For years now, it seems that I have had a superpower by which I attract complete freakshows on dates. It happened so many times that I decided to share the stories with my 500 best friends on the internet. I broke up with my last boyfriend in August, and when I had sufficiently recovered from defending my dissertation, I joined OKCupid to get back in the game. I was too busy to go out with anyone until after Christmas, but felt the need to share some of the hilarious messages I was getting in my last post, OKStupid.
To my complete and utter shock, the very first person I went out with actually turned out to be a really nice guy. And I don’t mean this kind. He was attractive, smart, articulate, funny, with a good, stable job, is really fit (we’re talking Iron Man finisher fit), well-traveled, adventurous—the skydiving, scuba-diving, motorcycle racing kind—and trained as a gourmet chef for 2 years just for the hell of it.
He helped me with my coat, pulled out my chair, opened doors, stood up every time I got up to go to the bathroom, and refused to let me pay for a thing. He knew his gin, listened attentively to everything I said, had perfect grammar, made no creepy sexual innuendos involving vegetables, did not try to grope me or talk about weird porn, had no distracting mannerisms, did not sport a ponytail, and when he asked how things had gone for me on OKCupid, thought it was hysterical that I had a blog about bad dates and begged me to send him the link.
When we parted ways, he hailed me a cab, waited an appropriate amount of time, and texted to check that I had made it home. I found out later that he was delirious with fever the entire time, was actually hospitalized the next day, and didn’t remember much about the second half of our date. But he hadn’t wanted to cancel because he had a feeling that I wouldn’t agree to a second date if he bailed.
Clearly, there was something gravely wrong with him. I just had to figure out what.
I went out with one other guy from OKCupid, who was actually fine, but there were no sparks, mainly because I couldn’t stop thinking about T—. I went to Chicago for our big annual professional conference, and the two of us texted constantly. He made me laugh and distracted me from the stress of the job interviews and schmoozing I had to do. I couldn’t wait to get back to Philly and go out with him again.
So I did. And we went out again. And again. And we’ve been going out ever since.
It’s been 4 months and change, and somewhere along the way I lost my suspicions that he would reveal a fetish for furry porn or turn out to be married with a secret family, and he continues to demonstrate that he is, in fact, a grown-ass man who has his shit together and knows how to treat a lady.
So I’m sorry, bad date blog fans, it looks like I’m off the market again. But as a farewell gesture, I present you with the following, final collection of OKCupid howlers that turned up in my inbox before I decided that I’d be a fool to let this one go and deleted my profile. I even have a special guest submission section. So without further ado, I present you with OKStupider:
Guest submissions, from my friend M:
Do you prefer the things you sit on top of be vibrating? Not sure why, when I read that, I pictured you sitting on a washing machine but your legs were not crossed and the things you were saying were not very coherent …
Is there a woman in existence on whom that will work?
From hardick_4u: Gay how u doing will like 2 meat you
If you want women to respond to you, it would probably be best not to include hard dick, gay, and meat in the same sentence.
I am just an old hippie that beleves in free love. I am poly which means I can have more than one relationship at a time. Even a loving one. Love is elastic; if you love someone new it doesn’t mean you have less love for others. Of course it does not mean I’m going to fall in love with you. Love could take a while to happen if it does with you. I had other lovers and never have been monogamous. Your profile sounds very interesting and I want to meet you. I just went on an early retirement so I have my days free. People tell me that I am younger in mind and body than what my actual age is. I have been in this lifestyle for a long time. Please get back to me soon.
Good luck with that.
And from the aforementioned gentleman, whose fault it is that I deleted my profile:
Your beard is god’s gift to womenkind. When can I meet it?
Proof that creepy fetishists of both genders exist. Though he does rock the beard.
I exchanged a couple of messages with a guy who was cute and a 94% match, and he seemed really cool from his profile. But under the “You should message me if” section, he had some of the normal stuff, but then in all capital letters, wrote “NO RUSSIAN GIRLS” In cyrillic/Russian. So I asked him what his problem with Russian girls was, and this was his reply:
Russian girls is kind of synecdoche for all the off-the-boat nuisances who think they can burrow a worm hole into your life and find a green card inside; and also kind of very specific pearl of reverse-prejudice which forms around the incredulity of being called a n****. This is true, by the way, and not uncharacteristic. It has no application to fourth-generation Americans whose surname happens to be Ivanov or whatever. So there you have it.
So, that explained… classic Who or new Who?
I should note that the n-word was not redacted in his original reply. I sent this to M, and her response was: “Um… you’re not allowed to go out with him. Because I don’t want to have to deal with the withering stares the detectives will give me when they hear that I let you go out with him even after reading this message.”
Can you puh’lease put me on your schedule to have a beverage with one day soon? Or i would be just as happy to go for a nice walk which would be much healthier for us.. I know how to make it fun. Cheer’s, M—
I shudder to think what your idea of a fun walk is. Also, learn to use apostrophes correctly.
Happy New Year! Damn you are hot when you are all archaeological and shit. :) (Do I get points for knowing how to spell archaeology? I didn’t use spell check – honest. :) ).
Yeah, start off with something sexual, and then brag about being able to spell a word I would expect a fifth-grader to be able to spell. Good tactic.
The following is redacted because it was loooooong.
…I’m a bit of a nerd but tempered by the fact that I used to jump out of airplanes and rappel out of helicopters when I was an infantry officer in the Army…Was wondering if you were interested in experimental archaeology? My first exposure to that subject was a book on flint knapping… I actually practice primitive skills annually at the ———gathering…Anyway, let me know if you are interested? …While I’d be hoping it didn’t stay platonic, we can obviously cross that bridge when we get there.
Yeah…while I’m all about flint-knapping, I’m not ready to discuss the long-term evolution of our physical relationship *quite* yet.
Looks Indian jonesy
I don’t even know what that means.
Happy New Year I am a person you need to meet I will make you smile
You know what makes me smile? Punctuation.
As I was researching something clever and enticing to say about the Tibetan book of the dead, I suddenly realized you can help me find thousand years old pots of honey in Egyptian tombs (see my profile). What a lead in! What an opening salvo. It’s perfection. She’ll swoon. She’ll laugh. She’ll throw her sunglasses away in effigous gratitude to Ra..
While I actually do have friends who look for thousand year old pots of honey in their spare time, I’m gonna pass. And I like my sunglasses, so Ra can suck it. Also, “effigous” is not a word.
I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid, and even wrote “archaeologist” on the first grade chalkboard next to the other kids’ “mommy” and “doctor”…ironically, I ended up studying birds and evolution.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS DON’T DIG UP DINOSAUR BONES, DUMBASS. We read inscriptions in long-dead languages aloud and accidentally anger the guardian spirits of the tombs we’re robbing. Have you never seen Tomb Raider?
Great pics–Hey if you are serious about hooking up–let’s meet at a bar or coffee house and if there is a spark–off to somewhere more private :)
I honestly have no idea what in my profile suggested to this person that I might be interested in hooking up in a coffee house before going home with a strange man.
