we went to South Africa, part two

When last we left, we’d just spent our first week in Johannesburg, and were hitting the hay the night before the US-England match. Now, here’s the second part of our story, which is wordy as hell and involves an awful, awful lot of talking smack about the English.

JUNE 12-18

Just about everyone in the house, plus an extended entourage from another house, started the day by filling two minibuses, a leader car, and a tow trailer with the gameday supplies. Enough tailgate food to feed the whole crowd, enough red/white/blue detritus to cover a stadium, and enough beer to fill a water park. You know, the basics.

Rustenburg was the furthest flung (from central Johannesburg) of the US’s venue cities, meaning it took a coordinated effort to get the group out there and back. The plan was to get to the stadium park and ride, tailgate there, then get into the game. After watching a wheel fall off a car on the way out of Johannesburg and an extended discussion of whether EZ-Pass or Fast Lane transponders would work on the toll roads, we stopped at a roadside market that can only be described as the South African version of South of the Border, minus the fireworks, but with a “tribal” dancer who’d chant “FUCK ENGLAND” if you paid him R20.

We continued on to the stadium, rolling right up to the entrance when the drivers in the leader car called to inform us that we were totally in the wrong place and we should drive around to the opposite side of the stadium for the park and ride area. The bus driver insisted he couldn’t do this, that the angle of approach would be closed off, and everyone had several arguments on several different phones at once trying to decide what to do. A handful of us decided that if we were that close to the stadium, it didn’t make sense to drive back out, and disembarked; the rest took most of the food and beer to the park and ride.

Mike and I, along with our buddies Kaela, Brock, Doug, Tanya, and Christina, bailed on the tailgate in favor of the scene in front of the park. While it wasn’t the greatest option in terms of food (at least I’d brought a cheese sandwich, figuring I wasn’t gonna eat anything at the tailgate anyway), it turned out to be the best option for people-watching and media attention whoring. We quickly lost count of how many TV crews stopped to talk to us, in English and Spanish; the Univision guys reminded me that while I understand them just fine, my spoken spanish is muy feo. I ran into a UK journalist I’d spoken to a few days earlier about the North Korean team, as well as several people who knew me via Twitter.

Normally, when you travel abroad, you’re supposed to keep a low profile, trying to blend in with the locals as much as possible. For the World Cup, that rule goes out the window. The entire idea is to show up with a giant honking sign on your head proclaiming where you’re from. You show up dressed as your national caricature. For Mexicans, this means wearing sarapes, luchador masks, and sombreros the size of tractor tires. For Americans, this means showing up looking like the 4th of July section at the dollar store exploded. For the English, this means dressing as an uptight, humorless jerk.

No, really–while there were some English fans who were having fun with it, like the guys who dressed as knights in chain mail, the majority seemed to want to wear all the same shirt, ignore the other team’s fans, and grouse amongst themselves. And their banners…all right, maybe I’m taking this too personally since it’s sort of a line of work, but you’re telling me the country that gave us Monty Python and the Rolling Stones can’t do any better than the St. George’s Cross with [city/town/local team] name slapped over it? Honey, please, that is some weak sauce, and I’d say that even if I weren’t coming from the American point of view that writing on the flag is tacky. Ringing the stadium with banners is great, but it’s better when you didn’t all bring the exact same damn thing.

Also, at any international sporting event, when facing a European team, particularly Germany, France, or England, World War II jokes always work. “JOBURG, CAPE TOWN, RUSTENBURG AND DURBAN, IF IT WEREN’T FOR USA, YOU’D BE SPEAKING GERMAN!”

“If it weren’t for us in 1776, you’d be speaking German!”

“Dude, I’m from Massachusetts, it’d be Pequot or French.”

The other go-to for England taunts is, of course, dentistry.

Anyway, after we got tired of trolling the English fans (see video) and making asses of ourselves on worldwide television, we entered the stadium, for the first real HOLY SHIT WE’RE AT THE MOTHERFUCKING WORLD CUP, THIS IS A THING THAT IS HAPPENING TO US moment. Then England scored, which sucked, but then Dempsey scored, and all was right with the world. Coulda, shoulda, woulda on putting away our chances and winning, but it was very clear from the crowd reaction that it was a draw that felt like a win for us and a loss for them. Postgame, the English fans and players couldn’t get out of the stadium quickly enough; the US players stuck around to applaud the cheering fans. The ESPN promo poster depicting the English team dragging a giant stone ’66 had it right–1966 isn’t England’s legacy, it’s their anchor. On the way out, two South African girls told us they’d come to cheer for England, but switched to the US because we were more fun.

