we went to South Africa, part one

This is so long, I’m going to break it into three sections, which is a nice way of saying I want to get something or another up before the end of July. The photo gallery’s here, so follow along as you read about the first week of our trip.

APRIL, 2009
One morning, I woke up to find an email from Evan. “Hey,” he said, “I just tried to get some money for a cup of coffee before work, ATM declined my card, checked my bank balance, there’s a $200 hold on my card.”

“Wait, I bet I know what that is,” I said, and checked the balance on the card I’d sent in to the first FIFA World Cup ticket round. “I’ve got the same hold. Dude, I think we’re going to South Africa.”

With Germany in 2006, planning was a pretty linear process–tickets, accommodation, plane, train. Here, it was a little less linear. We lucked out with the group draw, in that the US’s games were all within an easy drive of Johannesburg, but transit in SA’s more akin to transit in most of the US. If you’re not driving yourself, you’ve gotta find a lift for you. Since neither my husband Mike nor I drive stick shift (or had a good chance to learn lately), that eliminated the ability to rent a car for any reasonable rate. And given both the general rule of group rates being cheaper and wanting safety in numbers for potentially rough situations, we opted to hook up with some groups of friends for housing.

JUNE 5-6:
Of course, we ended up on our own for a few days anyway, since we arrived four days early. An old college buddy of mine is a specialty travel agent, and he got us a not-exorbitant rate on a flight that required stops in London and Nairobi. No problem, we thought. And overall, it really wasn’t, except AA decided to renege on the “no fees for second checked bag for international tickets bought before May 1” deal. The gate agent at Logan, upon seeing our final destination, looked up wistfully.

“Oh, you are going to the World Cup! I am not. I am Costa Rican.” I told her I was at their last game in the cycle, but declined to get in an extended discussion of how it really wasn’t the US’s fault the Ticos completely went off the rails halfway through qualifying.

Anyway, we had a 13 hour layover in London, during which we went to some kind of street fair sponsored by the Spain tourism board [FORESHADOWING!] and left a Charlie Davies button on a great big England-themed teddy bear at Hamley’s toy store. This was also where, on the recommendation of many US players on Twitter in the UK, we paid a visit to Nando’s, thus setting the trip’s theme of Veggie Burger Cup 2010. Forgot that when in the UK, order one level hotter than you would elsewhere.

In Nairobi, nobody wanted to let me buy a glass bottle of Coke to take on the plane; damn security people ruining my goofy collection hobbies. Kenyan Airways is just fine; the Nairobi airport, however, is nowhere you want to spend more than an hour unless you really like crappy duty free shops.

JUNE 7-11:
We got into Johannesburg around 1pm on the 7th, found our driver, Danny, who is exactly the kind of chatty local cabbie you want to have to show you the lay of the land. Except he misunderstood when we asked about the in-airport collection point for people who bought game tickets in advance, about which more later. But he got us to our first guesthouse, a very nice place run by an Austrian lady out in the suburban countryside. If we’d been able to book more buddies into it and rent a car, we probably should’ve stayed there the whole time; Mike and I had a fantastic cottage, including kitchen. It was not dissimilar to the house we rented in 2006, but, again, not as easy for transit access.

We weren’t set to meet up with our group in the second house in central Joburg until Friday afternoon, so after taking a nap on Monday afternoon that lasted until Tuesday morning, we had a few days to amuse ourselves. First order of business: eat at Nando’s again. Second order of business: get our tickets. We looked around the mall in Fourways for a cab stand, but didn’t see one, so a local woman took pity on us and drove us to the ticket pickup in Sandton. “Oh, yeah, I’ve been carjacked twice,” she told us, about as casually as I’d say I’d just been to Hartford.

At the ticket center in Sandton, it took us about half an hour of standing in the non-moving line before we realized we wanted the line that actually moved, i.e. the one for people who were picking up prepurchased tickets and not buying tickets on the spot. Afterwards, we went to one of the area’s many malls, picking up some soccer-themed Judaikitsch for buddies back home.

We opted to spend the next day at nearby Montecasino, which was pretty standard Vegas style casino/mall/food offerings. My big winnings: a Bafana Bafana jersey phone charm from playing skee-ball. The real surprise highlight at the casino was the bird garden, a huge enclosed aviary where conures came up and mugged you for food and geckos tried to sell you auto insurance. No secretary birds, unfortunately.

At the country house, we didn’t have a whole lot of TV channels to choose from, but we did get all the SABC variants, so we had a sample of what SA network tv had to offer. Answer: soap operas and half hour informercials for insurance. Also, everyone had fantastic accents, but that’s true of the whole country. Many shows were similar to Bollywood movies, in that people would begin a sentence in one language and finish it in another, then have someone reply in a third or fourth language. News broadcast not in your language? Wait 15 minutes, they’ll repeat it in another one. And damn near every single minute of local TV had something to do with the World Cup; it was woven into soap opera stories and discussed extensively on talk shows.

You also got the same repetition of ads during the games in SA you did elsewhere, which included the spot for MTN mobile phone service with the entire country yelling “ayoba!” Trouble is, every time we asked a local what “ayoba” meant, we got a different answer, leading us to conclude that it actually meant “dog balls” and was one great big joke MTN was playing on us tourists.