This next guy was witty and funny, and we exchanged quite a few messages. His first name happens to be my middle name. When I mentioned this, he wrote:
Great name – and I have never met anyone with —— as a middle name! There is probably a vile punchline somewhere in all of this about me already being in you…lmao
There was also an English professor with the handle Cadeceus. If you have a PhD in English, and cannot spell caduceus correctly, you’re off the island.
gorgeous! but real? not so sure?
I’m real. And I’m spectacular.
Hi! Grappling session? :-)
So there you have it, folks. I’ll be off enjoying having an awesome boyfriend if you need me.
I wrote this several years ago, saved it in my drafts folder, and only just rediscovered it. So here you go, from the vaults:
I’m pretty sure that the government has a file with my name on it.
The romantic encounter that sounds sexiest on paper was actually one of the most awkward. I have to be careful here, since the gentleman in question worked for a certain government agency, and I don’t want to reveal any compromising information. With that in mind, I have redacted any parts of the story that I think may lead to his identification.
I spent the summer of XXXX in XX doing the 9-week Russian-language immersion program at XXXXXXXXXX College, which I had somehow convinced my university to pay for (because I’m that good).
XXXXXXXXXX is in the middle of XX, by which I mean the middle of nowhere, and is a very interesting place. If an acid-dropping, incense-burning, peace-loving vegan hippie married a gun-toting, flannel-wearing redneck, their children would move to XX. It’s the weirdest mix of social liberalism and hillbilly I’ve ever seen, and I lived in Austin for 5 years. But the granola is outstanding and there are amazing cross-country trails and mountain vistas.
You get all sorts at this program. The US government actually sends agents from the XXX, the XXX, and the XXXXXXX XXXXXXX there to learn ‘critical languages.’ There were several people in the XXX and the XXX, many of whom were also ex-army and in the gym a lot with me. Most of them were in the class below me, and we struck up a friendly, if conversationally limited acquaintance.
I had noticed that one of the XXX agents always seemed to find a way to work out near me in the gym. We’ll call him Ex-army. He was a little older than me, and not actually all that attractive, but I was in level 2 with a bunch of 19 and 20 year olds,* and it was nice to have a friendly acquaintance with someone who could legally purchase beer.
It happened toward the end of the summer after karaoke night at the campus union. The over-21s proceeded to get smashed at the student union bar to numb the humiliation of wearing a giant cardboard apple pinned to your chest and singing a song in Russian about a lonely XXXXXXX from XXXXXXXX who is bummed because his girlfriend has the flu and can’t go party with him.
We moved the festivities to the dive bar in town, where there was a sawdust-covered dance floor and PBR on tap. EA kept buying me beer and a drunken idiot from the Chinese language school kept trying to dance with me. Eventually EA and I headed back to campus, where he wanted to show me something in his dorm room. All of a sudden he XXXXXXXXXXXXX and to my surprise XXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX in the XXXXX, even though I honestly was expecting nothing of the sort, and by the time I left XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. The next morning I woke up hungover like a beotch (alone) in my own room, XXXX XXXXXXX and couldn’t find my shoes.
That afternoon I was sitting on the lawn guzzling water, wearing sunglasses, and trying to concentrate on learning vocabulary that was blurring before my eyes, when up walked EA. He was really not good at the language, even though he XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, so we illicitly switched to English and took a walk through the woods down to the river, and wound up at the baseball field. We sat in the dugout chatting and then XXXXXXXXXXXX even though the chain link fence XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX which actually got annoying because XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX mosquitoes.
Anyway, we continued to hang out, but I was very clear on my terms. This would end when we left XXXXXXXXXX in a couple of weeks, and he agreed that it was what it was. As such, I tried to avoid learning any personal details about him and to evade the questions he insisted on asking me about my hopes and dreams and fears. I changed the subject when he started to wax poetic about how good he was at home improvement and how much he liked to cook and clean. I did learn a bit more about his job, which involved bank robbers, XXXXXXXXXX, and the XXXXXXXX mafia. Plus, he’d been in Iraq and then shipped out to XXXXXX and was in a XXXXXXXXX unit where he XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXX, and one time had even XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX when he was XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX and had orders to XXXXXXXXXXXXX in XXXXXXXX, which I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to know. He was required to carry a gun at all times, which he only removed when XXXXXXXXXXXXX. He’d also brought his Harley, which we drove to XXXXXXXXXX a couple of times for illicit Mexican food.
Not gonna lie, it was hot.
But then I noticed that in the dining hall and in the lobby where students congregated between classes, he would stare at me in an besotted, adoring kind of way. At the gym I couldn’t work out in peace because he was always indiscreetly trying to talk to me in English, so I started going for longer and longer runs on the trails because he couldn’t keep up with me.
Eventually, it was time for finals. The week of testing broke us. Blatant English was breaking out everywhere by the end, and on the last day most people were shotgunning vodka by noon. Before finals he presented me with a bouquet of flowers for luck. Yes, yes, thanks. Very sweet of you. You do realize this is just a fling, right? Oh, yes, absolutely, it is what it is.
I didn’t really mind the first phone call. I mean, we had just XXXXXXXXX during the program when we XXXXXXXXXXX what with the meteor shower XXXXXXXX when the sprinklers went off and XXXXXXXX when we ran into some people from our class at the XXX but we XXXXXX to the XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, which I think was a tick, but thankfully I didn’t get Lyme disease. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX because it was itchy.
I do not know what on earth possessed me to let him come visit me in my town the weekend before I started teaching. He drove down on the Harley and showed up with—you guessed it—another bouquet of flowers. He also brought me a coffee mug from the department of XXXXXXXXX, with a giant XXX logo emblazoned on it, and carpentry tools to fix the hole in my floor I’d been complaining about (don’t ask). It was all kind of…domestic.
My best friend C and her boyfriend B were on a roadtrip that weekend and were staying with me for a couple of nights. EA immediately got possessive and insisted that we hold hands every second that we weren’t using them to wield forks. When I disentangled myself long enough to go to the bathroom, C came with me and whispered, ‘Why does he keep TOUCHING you?’ I had been wondering that myself. These were my best friends, whom I hardly ever get to see and whom he’d never met, and he was acting like he was a dog marking his territory or something. I told her I was breaking it off as soon as he left. At this point even clueless me realized that he thought we were dating, instead of it being an uncomplicated XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX that began during a XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX vodka XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX that was slated to end when XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX even though XXXXXXXXX in the Adirondack chair. C whispered back, ‘Ouch. Dead man walking.’ But I didn’t feel all that bad—I’d made it very clear on numerous occasions that this was just for fun, that it was a fling, and that it WOULD NOT develop into anything serious.
C and B left, and EA had to go back to XXXXXXXX because he was shipping out to XXXXXX to train some new army recruits. But first I had to find a Catholic church so that he could attend mass and go to confession on Sunday. I mentioned that he hadn’t seemed worried about doing penance during the XXXXXXXXXXX after the XXXXXXX in the XXXXXXXX even though there was XXXXX and the thing with the XXXX after we saw that XXXXXXXX, because really, how was I to know there would be a cow? He solemnly told me that he was conflicted and in need of absolution.
