we went to South Africa: epilogue

This here’s the post 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.

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.

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.

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.

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