If you’ve got the time to kill, here’s the entire 11,000+ word trip report in one gigantic post. It’s the same stuff in the other five South Africa entries, so if you’ve read those, there’s nothing new here–this is just one big link to hand out.
Before the extended trip report, here’re the answers to the top five questions I’ve heard about the trip:
1. All 3 US group games plus Netherlands-Denmark. We wanted to see Brazil-DPRK, but attempts to get tickets outside the stadium were for naught; more people were buying than selling, and the people who were selling were either too expensive, too sketchy, or both.
2. Got into Boston an hour before US-Ghana kickoff on Saturday and raced a guy with a Donovan shirt to a cab to get home. In the hurry, we left the bottles of duty-free Amarula that Mike bought in the cab. Feel like we kinda left on a high note, but the rest of the games have us feeling like we oughta stay the whole time in 2014.
3. The only bad things that happened to our extended party were things that would’ve happened to anyone at any WC. One pal had his wallet and phone lifted, and another took a nasty spill when she landed on the bottom of the post-Donovan crowd pile. Otherwise, the crime and danger factor was pretty low. There were definitely places we didn’t wanna stick around too long after sundown (like the neighborhood around Ellis Park) but not any points where we thought “GTFO NOW NOW NOW.”
4. The locals were all RIDICULOUSLY friendly and excited to have everyone come to visit. People would say “howzit” just for walking by, cars honked and waved if you were wearing team gear, and everyone would ask not only what you thought of SA but would you please tell your friends how nice it was there. And we mostly just stuck to Johannesburg, which, out of World Cup time, isn’t the hot tourist area. It was amazing how much people bent over backwards to help, from the random local lady who drove us into town to get our tickets after seeing we looked lost, to the gas station attendant in the middle of friggin’ nowhere who, when asked for directions to our safari camp, pulled out a Blackberry and grabbed a map instantly, to the caterers at the safari lodge who made sure I got meatless traditional fare, to the cab driver who stopped for ten minutes on our way out to the airport to let us grab last-minute souvenirs, Supermarket Sweep-style. I really don’t remember the last country I traveled to where people were just that damn welcoming.
5. Biggest fan group there? The ticket sales reports had it: USA. Massive, massive amount of Mexicans, too, and a lot of Hondurans. Many of whom, Hondurans especially, were there to wave two flags. We met people from just about everywhere except North Korea, obviously. Lots and lots of “hey who asked you” delegates, too, especially from South American countries. It’s the world’s biggest party, after all.
WE WENT TO SOUTH AFRICA: THE WHOLE STORY
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.
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.
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.
INTERLUDE: SOUTH AFRICAN TV
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.
THINGS YOU SEE IN ADS IN SA THAT YOU DON’T IN THE US
- 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
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.
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.
INTERLUDE: TWO EXAMPLES OF THE RACIAL POLITICS OF VAN TAXIS
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.
INTERLUDE: THE TWO THINGS THAT HIT ME THE MOST AT THE APARTHEID MUSEUM
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.
Doug and Tanya came to pick us and Monty up around mid-morning, and we we went to yet another mall to meet the rest of our safari caravan. Also, to get more beer. The mall had a crafts market set up, including one vendor who had excellent cupcakes, and another who had local honey products. Score. We had four different vehicles bound for the safari; our buddy Sean arranged for us to spend four days at a lodge in Mapungubwe National Park, up near the Zimbabwe and Botswana borders. The cars split up around noon and we hit the highway. Not long afterwards, a police escort pulled in front of us. “Huh, police escort, must be a vip or tea-HEY!”
It was the US team bus, bound for Pretoria. We tailed them until they took the exit to get to Pretoria, an exit we were supposed to take but didn’t. This was foreshadowing. We tried to get a closer look, but there were Secret Service vehicles blocking the lanes, so you couldn’t get any closer than about three car lengths. Tanya made sure to yell at the team via Twitter, because, of course, we’re horrible, horrible nerds like that.
