In South Africa, the danger is usually real. Just about every South African I know has a few horror stories to tell about how many times they have been mugged, how many of their cars have been stolen, and how often their homes have been broken into. It is no wonder that most South African houses are built to resemble fortresses, and that keeping the doors locked and valuables hidden is as natural to residents as breathing. At first, I thought all this 007-like security was a bit much, but eventually, I assimilated. After being chastised repeatedly for leaving my door unlocked or my cell phone unattended in the village or about town, I fell into a routine of constant vigilance and consequently, paranoia. It was normal in South Africa, but it's unnatural in America.
On my return journey to the States, I traveled relatively light. I had just one suitcase, a backpack and a bag. The bag was a souvenir from a trip to Cape Town, but I never carried it while in South Africa. It had no closure at the top, so I deemed it too risky to be usable. Still, it was the perfect size for a carry-on, so I took it along on the trip home. All was well until I stepped out of the airport and promptly hopped on the New York City subway. The suitcase and backpack were locked, as per Peace Corps recommendation, so I had no worries about either of them, but my bag was open and I was very worried about it. With my one free hand I clutched it closed. Every time a turnstile or staircase forced me to let go, I peered around at the crowd, just waiting for someone to reach in and grab my wallet or cell phone. No one did. It's America.
A few days ago, I was asked to fetch something from a parked car. "Sure," I said, "Where are your keys?"
"It's unlocked," came the reply.
My mind raced. "Unlocked? Who in their bloody right mind leaves a car outside, unattended, unlocked? What is wrong with these people?" Nothing. It's America.
The list just goes on and on. Entering someone's home in South Africa involved opening gates, unlocking burglar bars and switching off alarm systems. Entering a house here is usually as simple as turning a knob. I did not expect to find this quite so unnerving, but every time I hear the words, "Come on in, the door's open!" I'm swept up in a fresh wave of amazement and disbelief.