It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


It is a good story, worth writing down, I think, even after all these years. And maybe it has taken all these years for me to discover the voice with which I want to tell it. I am thinking of the story because I am driving the road along which it draws to an end, twenty six years ago. It was a road then, that lead home, but no longer does, a road that I have travelled thousands of times throughout my life, but then was travelling for the first time in two years. I was returning home. I was twenty two years old. Twenty two seemed older, then.

It is a beautiful road, probably one of the most beautiful in the world, certainly for a city. To the east are the vertical, grey, sandstone walls of the apostle peaks, strung out to the south of Table Mountain. To the west is the open Atlantic Ocean. As I drive I am one minute craning my neck to scan the cliff lines above, the next I am gazing outwards, over the wide expanse of ocean.

This drive is always beautiful. It is beautiful on those rare, still days when the ocean is at rest, the kelp heads gently rising and sinking again, almost imperceptibly, below a glassy surface. It is beautiful when the south-easter cloud is tumbling from the cliffs like a waterfall towards the road, and white horses gallop to the horizon. It is probably most beautiful though, when buffeted by winter, when the ocean releases the full power it has amassed, between here and Antarctica, onto the jumble of granite rocks below.

I pass the place where, one winter's morning when we were kids, we awoke to find the bulk of the Antipolis dashed on these rocks, with its bows almost cutting across the road. It is now nothing but dark shadows below the surface, visible only on those days when the ocean is calm and bright.

I have also been reminded of this story because I have been contemplating how different the world was then. This story happened before the world wide web. It happened even before fax machines. In comparison to the kids who travel today, when we left, we were cut off from all but very irregular communication with our kin. This story would have taken a very different course in the age of Facebook and WhatsApp. An experience such as I had is no longer available to this generation. I wonder if there is any loss in that, or if it is simply a difference. I wonder if we faced more risk, or if we just had less insurance.

Perhaps there is a third reason I am thinking of this story: because our own history is a small, comfortable sanctuary from insignificance.

I arrived in Istanbul at age twenty two, having hitched alone across northern Greece. I had been alone since Sandee left. We had parted in Athens, she to board a plane home to college in the US, at the end of her summer vacation, me to continue travelling east. We met in a restaurant in Chelsea, London where we both worked, each seeing in the other something that made us want to be together. We travelled across Europe, getting as far as Greece before our time together ran out. When we parted in Athens, neither of us planned it to be the last time we would ever see each other.

Twenty six years later we are friends on Facebook. I have watched, in the photos she posts, her daughters growing. Sometimes there are photos of them that remind me a lot of Sandee when I knew her.

For our travels across Europe, I had entered the Netherlands from the UK on a British passport, borrowed from a friend in London. The photograph of Richard, with blond hair and freckles, in his early teens could just as well have been me. I memorized his birth date and the names of his parents carefully. I was tired of the inconvenience of travelling on my South African passport in the days of Apartheid when we were the perahia of the world. Simple solution to a complicated bureaucratic problem. Not only did it tremendously ease travel across countries, it provided a little buzz of adrenalin going through immigration at Schiphol airport to start us on our way. After an incident free start I became comfortable with being Richard at international borders. All the way to Greece. Sandee carried my South African passport. It wouldn’t have looked good if a baggage search had brought up a second passport, more obviously mine by a more recent photograph, but bearing a different name and nationality. It was liberating to be free of the burden of my country’s passport, but as I was to discover, having a South African passport is better than having none.

Like in all stories there are small things that, on their own, might be insignificant, but when woven with the other elements of the story, can significantly determine its course. This is one of those: Because I was travelling on Richard’s passport, I didn’t want to be carrying travellers cheques in my real name, the only option we had in those days for safely carrying travel funds. So Sandee carried all my money in traveller's cheques in her name. Only when she was leaving, did we realise that this was a problem. The outcome was that, from Athens on, I carried all the money I had in American Dollars cash. I suppose I could have re-purchased travellers cheques in my real name. But it would have incurred unfavourable currency charges in Athens, and I did not see the cash particularly as a problem. After all my risk management was informed largely by youthful naivety and optimism. The youthful has changed since then, but my risk management hasn't really.

