It was a rather nice day. A pleasant surprise, as these had become rather rare of late. The days were typically too cold for comfort, or rainy and wet and altogether disagreeable. They were the sort of days that made you want to curl up with half a dozen blankets and an entire thermos of hot chocolate. This was not one of those days, though. Warm, sunny rays rested gently on our faces as the four of us sat peacefully on a park bench across from Parliament. The building is large, white, and more or less clean, surrounded by flora and quiet walkers. We were waiting to meet three others, to get lunch after church. Nothing was against us that day.
"Excuse me, do you speak English?"
This was an odd question, frankly. In my experience, it was difficult to find a person in downtown Cape Town who didn't speak English. The question intrigued some of the group, and they nodded.
"Well, I'm visiting from Pretoria with a group of backpackers. When I woke up this morning, my wallet was gone and all I have left is this." The man flashed a 20 rand bill at us. "We need about a hundred rand to get home, so we would appreciate any help you could give us. One rand, two rand. Five rand. Anything would be great."
He seemed like a well to do fellow, about our age. With the wool cap, cargo pants, and boots, he certainly looked the part of the hiker. It was a sad story, and one that we could relate to. In our first week here in Cape Town, several of the members of our group had things stolen in a break-in. The story was plausible, heartfelt, and well told.
Unfortunately for this guy, he doesn't have a very sharp memory. This was the third time he had asked me if I spoke English. A few weeks ago, on my way home from work with Rebecca, he approached us and asked if we spoke English. Just as the group of had been intrigued by this question, so were Becca and I. We were tired, though, and brushed past without addressing him. He made it sound like he had been slighted as we walked away, and we felt bad. What if this guy genuinely needed a hand with something.
This thought was crushed when he approached Becca and me again, roughly a week later. By this time, we knew it wasn't a heartfelt request for assistance. At least we felt that it wasn't. The third visit sealed our perception of this fellow, and we finally sat and listened to the story he had ready. We all sat quietly. To be honest, I was trying not to laugh.
"So, does your wallet get stolen every night?" I asked him, waiting for a moment after he had finished his story. He looked stunned, and very confused. It was not the typical 'no, sorry' that he was likely expecting. His mouth hung open slightly, not sure of what to say.
"I was just wondering," I continued (a little smuggly, I'm ashamed to admit), "because this is the third time you have come up to me and asked whether I speak English or not. Sorry friend."
"No you're not," he said bitterly, as he turned to walk away, flustered at having been caught. There is nothing wrong with asking a person for help. Some lives are harder than others, and nowhere has that been made more obvious to me than here in Cape Town. Every day I am left thankful for the life that has been given to me. Where I draw the line, though, is when people lie to me. It blurs a person's vision, making it harder to tell who actually needs aid and who's just out trying to pocket some spare change.
Whether this man was truly in need of help for something, I can't say that I am entirely sure. What I can say is that he was going about procuring that help in the most absolutely disagreeable manner I can imagine.