In theory, the drive from Johannesburg to the lodge is about five or six hours, so a noon departure would put us at the park right around sunset. In practice, every single vehicle took a wrong turn, a detour through some of Polokwane’s, ah, less touristed areas, and a totally different route to the park. We got the most sidetracked. Just about sunset, shortly before 6pm, we pulled into a dilapidated gas station to see if anyone was around to give us directions. The attendant quickly pulled out a brand new Blackberry and got the route for us, then chatted for a bit about the difficulties of maintaining a nice mobile phone in his line of work.
Turns out there was a decent shortcut that would get us to the park a little after 8 pm, but it required going down 17 km of unpaved road. We did get to pass a giant porcupine, though. That sucker was huge! Rolled up to the lodge at 9pm, exhausted and starving; fortunately, the lodge staff set aside dinner for us, including a fantastic melktert. As we arrived last, the rest of our buddies explained that they’d already decided the pecking order of who in the party would be eaten first in case of lion attack, and that we’d be among the last to go (single males carrying manpurse, single males, single females, married with adult offspring, married no offspring, married with young offspring). That was very considerate of them.
Sunday morning, we all got up and realized the only coffee at the lodge was instant, then headed over to the park’s main gate for our first tour. This was the Mapungubwe Heritage Tour, a short drive and hike up to the top of a rock to tour the park’s archeological site. Our tour guide, Cedric, showed us a sample dig site and told us about the location’s significance as the heart of the Great Zimbabwe kingdom. Very cool stuff; on the tour, you’re walking around ancient house foundations, pottery shards, and burial sites like you’re in all of humanity’s back yard. Cedric was also quite adept at completely making up spurious explanations for what we were looking at, including playing up his accent to convince us that there were “lions” off in the distance rather than “lines.”
INTERLUDE: TWO INSTANCES OF WHITE PEOPLE BEING TOO OBLIVIOUS TO REALIZE THEY’VE PUT THEMSELVES IN MORTAL DANGER
1. One of our group, Scott, is an avid runner, and decided to go for an early morning jog by himself, despite the signs around the park warning against touring the grounds alone. The staff got wind of this and read him the riot act, explaining that it was extremely dangerous to go out unescorted, as there were “naughty elephants.”
2. In order to get mobile phone reception, you had to climb to the top of a rock overlooking the lodge, about which more later. A few of our party did this and told of seeing an interesting looking snake on the way down. “That was a puff adder,” said the lodge staff; they’re aggressive, and if one bites you, it’s not a matter of getting you 90km to the nearest hospital, it’s a matter of radioing for a helicopter and praying.
After lunch, we went back out for the sunset tour. The first part of the tour was a drive to the observation deck over the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, which means we were kind of like in Pittsburgh. We watched the sunset there, over the borders of Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana, and it was absolutely stunning. We even got to see some elephants!
When the sun went down, we got back in the trucks and drove around with a big spotlight, looking for animals by the reflection of their eyes. We drove along the fence marking the Zimbabwe border (“Dude, I could totally spit on Zimbabwe from here!” Tanya observed); Leonard, our guide, explained that the electric fences along the frontier were there to keep elephants and water buffalo from crossing illegally. Apparently there’s a real problem with them coming in and working illegally, plus the elephants tend to sell meth. We didn’t see any elephants or water buffalo on the rest of the drive, but we did see lots of wildebeest, impala, eland, rockhoppers, baboons, and an eagle owl and plover who were none too thrilled we’d come near their nests.
That night, the staff cooked us a supper of all traditional African foods, which, of course, turned into a contest to see who would actually eat and enjoy the chicken heads, chicken feet, and mopani worms on display. Answer: Mike. The gang really did eat the spread, much to the delight of the staff, who were used to tourists turning up their noses at the weirder stuff. (The staff were also happy to make meatless meals for me, so, while I wasn’t in on that night’s tripe or the next night’s game meats, I did get plenty of samp, pap, local greens, and spicy chakalaka, all of which were fantastic).
