they were playing. Then I'd take out a pen and scribble it on the piece of paper I'd been carrying around to catalog the tunes I wanted to hear again.
Without the security of my phone, I was out of my comfort zone on land just as much as I was in the water. I surfed far more challenging conditions in South Africa and Mozambique than on either of my previous trips.
All this fear-facing, however, made me want to distract myself more — not less. Four weeks of being unplugged, and no real means to push the discomfort away allowed so much to surface. (Perhaps this backlog of old feelings and memories is precisely why I’m alarmed by how often I’ve reached for my phone in the past two weeks since I brought home its replacement.)
I expect that this is yet another area of life where my work will involve striking a healthy balance. And if the uptick in my need for creative expression (specifically, writing and painting) continues, you can expect to find more of it here.