  • life insurance aimed at people under 50, not only because of higher life expectancy rates in the US, but also because for most younger adults, life insurance is issued by employers
  • laundry detergent formulated for handwashing, not for delicate items, but for people who lack access to washing machines
  • black people as regular consumers, not representing a targeted “urban” or “ethnic” campaign
  • warnings from the utility companies not to splice into power lines illegally
  • MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice shilling the local light beer
  • Doctor Khumalo endorsing anything that shows up on his front lawn, making him this tournament’s version of 2006’s Michael Ballack

On Thursday, we opted to spend the day at Mandela Square/Sandton Center, which is a huge shopping mall featuring a giant statue of Nelson Mandela surrounded by luxury retailers. We stumble across a hotel lounge marked “FIFA VIP ONLY,” and briefly consider trying to gain entry by claiming to be Sunil’s best buddies. I bet if he’d been nearby he totally would’ve vouched for us, too. The mall also features a Nando’s, an Apple store, a candy store, and a Nike store all right in a row, meaning we probably would’ve just brought sleeping bags and lived there if they’d let us.

As it was the day before the tournament, the place was overrun by fans of the teams for the opener–South Africa and Mexico. Out in the Mandela Square plaza, which would’ve been a fantastic meeting spot had Sony not completely ruined it with a giant 3-D ad tent, fans of el Tri and Bafana Bafana got in a sing-off. I had to break it to the South African girl behind me that the Mexican fans weren’t exactly saying nice things about the host team. Nothing seriously uncool, of course; it was all “yo mama” kinda stuff, but still, for all the languages spoken by locals, “puta” and “culero” weren’t familiar vocabulary.

That night, we watched part of the tournament opening concert, or rather, the important part: Archbishop Desmond Tutu coming onstage in fan gear, yelling about how great it was to be partying with the world and wishing well of Mandela and the country. This was probably the biggest “never in my life did I think…” moment of the trip. Here’s this man, Nobel Peace Prize winner, hugely influential in both national and world politics, and he’s onstage acting like every other goofy soccer fan in the country. Not only that, the next morning, he was on the local morning news wearing the exact same clothing, implying he’d just been out partying like the rest of the people.

Friday morning, we had one last breakfast at the cottage, and then Danny came to take us to our next guesthouse, where we’d be making our home until the 19th. This place looked and sounded great online: Free breakfast, wifi, right near a good part of town, almost entirely taken over by an extended party of American fans we either knew personally or by reputation.

In practice, though, the place was, uh, lousy. No wifi, which was a huge problem in a house full of people who were all blogging, vlogging, or otherwise counting on an internet connection to keep in touch with family and work back home. Rooms so small and crowded you had to go outside to change your mind, cracked and broken tiles on poorly lit walkways, showers with water temperature and pressure surprises, not enough heaters in a place that did get down to freezing at night (it was winter, after all), and a host who was, at best, indifferent, provided you could find him. All for rates that clocked in at comparable to US hotel pricing; an awful lot of the problems would’ve been forgivable had we been paying, say, youth hostel prices (even taking into account a premium for such a busy tourist event).

The upside to the place, though, was the crowd and sense of camaraderie. It was similar to living in the smallest house on BU campus my junior year of college–all you had to do was go to the main lounge and you could find someone to hang out with. Every morning at breakfast, someone was making plans to get to a game, to do touristy stuff, to go bar hopping, to stick around the neighborhood and run errands. We hung out with different people every day, getting together impromptu groups to commandeer van taxis and sightsee. That and reciting all the commercials Fox Soccer Channel ever ran. WE’RE TALKING ABOUT ZITS HERE PEOPLE

Staying with that kind of confederation also made it a little easier to get groups together to cab it around town, which wasn’t nearly the demolition derby the guidebooks told us to expect. I’d been warned up and down that the taxi drivers were horrible, that the traffic in Johannesburg obeyed no real laws, the pedestrians did whatever the hell they wanted, for the love of all that is holy don’t get in a van taxi, etc. Turns out the only traffic thing I saw that was at all unusual to someone who’s lived in Boston for 16 years is the fact SA drives on the left, not the right.

As for the van taxis, which are (usually) white Toyota vans that circle the city picking up multiple passengers on street corners for cheap fares, they’re a beloved cultural institution. Guidebooks warn you not to take them, but turns out they’re fine if you’ve got a big enough group to commandeer the whole van. You wind up paying about a dollar per person to get to where you’re going, as opposed to $10+ per person for a regular cab.

Friday afternoon, we grabbed one of these vans and headed out to Newtown, in central Johannesburg, to the fan fest to watch the South Africa-Mexico opener, as everyone in the house decided this was the game to watch with the locals. This was the right call–the place was packed, people were climbing up on roofs across the street to get a good view, and everyone was ready to party.

Then South Africa scored the first goal of the tournament, and man, I was in the Back Bay after the Sox won in 2004, and I didn’t hug, hi-five, or dance with as many people that night as I did after that goal. Being in the crowd for a World Cup game–in the stadium or at a viewing party–is kind of like being at a Catholic Mass when the priest instructs you to offer the sign of peace, only instead of shaking hands and wishing “peace be with you” to everyone around you, you hug them, hi-five them, and yell “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” as loudly as you can. Nobody seemed to notice Mexico equalized.

After the final whistle, we made our way up Miram Makeba Street to flag down a van, pausing at a gas station to watch a guy burn out the tires on a diesel station wagon. When we got back to the house, we spent the better part of an hour trying to order pizzas for everyone. Sadly, the chain that offered a free vuvuzela with purchase of two large pies was not delivering to our neighborhood at that hour. Mike and I watched part of Uruguay-France, but decided to call it a relatively early night, as the next day promised to be a long one.

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