When I travel, I always follow my instincts. If a street I’m about to walk down looks dodgy, I don’t go down it. If a hostel room creeps me out, I insist on changing it. So when my Africa trip went totally sketchy, I decided to bounce.
First and foremost, I do not want to judge the entire country of South Africa based on the incidents that occurred at JNB airport. In no way, shape or form am I. But when one bad thing after another keeps happening, it scares me; enough so that I had to re-think traveling solo throughout the country for two months, and decided I can’t.
It all started with my shuttle driver who was to pick me up at the airport and take me to my first destination. I brought everything in a carry-on, but my one checked item was a large box filled with school supplies that I and my coworkers were donating to some school kids via Pack for a Purpose. So I had a luggage cart with the box and my carry-on on it. Now, I’m not one of those chicks that need a guy or expect a guy to help carry my things, but as a shuttle driver, usually they offer to assist with luggage or carts. This guy was not having it, nor was he even walking with me. Also, at no point did he even introduce himself to me; there was absolutely nothing that pointed out that he was in fact a shuttle driver. He was walking so far ahead, it too struck me as odd. While we were walking, he made some strange phone calls saying something along the line of “she’s on her way…” and others in another language I couldn’t understand. Once we got to the parking structure, the guy couldn’t find his car, and he seemed to be lost. I was getting a really strong feeling that something wasn’t right, and once we got to his car and I saw what it looked like, there was no way I was getting in it. I have no idea what it was, it was just one of those unexplainable feelings you get that tells you DON”T GO.
We were the only people in the area, so I was increasingly becoming more scared at the thought of leaving with him. Without hesitation, I told him I had to get something from the airport and I’d be right back in about 15 minutes. He grabbed his phone, dialed some number, shoved it at me and insisted that I tell the place I was going that I’d be late arriving. I automatically asked him why I would call them to tell them I’m running 15 minutes late, especially since it was only 7am. I could understand if it were late at night and I was nearing a check-in cutoff, but this wasn’t the case. He couldn’t find a reason as to why I needed to tell the place I would be late. Just then the lady at the end of the phone answered and I told her I would be late, she seemed confused as to why I was telling her, and she said it was something I had to tell my driver, not her. Again, the situation just kept getting more and more creepy. I hung up, he got mad and questioned why I had to go back into the airport. I just said I had to get something, and I’d be back in about 15 minutes; I wanted to go and find someone who could contact the place I was supposed to be staying at and try to find another form of transportation for me to get there, but he didn’t want me to go.
I walked away very quick; I’m guessing I was visibly in distress due to all the negative attention I was receiving.
I definitely learned a very important lesson: when you appear frustrated/confused/distressed/in need of help, you become an easy target.
As I was walking, I had numerous people try to take the box off my luggage cart; I had people jumping in front of me, stopping me and asking in a very stern voice what was in the box. One of the people was a man dressed in military clothing, and insisted he see the contents. Another man stopped to ask what was in the box shortly after, and then demanded I pay him money (he repeatedly stated any currency would be fine). Here I brought this box full of school supplies to be donated, and so many people were trying to take it from me.
I didn’t even make it to the information desk I was aiming for, when a man came from my left side, grabbed my luggage cart away from me, and ran off. Another man in a red jacket grabbed it for me, and brought it to me. I thanked him, and he asked where I was going. I told him I was trying to find the information desk, and he grabbed my cart and started walking off into a completely opposite direction of the desk (so I would find out later where the desk was). He kept mumbling that he was a porter, over and over again, but I didn’t understand what he was talking about. All I wanted was my cart. At least just give me my backpack, and if you feel like a good person stealing the box full of school supplies from your own people in need, than so be it. But give me my stuff. I walked so fast to catch-up with this new dude that now took my cart, that I was basically almost running after him. I grabbed it and said I could take it from there and thanked him for his assistance in retrieving my cart from the previous guy. It was then that he got in my face, pressed his body against my side and demanded I give him money. Again, within just a few steps of the last attempt, I was facing even more extortion threats. My guess is this guy was working in collaboration with the other guy who ran off with my things; there’s no way he was in the right place at the right time. I was so infuriated that I told him to fuck-off, and he got in my face again. It was probably really stupid for me to say that, and I thought about it after the fact, but after a short argument with him, I walked off and he didn’t follow.