Not that it mattered at that point, but since I generally come down on the pro-sin side, an ex-altar boy with a Catholic guilt complex who has to confess to a priest every time he XXXXXXXs or thinks about XXXXXing is another nail in the coffin.
On his way to XXXXXX he called me from his layover in XXXXXXXXX to tell me he was thinking about me. Jesus Christ, get a clue. But I thought it would be doubly heartless to break up with him before he boarded a long flight to XXXXXXX, so I said I’d call him tomorrow.
The next day was the first day of classes. I arrived to find a giant bouquet of irises on my desk. At my place of work. In front of my colleagues.
I called him that night. He was jetlagged and I felt a little bad, but I couldn’t put it off any longer.
“EA, I wanted to thank you for the flowers. They’re beautiful, and that was really sweet. But I am starting to think that you are feeling more for me than I feel for you, and that even though we talked about how this wasn’t going to last, you’re wanting more than I can give you. We have to break it off.”
I was really proud of this speech. I’d thought about it a lot and even practiced. I purposely avoided the ‘we have to talk’ and the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ bullshit and cut to the chase in what I hoped was a direct yet kind way.
First he tried to convince me that I was mistaken, and that he understood exactly what our situation was. I gently told him that I was sorry, I didn’t believe him and we were through.
Then he told me that he didn’t understand why I would want to throw away such a good thing when we had such a great time together. I explained that yes, I had fun, but even if I did reciprocate his feelings (which I didn’t), I had to put my career first.
He countered by saying that he knew my career was important and that nothing could happen now [now?? As opposed to later?? What the fuck does that mean? ‘I know I can’t propose now, but 30 seconds after you get your PhD we can get hitched?] and that he was willing to stick it out because he wanted to take care of me and he thought he could make me happy.
This is not the right approach with me. I can take care of my own damn self, and I don’t need some XXX agent soldier-boy with a hero complex to swoop in and save the day, thank you very much. And make me happy? I’m happy on my own, mister, and if I choose to let you SHARE my happiness, rather than having my happiness depend solely on you, that’s another matter. But I don’t.
But he was upset, so I didn’t bite his head off. I gently explained that it wasn’t a matter of just timing, but distance. Then he offered to call a contact of his in the government and get transferred to Philly. Jesus H Christ, we had a fling for a couple of weeks and he thinks I want him to move to Philly and have my babies. This was starting to get a little scary.
I reiterated that none of that really mattered anyway, since I just didn’t return his feelings. He said that he could tell I liked him more than I would admit, but since I had been hurt in the past I had built walls around my heart, and he wanted to be the one to teach me to care again.
So you know how I feel about you better than I do? Before I could pick my jaw up off the floor to respond, he added, ‘Please don’t do this. I thought I’d never be able to care about someone again after the things that happened to me in Iraq, and you’ve taught me to open up my heart.’
I don’t respond well to emotional blackmail. To play the Iraq card in a desperate attempt to prolong a 3-week fling you entered into with the explicit understanding that it would not last? If he thought this was going to work it proved how little he understood about what makes me tick. I said I was sorry again and hung up, and refused to answer any of his calls or emails. I feel it was kinder that way, especially after the email where he said he wanted to address all of the points I had made. He reiterated that he could move to Philly and take care of me and make me happy until I was ready to be proposed to, since obviously that was what I wanted even if I couldn’t say it because of the heartache I was suffering that he was obviously the one to heal.
So it didn’t work out, but I got a really bitchin’ coffee mug.
A bit of Christmas cheer…
So I’ve re-joined OKCupid. I’m not looking for anything serious, since I have no idea what continent I’ll be living on 6 months from now, but I thought, hey, why not have some fun in the meantime? If I meet someone nice, that’s terrific. If not, well, more material for the blog. Win-win. I actually joined about a month ago, at a terrible time—when I was seriously ill, right before Thanksgiving, which was right before I left for India, which put me back in the states just before the holidays, and now I have a stupid amount of work to do in a very short time. So I haven’t actually gone out with anyone, and the people who have written me non-creepy messages AND are actually attractive have been few and far between. So I’ve been mostly ignoring it or using it for comedy value, which I thought I would share for the amusement of my 500 best friends on the internet this fine, balls-cold Christmas day.
I have a brutal system. I have nothing invested in these people, so the bar for getting thrown off the island is really low. I ranted about stupid profiles the first time I joined several years ago, so now I’ll move on to messages. Everything in bold is verbatim copied from a message I’ve gotten.
Things that get you the axe immediately:
—A message that consists entirely of “hi,” “hey,” “what’s up?” or similar. How am I supposed to reply? A reciprocal “Hi”? “Not much, what’s up with you?” Fascinating. Or maybe they were hoping for something more along the lines of “OMG you said hi you’re so hawt we must get naked as soon as possible!” Also, I’ve gotten several that, without preamble, are variations on, “So what are you doing tonight/this afternoon/right now?” Not you, that’s for damn sure.
—Horrible grammar. Sorry, I’m a snob that way.
—Super creepy intense:
“You intrigue me on nearly every plane I’ve experienced or conceived of so far.”
Either you have a very limited imagination or you’re a psycho stalker.
“Hi gorgeous, I was a little hesitated to send you an email, and I know I am not even a match for you, but the beauty of your photos has just taken my breath, and your gorgeous smile have allured my attention. I hope you don’t get offended by my email. I know this may be weird, or even silly Thanks for taking your precious time to check out my profile.”
My photos take your breath away? My precious time? You know you’re not a match for me? I’m not disagreeing, buddy, but jeez, have a little self-respect. Also, learn English.
—References to my appearance. If you start off your message by telling me I’m beautiful, sexy, or how attracted to me you are, particularly if there’s no mention of anything that proves you read my profile, my creep alarm goes off. For instance:
WOW! You are absolutely GORGEOUS! What an AMAZING smile you have as well!
Points for mentioning my smile rather than my more feminine attributes, but really? Nothing else? Did you read my profile, or are you just masturbating furiously to my pictures?
“88% match…christ we should be in bed already ;-)”
Yeah, totally….wait, what?
“I live right outside the city, but I’d come into town to meet you for a drink. You’re not going to respond, but I find you very stimulating…intellectually, of course! ;)”
“God…u are gorgeous.”
Good to feel appreciated for my personality and intellectual qualities. But how hard would it be to type those two extra letters and make an actual word?
“I know you must get this all the time in your email box, But you are very beautiful women! Hope to hear from you! If not Good luck in your search and always stay beautiful :)”
I’m glad you appreciate the beauty of what you apparently perceive as my multiple personalities, and I’ll do my best not to spontaneously morph into a hideous hag.
“You are one of the most attractive women on here. Wat are you looking for?”
Someone who can spell “What.”
“coming to philly for a shoot. looking for a cute smart young girl to hang with, Interested?”