Monday morning, about half of us got up around 5:30 to take the sunrise tour. Foolishly, Mike and I forgot to bring blankets, so the first half of the tour was us in the front of the truck thinking “wow, this is so awesome, this is OH GOD I’M FREEZING.” We drove back to the confluence overlook, watching the sunrise on the winter solstice, and then continued around the park. No elephants or big cats spotted, but we did see zebras, ostriches, and lots more baboons and game animals. We also stopped at the marsh canopy walkway, overlooking the riverbank, to look for more animals, but we saw only birds and one huge painted Nile monitor lizard. Yes, by then we’d reached the point where we were starting to get blasé about “only” seeing game animals. Still pretty cool, though.
Monday afternoon, I went with Doug and Tanya to Alldays, the nearest town, about an hour and a half down the road. I should mention that when they got their rental car from the airport, it had four hubcaps; at this point, it had two. The rest of us thought they should take the remaining hubcaps back home to Des Moines and turn them into clocks or something as a souvenir. In Alldays, there’s a stretch of storefronts aimed at visitors to the park and various private safari lodges nearby–gas, ATM, liquor, convenience store, and, for some reason, a combo frilly gift shop and internet cafe. You do not realize how bloated current web pages are until you’ve spent half an hour trying to send one email at an internet cafe in rural South Africa. We’d have gotten back to the lodge sooner, but we kept having to stop along the way to watch wildlife. This is Africa.
After supper that night, the staff joined us around the campfire, eager to share songs and stories and hear of our impressions of the country. They were confused as to why Americans seem to swear so much. “South Africans, we don’t say fuck very much, that’s a very strong word.” Admittedly, their sample cohort of a bunch of sports fans on vacation, many of whom were from Texas, may have skewed the results somewhat. We ended up keeping the staffers up late enough they had to stay the night at the lodge; when we left on Wednesday, they commented on how unusual it was for us to want to hang out with them, as most of their other visitors just treat them like servants. Why would we do that? They were awesome folks who showed us outstanding hospitality; damn right we’re gonna want to talk to them and hear their stories.
Tuesday morning, I slept in late, while the others went on a self-drive tour to find elephants; no such luck, but they did end up playing soccer on a rock flat. Mike and I went back to Alldays with a few others to run some errands. When we came back, we joined the rest of the group in climbing to the top of the rock overlooking camp, aka the phone booth. They’d all brought chairs and drinks up to the top of this thing, and since it was early afternoon, that meant morning in the US and a good time to call home. Hanging out in lawn chairs, watching elephants in the distance, drinking cider and calling the other side of the world is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
INTERLUDE: TWO NAVEL GAZING OBSERVATIONS ABOUT BEING ON SAFARI
1. This wasn’t limited to safari–it actually hit me when we first checked in to our countryside guesthouse upon arrival in South Africa–but damn was it weird to look around at the landscape and have no idea what any of the plants and animals were. Looking up at the night sky and seeing the Southern Cross had a similar disorienting effect.
2. I’ve lived in a big city for 16 years; I love it here and it’s where I want to stay. But when I was out on safari, I had the same sense I did when hiking in the Fjords or driving through Costa Rica: Suddenly, I’m 8 years old and back on the farm in West Virginia. I’m on the other side of the world in a totally unfamiliar environment, but I’m comfortable and at home.
Okay, enough of that. While Doug and Tanya went to Mussina (the nearest city, along the Zimbabwe border, described by one of the guidebooks as lacking the charm of US-Mexico border towns) to fix a flat tire, half of us went out on another self-drive tour while the rest stuck around the lodge to watch Bafana Bafana fall just short of the second round of the tournament. I went out on the drive; Mike stayed behind. We ended up not seeing much on the drive, though we did end up going way off course, straying far enough from the main trails that we had to be let out of someone’s gate. Once back at the lodge, we ate all the rest of the food, then called it an early night, because we’d have to leave at 7 the next morning to get to Pretoria in plenty of time for Wednesday’s US-Slovenia game.