I could only use Richard’s passport for so long. He would need it, so when Sandee left she took it back to him. As I rode the Athens city bus north to the end of its line, I was not only alone, I had reverted, for official purposes, to being Johann Lanz, national of South Africa. On the northern outskirts of Athens, I started hitching to the monasteries of Meteora. I am often drawn to a place by a single, captivating image of it. I think it was thus with Meteora, probably a photograph in the guidebook. It is an incredible place. I still have some photographs that I took there.

I was travelling very light. No tent, no cooking equipment, no mattress. I had a roll up grass mat on which I slept. At the camp site I met no other English speakers. I felt lonely. I walked among the monasteries and I remember getting a lift with an East European family, who spoke no English, and were on holiday in a small car. I remember that they included me in all of their family photographs. I have thought about that since, the fact that I must appear in a family photograph album in a home somewhere in Eastern Europe, looking young, uncertain? Hopeful?

From Meteora I went to the Vikos Gorge. I remember it as beautiful but I couldn’t remember specifics, so I looked it up on Google. Viewing the images, I recognise exactly what drew me there. It would draw me still. Amongst memories of monasteries perched above steep canyon walls, a clear, cold spring, high mountain shepherd dogs with a vicious reputation, and narrow, winding, stone-cobbled streets, my most significant memory is this. Where the official hike ended in the mountain village of Papingo, there was an access road out. But the gorge continued, to where I didn’t know but it drew me far more powerfully than the exit road. So I said farewell to the British hiker with whom I had walked some days, but who was less certain than me about the allure of the unknown.

When I descended from the village into the canyon, I was followed by a herd of goats. They stuck with me through the tangle of forest trees along the river, until the gorge narrowed and I had to wade through water to round a bend. It turned out that the wilder part of the canyon drew others inclined to such things, as it had drawn me. I noticed a couple, clearly wishing to stay hidden amongst the trees, I spent some time with naked Scandinavian water nymphs (and their boyfriends, unfortunately), and then with a Greek backgammon player who told me where the canyon ended. I felt at home here.

When our supplies were finished, the backgammon player and I walked out. The magic of the canyon disappeared and was replaced by a dry, dusty plain traversed by a lonely tar road that would take me to Istanbul. The journey over the next few days was uneventful. When it got dark, I slept on my grass mat near the side of the road, and hitched again in the morning. Once I crossed the border into Turkey I remember rows of ugly hotel developments strung along the coast, always in various stages of messy construction.

The old centre of Istanbul, around the Blue Mosque, is an enchanting city space. I checked into a cheap backpackers dorm, keeping all my valuables with me in a daypack, rather than leaving them with my baggage, then set out to experience the city. I was intoxicated by the vibrancy and the exoticness. I liked Turkey immediately.

In retrospect I would say that I continued to like Turkey the whole, long time I was there. The people, but for four Istanbuli youths, and some officious policemen, were amazingly friendly. The place was vibrant, the food was colourful and tasty, the city intriguing and frenetic, the antiquity incredible, the wide rural landscapes to the south and east, inspiring. There were two things, though, that I came to hate about Turkey. These were the telecommunications infrastructure and the plumbing. I had numerous run-ins with both and I never won.

Turkey had a mixture of Asian and western toilets. I found little appeal in the exoticness of Asian ones - I doubt they can ever be a hit with people raised on western ones. I think the western ones were fairly new in Turkey then and it seemed that Turkish plumbers did not yet understand some important principle of their functioning. The cisterns operated as a dribbling, purely decorative appeasement to western sensibilities. During my time in Turkey I came to loathe smokers who threw their cigarette butts in the toilet bowls.

But on my first evening in Istanbul I had few concerns. From the Sultan Amhed Park, I was enchanted by views of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, with the sparkling city lights as backdrop. I remember drinking salted yoghurt with a young Turk at a street café. I remember chatting to locals, being struck by their friendliness. I abandoned myself into the beguiling flow of the evening as it proceeded from the park through a festival in the palace gardens. I was charmed by the welcoming generosity of my new friends who paid my entrance fee.

