As a young American, I suffer from that common form of Exceptionlism that effects most privileged people. It tends to manifest more violently in men but can affect women too, and is most dangerous when the patient also suffers from acute wanderlust. This garden-variety condition tells you that those things only happen to other people. Sometimes it’s benign: You shrug your shoulders at eating that street food that’s just a little cold. You sleep at the sketchy hotel even though those sheets may have bed bugs because nothing can stop you in your youthful quest to conquer world. Occasionally the condition can be terminal. Treatment is a healthy dose of caution followed up by 500 milligrams of realizing you’re not special. If this is ineffective however, the patient may need to be considered for a ‘reality check.’
Mine was never too a severe case, but living for two years in a place where I had become comfortable enough to navigate most social situations exacerbated the symptoms. I assumed that the ease with which I moved through Burkinabe society would translate when I started to travel elsewhere in Africa, and consequently I came down with a mild bout of overconfidence. My reality check was swift and effective. This is the story of The Beach Bandit.
My post Peace Corps trip had just started, and was going swimmingly. I was in Ghana, and a few Americans I had met invited me to a festival in a beach town about 6 hours away from Accra. When I reached the town adjacent to my destination, it was already evening, and with very little idea about where I was going I was completely at the mercy of any taxi driver that wanted to make an extra buck off me. I negotiated just like I’d learned how in Burkina until we settled on the slightly expensive price of 50 Ghanaian cedi. I sat in the front seat and we took off. We had only been driving for a few minutes when the driver picked up four other westerners going to the same place. The five of us chatted during the 30-minute ride, sharing experiences and complaining about US politics until we arrived in the quaint beach town where the festival was taking place. Immediately I saw some people I knew and asked the cab to pull over. What excellent luck. I got out and handed the driver 50 cedis as we had agreed upon, but as soon as the other Americans saw what was doing on they stopped me.
“Hold on,” one woman said, “are you paying for the whole car?”
“No,” I said confused, “just myself.” She shook her head indignantly.
“It’s 50 for the car,” she informed me “You pay ten and they pay ten each,” she said indicating the other westerners. “He’s trying to double dip.” Reinforced by two other American women, all of which had spent at least a year in Ghana at that point, she went to retrieve my money. Shockingly, the taxi driver wasn’t forthcoming in giving up what he had just been able to swindle me out of, and a heated argument ensued. The other westerners, finally smart to what was going on, each began to give me 10 cedis to make up for what I had paid. This made he driver even angrier, and voices got louder. I stepped back. Confrontation has never been my strong suit, and I recognized that I was out of my element here. I only started to get alarmed when more men showed up.
It was dark. The other westerners faded away and there were four of us American women. I was removed from the action but heard things escalating. Suddenly the huddle exploded and one of the Americans charged towards me, furious.
“Don’t you touch me!” She screamed over her shoulder. Flanked by the other two, she grabbed my arm and started marching me away. We turned down a dark street. Too dark. It only took me a second to realize we were being followed. Five men cut us off, the taxi driver included. I panicked. One stepped forward and I could almost smell his fury. He was screaming at us, and his anger had nothing to do with the money.
The first blow hit me square in the jaw and it rang. He was swinging something with a metal tip. A belt. The second one caught me across the collarbone, then on the shoulder and one on my forehead. I lurched backward, trying to understand what was happening. One of our group had already fled and I hoped she had gotten away safely. The Beach Bandit turned his attention towards the two remaining women, reigning blows down on one woman’s head and on another’s ribs. We broke away, but he followed us. I got one more blow to the back before we managed to get out of range. On my right, I saw a group of about 30 spectators that had watched the whole thing and done nothing.
We ran to the beach where we found other westerners. Shaken, we recounted our story, and some got fired up to go find the Beach Bandit. We managed to talk them out of it. The fury hadn’t come from anything to do with money, rather it was about our race and our gender. Women don’t get to tell men what to do, and entitled white ones like us should not dare to pretend our race allows us privileges that African women don’t have. As a minority, I understood that fury. It looked like we were trying to use our racial privilege to snub our Ghanaian counterparts. I could see how further confrontation might turn into an ‘us Vs. them’ situation. In the end, we were very lucky. Aside from a few bruises and a chipped tooth, none of us was seriously injured. The thing that suffered the most was our collective sense of security.
So that is the story of how I was cured of my Exceptionalism. Unfortunately, cure by ‘reality check’ can harbor some harsh but completely understandable side effects. Occasionally the patient may become over cautious or mistrusting of others to such a point that they are unable to have positive interactions or continue to venture out into the world. In this case, the patient should be treated with daily helpings of kindness and generosity of the variety that is found in plentiful supply everywhere in the world. This planet is stuffed full of good people, the kind that invite you into their house 5 minutes after meeting you, or the kind that drop everything and offer to show you something they think is wonderful about the place they live. I have been very lucky in my travels to meet scores of those people and avoid most of the Beach Bandits, and I am excited to continue to meet wonderful souls in my future adventures. I am happy to say that I came away from this incident side effect free, although I am still waiting for my chipped tooth to grow back.