How perfect strangers make nights out to die for
There's wisdom and exhilaration to be had when you surround yourself with people you've never met
How often do you talk to total strangers? For hours. In real life, not online.
Twice in one week I found myself surrounded by people I’d never met before and both times walked away feeling exhilarated, and more knowledgeable.
“Introduce the person next to you,” said Peter Becker, activist by day and IT geek by night, when five of us were seated around a table next to individuals we didn’t know.
“Just make it up,” he said, and we did.The woman next to me looked bemused so I gave her a somewhat misleading clue: my scratched and bruised hands (from the mountain). She then launched into an account of my job as a permaculturist. This was flattering since the most I’ve ever grown is basil and tomatoes.
Amid the misinformation and laughter, we got to know each other far better than we would have with formal introductions. Maybe the restaurant in Observatory, A Touch of Madness, influenced our mood.
The concept behind the “development drinks” – bringing together greenie and climate change types – influenced how we imagined each other.
The conversations had a street-corner, if not quite a Socratic, wisdom to them as people moved around debating how to save the planet.
In the courtyard the planet’s last surviving smokers were hanging out, along with people who wandered out to feel the rain.
Capetonians worship the rain these days, doing dances to Modjadji the rain queen at the slightest drop.In the drizzle I heard a dapper government official say to a free-spirited looking woman: “You inherited something from me.”
“What?” she asked, looking as curious as I was.
“The naked bike ride,” he said. Improbable as it appeared, they had a lot in common.
Those of you who haven’t yet tried the naked bike ride will, like me, have to wait until next year when it rolls around again. Apparently “The Bare As You Dare!” dress code and slogans painted in body paint attract attention for reducing our dependency on fossil fuel.In Joburg I’ve joined Critical Mass Rides on Friday nights through Hillbrow and town, intended to reclaim the streets from cars, but this was new to me – and that’s how the evening went.
I met a diversity of academics, activists, officials and mavericks, who cared about similar stuff, and left far later than I intended, after sharing a bunny chow with a new friend.
What was novel too was having no prior connection to through family and friends to anybody there, besides the livewire organiser Ryan Fortune.
Alive to our mortality
When I moved back to Cape Town last year after 20 years away, I found circles more connected than I had expected.
In the first week back, for example, I interviewed a marine scientist at the aquarium who went to school with my brother, and a surgeon who had studied medicine under my father.Yet again, on my second night out, at a gathering called Death Café, I knew nobody.
The mood at this event at The Kitchen in Woodstock was no more sombre than at A Touch of Madness, but the focus was more inward looking that outward.
At Death Café the conversations were mostly about protecting freedom of choice and dignity when we are ageing and dying, not about protecting the Earth. The burning of bodies along the Ganges did come up, but at this event it was about what the ritual meant, not the impact on the river.
A candle burned on a small metal skull and toothpicks on the cake had quirky, bright skulls on them and sheets of paper lay around for people to write down their ideas of death.We sat around tables in groups of four or five, and there was no agenda. The only guidelines were no religion, no judging and that nobody monopolise the discussions. Nobody looked at their phones.
To start, people talked about why they were there, including confronting their mortality. People spoke without inhibitions, it seemed to me. I know I did, and it felt genuine.
Surprisingly, talking about death, and inevitably what matters in life, was gripping and, unsurprisingly, gave the conversations texture.The charismatic organiser, Sean O’Connor, says Mortal Mondays, which happen on the first Monday of the month, make him feel alive. When his mother came once she really enjoyed talking to some heavily pierced young people, who she would typically not talk to.Anybody can host a Death Café, as long as tea, coffee and cake are on offer halfway through the event.
O’ Connor pulled us into one circle after this break and the practical, spiritual and funny ideas that spun around the circle wove a bond among the people there.
Not unlike Death Café, New Zealanders have a gathering called the Coffin Club, where they decorate their own coffins with symbols and images of their lives.
That makes sense to me: making friends doing something meaningful.
But it’s also easy to have a good time with strangers doing something meaningless – what’s the point of climbing up and down sheer rock faces, like I do on weekends climbing on Table Mountain and at crags around Cape Town? I have made friends climbing and trust them with my life every time we go out.
Capetonians may not be as social as Joburgers – always going for coffee after a ride on the Spruit or out for a beer and pizza after climbing – but I have found them friendly contrary to the stereotype.
Maybe getting off our screens and out of our homes - and comfort zones – is all we need to see the world through someone else's eyes.