We exited the noise and lights of the festival far from where we had entered it. There was an offer of a ride in their taxi back to my hostel and some ruse to get me out of it on the way. I was completely unalert. I was not a difficult victim. Once the taxi had pulled off, the street was dark and empty. The mood changed very quickly. One of them squeezed my throat from behind. Another pressed a knife into my stomach. “If you make a noise I will keel you.” I remember, he said it like that: “keel”. They seemed nervous. Perhaps I was one of their first victims. It was over very quickly. The noise of their running footsteps faded. I was alone in the middle of the night on an empty street in a strange part of Istanbul. And all the valuables I possessed were gone.

There was human kindness at the corner of one of the dark streets. He was smoking on a step outside his house. I think he had heard them running past. He spoke no English. He organised a taxi to take me back across the city to the backpackers.

And so I awoke to my first morning in Istanbul knowing nobody and without a cent to my name. I was without a passport or any form of ID, the national of a country that had no diplomatic ties with the country in which I was. This is not an enviable situation, but it is a memorable one.

When hunger set in, food became my first priority and then later a place to sleep. For both of these my only option was to beg for money. I told my sad tale, mostly to fellow travellers. They eyed me with suspicion. Some believed me, some did not. Some gave me money, some did not. At first I lived a meal to meal and night to night existence, unsure what to do in the long term. I harboured some hope of assistance from Thomas Cook, I think to do with some old travellers cheques that I might still have had in my own name. I even tried the British Embassy. After all I had recently travelled on a British passport! But they were not interested.

To get to Thomas Cook, I had to travel across the city. It was too far to walk but I had no bus fare. So I begged for the fare in the bus queue. An American traveller paid my fare. We chatted a bit. I think he may have bought me lunch.

Thomas Cook could not help me either, but I did meet someone, one of the employees, who was at least sweet and sympathetic, could speak English fluently and she knew how things worked in Turkey.

I do not get on well with bureaucracy. Perhaps some of my distaste for it was established during the long, frustrating weeks that followed. The intricacies of extracting myself from Turkey without a passport slowly revealed themselves during strained telephonic communication with the closest South African embassy, in Athens. It was this simple: they would post me a temporary passport application form. I must fill it in, attaching a Turkish police report proving the theft of my previous passport, and affixing passport photographs to the form, in the appropriate place, that were officially police stamped to prove that they were of the sender. Then they would process my application in Athens and post back to me, a temporary passport.

In this day and age of instant communication it is difficult to think “post” in such a situation. But there it was. That was all that was available.

Being reliant on the Turkish public telephone system on the streets of Istanbul for my international communications with Athens, was perhaps my greatest frustration of all. Public telephones in those days required that you feed coins into a slot. I don’t know if they still do. It has been a long time since I have used a public telephone. For international calls you had to feed the coins in fast. If you slowed too much during the call, you were cut off. You were also frequently cut off mid-call for a host of other reasons, inaccessible within a tangle of copper wires somewhere deep within the confusion of the Turkish telecommunications system. It was not always possible to re-connect again that day, from that telephone booth or from any of the others that I came to frequent. Getting through was a pretty hit and miss affair.

The first time I called the embassy, it took a while to track down someone who could speak sufficient English to understand my story and then put me on hold to direct me to the correct person to deal with it. I was not as adept at feeding in the coins as I later became and it took several attempts. After the first few times, I at least had a name to ask for when I called, which was better, if she happened to be in. The convenience of an e-mail was a completely unimaginable future possibility.

After establishing the requirements from Athens, my next frustration was obtaining the official police report. I made the initial mistake of thinking that it couldn’t be too complicated. It was. The police station near where I was staying in the tourist part of town, and where they spoke some English, listened to the details of my story. “Where had the incident taken place?”, they asked. I wasn’t entirely sure. I had a vague sense and indicated it on a map. “Well in that case”, they said, they could not process my complaint. I would have to report it at the police station nearest where it had occurred.

I don’t remember how I came to the particular police station. Perhaps I simply chose a random one, out of frustration. I do remember that it was a horribly grim place and a bad choice. It reminded me strongly of scenes from Midnight Express. No one there spoke English. I spent a long time over many days waiting in an empty, second floor hallway on a hard wooden bench.