I was so frustrated and confused. I knew ahead of time that the airport had crime issues; you can read all about it on the internet or hear about it from people who had experienced it themselves. But all of this in a short period of time (I’m talking all within about 30 minutes) is too much to deal with. At this point, I was by terminal A, and I went to an employee working at the information kiosk and asked where the British Airways desk was, as I couldn’t find their ticket counter. The lady stared at me, and then got up to go talk to one of her friends passing by; they pointed at me and laughed from across the way. I asked a security man standing by where the desk was for international flights and he said I had to go back to terminal B. I went all the way back to terminal B, only to have the British desk tell me they couldn’t help me, and that the desk I needed was down in terminal A. All I wanted was for someone to help me. I had forgotten all about calling the original place I was staying at; I just wanted to find someone who could give me honest advice on what to do or where to go, so I was sticking with someone from the ticket counter. I went all the way back to terminal A and found the British desk finally (it was hiding against the opposite wall in the very back corner with no large sign, making it easy to pass by), but not without being harassed by a few more people, including someone grabbing my small daypack that was on my back (that was the single most important piece of my belongings, containing my money, laptop, camera and travel documents). When I made it to the counter, without even thinking of what I was about to say, I shouted to the lady “I need to go home.” The entire time I was looking for the counter without any idea of what I was even going to say, but I suppose my subconscious knew. I broke down and cried to this woman about everything that happened; she searched for a ticket that night for me to turn around and go back, but there was nothing available until 6-7 days later, with the exception of one first-class seat available for that evening. She then insisted I stay, but I was so flustered over everything I had just been through that I didn’t want to be alone. I couldn’t take the thought of traveling alone in the country for two months.
Even while standing at the British counter, all the way at the end of the terminal where no one else stood, two people tried inching their way over to my luggage cart while I was talking to the lady; both of them were young teenage boys. I contacted my family in California, and the whole time I was telling them what happened, the lady at the British counter was yelling at me from over the counter telling me she called her friend to come pick me up, and they were taking me to their guesthouse. I’m not saying that these people had any bad intentions, and maybe she just felt really bad for me and wanted me to experience the good in South Africa, but I just couldn’t trust anyone at that point. While talking to my father on the phone, he too overheard the lady telling me what to do and that she had her friend on the way to get me. Also, the entire time I was at the British counter, the price of the first-class ticket kept changing. The lady refused to give me an actual price of the available ticket, only saying “it’s 10 times more than what you paid” or “it’s a much greater cost than what you booked.” While talking to my family while at the counter, they saw a ticket online that was available for a fraction of the cost, and when they did, her prices suddenly began to change, and the first-class ticket suddenly went down to $5,000. When I questioned her the cost of the ticket my family found for $2,500, she said my price would be $4,000 for it.
My family instantly booked me a one-way ticket home on Delta airlines for a whopping price of $2,000. My entire roundtrip ticket with British was only $1,400, but I didn’t care. I was over it and just wanted to go home.
The Delta counter didn’t open for 6 hours, so I had to hang out in the food court area until it did. I sat at three different restaurants, all of which I was continued to be the target of extortion plots. From being told I had to pay to sit, to being told “we KNOW you have money, give us some,” I just couldn’t get away from any of it. At that point I felt safer sitting in front of the Delta counter; at least I’d be around security.