The stadium itself was the least impressive of the venues–no roof, scoreboard/jumbotron/clock not functional, track around the field, minimal concessions. Oh, and only one route in and out of the park. “Who the hell builds a huge stadium with only one road in and out?” someone on the bus wondered aloud.

“Bob Kraft,” replied all the New Englanders present.

Then there was the park and ride, which turned out to be the Afrikaans word for “clusterfuck.” We got herded into a fenced-in line to wait and wait and wait for shuttles back to our buses. At least this gave us more time to get in shouting matches with a couple of English fans who were baffled at how upbeat we were. “WHO ARE YA? WHO ARE YA?” they yelled.

“Hi, I’m Mike, nice to meet you,” he said.

“We’re your military. You have us on speed dial. Your country’s an aircraft carrier–we come in, refuel, and get back to business,” said our buddy Jim from Detroit. That shut them up for a few minutes.

One of them tried to tell me that the two stars on my jersey didn’t count because “they’re women’s, nobody cares about that,” then continued with “settle down, little bitty,” which had me considering how much I wanted an assault charge as a souvenir. Tanya was disappointed I backed off, insisting I’d have folded the guy like a card table. Next time, I guess. By this point, we’d run low enough on taunts that we started singing “Never Gonna Give You Up,” followed by “THERE’S ONLY ONE RICK ASTLEY.” So, you know, if you wanted to see a bunch of mostly over-30 US soccer fans shouting internet memes, there you go.

After a flat tire stop, we rolled back into Jo’burg around 4:00 am; I, of course, left my cell phone on the bus, never to be seen again. Whoops. We earmarked the next day as a rest/recovery day, getting brunch at a cafe and spending the rest of the afternoon napping and watching games back at the house.

On Monday, Mike and I decided that since Soccer City seated 90,000 people, chances were good there’d be some tickets to spare for the Netherlands-Denmark match that afternoon. Two others from our house, Eric and Stephanie, and two NY buddies staying up the road, Gerald and Big Jake, had similar ideas, so we grabbed a van taxi and decided to try our luck with the scalpers.


1. As we piled into the van on the way to Soccer City, the driver asked Gerald, the one black dude in our group, if he was with us. In isiZulu. “I’ve kinda been waiting for that,” he said.

2. On the way to Ellis Park for US-Slovenia, the van stopped to get gas. The gas station attendant excitedly asked if he could take our photo, as he’d “never seen one of these things full of white people before.”

“You still haven’t,” someone yelled, pointing at the Indian guy in the back seat.

When we got to Soccer City, we all fanned out in a search for tickets. As expected, it didn’t take too long for everyone to find someone selling a spare; Mike managed to find someone selling a pair for slightly under face value. They turned out to be great seats–category 1, just on the left side of midfield. As this was a Netherlands game, being in the stadium among mostly Dutch fans was something like being in the world’s largest prison work crew or bag of Cheetos. The Mexican fellow in front of us wanted to know why the Dutch wear orange when it’s not in their flag; I explained it was because it was the royal house color, same reason the Italians wear blue. Come to find out he’d made up ribbon bracelets with Tri player names to sell to fund his trip to South Africa, like I’d done with the buttons, so he traded me a Blanco one for my answer. Personal feelings on Blanco aside, that was pretty rad.

After the game, we went back to a much more organized park and ride (long lines, but they moved very quickly) and had dinner with Big Jake and Gerald while watching the evening match.

Tuesday, we decided we’d try our scalper luck again that night for Brazil-North Korea, but first, we went with Eric and Stephanie, plus fellow New Englander Monty, to do some touristy stuff. First stop: being told we had too small a party for a van cab, so squeezing five people plus a driver in a regular cab, i.e. an old Jetta with a cracked windshield and wired-together bumper. This is Africa. Second stop: the Apartheid Museum.

Upon entering the Apartheid Museum, you’re randomly given a ticket that classifies you as “white” or “non-white,” and you have to use the entrance marked on the ticket. The entire setup is designed to disorient, confuse, and isolate you. The museum exhibits are an oppressive maze of concrete, glass, wire, and noise that gradually open up into brighter spaces as the timeline moves towards the end of apartheid. It’s very intense, extremely well-done, and an absolute must-see; we really should’ve spent more time there to soak in everything. You go in with a vague idea that apartheid was fucked up; you come out with the idea of “man, that’s FUCKED. UP.” Then you notice you’re walking around among a huge crowd of people who are there for the world’s biggest party from all sorts of countries, and you realize that scenario was unthinkable twenty years earlier.