During my whole time in Turkey I had absolutely no contact with my parents or anyone else I knew. Directly after the mugging I needed to focus my very limited resources on the immediate priorities. The comfort of home and family support seemed so separate from the reality I faced. And on the far tip of Africa, so distant from me, that I supposed they would be powerless to help in any way. So why contact them? Why make them worry? I also did not relish the idea of battling a longer and probably more complex international telephone connection to Africa.

But perhaps there was another factor to my not contacting my parents. I was on a solitary voyage to a far and foreign land, having left everything I knew behind me. I was looking for something. It had the makings of a quest, of a rite of passage. And now here stood the dragon before me. The challenge was mine alone to slay it.

I capitulated once in a bleak southern town about a month later. A telephone booth stood on a dusty street corner. I went in, armed with a line of coins, and dialled home. My mother answered. I felt a surge of emotion. I could picture just how and where she would be standing, surrounded by the comforting familiarity of our home.

“Hi Ma, its me”, I blurted out, “Hi.”


“It’s me, Ma. Can you hear me?”


“Ma, Ma. It’s me,” I shouted.


I tried more coins. I banged my fists against the telephone. I listened to her for as long as she kept saying, “Hello? Hello?” Then the line went dead. The southern tip of Africa felt much further than the nine thousand kilometres that it was distant from where I stood.

In Istanbul, because I had time and not money, I mostly walked where I needed to go, sometimes fairly long distances. I have always enjoyed walking. But because I was a westerner, the touts of the ubiquitous mini-bus taxis that plied the streets, would call to me insistently, “Taxi, taxi.” Because one would pass every twenty seconds or so, and each would shout insistently, it could become extremely irritating on a long walk. There were days when I shouted my frustration at the taxi touts like I did at the public telephones. It made as little difference.

During this time I re-met the American who had lent me bus fare. I filled him in on my progress and hand to mouth existence. He made the very generous offer of lending me enough money, not only for an airfare back to London, but to sustain me in Turkey for the time it might take to extricate myself.

Before he left he directed me to a small backpackers where I became like part of the furniture. I hung out often in the lounge, reading or playing backgammon, trying for at least one win against the proprietor, which I never achieved. Travellers would hear my story and follow its slow progress during their stay. I spent several days confined to my bunk, clutching at violent cramps in my stomach, until a worried looking, German dormitory mate, who clearly had better risk management, came to my rescue with antibiotics.

When eventually my passport application with its hard won police stamps had been posted from Istanbul to Athens, I thought that at last I was getting the upper hand, that the dragon was all but slain. I was wrong. It still had fight in it. But I had some respite. I realized that I might as well see something of the rest of Turkey while waiting out the few weeks I had given myself to receive the passport. And so I set off across the Bosphorus, a traveller once again.

I remember the way the bubbles stung my eyes as I swum amongst Roman columns in the naturally carbonated waters of Pamukkale. I remember the explicit acoustics of the amphitheatre at Ephesus. I remember the crisp taste of small, red apples picked from remote orchards while walking the wide, weird landscapes of Cappadocia. I remember azure lagoons and white beaches.

I had little and needed little. The cheapest lodgings were on the roofs of the backpackers, lying out under the stars, on the grass mat I still carried. Was I happy? Was I lonely? I cannot really remember.

It is difficult in the telling of this story to separate the me I was then from the me I am now. To what extent are we the same person? To what extent are we different? How would the me that is telling this deal with the situation that was then? Would he deal with it better or would he deal with it worse?

Life is not about what happens to us. It is about how we respond to what happens to us. How we deal with what life puts in our path, is what creates the story of who we become. It seems that at twenty two, on a rite of passage of becoming, I acted admirably in terms of this. But I have not always been successful at it since, and it has left me with questions. The unfolding of each of our lives is different. Is our happiness dependent on what unfolds for us, or is it dependent on how we respond to what unfolds? To what extent does our response shape how our life unfolds? To what extent does whatever unfolds, shape our response?

Another scene I remember from these travels around Turkey is this: I am sitting with a man, perhaps a shepherd, somewhere remote in a rural, southern landscape. He can speak some English. We are about to share something to eat, something to drink. The sun is going down. It will soon be dark. Suddenly I feel a cold dread. I again have all the money I possess in the form of cash in my pocket. Again I am trusting a complete stranger. Have I learned nothing from my experience?