I was becoming more and more frustrated pushing around the luggage cart, and in front of the Delta counter was a sign that a company named Swissport handled all baggage for Delta. I wanted to find their kiosk and ask to check my box in so I wouldn’t have to push it around for hours more. I asked a group of airport police where I could find the kiosk, and they chatted between themselves for about 2 minutes, laughed and then gave me directions to somewhere across the street. I gave them the dirtiest look and booked it straight to the closed Delta desk, where I sat on the floor for 3 hours. I couldn’t even trust the police.
While sitting on the ground I noticed the real airport porters, all wearing red jackets that clearly had “porter” written across their backs. The man who grabbed my cart earlier was indeed posing as an airport employee. But what difference does it make when you can’t even trust the true airport security or employees? There was no difference between the two categories to me anymore.
Just then a group of 6 Americans also joined me at the closed Delta counter. They had missed their connecting flight the night before due to the flight being canceled from rain. The South African branch of Delta was insisting to them the only way they could get home was to buy an entirely new ticket, and said they weren’t responsible for canceled flights due to weather. They spent a few hours on the phone with the American Delta branch, and they of course said they can’t charge them for a new ticket due to weather delays. I listened to them fight for hours over getting home; one of the men with the group was from South Africa and stated “this is why I moved away from here; bullshit always prevails.” In the end they had to purchase a new ticket, also thousands of dollars, but were told over the phone by the American branch that they’ll work to get it refunded for them through the Better Business Bureau.
I had never been more excited to check-in to a flight. But, when I got to the check-in counter, I was told I didn’t have a ticket and that I was on stand-by. I blew-up at the lady who told me this, and insisted I get on the next flight out. If they overbooked, find someone else to bump, offer them something free and get me home. I know airline rules, and I know I can’t be bumped without free accommodation or some type of compensation, and there are plenty of people who will take another free night somewhere in exchange for being bumped, just not me. Not to also forget that this last-minute flight cost $2,000; I’m going home. I spoke to the supervisor of Delta who worked his magic and somehow got me a seat (bless his heart!).
Once I was in the gate, I was relaxed. I knew I was going home, and I couldn’t be happier than to be sitting on a 16 hour flight to Atlanta. I didn’t care that I had the last seat on the plane, in the very back next to the window (I’m an aisle-seat-in-the-middle-of-the-plane type of person). I took a couple of Xanax with a few vodka tonics and passed out for most of the flight. The one time I woke up, I took another pill with another drink and quickly went back to sleep. I know we hit extremely bad turbulence most of the flight, but nothing phased me.
Here’s the deal: I spent two days traveling to South Africa, 16 hours in the Johannesburg airport, and another two days traveling to get home. My legs are killing me and I still feel like I’m flying when I stand, sit or lay down after so many hours smushed into an economy seat on multiple flights. The first place I was supposed to be staying at sent me a very unnecessary message pretty much shaming me for not arriving. At no point did they ask if I was OK, and that to me really speaks worlds. If this place jumps straight into shaming a person for not arriving for their reservation, then it only confirms my reasonings for not showing in the first place.
I feel as if I let so many people down by not following through with my Africa travels; from the numerous companies that were so kind to sponsor me, to my readers and my friends who I was meeting up with in Durban…. but I realized I can’t feel bad for not feeling safe. Again, I am not in any way comparing the entire country of South Africa to the bad encounters I had at the airport, but crime in South Africa is definitely a real threat, and something that isn’t a joke. I WILL make it back to Africa some day, just not alone. I am aware that heaps of people travel the continent solo, I just didn’t feel comfortable being alone and fighting off unwanted encounters. When I do return, it will be with an organized travel group and a personal friend or two.
The hardest part of all this was sending emails to those companies who sponsored me telling them about why I left. I truly hope they understand my safety concerns after dealing with all the issues I was faced with. I wish I could have continued my journey and was able to see the good in Africa, because I KNOW it exists.
In the end, NO travel is worth your personal safety; if you feel threatened by any situation or person, WALK AWAY. I can always go back, but I can’t un-do a potentially life threatening situation once I’m in the middle of it.