Hello. My name is B—. How are you? You wouldn’t happen to be interested in modeling for my photography portfolio, would you?
Does your “photography portfolio” involve a password-protected file on your computer that your wife doesn’t know about?
And my personal favorite,
“Ok this is going to be a long shot but what do I have to lose…I think you’re insanely attractive… in fact, I would slay half of Rhode Island with a dull rusty sword just to have you sweat on me. In the meantime, here’s a joke to make you chuckle today. I checked into a hotel room for work the other day. I told the front desk lady that I hoped the porn channel in my room was disabled. She got offended and said no it’s regular porn you sick bastard. Check out my profile for more laughs if you’d like to know more my dear…”
I’ve been told that shit like this is a crude form of flattery, but I feel less flattered and more like bathing in bleach and calling Chris Hansen on Dateline. I mean, what did Rhode Island ever do to him?
—The copy-and-paste message, as in, there is nothing whatsoever to show that you read my profile, and it is clear that you sent the exact same message to anyone whose profile caught your eye, such as:
“If you could do whatever you wanted with your life with no worry of failure or regret, what would you do? (Princess can’t be the answer lol).”
But I AM a princess.
“If you knew you were going to be stranded on a deserted island…what three things would you bring with you? (personal items not survival/escape gear).”
My teddy bear, lip gloss, and a coconut bra.
—The creeper. You can see who has visited your profile, and there are several guys who lurk and keep returning to my profile, but either do not send a message or keep obsessively looking at my profile after I have ignored them.
—Closely related is the person who either has a blank profile or no pictures whatsoever, and gives me their phone number “in case I want to find out more or see some pictures.” Sorry, I’ve learned the hard way that “some pictures” usually involve your penis, so no thank you. For instance:
“Hey, how are you? First, I must say that you are absolutely gorgeous! My name is XXXX, I am 33 and from NE Philly. I played hockey in college, as well as professionally for a bit. Now I work in center city. If your feeling spontaneous, text me when you get this and I’ll send you a pic. If you like the pic, we can discuss shopping and dinner. My treat of course ###-###-####. Deal? Lol. Hope to hear from you soon!”
This guy failed so many ways. No pictures, immediate mention of my appearance, no evidence that he read my profile, random extraneous information that I don’t care about (hockey? Do you have all your teeth? Oh, wait, I have no way of knowing, because you have no pictures), the inability to tell the difference between “you’re” and “your.” And “discuss” shopping? I get a creepy image of Jimmy Stewart taking Grace Kelly shopping in Rear Window.
—The ones who see that I’ve visited their profile and assume it means that I want to sleep with them and write messages to that effect.
—People who fetishize either archaeology or Muay Thai:
“I feel really stupid for asking you this on a dating site, but I need some advice from a girl in martial arts who has time to talk…would you mind?”
“Hello Ms Croft– have you planned your next adventure?”
“I’m actually impressed that the “sexy archeologist” isn’t just a cliche ;)”
—The ones who insist that they are more interesting than their profile suggests. Why not make your profile interesting in the first place?
“I saw that you took a look at my profile and I realize that my first message might have come off as generic. I’m really much more intriguing and less mysterious than the blank profile suggests. It would be fun to get acquainted.”
I know my profile is boring, but I’m interesting! I swear! And while I have provided no evidence of this whatsoever, you can totally take my word for it! This particular one may not sound that bad, but I had already ignored two messages, one of which was a fairly detailed history of his life with WAY too much information about his ex-wife.
—The ones that start off well and then tank spectacularly. For instance, I exchanged a couple of messages with one guy who was cute, articulate, and amusing, and it was reaching the point where I would either stop messaging someone or get a drink with them, when he sent the following:
“I’m very active and it is hard to find someone to keep up with my drive in and out of the bedroom. Lol.”
—The ones who think that because they find me attractive, they are entitled to a response. For instance, there is a feature called “quickmatch.” The OKCupid-bot or whatever the hell it’s called has a mysterious algorithm whereby it decides which people you might like. It gives you partial snapshots of their profiles, and you either like them or rate them poorly on the spot. If you rate each other highly, the powers that be let you know, and it is up to you to decide if you want to message each other. There was one guy whose profile I liked. He liked me in return, and sent me a message along the lines of, “We’re a match! Let’s get a drink!” I looked at his profile and read the bits that quick match had edited out, and he admitted that he had lied about his age in his publicly viewable stats because he felt that he had more in common with younger women and he wanted them to read his profile before dismissing him. Huge red flag. So I ignored him. Over the course of a week, I got the following series of messages from him before I got annoyed and blocked him:
Sorry, bro, no response IS a response. I don’t send messages very often (see above about mainly being on here for comedy value), but if I do and I get ignored, I assume that he’s not into me, and that’s fine. I don’t want to waste my time writing to people I’m not interested in, and I don’t expect others to, either. I’m certainly not going to be petulant and whine about it (as attractive and mature as that is).
—The ones who send me a dissertation about their lives. A quick hello and something witty that shows you actually read my profile suffices, and if I’m interested, I’ll reply in like manner. I usually limit these exchanges to a handful of messages before suggesting a meeting, because I’d rather talk in person than have a pen-pal. But if you continue writing me long-ass messages, especially if I haven’t replied, it doesn’t work in your favor. This is one case where persistence is not the right tactic.
—The ones that are apropos of absolutely nothing:
“I can cook and am good at looking at your eyes rather than your chest. Let’s talk.”
Wow, can you walk and chew gum at the same time, too?
“Would you knee a guy in bicycle shorts?”
Only if they’re neon pink.
“You seem like a intelligent and strong woman. My name is L—, and I can keep up with anyone on matters intellect, cooking, drinking or makeout. To get the ball rolling, tell me about your Phd thesis, and maybe I will write you a romantic poem about the jam between my toes.”
Toe jam. This guy really knows how to charm a lady.
“You must love animals. Aren’t you a little too sexy to be on here?”
And the relationship between those statements is…? Also, this displays a distressing lack of self-esteem.
“Merry Xmas? Your smile is gorgeous. I would love to get to know more about you, TRUTH OR DARE?”
I don’t think I’ve played truth or dare since junior high slumber parties, and I’m not interested in starting with strange men on the internet.
“How’s yours Xmas eve? I’ve had slightly too much wine… Better have more just to be sure.”
So you’re drunk messaging me, and planning to get drunker, and telling me? Hot.
“So what are your top five favorite things to do of all time? ::pours you tea::”
Earl Grey, please. Hot.
“What’s green and has wheels?”
“Well, I am intrigued, like a moth whose wings are catching on fire but who continues flutters closer. As an armchair buff on ancient history I would no doubt revel in your superiority and no doubt worship you while you lecture me on how wrong my hero Eugene Weber was in his analysis of the fall of ancient Rome. As I write this, however, I can feel the impact of your fist on my face moments after I tells you where you can stick your southern sensibilities. There would be endless arguments about the respective noises we like to blast through the speaker systems, with each of us turning the volume up just a little bit louder. Still, a sack of boobielicious demons with a plate full of chocolate chips might just be worth it.”