Sure enough, we all left at 7, though we were a bit concerned when Doug and Tanya were late to meet us at the lodge gate. Turns out they were held up in traffic, i.e. there was an elephant blocking their route. On the way to Pretoria, we stopped for a photo op at the sign marking the Tropic of Capricorn (spelled “Capricon” on the sign), and at a highway service plaza full of other people making their way to their next games–mostly Americans and Argentines in rented campers. We stayed on the right road this time and rolled into Pretoria around noon. Sean, who’d put together such amazing digs for the safari trip, had also rented out a set of snazzy apartments for the group for the night, right around the corner from the stadium. Upon arrival, it took Mike and I about five minutes to decide we’d rather just crash on the couch in Doug and Tanya’s apartment than try to get back to Johannesburg postgame.
After getting suited up for the game, we dithered for a bit about where to meet various people, like Erin and Jay. Bar charging R100 cover, or bar with no cover? We went to the one with no cover, which was absolutely jammed with Outlaws and Sammers who’d been there for hours already. Had a mediocre lunch with Jay, then Mike and I took off for the stadium. As we stood on the corner in front of the stadium, we watched the Algeria bus pass by just as the Boston Glob’s soccer writer, Frank Dell’Apa, came up to chat. Once again, the World Cup is all about meeting people at weird moments, though we did leave the bar before Sunil and Garber got there, so I don’t get to be that name-droppy on this trip.
The theme for this game was three weeks of pent-up party time frustration–the crowds had been into it before, but this was just off the hook. Every single US fan there was over the top. So, too, were the Algerian fans, who were surprisingly energetic and friendly; they all wanted photos and cheerful smack-talk. Mike and I got to our assigned seats for a few minutes before deciding to sneak downstairs to sit with the rest of our party. And I do mean sit, as this was another annoying “oh come on it’s the World Cup, you gotta stand!” confrontation. Yeesh.
Then we had 90 minutes of frustration followed by one goal, right in front of where we were stationed, and that was what we’d all come to see. When I say this was three weeks of pent-up party frustration, I mean it; you could tell that the cheers from the crowd had been bottled for so long everyone was ready to explode. After the final whistle, everyone crammed into the aisle between the stands and the field to keep the party going. I was in the middle of the scrum when Jozy jumped the barricade; I didn’t get to hug him so much as kind of grope my way out of the pile to keep from getting crushed. I did lose a contact lens, which is always a sign of a good game. We stayed so long that stadium security had to bring the riot squad out to disperse the crowd, not so much in a threatening manner so much as “uh, guys, game ended an hour ago, we wanna go home” manner. This was also when our friend Kaela hurt her neck in the crowd, so our group did want to stay back long enough to make sure she got to the hospital okay. (She was okay, just got banged up a bit and aggravated an existing injury).
We went back to the apartment, cleaned up a bit, posted some “hay guys what’s up” messages online, and then Mike and I decided we’d prefer a semi-quiet meal before rejoining the party. The crowds and enthusiasm in South Africa were great, but there were an awful lot of “OH WOW I CAN DRINK HERE WOOOOO can’t hold my liquor” kids in the crowd, so we wanted to give them some breathing room for a bit. Also, shit, man, we wanted dinner. Wound up eating at a fabulous pancake house; seeing as how we’d had burgers for breakfast, pancakes for dinner made perfect sense.
When we rejoined our party at the main bar, most of the kids had, indeed, cleared out; the rest of us were watching Australia-Serbia and Germany-Ghana on the screens. Our pal Trent swore up and down that the shot girls were totally interested in him as a person and that we were all the greatest friends a guy could have. Did I mention the beers there were served in mugs with hollow handles, allowing you to nest one mug inside the handle of another and easily transport many beers in one hand? Anyway, after the games ended, the DJ came on, and, once again, began the set with “Wavin’ Flag” and “Waka Waka.” This time, rather than standing on top of a keg singing “Wavin’ Flag,” I was linked arm in arm with some random Slovak dude (“You’ve been to Bratislava? Really?”) and my buddy Rand, a college professor by day whose not entirely secret identity is “ill-tempered US soccer fan.” We lingered for a while longer, then decided to call it a night. On the way out, we passed the bar’s separate dance club, where Trent was displaying how he had about as much game as the North Korean team.
That wasn’t quite it for the night, however; turns out there was a group of Chilean fans in the same apartment complex having a braai out in the parking lot, so we chatted with them for a while. Sadly, they did not offer us any delicious sandwiches with green beans on them. I think we finally wound up hitting the hay around 2 am.
