The most poignant moment of our 19 days in South Africa happened in the airport as we were leaving.
We had five suitcases, two carry-on bags, a filthy rental car, and Paul and I were getting a little cranky. It had been 19 solid days together. We spent our final day in Cape Town visiting the Belmond Mount Nelson and Green Market Square for last minute gifts–or just more stuff. We were tired and we still had to wait for a midnight flight to Paris.
We got in line to return the car. I heard a voice behind me.
“Ma’am would you like help with your bags?”
I turned around. A small man stood tall with his chest up and looked at me directly in the eye. He had before him a suitcase cart. He wore the official orange vest of the airport employees. He was dressed simply; his coat worn but clean and mended; his shoes shined, his hair was short and the color grey was beginning to creep like moss over his head. He smiled.
“May I help you?”
“Yes!” I said. I began rolling the bags and lifting them on the cart.
“Ma’am, let me help.” He took the bags and stacked them on the cart. He motioned for my heavy carry-on bag and placed it securely on the cart. “Sir, yours, please.” Paul handed him his carry-on too. We both stood silent. We didn’t know what to do. We were used to struggling with our own junk.
“My name is Freddy. I am your porter. My job is to help you.” I was reminded of Given and his simple declaration of service.
“Okay,” I said as we walked through the dark empty parking lot together. Paul and I shuffled next to Freddy our arms and shoulders empty. “My name is Lesley. That’s Paul, my husband.”
Freddy smiled while confidently pushing the car. It weighed at least 250 pounds. “Did you enjoy your stay in Cape Town?” His voice was low and steady. We continued walking uphill through two more parking lots.
“We did! We love it here.” Even tired and crabby, I was still in love with Cape Town.
“And you are from where?” he inquired.
“Seattle,” Paul said. “In the U.S.”
“Of course, Freddy said. “Sleepless in Seattle. That was a good movie. I remember it. Tom Hanks, yes?” We all laughed.
“What do you do here at the airport?” Paul asked carefully.
“I am a porter. I help people with their bags. I will help you with the VAT process as well.”
I looked unsure.
“If you spent money here in South Africa you will get a portion of the tax back since you are not a citizen of South Africa.” Paul and I nodded. Thank goodness we happened upon Freddy. We didn’t know anything about that.
“Will you show us how to get our bags wrapped in plastic too?” I asked. “I’m worried I packed my bag so tightly it will burst open.” When we left Cape Town to fly to Ngala, I admired a machine that twirled a suitcase covering it in saran wrap.
“Yes, Lesley and Paul, I will have your bags wrapped for you.”
Freddy continued pushing our cart up the steep hill to the departure terminal. Paul and I looked at each other. I motioned at his wallet and mouthed “do you have a tip?” He nodded.
“It is hard to find work in South Africa,” Freddy said. “So many people have come here from other countries. There is not enough work.” He cleared his throat and changed subjects. “Where did you stay in Cape Town?”
“At the Belmond Mount Nelson. It is so beautiful.” I sighed. “Just beautiful.”
“I know that hotel. Yes, she is wonderful. I was there once for a dinner for my work many, many years ago.”
We arrived at the check-in counter and Freddy unloaded our bags, handed us our VAT and plastic wrapping receipts, and then nodded his head to us. I handed him two unopened water bottles.
“Here Freddy, would you like these? We can’t take them through Security.”
Freddy took the two bottles and placed one on the counter for the agent at the check-in counter. “It was a pleasure meeting you Paul and Lesley. Have a safe trip home.” He turned to leave and Paul handed him a 100 Rand note. It was the equivalent of eight dollars American. Freddy smiled again, shook our hands and left.
“That was nice of you to give him that tip. Porters don’t make a salary here. They work for tips,” the agent said.
I turned and looked at Paul. I got teary-eyed. Most of the time Paul can withstand my pleas, but this time it was written on his face too.
“Find Freddy. He needs more money. He helped us so much.” Paul kissed me and took off on that slow jog of his that I love. I’d never tell him, but he looks like he is running on his tip toes. I could see him glancing at all of the porters sitting in their orange vests. That’s when I really looked at the patrons at the airport. Orange vests were everywhere. Everywhere.
“How many porters are here?” I asked.
The agent looked up surprised. He thought we were gone. “I don’t know. It changes every day. Freddy is the best, ” he said shrugging his shoulders. “he is not too proud to help anyone even if they only give him a rand.”
I sat and waited for Paul. Freddy was one of the good guys. I knew it in my heart. He was hardworking, respectful, kind, pleasant. He was a good man. Why didn’t he have a job? Yes, I understand that people have things that happen that turn their life away from the direction it should be heading. There are personal issues, family issues, issues, issues, issues.
It came down to Freddy for me. Paul says that all countries have some sort of racism and class issues. South Africa, the United States, France, and many others are still toiling away at the issues that mark our countries with ugliness. During our time in the Winelands, when work would let out, hundreds of black South Africans would stream onto the sides of the highways to walk home to the shanty towns of small houses built out of corrugated metal. There were a few of those large taxi vans like in Soweto that would pick up passengers and people would cram their way into the vehicle. It took me days to realize that the people walking on the highway did not own cars. Yes, go ahead and shake your head. How could I have not known? It wasn’t my experience. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a car.
Paul came huffing back. He handed me a piece of paper. It said FREDDY. And there was a phone number next to it.
“Call the Mount Nelson when we get home. Tell them about Freddy.”
And, so I did. I contacted the Belmond Mount Nelson. I told them everything Freddy had done. “The Mount Nelson uniform was meant for someone like him,” I said. I kept that piece of paper with his name and number. I don’t want to forget him or how he conducts himself each and every day. He is one of the good ones–in spite of the issues.