My fist in your face? Plates of chocolate chips? Boobielicious demons? What? I just can’t…what?
—People with completely ridiculous handles, such as “Billiard_Beauty” or “Bachlr_4_Ever.” The former had a bit in his profile about how he isn’t as shallow as his extreme good looks suggest. To be fair, he is really pretty, but seriously? Re: the latter—really? On a dating site? Good luck with that.
More later when and if I actually go out with anyone who does something blog-worthy.
By this point, I was thoroughly annoyed, both with the situation in general, and with A—, who had been talking incessantly the entire way from Agra. I have trouble staying awake in cars, and he was somehow under the impression that I wanted him to keep me awake until we got to Jaipur and chattered at me the whole way. Plus, he was super nosy and every time I got a text from one of my friends, he asked me who it was from, what they said, and what I said in reply, which annoyed the ever-loving fuck out of me. So I wanted some alone time and told him that I was going to do a yoga podcast, at which point he said, “I have never done yoga! You can show me how.” I explained that no, actually, I was kicking him out of the room for the next hour and I would find him when I was done, ignoring the wounded puppy look he gave me.
After a delicious dinner prepared by our hostess, A— and I went up to the marvelous roof deck to have a drink after dinner. My “oh, shit” alarm went off once more when he told me that he has never before had a drink with a girl, because he lives with his mother and she doesn’t like it when he drinks. I hastened to explain that I realized that our cultures were very different, but in America it was very common for men and women to be friends and to have a friendly drink together without anything else happening, so that because we were friends and I knew that he understood that we were just friends, I was having a friendly drink with him.
Yes, yes of course.
He then told me a long, convoluted story about how he had taken a trip to Nepal with some of his friends, who were mainly interested in visiting a Nepali brothel. He was of course not interested in such things, so waited downstairs while his friends went upstairs with the girls. Then he asked me if I was dating anyone, and I told him no, I had broken up with my boyfriend several months before, and then I made the mistake of telling him that I have had more than one serious boyfriend. Then he started telling me about his ex-girlfriend. He is muslim and she is sikh, and they broke up after 2 years because she wanted to get married. Then he told me that he had had sex with her, but only twice, because it was difficult for them to be alone (what with him living with his mother and all). I wasn’t sure if he was trying to impress me with his vast experience (I’ve had sex! Twice!) or his chastity (I’ve had sex—but only twice!). Then he actually asked me if I have had sex with any of my past boyfriends. I told him that was none of his business, and changed the subject. I was getting uncomfortable, but played it breezy and casual, because I figured that was my best bet to keep things from getting even more awkward. I said I was tired and went to bed, which would have been fine if A— hadn’t kept waking me up to tell me he couldn’t sleep.
The next morning R— picked us up and took us to the City Palace, Albert Hall Museum, and the Palace of the Winds. Things again got super awkward when he asked me if I was going to do yoga again tonight, and I said yes, probably. Then he asked if I would show him how to do yoga. I should have said no, but I told him I’d do an easy routine and show him a couple of things. Then he told me that he would like to give me a massage after yoga, and that his shoulders were very sore. I laughed nervously and said, “okay, maybe, we’ll see. I’m not sure I’ll feel like it though.” A bit later, he bought baby oil, showed it to me, and asked if I knew what it was for. Now, I had originally thought he was suggesting a friendly shoulder rub (which, let me be clear, was also not going to happen). I told him that I was not in the mood for a massage. He suggested that maybe I would change my mind later, and I told him no, that wasn’t going to happen, and there would be no massages. This was a little difficult to play off casually, especially when we were at the bazaar a bit later and he bought a bracelet for his sister. He mentioned that they were close, so I said, “You’re a good brother.” Then he told me that he was a good lover, too, at which point I quickly ducked into a shop and started a fierce bargaining session for some textiles, and didn’t speak to him much for the next hour.
We again had dinner at the homestay. A— suggested that we have a drink afterward, and that we stay in our room rather than go out on the roof deck. As these were the only two places to be in the entire house (the downstairs was for the family), and as it was (unfortunately) too early to go to bed, I firmly vetoed drinking in the room and we again sat out on the roof deck, had a beer, and chatted. Then he started telling me about a Thai masseuse “friend” of S—’s, and mentioned that sometimes when Thai girls give massages…I broke in with, “Yes, yes, I understand!” Then I got a complicated story about a time when he and S— were sharing a suite at a hotel, and S— disappeared with this girl for an hour. A— then asked her for a massage, but she half-assed it, because she was tired after S—’s “happy ending.” He tried to call her on another occasion to get a proper massage (he just wanted a massage, of course!), but she and S— had had a fight and she wouldn’t return his calls. Again, I’m not sure if he was impressing upon me his integrity or his worldliness, or just being passive aggressive about the baby oil thing.
It’s wedding season here, and all day we had been passing elaborate parades with loud music and dancing in the streets and parties, and there were fireworks from another wedding. I was desperate to change the subject, so I asked him to tell me about typical wedding ceremonies. This was a mistake, because then we got into the question of dowries, and how each case was different, and sometimes the girl’s family gave to the boy’s, and vice versa, depending on what the parents agreed on. At this point he started telling me that in Indian culture, they believed that the wives wanted sex more than the husband, and that it was very important to keep your wife satisfied. Therefore it was appropriate to have sex at least once, but not more than twice, per week, and never to masturbate (got that, guys?). Except that he didn’t know the English word, so demonstrated with hand gestures until I loudly assured him that I understood.
Then he asked me if I would ever date an Indian man. I saw where this was going, so mumbled something about how getting along was more important than ethnicity, but before I could stress the importance of geographic proximity, he very formally said, “Because I would like to ask you to be my girlfriend.”
Christ on a cracker. I hadn’t realized that his explanation of his ideal sex schedule and promise to abstain from self-gratification was supposed to be a personal recommendation. What the hell was I supposed to do? I gave him the standard speech about how I was flattered, but stressed that even if we didn’t live on different freaking continents, it would be impossible, because I thought of him as a friend. “Remember how I told you that because we are friends, I trust you not to do anything inappropriate?” He told me of course, no problem, but he thought he should ask, because he liked me very much, and he had never sat and talked and shared a drink with a girl like this, and he thought we got along very well. I decided that my best course of action was to be super casual and laugh it off—before anyone yells at me for not handing him his ass, remember, I was alone in a foreign city with this dude, I was not in any physical danger, and I would be damned if I missed riding an elephant because I had to ditch this guy and ruin my day finding an alternate way home (remember, he and R— are friends, so even though R— hadn’t done anything to make me uncomfortable, I didn’t want to count on him being willing to leave A—). Plus, there was really nowhere else to stay. So I played it cool. But then he told me that his friends back home probably wouldn’t believe him when he told them that nothing had happened between us and said, “Tell me one thing. If you don’t like me as a boyfriend, why did you agree to share a room with me?”