It is something I think about years later. When we are trusting of strangers it can go horribly wrong and cost us dearly. I had seen that. My dad argued that we cannot afford to simply trust. That it is prudent to play it safe, to distrust as a default, until we can be more sure. But I always wondered what, less obviously perhaps, it costs us to distrust, and whether we can afford that. Having insurance makes us feel more secure, but the premiums can cost us more in the end than the loss we might take.

The day promising my departure from Turkey had at last come. After an overnight bus journey, I arrived at the backpackers in Istanbul early in the morning, a small homecoming of sorts. My flight was at 8pm. I had stretched out my remaining money. What was left could not only cover bus fare to the airport, but could treat me to a decent breakfast. Perhaps today I would finally win a game of backgammon off the proprietor.

But my first concern was - did he have the package containing my passport that had arrived from Athens? He did not. Nothing had arrived yet. This was unwelcome news. My day immediately took on a different feel. It was back to the telephone booth on the street outside.

But it had been posted from Athens almost two weeks previously. It should have arrived. “But it hasn’t. I don’t have it”, I shouted desperately. The dragon was making a last stand, fighting tooth and nail. At some point in all the to-ing and fro-ing someone, it may have been the proprietor, thought to check the address to which it had been posted. It was not the backpackers address. It was a business address across the city. It turned out to be the Thomas Cook offices. I think the application form had been posted from there, a function of my friend there having helped me. And for some odd reason the embassy had returned it to that address.

Breakfast had been forgotten. It was getting to lunch time. I called her. She didn’t have it, knew nothing about it, but had been out of the office for a few days. She would check and call me back. I waited, hoping desperately. She called. It was not in the office and no one there knew anything about it.

Another call to Athens to absolutely check the address. No solutions there. It was now after 3 pm. I slumped dejectedly in the backpackers. I felt ill. The window of escape from all of this, that had looked so bright this morning, was fast shutting on me. I grimly contemplated my future. Would I be waking up in Istanbul tomorrow in exactly the same situation in which I had awoken on my first morning in the city, more than a month ago - penniless again and still with no travel document?

There was a call for me at the backpackers. It was my friend from Thomas Cook. She had found it! She had it in her hand. It turns out the person who was responsible for emptying the post office box had been ill, and so hadn’t done it for a while. She had gone down there herself. And now she had it. But I must hurry.

The proprietor, usually laid back and slightly disinterested, sprung into action. A taxi was organised and paid for. I grabbed my things and was bundled into it. We needed to cross the city to the Thomas Cook office and then cross again to the airport. It was afternoon traffic. It would be touch and go.

She was standing on the pavement outside the Thomas Cook office. She handed me the envelope. I hugged her. “Go, go!”, she shouted and I hopped back into the taxi and off we sped. I ripped open the envelope with my name and Greek postage stamps on it. Inside was something called a temporary travel document. Printed in large red letters across the top was this: ONLY VALID FOR TRAVEL BETWEEN ISTANBUL & ATHENS. My flight was to Heathrow.

I couldn’t let that put me off now. I had to ride this wave and stay on it. I ran across the departure hall. My heart was pounding as I offered the inadequate travel document at passport control and at boarding. There was far more adrenalin then there had been entering Schiphol on Richard’s passport. I made it through without incident.

I would be arriving at Heathrow, a penniless South African without valid travel documents. I did not expect to be welcomed with open arms, but it felt absolutely fantastic, nevertheless, to be sitting back, with my head on the seat, seeing the lights of Istanbul disappearing behind me in the east.

I ended up in an office across the desk from an immigration official. I tried to spin a story that would allow me back into London, but it was a long shot. They were very thorough, asked too many questions and my story didn’t hang together well when my illegal working in the UK was censored out. At least everything was English, very English in fact. I was informed that I would be put on the next available flight to South Africa and was transferred to a holding facility within Heathrow where all the other people who had been trying to get into the UK that night, mostly Asians, were being held. They allowed me a local phone call. Although there wasn’t anybody I could really call - none of my friends in London lived in the kind of places that had telephones - the temptation of using a telephone that worked and being answered in English was too much, and so I called a friend’s aunt in London to leave a message for my friends. I was offended when one of the women at the facility expressed surprise at my good English. In my opinion it was better than hers.