The next morning, we all rolled out of bed much later than anticipated, then rolled out of the house much later than anticipated. The gang went its separate ways–some of us back to Joburg, some of us off to Swaziland, some of us back to the US. Mike and I went with Doug and Tanya for pancakes, then back to Joburg, where we’d intended to spend the day touring Soweto. When we got to Doug and Tanya’s guesthouse, we asked the hostess for directions, at which point we learned how to say “whaddaya wanna go theah foah” in Afrikaans. Wound up being easier than we thought, though by the time we got there, the Mandela House was closed for the evening, so we hung out for a bit on Vilakazi Street, picked up some souvenirs, and chatted with some very cool street musicians. This was my biggest “damn I wish I had more time to spend here” regret for the trip, more so than not being able to get down to any of the coastal cities.
We did, however, manage to get the best souvenirs in Soweto. Mike got a badass Steve Biko t-shirt from a street vendor, I gave a newsstand clerk R20 to tell his distributor the old bottle of Coke I bought mysteriously broke, we all got US jerseys or jackets half price at a shop in the mall, and we stole the greatest souvenir of the trip from the side of the road. See, all along all the street light poles in Johannesburg, there are slots for posters of that day’s tabloid newspaper headlines. The headline that day: “LANDON SEALS THE DEAL.” Swiped two of those; need to frame them. I’d have had them autographed, but Donovan decided to be a great big wiener and skip the Galaxy’s trip to Foxboro in July.
We closed the evening–Mike’s and my last night in town–with dinner at Nando’s. On the way out, I told the staff how much I was gonna miss the place when I got back to the states. Whether that was the restaurant or the country itself, I can’t decide.
Friday morning, we went to get some last minute souvenirs, including a half-dozen bottles of hot sauce, before Danny the cabbie came to get us for the airport. Mike had discovered that one department store had put all its Bafana Bafana merch on 50% clearance, so he asked if we could swing by a mall along the way. Danny obliged, though the route took us through the outskirts of a part of town he said he’d never go through, and Mike and I did a Supermarket Sweep grab of enough Bafana Bafana t-shirts to make sure everyone on the souvenir list was covered. Got to the airport with minutes to spare, then it was off to Nairobi.
At the airport in Nairobi, where we had a much longer layover than you want to have there, we saw an English fan in a t-shirt reading “ENGLISH PLAYERS SCORE MORE.” I guess since there was a silhouette of a naked lady on it, it was referring to John Terry or something, since it sure as hell wasn’t about their men’s or women’s teams. The rest of the trip back was relatively uneventful, except for some disastrous bagels in Heathrow. At every single customs checkpoint, ticket check, security check, we got asked why we hadn’t stayed back for the US-Ghana game. “We’d love to,” we said, “but our day jobs wouldn’t.”
Got back to Boston in time to race a guy in a Donovan jersey for a cab to get to watch the US-Ghana game. We were in such a hurry that Mike left the duty-free liquor he’d bought in Kenya in the car. Whoops. Walked through the door just as the game kicked off, and, welp, turns out Mike and I left on a high note. Annoyed as I was by that result, those three hours took nothing away from the previous three weeks.
So that was my trip. There’s one more part to this story–the epilogue with the semi-serious observations –but I’ll get to that in a bit. It was an absolutely amazing trip to a wonderful country full of very cool people, and I’ve been missing it ever since I got back. My buddy Erin put it best: “When I came to Africa, I expected harshness, but I found only warmth.” For as much as everyone feared the worst from the country and the tournament, turns out South Africa knows how to throw one hell of a party.
This here’s the section with miscellaneous observations that didn’t fit into the rest of the trip report, or else I forgot to put them in. Half-assed discussion of social issues included.
ABOUT THOSE IMPORTANT SOCIAL ISSHOOS
On the one hand, I kinda feel obligated to write some stuff on the subject. Like, hey, wonder how many people with whom I spoke were HIV+? (Answer: Almost certainly more than I encounter in the average day in Boston, but as I was never in a position to swap bodily fluids, none of my damn business). Yes, we got to see some heavy duty poverty, and there were parts of town the locals definitely feared to tread.