I almost lost my shit. I reminded him in no uncertain terms that if he remembered, I had wanted separate rooms, but there had been a misunderstanding, and when I agreed to the room situation, I had made it clear that it was because of circumstances; and because we were FRIENDS, I trusted him not to make any inappropriate moves, as we had discussed on several occasions. Then I casually mentioned that I have been training in Muay Thai for almost a decade and not-so-subtly made it clear that I am capable of physical violence if threatened.
I went to bed not long afterward. Things were awkward the next day, but I was still playing it super casual. I got to ride an elephant up to the Amber Fort, which was amazing, despite the fact that I was thoroughly sick of A—. Soon after, we set off for Delhi. My clever plan to put in my earbuds and pretend to sleep for the next 4 1/2 hours was ruined by the construction on the highway between Jaipur and Delhi, which involved giant potholes, horrid traffic jams involving both cars and cows, an overturned melon truck, and much swerving and honking.
But I arrived in one piece, at which point A— strenuously reminded me to give him a good review on tripadvisor.com. I said, yes, I would get to it (I didn’t specify whether the review would be good or bad), and handed him some money. He started to refuse it, but I loudly said, “Here is the 2000 rupees that you and S— and I agreed on when he said you could show me around Jaipur.” I was trying to underscore that the whole thing had been a business transaction, even though I’m pissed off that I ended up paying even a cent for that clusterfuck, but the bottom line is, I made it back in one piece.
Yes, I made many mistakes, and yes, I would do things completely differently were I to do it again. I probably should have been less nice to him and made it clearer how inappropriate he was being, but again, let me remind you that I was alone in a foreign city and this dude and his friend were my way home. At no point did I feel that I was in physical danger, and I always had the option of calling my friends to bail me out if things got sticky. But yeah, I’m going to be more careful with tour guides from now on.
He has since emailed me to tell me what a good time he had and again remind me to give him a good review on trip advisor, and facebook friended me. I have blocked his email address in anticipation of an angry message after he finds out about the formal complaint we lodged, and ignored the facebook request. I am still deciding whether I should tank him on a trip advisor review—thoughts on this?
Apparently, I manage to go on bad dates when I’m not even on a date. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m in India at the moment visiting friends in New Delhi. They had to work this week, so I took 3 days to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal, and then spent 2 nights in Jaipur. I could pretend to be cultured and interested in the many cool things about Jaipur, but I confess I mainly just wanted to ride an elephant up to the Amber fort.
My friends arranged a car and driver for me through a travel agent, and Tuesday morning a guy named R— picked me up and we drove the 4 1/2 hours to Agra. My friends had requested a tour guide named A—, whom they have used before and liked very much, so after picking him up we went straight to the Taj Mahal.
I have seen hundreds of tourist attractions. I have worked in Turkey, Italy, Cyprus, and Ukraine, lived in Greece for two years, and seen some of the most famous archaeological wonders of the world. I have visited France, Germany, Switzerland, England, Cameroon, and South Africa. I have seen cathedrals, palaces, and museums full of stunning objects, and at times I have been moved to tears by the majesty and history associated with the things I’ve been privileged to see.
The Taj Mahal put them all to shame.
I feel disloyal to my first love, Greece, when I say that, but I have never seen a more beautiful creation of man’s. And its story is heartbreaking and incredibly compelling.
See, in 1631, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, Mumtaj Mahal, died in childbirth. With her last breath, she asked him for two things. First, that he not marry again. Second, that he build something that showed his love for her.
His wife’s death kind of unhinged the Shah. He built her this astounding mausoleum, which took 20,000 workers and artisans from all over the world 22 years to complete. It is situated at one end of an enormous garden complex on the bank of the holy river Yamuna, and is perfectly symmetrical from every angle. Even the elaborate mosque to one side is mirrored on the other by a guesthouse with an exactly matching facade. It cost 32 million rupees—at that time—to build. Mumtaj had brought the art of inlay with her when she came from Persia, and the entire structure is covered with tiny precious and semi-precious stones inlaid in intricate patterns in pure, translucent white marble. The pigments of the painted elements are made from ground up jewel dust (!).
When I think about the wealth Shah Jahan expended in his grief for his dead love, my brain goes fuzzy and my heart breaks.
A— did a wonderful job showing me around. I threw a bunch of detailed questions at him about the history and technical aspects of the construction, and I couldn’t stump him. I wasn’t trying to be a dick; I was simply fascinated. He knew every detail, and we got on swimmingly. I had a wonderful time. He took me to several other places, but after the Taj, it was all gravy.
I mentioned my plans for the next couple of days over lunch, and A— told me that he often escorts people to Jaipur to show them around, and if I liked, he could ask his boss if he could go with me. I (mis)understood him to mean that he was a licensed guide in Jaipur as well as Agra, and told him that I’d like that very much. So we ended up going to dinner with his boss to set things up.
S— was kind of sleazy. He told me stories about his Ukrainian mistress and various wild parties he had attended. He was nevertheless somewhat entertaining, though I made a mental note not to go anywhere alone with him. Over dinner, S— told me that if I shelled out 2000 rupees (about $30) to cover A—’s hotel room, it would be cool if he came with me. Since this is standard for guides who accompany tourists overnight, and was the arrangement I had (via the very same tour company) with R—, I figured that this was a good deal and agreed.
So the next morning R— and A— picked me up at 8, and we set off on the 5 hour drive to Jaipur. The plan was to stop at Fatipur Sikori en route, have lunch on the road, and then show up at the home stay I had booked on airbnb.com around 5. We’d spend the next day seeing the sights around town, and then on the final morning we’d get up early, ride an elephant up to the Amber fort, and make the 5 hour trip back to Delhi.
Silly me, I had interpreted, “A— will show you around if you pay an agreed-upon price for his services and hotel room” to mean that I was engaging in a professional transaction. But we hadn’t been on the road long when A—, who was riding shotgun, turned around and said, “You know, I was thinking about something, and I think it will be much better if we stay in the same hotel, and you ask them to bring in a cot so we can share a room. It will be much cheaper that way, and we can spend the 2000 rupees on liquor.”
My “oh shit” alarm went off at this point, and I said, “A—, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He asked me to think about it, because it really would be cheaper, and it was just to save money, not for anything else, etc. etc. He was so insistent that I cut him off mid-sentence and told him once more that I didn’t think that was a good idea. “Okay, no problem, but just think about it.”
After he (again, very ably) guided me around Fahtepur Sikri, he asked R— to stop the car on the side of the highway so he could get in the back with me, because he was done being a tour guide and was now on vacation. I said, “wait, aren’t you my guide in Jaipur? Isn’t that what we talked about with S— last night?” He replied, “No, this is my vacation! I am just traveling because it is fun and you are a nice person and I would like to help.” Turns out he’s not a licensed guide in Jaipur, but does often escort tour groups there to facilitate accommodations, transportation, guides, etc. In my case, though, he was just going along for fun, only I was somehow funding his vacation.
