July 27, 2014

Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

On the ferry ride over to Robben Island, I rejoiced in the good weather. The boat climbed and summited the swells, launching us into each trough with a burst of exciting, frothy sea. I clamored to the edge, as close to the water – and its amatuer mosaic of seaweed drift – that I could justifiably be. It occurred to me how odd a happy moment in which to find myself: en route to a historically atrocious prison.

That day, I was perhaps the cheeriest one entering the bane of Mandela’s unjust incarceration: Robben Island Prison. 27 years. My mind so coated in marshmellows and rainbows, I found my interest in the prison was, at first, large intellectual. I checked facts against A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s autobiography. I asked curious questions and peeked under the mattresses in cell block D – just to see what I might find. It was all interesting and historic – until I saw his 6-by-5 feet cell. Then every word I’d ever heard or read from Mandela came into a sharp and painful clarity.

This day, however, was actually most memorable because of what we did upon docking back in Capetown. At face value, it is the epitome of inconsequential: I needed to buy a belt. So we headed to a shopping mall. If Evan and I had not been living in muddy and isolated, rural and poor Tanzania for a year, there would be no story here. But:

Evan and I paused at the entrance’s automatic double doors, appropriately wary. Anyone who has ever found themselves immersed in a culture and lifestyle far, far away from Forever 21 and $300 perfume will likely understand our apprehension. We knew to anticipate a sharp contrast in wealth and materialism. And we thought ourselves prepared, but that afternoon was the most overwhelming culture shock of my entire life.

We were confronted so suddenly, so viciously by want, assaulted by options. The first store: affronting pantsuits with misshapen wire heads. Grotesque. So much of the same thing – but in fifteen colors. A sickeningly unoriginal Michelle Branch song playing overhead. Some teenage girl with a choppy, apparently stylish haircut scowling at her mother, “No, I don’t like it” to each new option mom presented.

One of those big, nondescript mall hallways: revolving white mannequins donning floor-length silk dresses. Pristine store windows, decaled “Sundresses to make you feel pretty!” and “Sale! Sale Sale!” Cases and cases of jewels and other imprisoned shiny things. In passing: the disorienting stink of The Body Shop: orange or plum or lavender or Fijian Water Lotus, whatever that is.

Apparently, since I left the western world, belts now came in only: flowery, striped, polka-dotted, sequined, snakeskinned, studded, shiny… It took an inordinate amount of time to find a reasonably priced, utilitarian brown belt. I might have opted for some color, had I not been so intimidated.

I approached the check-out with the somber trepidation of a mourner in the open-casket line at a wake. As the cashier price-checked my item, Evan and I stood in total silence and then bolted out of the mall as soon as the money changed hands.



I was sick to my stomach, and both my breath and my voice seemed to have been stopped up by the counterfeit mall air. In silent agreement, Evan and I walked to the nearest beach. It was rocky and cumbersome, but fresh, littered only with shells, shells we cracked underfoot or picked up and pocketed or tossed into the water.

We breath. The waves are breaking at eight feet against the pier: they are protesting. I know not what, but nothing roars like that without a cause. Shore birds are diving, surfacing, drying their wings. A passerby introduces us to his friendly black lab. “Her name is Eden,” he says. Eden runs to receding waves, dances in foam, returns to our rock, and shakes merrily.

I know then I am experiencing the sharpest contrast of my life. The beach was free. I remembered a tourist at Mandela’s cell that morning, whispering, “Rest now, Tata, rest now.” Rest now, Tata, rest now. I am tearing up. You don’t need a turquoise, double-breasted blazer to be free. Don’t you know you already are?