On the other hand, hey, I was there to go watch soccer games and party, like I did in Germany and Norway and half a dozen North American cities, and I didn’t feel obligated to play armchair sociologist for those places. I wasn’t there on any serious mission, I was there to have fun, and boy howdy, did South Africa deliver.
What really struck me from two days at two museums that dealt with South Africa’s contributions to world history: You’re in a country that’s had human civilization for as long as there’s been humans, but the country as it exists today is, for all practical purposes, less than twenty years old. Everything’s ancient and brand new at the same time, and South Africans are rightly very proud of that.
The in-flight movie on multiple legs of our journey, on both airlines we flew, was Invictus. Go figure.
Then there’s the fact that while an awful lot of folks, myself included, are guilty of conflating all of Africa into one country, which is foolish, everyone over there was really big on the pan-Africa vibe. Not just from backing Ghana once they were the only African team left in the tournament, but down to things like the Nairobi airport welcoming us to the tournament. That’s kind of like if the US hosts in 2018/22, there being signs in Belize welcoming fans to the tournament. The idea that SA’s the flagship for the whole of the continent was huge.
Along the same lines of the KFC “Fangea” campaign, there were signs in the airport welcoming everyone home, i.e. this is where our species starts and we’ve all got an ancestor there. That was really cool. We didn’t get to check out the Cradle of Humankind site, unfortunately, but the Mapungubwe heritage tour and Origins Centre covered a lot of that.
Did I mention the fires? Yeah, there were controlled burn wildfires in the hills around Johannesburg. Nobody seemed particularly concerned about them. Did make for a smoky evening in Soweto, though.
The two biggest signs we saw of the country’s reputation for crime: every house has a huge wall/security fence, and, except in a few limited locations, the streets pretty much roll up after sundown. Once it gets dark, you’re either in for the night, or you’re in a car going door to door for wherever you’re hanging out that evening. Nobody’s out just walking around unless they’re up to something sketchy.
There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch, beloved among New Englanders, that’s a game show called “What’s the Best Way.” The premise: three New England stereotypes are asked for directions to various locations, and they all give completely ridiculous answers based on how we really do give directions in this part of the country. Turns out you could do a Johannesburg edition of that sketch incredibly easily. Every time we asked someone for directions, we got different answers, and in addition to learning “whaddaya wanna go theah foah” in Afrikaans, we also got “cahn’t get theah from heah” in isiZulu and !Xhosa.
Two disappointing things about the otherwise great food we had: coffee and ice cream. The ice cream was mostly gelato style and suffered from refreezing. The coffee was frequently instant brown water. I realize that instant coffee, along with UHT boxed milk, has some strong selling points in a country where a lot of people still lack reliable water and electricity, but it was a little dismaying to get it at guesthouses.
Best thing I packed on the trip: Earplugs and a sleep mask. Thing I should’ve packed but didn’t: more longsleeve clothes and some moisturizer. Just because there’s no snow on the ground doesn’t mean it’s not winter.
Nothing like the World Cup to make you self-conscious about limited foreign language skills. It wasn’t just the fact that talking to Spanish-language broadcasters, in which I could understand them but not reply, made me feel like a chump, it was the fact that everyone in South Africa speaks multiple languages as a matter of course. It’s bragging rights in the US if you speak three languages; in SA, you’ll need at least four to get ahead. Granted, a lot of the languages people speak are from similar families, something like Spanish speakers getting a head start on the rest of the Romance family, but you’re still dealing with several languages that not only aren’t related, they throw in wacky phonemes like click consonants.
I didn’t bring any banners. I’d discovered in 2006 that they’re more of a liability than an asset on huge trips like this one, and I wasn’t betting on there being railings at the stadium suitable for hanging stuff. Turns out there were adequate railings, but oh well. It’s all well and good to treat stadiums in the US as my own gallery showings, but it’s different when you’re in someone else’s house. I’d love it if US Soccer set up some kind of banner management system, like you could turn your stuff over to them for the trip and they’d take care of it, but I doubt that’ll happen. Just because I didn’t bring anything, btw, didn’t mean my work wasn’t on display–Doug and Tanya brought the American Outlaws Des Moines banner they commissioned from me last summer.