I’m trying to save the introspective IMPORTANT SOCIAL ISSSHOOS stuff for its own post, but as a sample…

1. That the Soweto Uprising, the start of the shit hitting the fan that’d lead to years of intense enforcement/resistance ending in apartheid’s downfall, was eight weeks before I was born

2. That one of the last guys executed for apartheid-related charges looked a lot like Charlie Davies

Afterwards, we went to the African Crafts Market at Rosebank Mall. Sadly, the only thing I was really keen on buying (some couture dresses) was at an unattended stand; turns out the rule with the rest of the stands was that the more aggressive the hawker, the less interesting the merchandise. We also had lunch while watching the end of New Zealand-Slovakia, during which Monty, Mike, and I could not stop laughing every time they mentioned Rev alumnus Tony Lochhead on the field. (A standout washout among a team that’s had so many washouts, and here he was playing for the only undefeated team of the tournament. Soccer is the greatest).

We went back to the house to get ready for the Brazil-DPRK game; specifically, we went back to try to put on any longsleeved attire we had. This was probably the coldest day of the trip, and, while we went in expecting it to be winter, we didn’t expect it to be in the low 30s; after all, Johannesburg is full of things like palm trees that don’t usually exist in places that have serious winters. However, it’s also at altitude and a high desert sort of climate, meaning when the sun goes down, the temperature drops about 20 degrees in as many minutes, and since it’d been chilly all day long…yeah.

Conveniently, we walked through the door just as Greg and Ryota, two others from our house were about to get a cab to the park, so we tagged along with them. The cabbie let us off close enough to walk to Ellis Park, but not so close we weren’t walking through some parts of town we’d rather not have been at that hour. However, this being the World Cup, the streets were closed to traffic and had police cordons at every block; the biggest danger we were in was frostbite.

At the stadium entrance, we repeated the procedure from the day before, fanning out and milling around to try to find a ticket. Mike and I spoke to some Israeli fans who wanted to talk about the Celtics, and I found another Blackburn fan (the second of the trip), this one from Australia. Greg quickly got lucky on a game ticket, but the rest of us didn’t fare as well. Far more people were looking for tickets than had them available, likely because of the novelty of seeing one of the world’s most popular teams take on one of the world’s most obscure. The few people who did have tickets to sell were either too expensive, too sketchy, or both; we encountered a few scammers who couldn’t have been more obvious and several who were selling something, but it sure wasn’t game tickets. Mike found one ticket, but I didn’t want to go to the game by myself; we offered it to Ryota, who declined. By that point, it was five minutes to kickoff, we were beyond freezing, and no tickets were making themselves reasonably available, so Ryota suggested we just go get dinner and watch what we could on tv.

Ryota was there to blog for the Urawa Red Diamonds, his team in the J-League. He spoke about as much English as we did Japanese, but we all understood each other perfectly. He was delighted to find out we were familiar with the J-League and his team. Mike flipped the ticket to one of the Australian guys and we jogged from lighted police cordon to lighted police cordon until we got a cab back to a cafe near our house. Turns out Jeff, another one of our housemates, was there to watch the game, so we ate dinner and shot the shit for the rest of the evening. At one point, the cafe owner came by the table to make sure we were enjoying the food and the country. Again, everyone was deeply, deeply concerned that tourists were having a good time in South Africa; we were happy to oblige. Ryota got a call from his employers to do a live radio show call-in, so Mike took the phone for a few seconds to talk to some no-doubt confused guy back in Japan. We might not have been at the game in person, but turns out we still found the best way to see Brazil-DPRK.

We took Wednesday, seemingly the only day the house wifi actually worked, as another rest/errand day, and then on Thursday opted for a touristy morning and shopping afternoon. We briefly considered checking out Argentina-Korea with our housemates Greg, Gaby (who is Argentine), and Pinto (who was wearing an Apolo Ohno shirt, because the World Cup is all about trolling), but instead, Mike and I spent the morning at the Origins Centre, a spur of the moment decision that yielded a fascinating surprise. The museum tells the story of evolution/human civilization through the rock paintings and other archeological evidence found in the area, and it’s very illuminating to learn just how “new” the “new world” is relative to Africa. At the entrance, there are columns showing how far down in the geological strata scientists have found evidence of human civilization on each continent; the African column has pottery shards and tools at the very bottom, while the North American one has but a tiny sliver at the top. Very, very cool stuff and I’m glad Mike picked it out of the guide book.