I was escorted right onto the plane, down the entrance tube and to my seat, by a uniformed immigration officer. After he left, the air hostess eyed me until the aeroplane doors were shut fast, as if I might make a sudden dash for the exit.

I had the flight to Johannesburg to get used to the idea that I was heading home. Until now, that option had not been one of the short term futures I was contemplating. I had plans to work in London again and aspiration to reach Sandee in the US. At least I was not on a plane back to Turkey. And it felt good, going through immigration at Johannesburg, to be recognised once again as having a legitimate claim to be where I was.

Various of the friends I had travelled with had tried to make a surprise return home, but inevitably word got around and they were expected. Mine worked because it surprised even me. And having made it this far, it seemed fitting to complete the total surprise in person. The fact that I had no money and that home was still 1,500 km away seemed inconsequential. I was used to operating that way. And so I walked to the airport exit road and stuck out my thumb. After a few lifts within the city limits I got on the highway south and travelled most of the way across the dry interior of the country in a long distance truck. We stopped in a small dorp somewhere and the driver bought me food. It was in the days before One-Stops. The food came out of greasy, silver trays behind a smeared, glass counter front. The shelves of the café were lined with South African brands. I took in the warmth, the smells, the sound of people talking in familiar tongues. Outside I sensed the vast stillness that surrounded this small hub of night time sound and light. This was indeed South Africa.

We slept for a few hours in a road siding, the driver in a curtained-off bunk at the back of the cab, me across the seats. I couldn’t really sleep. I was excited. I wandered out a bit into the veld to take a pee, under the boundless, starry Karoo sky.

At the end of the Karoo, the geology changes and the vast flatness turns vertical. I wouldn’t have known about the geology then. I wouldn’t have been intimate, like I am now, with each of the mountain ranges through which the road passes. But I would have sensed an increasing familiarity in the land. It would have begun to feel like home.

You get your first view of Table Mountain from the western side of Du Toits Kloof Pass. For many years there was a tunnel being built through these mountains. When I left South Africa it was not yet finished. I asked the truck driver about it. It has been recently opened. We exited the tunnel with the sun rising behind us, illuminating Table Mountain on the skyline ahead.

As I think about this story now, I cannot but be impressed by the young hero’s whole journey of slaying the dragon and returning. I am impressed by the independence, the resourcefulness, the ability and perseverance to respond to what needed to be done. I cannot imagine how the narrator of this story would cope now outside Johannesburg airport without a cent and without a cell phone.

I pass where they are now building traffic lights at the Llandudno entrance off the coastal road. This is where, twenty six years ago, my last lift dropped me, and from where I walked the last kilometre home. It would have all been so familiar and so new, so welcoming. It was a Sunday morning. I rung the doorbell. I could hear my mom and dad talking at the table, wondering who might be visiting, then the scrape of a chair. The door opened and there stood my mother, exactly in the place I had pictured her as I listened to her, “Hello? Hello?” from a telephone booth in a dusty Turkish town.

There was no design to my homecoming. There were simply choices in response to a sequence of cascading events, a multitude of possible permutations, only one of which could realize. I cannot remember who exactly I was twenty six years ago, how I made sense of the world then, of what exactly I believed. But I was probably more likely to have held that there is a possibility of unearthing an in-tact, concealed meaning from beneath the unfolding of events, probably less inclined to think of meaning as something that emerges more randomly out of the unfolding. I was probably less comfortable then with the idea of chance, of God playing dice. Thinking about it now it seems that, whatever number the dice turns up, it is the engagement with it, with the quest that it offers, that makes possible a homecoming.

There are several moments that define the homecoming of this story - stepping off the plane in Johannesburg, arriving through the Du Toits Kloof tunnel at sunrise, my mother’s look of delighted surprise in the entrance of our home. But perhaps in retrospect, none are quite so defining as this one: It happened later that morning. I was out the front, enjoying the view over the sea on a glorious spring day. Sandra happened to be in the neighbourhood and decided, on a whim, and for the first time ever, to pop-in on my parents. As she came up the driveway towards me she wondered who the bearded man on their balcony was.

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