When we stopped for lunch, he suggested that I call the hotel and ask if they had a cot they could put in my room for him. I wasn’t about to do this, but I did call to see if they had another room, which they told me was no problem, it would just be an extra 1000 rupees. I should have realized that there was something wrong, as this was less than half the price I’d paid for a room, but I said great, I’d take it. A— was very concerned and said, “Wait, did you ask them for a cot in your room? Because it really is cheaper.” I told him very firmly that I would rather have my own room. “Okay, fine, of course, no problem.”
When we got to the house, which was out in a suburb at some remove from the town, it turned out that I had been right to be suspicious of the low price, because they showed me to a room with two twin beds in it, which was all they had.
I rapidly came to the following conclusions: 1) I was in a house with a family right downstairs, 2) There was an extremely nice man staying in the room next door, the walls of which were very thin, 3) I was alone in a foreign city with only this guy and a driver with whom he was friends, and needed to get back to Delhi in one piece, 4) I was very clear that if we shared a room it was just because of the misunderstanding at the hotel and nothing inappropriate would happen, 5) A— doesn’t look like he’s ever seen the inside of the gym, so I was pretty sure I could handle him if things got out of hand, 6) if all else failed, I could go nuclear and call my friends, who had his number, the number of the hotel, knew my itinerary, and had the power to pretty much wreck him career-wise if he stepped out of line. I also knew that they would move heaven and earth to get me home another way if things went totally pear-shaped, but I didn’t want to do that if I could help it. At no point had I felt physically threatened, and I really wanted to ride an elephant, goddammit. So I agreed, and once more made it clear that this was for convenience only.
As it turns out, this was a mistake.
To be continued…
For my last day, I had booked a bus tour of the Cape of Good Hope, with several stops at cool places along the way.
We set off around 8 AM, in pouring rain. Our guide, Sele, was cheerful despite the weather, and pointed out all sorts of features and towns and scenic views, most of which were completely invisible through the rain and foggy windows. The first stop was Seal Island. We all got on this tiny boat and sputtered out to the “island,” which was really a cluster of rocks in the middle of the bay where a colony of seals were hanging out on the rocks and playing in the water. My brain was in danger of exploding from the cuteness. It had sort of stopped raining, and I got some good pictures and video, despite the fact that the water was so choppy I could barely keep my footing.
Our next stop was Simontown, which is the home of Boulders National Park, where a colony of African penguins live. You heard me right. Penguins. In Africa. Also totally freaking adorable.
By the time we got to the wildlife preserve surrounding the Cape itself for our picnic lunch, it had started raining pretty hard again, so we all voted to skip the optional bike ride through the park. But I decided that, rain or no rain, I couldn’t NOT hike up Cape Point itself, so a group of the more daring (or perhaps foolhardy) among us set off. If Sele hadn’t lent me his extra rain jacket I don’t know if I could have made it, since it was pouring rain and really cold. As it was, we had no desire to linger at the top, despite the spectacular views. By this point we were so cold and wet that we were thoroughly ready to leave, so we had a damp, chilly ride of about an hour and a half back to town.
I’d been asking about switching to a private room every day, but that morning was the first time there was a vacancy. So when I got back, I was soaked and shivering, but delighted to move all of my stuff out of the dormitory. With a scalding hot shower and dry clothes, I felt almost human again. I was meeting one of the guys from the conference and a professor from Cape Town University for dinner that night, and had been promised the best game steakhouse in South Africa. I was looking forward to this, because I was dying to try ostrich steak, but it was booked, so we had to settle for Italian.
Several of the Long Street people had been taking a parallel tour, and we’d run into them at every stop that day. They’d invited me to a Halloween party at their hostel, so after dinner I walked into a fierce beer pong tournament, where the owner of the hostel forcibly adorned me with a ridiculously long stocking cap, since I didn’t have a costume. Since I never even played beer pong in college, this wasn’t *exactly* my thing, so I ended up going to this bar called Mama Africa, which featured lots of African kitsch and a traditional percussion band that involved 4 ginormous xylophones. They were terrific. At one point a guy brought out a cowbell and started using it as a percussion instrument, which was good, because the entire time I’d been thinking that the performance could use more cowbell.
It was a great last night. Sadly, I woke up the next morning with a hacking, uncontrollable cough, runny nose, and sinuses that felt on the verge of exploding. I could no longer pretend it was allergies; I was honest-to-god sick, with a 35 hour itinerary ahead of me. I was coughing and sneezing and miserable the entire time, despite drinking an entire bottle of cough syrup during my 8 hour layover in Heathrow. When I FINALLY got to Newark around 10 PM the next day, I of course got in line at one of those really conscientious passport control guys who pores overs your documents, holds them up to the light, squints and looks at them sideways, examines the photo minutely to make sure it’s actually you, and asks a million questions. Since the the Law of Lines dictates that as soon as you change lines, the one you’ve left starts moving, while the new one comes to a screeching halt, I stayed put. I was also too much of a zombie to be bothered to do more than shuffle forward 6 inches at a time.
Finally, I was next. There was an Indian couple directly ahead of me who were naturalized American citizens, whose accents seemed to make the guy suspicious. He asked an exhaustive series of questions about their vacation in Italy, like “Why were you in Rome?”, “What was the name of your hotel?” “What was your exact itinerary after leaving?”, “Do you prefer Roman pizza crust or Napolitan?” I’m kidding about the last, but it was excruciating. When it was my turn, I was fully prepared to be accused of carrying a false passport. In that photo I was about 10 lbs heavier, which shows in my face, and my hair, which is now dark and down the middle of my back, was was pixie-short and red. I was also wearing baggy jeans, stained pumas, a threadbare t-shirt with the name of a band on it that no one has ever heard of, and a hoodie with a rip in the sleeve. My hair was in braided pigtails that I hadn’t tended to in 2 days, and so had ragged wisps of hair coming out and flying all around my face. Add my bloodshot eyes, snotty nose, and cough that prevented me from getting out more than a sentence at a time, and I was a sorry sight. I’d checked “business” on my landing card for the “reason for traveling” box, and when I handed him my documents, he looked at me skeptically and our exchange went something like this:
Passport Control Guy: “What sort of “business” were YOU on in South Africa?” [I could hear the formatting in his voice]
Me: “I’m a histo—hackhackcoughcoughaggggghhhhhphlegm.”
Me: “I’m a historian and was at an—coughphlegmcoughhack—academic conference.”
PCG: “Okay, move along.”
That was it. I was pretty sure he just waved me through because he didn’t want to catch the plague.
I finally made it home around midnight. It was an amazing 10 days. I’ve had a bad case of post-conference blues, and I really can’t wait to go back.
I woke up the day after I got robbed in a cheerful mood. Not only was I feeling much healthier, I was going to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. I had read his autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom,” shortly before I left, and I highly recommend it. Of course there were many freedom fighters who helped bring down apartheid, but Mandela accomplished more from a jail cell than most people do in their entire lives. The man more or less ran the African National Congress from a prison cell on a lonely island at the tip of the world.
