Wednesday, January 18, 2012

CSI Jamestown

When our landlord saw the smashed car window and noticed that our front door was hanging wide open in the still summer morning, he thought we'd been killed. He knew, of course, that we'd been robbed, but when you live in a country as prone to violence as modern South Africa is, you quickly accept the petty theft and begin to rationally fear for the worst. He scurried down the backyard hill from his house to our cottage, calling out to us with panic in his voice.

"Sarah and Hart?! Sarah and Hart?!"

It wasn't our typical seven AM wake-up call on a Sunday morning, so we knew something was up. I said a groggy hello as I jumped up and made my way to the door.

"Your car's been broken into," he said, "and your door was open. I think they came into your house, too. They probably took your computer."

By this point I had pushed past him to look at the car, but Sarah was still inside.

"Yup," she said. "Harty, the computer's gone."

I walked around the back of the cottage, knowing what I would see. Or rather, what I wouldn't see. My bike had been stolen.

Son. Of. A. Bitch. (That is the family-friendly version of what I actually said).

It would seem that the thieves came up from the river out back, hopped the locked, chest-high gate and approached the rental car that sat beside our cottage. Sarah's parents are visiting for a couple of weeks - though they aren't staying with us, due to a lack of space - and the car is theirs. The thieves smashed the driver's window and then reached in and rolled down the other ones, so as to have access to the goodies inside without tripping the alarm by opening a door. And what goodies were inside, you ask? An iPod, two pairs of binoculars and some smaller odds and ends. We have been vigilant about taking everything from cars inside at night, but when we'd returned home late Saturday night, exhausted after a day of wildlife viewing in and around Table Mountain National Park, we omitted to bring some things in.

After helping themselves to what was in the car, they tried our front door and found it unlocked - again, we'd been tired and complacent after a long day. I have previously posted about the size of our one-room cottage (comparable in area to your basic kitchen/living room combo in a small apartment), so for someone to have come in while we slept is as brazen for them as it is unsettling for us. Once inside they made a quick sweep and did quite well for themselves: laptop, camera, another pair of binoculars, my shorts (including, as a special bonus: cash, credit cards, my driver's license and passport) and our jar of change which had swelled handsomely in the past few months.

Apparently the white noise from our fan drowns out more than just our neighbour's rooster, and neither one of us heard a thing.

After cleaning out the apartment, they grabbed the bike and a pair of my trail runners that were sitting outside (kindly leaving me with my dirty socks that were inside them), hopped the fence out back and made their way across the river and through the lemon grove on the other side.

Obviously, there is some self-blame here, as we'd been told to always keep our valuables out of sight (something that falls squarely in the "common sense" category) and my landlord had explicitly told me to keep the bike inside. "It will get stolen" he had told me. But bringing the bike into our modest digs made things just a little too crowded, so every so often I deliberately forgot to bring it in. Truth be told, we had just gotten a little too comfortable. Our neighbourhood is friendly and people of all stripes - shack dwellers and those in gated single family homes alike - have welcomed us with open arms. A quick walk down the street always involves stopping to chat with people we may or may not have met previously. Amid all of this warmth, it was easy to rationalise easing up on the exhausting level of vigilance which we had been warned to exercise at all times.

The police came relatively promptly, and took quite a while following the bike tracks on the other side of the river until losing them at a paved road. My shorts and passport were found down by the river, as was my bike helmet (gee, thanks) and the empty change jar. The police then spent over an hour taking detailed statements, before a forensics officer came and lifted prints from the car window. I am aware that most of this was an effort in pacification, but to a modest extent, it worked.

As is always the case when things like this happen, the biggest losses are the things that can't be replaced. Among other things, a good chunk of our once-in-a-lifetime pictures from our recent stint in Kruger National Park are gone. Beyond that, we lost all of the pictures from our post-Kruger country-wide road trip, and most of our other pictures from the past couple of years (the recent pictures were on a memory card in the camera, while older ones were on the laptop's hard drive). Sarah gets a real joy from the pictures she takes along the way, and they help to frame her memories, so they are a major loss for her.

As for my community of Jamestown, I still stand behind it as a great place to live. Our neighbours have been all too willing to help us out, with one of them anonymously naming names of likely suspects, while another helped the police officers follow the bike tracks through the lemon grove on Sunday morning. One of my friends in low places has told me that he knows exactly who to talk to in the neighbourhood about stolen electronics, and offered to check into it even before I asked him to. I choose to define my neighbourhood not by the tiny minority of people whose desperation manifests itself through bold and frightening criminal acts, but rather by those who stop and offer us rides on sweaty walks home from the grocery store.

That being said, my anger runs deep. More than once over the past four days I have circled my neighbourhood in a car, looking for someone riding my bike, with visions dancing in my head of shoving it so far up his ass that he has handle bars coming out of his ears. But below the violent anger - well below, but rising ever so slightly each day like a persistent, compassionate tide - my heart goes out to the people who did this. These are people who are likely addicted to methamphetamine, or tik, as it is known in the townships here. It is a drug with a grip so tight on a segment of marginalised South Africans that when people run out of things to sell to support their habit, they will part with beloved pets for a pittance just to get their next high. Tik has made its way into Jamestown, and property crime has followed.

And even if they are not addicted, we are talking about people who come from a set of circumstances so drastically different from my own that it would be absurd for me to pass judgment on them. Naturally, if they had the same access to education, social services, family support and other opportunities that I have been presented with throughout my life, they would not be taking the immense risk of waltzing into someone's house in the middle of the night in the hopes of getting a few dollars richer. And notwithstanding the heartbreaking sentimental losses and the fact that I currently lack the resources for material replacement, it's tough for me to rage about the loss of material goods when every day I am surrounded by people living in shacks. Surrounded by people without running water, reliable health care or the means to turn their lives around. Surrounded by people, all too often, without hope. And while impoverished South Africans are not a meek and helpless people to be pitied, circumstances such as these help to explain - though not excuse - what happened to us.

At the end of the day, when I look at the dire circumstances of literally millions of the people around me it is very difficult to feel sorry for myself. I hate what happened to us and wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I hate the Petri dish of injustice that breeds these sorts of crimes even more. And while solutions are complicated and hard to come by, my resolve to work towards them - personally and professionally, in Canada and abroad - grows unabated.

More road-trip posts coming soon.


Anonymous said...

Hart & Sarah - I'm so sorry this happened. I've had my apartment broken into before, and computers / irreplacable things stolen. It's such a feeling of violation. I can't imagine how much worse it must of been to know you were home sleeping while it happened! Your ability to contextualize and empathize with the circumstances of the probable thief is admirable.
-- Tracy

LAJ said...

Hi guys, its Lesley. I missed this post on facebook, the Pmeister tipped me off about it. I'm so sorry this happened, my heart really goes out. If there is any way I can help, or peeps I can put you in touch with let me know. I know I would feel exactly the same way, violated, furious at the perps, and angry at the bigger picture situation that has lead to a shocking amount of crime in SA. On another note - Had lots of fun visiting you guys, good good memories. Afterwards, Cape Town was great and so was my last week with the fam. Am back in Canada processing my month.
Much love,

Hart Shouldice said...

Thanks to both of you, Tracy and Lesley.

Tracy, it's a bummer that almost everyone has a similar story, regardless of where they live.

Lesley, I was hoping you'd see this, given that you were just at our place. Thanks for providing some of the good memories that will (hopefully) outweigh the bad.