Best way to make fast friends at a World Cup: Know something about everyone’s team and/or country, bonus points if you’ve actually been to that country (as I had with Slovakia and Slovenia). Knowing about the Bafana Bafana lineup, including Benni “Not Appearing at This Tournament” McCarthy, went very far when talking to locals. Heck, it even works with talking to fans from the “hey nobody invited you” countries, particularly Canadians, whose FA continually lets down good guys like DeRo.
VUVUZELAS AND YOU
I get asked about this a lot. Yes, everyone has them in SA. It was kind of hard to discern whether everyone was proud of their vuvus not because of them being a popular SA soccer fan tradition or because they delighted in how much they annoyed other fans. When you’re in the stadium, they’re not as obnoxious as you think they are on TV; on TV, you get the droning but not the call and response tricks people do with them. And they were everywhere–the one we took home as a souvenir came as a premium with a case of Coke. Every store had ones branded with the participating countries, every street vendor had them, everyone had two or three in their car. If there’s any one thing people back home complained about that can be filed under the heading of “you had to be there,” vuvuzelas are it.
Ambush marketing, successful: The Nike Write the Future skyscraper visible from the whole of downtown Johannesburg, particularly the Newtown fan fest. Pity it had to feature CRonaldo, whom I care for not one bit.
Ambush marketing, unsuccessful: Heineken giving out hundreds of branded makarapas (the decorated mining helmets SA fans wear) only to have them dumped at the stadium entrance as carrying unsanctioned sponsor messages.
While at the Apple store, “Sweet Caroline” came over the store’s sound system, and I noticed the guy next to me was looking up Celtics playoff highlights. Couple more pink visors and we’d have had a Boston sports bar.
If you liked the solitary cells in the Apartheid Museum, you’ll love the ladies’ rooms at Ellis Park.
South Africans sure do like their 1980s R&B, especially Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. We got in one cab where the driver was watching Lionel Ritchie videos as he drove. I think this means in about five years, they’ll finally get New Jack Swing. One reason I was bummed we didn’t spend more time in Soweto was I didn’t get a chance to pick up random CDs of local musicians; I was kinda hoping to pick up some street vendor kwaito mixes, the kind where you think this could be either fantastic or terrible or probably both, but no such luck.
All the South African women I met had their ears pierced, but none of them had them pierced more than once.
You know how the dogs react to the squirrels in Up? That’s roughly what happened any time any of our group spotted Mexico fans. You’d be standing there chatting, see someone in green, and suddenly “AI, YI, YI YI, SOMEBODY STOLE MY SOMBRERO…” The Mexican fans appreciated the joke.
There’s a chain of Italian restaurants in SA called Capello. We declined to eat there.
Souvenir we saw at a party supply store, but did not purchase: A Robert Mugabe mask.
In Germany in 2006, we stayed out in the boonies, so once we went home for the night, it was pretty easy to turn off the World Cup. You could definitely get away from it if you wanted to. Not so in SA, not even when we were way out on safari. The World Cup was everywhere, and everyone had a stake in it coming off without a hitch. Every store, every TV show, every radio station, every street vendor, every cab driver, every waiter, every random person on the street. SABC’s tagline for the whole thing was “Feel it, it is here!” and it definitely was. South Africans love South Africa, and, at the risk of repeating myself, they were over the moon at the chance to show a world that’s really only heard bad news about the country just how great it could be. I love Germany and had a fantastic time in 2006, but Germany’s safe, and I don’t mean in the “lol you gonna get stabbed” sense–you show up with a credit card and passport, and everything’s taken care of. It’s the easiest country in the world to travel around; no surprises if you don’t want them. South Africa, you had to do a little more homework, but you got so much more out of it. Everyone I talked to asked me to tell my friends and family back home about the cool stuff I’d seen and awesome people I’ve met, and I’m delighted to oblige.