It took longer than I thought to walk to the V&A waterfront, where I was supposed to catch a ferry at 9. I was running along the docks, periodically stopping to ask directions from people who stared incredulously at me when I yelled “Thanks!” over my shoulder as I sprinted away. I arrived at the museum at 9:00 on the dot, breathless and drenched in sweat, only to stand in line for 45 minutes while they waited for the ferry to arrive.
The ride took about an hour, through drizzling rain and choppy water. The tour was supposed to start with a bus ride around the island itself, and end with a guided tour through the prison, led by a former inmate. I asked the bus driver if I had time to use the restroom before the bus left, and he assured me that he would not leave without all of the passengers. So of course when I got back, he had left without all of the passengers.
I was in good company, though. They’d overbooked the tour, and rather than make arrangements for the 15 or souls who hadn’t been quick enough to get a seat, they just left. There was another group gathering nearby, led by an American guy who kept yelling things like, “Get away from our group, this is a private tour!” and “This is for H.I. employees only; if you don’t know what H.I. stands for you shouldn’t be here!” and “Once again, this is a PRIVATE tour, sir, and you need to go over THERE!”
Eventually a woman who works at the prison came over and led us through the gates on foot. She was very apologetic, and decided that we’d get the tour of the prison first and do the bus ride afterwards. En route I made friends with a pair of hilarious Dutch guys who spent the entire trek making fun of the jackass American tour leader.
Our guide was a soft-spoken, gentle-seeming man named Jama:
He took us through different cell blocks, and showed us the political prisoners’ wing, which had individual cells. Every night, each prisoner was given a slop bucket, which they emptied themselves every morning. Since we were so few, Jama actually unlocked Nelson Mandela’s cell and let us go inside, which he told us they normally didn’t do for the usual groups of 50+ people. It was was tiny, and contained nothing more than a single sisal mat for sleeping, and 3 blankets.
While we were standing outside the cell, a British tourist dressed in the stereotypical khakis, high socks, and floppy hat, asked jovially, “So, what was your crime?” I wanted to kick him, not for asking the question, because I’d been wondering too, but for the way he asked it. Jama looked him straight in the eye and very, very quietly said, “I committed no crime.” The guy had the decency to look chagrined, and said, “Well, right, yes, but in their eyes, what did they imprison you for?” Jama explained that when he was 18 years old and still in high school, he helped organize a school strikes, protesting the Apartheid policy of different curricula for different races, and in particular the requirement that Afrikaans be the primary language of instruction. For this, he was convicted of terrorism and served 5 years from 1977-1982.
The Brit then asked how he’d ended up back at the prison, and Jama laughed and said that while he was imprisoned he had never imagined that he would be doing this, but circumstances had brought him back. Even the insensitive Brit didn’t press. It makes me wonder. I can see there being two types of ex-prisoner who return as a guide—one that really believes in reconciliation and wants to spread the “Never Again” message, and one forced to it because of exigent circumstances. Jama is clearly the latter, and I wonder how bad his “circumstances” were to drive someone back there to earn their livelihood.
He also showed us the courtyard where the prisoners played tennis, and in one corner was Nelson Mandela’s garden:
Then he showed us the cell block for the “common,” or non-political criminals, where there was a not-overly-large room that housed 50 prisoners, all on the same sisal mats, for which there were 2 toilets.
Apparently they eventually got bunk-beds, but not until the 80s (!). He showed us various other things, including the mess hall, and explained how the diet differed based on race classification. Under Apartheid, there were three main racial classifications—white, black, and colored (this included lighter-skinned Africans, Indians, and other brown-skinned non-natives). Black people were considered somehow naturally averse to meat (because of their racial inferiority, of course), and ate mostly pap (a sort of gruel). People in the colored class fared a little better, and of course white prisoners actually got to eat meat every once in a while. In 1978 Jama was part of a hunger strike protesting this, which was successful.
After the tour of the prison, a very nice woman with an unpronounceable name beginning with the letter “N” showed us around the island on a mini-bus.
In the 1840s, the island was originally inhabited by lepers and the mentally ill. We saw the graveyard where the lepers were buried, and the church that was built for them, which was actually quite beautiful.
We went to the village where the white prison warders lived, and their church, all built by convicts. N— told us that during the 60s the Dutch had a group that would put stickers on oranges that were imported from South Africa that said something to the effect of “if you buy these oranges you are supporting Apartheid.”
She then took us to the lime quarry, which is were many of the political prisoners, including Mandela, worked. This was the location of some of Mandela’s famous “slow strikes,” during which they protested various conditions by doing the work required of them, but as slowly as possible. His book describes the philosophical debates and even chess matches that took place in the quarries between the highly educated members of the ANC. N— let us out against regulation, because she felt bad about the whole, “I-don’t-care-if-you-bought-a-ticket-we’re-full-so-screw-you” thing. This was very cool, and the icing on the cake was when the H.I. bus rolled up, and of course our American friend had to stay put. My new Dutch acquaintances waved at them cheerfully and yelled, “Sorry you can’t get out, but this is a private tour!”
The last thing we saw was the house of Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-African Congress. This organization also fought Apartheid, but if the ANC’s policies were akin to those of Martin Luther King’s, the PAC’s were closer to those of Malcolm X. The ANC did eventually organize a military wing (conceived of by Mandela), but it was only after they had exhausted every peaceful means of protest available to them, and their non-violent demonstrations had begun to evoke responses like white police officers firing indiscriminately into crowds containing women and children and loosing dogs on peaceful protestors.
Sobukwe’s house broke my heart. He was considered so dangerous that he was kept in solitary confinement for decades, and apparently his mind broke under the strain. This is understandable, but what really got me out was the fact that his house was in the same fenced enclosure as the kennels, where they kept dogs trained to hunt men who tried to escape from the prison.
When we got back to the dock, the ferry had left (of course), so I wandered through the curio shop for a bit while waiting for the next one. I wasn’t sure what to think. On the one hand, the proceeds go toward the upkeep of the place and the salaries of the tour guides, but on the other, buying a shot glass emblazoned with “Robben Island” seems to cheapen the horrors suffered by the inmates.
I wanted to stop by Greenmarket Square on my way back from the waterfront, which is an outdoor market with (theoretically) locally made crafts, and I was really looking forward to shopping and bargaining for souvenirs. But when I approached, all of the vendors were packing up because of a protest. There were police cars barricading the streets, and before long a massive crowd of people came running around the corner, dancing and clapping their hands and singing in one of the tribal languages. It was quite beautiful, actually. If it hadn’t been for the police cars I would have thought it was a parade. I turned to the man standing next to me and asked what was going on. He replied in either Xhosa or Zulu, and I didn’t understand, so I said, “Sorry?” He grinned at me and said in heavily accented English, “We are hating white people.” I silently turned around and walked away, and took the long way back to my hostel. I hung out in the bar for the rest of the evening, drinking truly awful South African beer and filling out job applications. High roller, that’s me.