Afterwards, we went back to Sandton Centre, as Doug and Tanya called us to tell us they’d meet us there when they got back from Cape Town that evening. This meant killing a good six hours in the mall, which, of course, meant constantly circling back to the Apple store’s broadband refugee camp. Since Uruguay had soundly beaten South Africa the night before, and Argentina beat Korea that afternoon, the mall was crawling with men in light blue jerseys and terrible haircuts. We grabbed a few souvenirs (finally found some red/white/blue beaded bracelets) and snacks (the clerk at Woolworth’s complimented my buttons, so I gave him the “I’m Just Wild about Jozy” one as a city name pun) and kept spotting people who were also clearly just there to waste a day.

Doug and Tanya arrived just in time for us to fight for a restaurant table to watch France vs Mexico in the Cinco de Mayo replay. A guy at a nearby table noticed our US getup and sat down to talk with us; he was from SC, his friends had all ditched him, but by hook or by crook, he was going to get to South Africa even if he had to go it alone. Turns out he was originally from Greensboro, NC, and, when I mentioned I was from Winston-Salem, he gestured to the table behind us, where sat another guy from Greensboro and a guy from Winston-Salem. Nothing like a World Cup to remind you it’s a small world.

We drove back to the house via the scenic route, getting in a bit later than we really wanted the night before a US game, but since this game was in Johannesburg and was the 4:00 pm game, it wasn’t like we couldn’t sleep in a bit the next day. We all suited up and shuffled down to get a couple of vans out to Ellis Park. Outside the stadium, Mike and I broke off with the rest of the group, as we wanted to grab lunch rather than going straight to a bar. Unfortunately, the meal choices in the neighborhood weren’t extensive, but I can say without equivocation that that was simply the best spanikopita from a gas station I’ve ever had. We ducked into KFC, whose clever World Cup campaign centered around continental drift (“Fangea”), and ran into Ives, who wanted to hear all about the cute Peruvian girls I’d seen at Netherlands-Denmark. We also chatted with some folks who’d come from Houston via DC, and an English Leeds fan who was entertainingly clueless about American soccer.

The crowd at US-Slovenia was a little different from the crowd at US-England, by which I mean “they got mad if you wanted to stand up through the whole game.” On the one hand, I didn’t fly halfway across the world to sit at a game. On the other, the whiny people behind us called security, and I damn well didn’t fly halfway across the world to get ejected, so we had to make do. I really, really wish that if you bought tickets that were specifically attached to a given country, FIFA would plunk you in a section only for people who bought similar tickets. It ended up working out kind of like that in Germany (we were almost always seated near like-minded clowns) but not this time. Anyway, it was a great game except for that whole getting dicked out of a come from behind win part, and I traded scarves with a Slovene fan who was impressed I’d actually been to his country before.

We decided to go back with Doug and Tanya and their group, rather than the group from our house, so we followed them back to the parking area a little ways down the road. The way back was through a residential neighborhood, and all the locals had the enterprising idea of setting up lemonade stands with grills and coolers and all that for passers by. We stopped at an elementary school that was selling food as a fundraiser, and at another house where they offered bunny chow, a local meal of a hollow loaf of bread stuffed with curry. Once again, every local we encountered was keen to hear how we were finding the country.

Turns out we weren’t done partying with the locals for the night. Our group wound up at a lawn bowling club, similar to the clubhouse at a golf or country club, where a very mixed crowd was eating pub grub and watching England-Algeria. Once that game ended, everyone pushed the tables to the side and a DJ came out. As required by a recent joint ruling by FIFA and the South African government, he opened the set with “Wavin’ Flag” and “Waka Waka.” The room was packed, everyone was singing and dancing, I got hit on by a local chick (she was cute, too); it was festive as hell. We ducked out what we thought was a bit early (turns out it was just before they shut down for the night) and headed back to the house to re-pack, because the next day we were to head out on safari.

This entry was posted in finished projects, goofy, how did I get here, I can't believe we pulled this off, nats, south africa, why we do this, world cup, you should've been there. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.