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Johannesburg Travel Blog

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Chapter 1

Every traveler knows that long-distance flights can be unpleasant. What I did not know was just how unpleasant two back-to-back long-distance jaunts could be: sitting in small, cramped airline seats, eating heat-and-serve meals, drinking little water, with no opportunity for stretching cramped up muscles and finding no diversion other than in-flight entertainment that can only be described as less than entertaining. Perhaps sleep comes easily to the seasoned traveler under such conditions, for not for me. The overall discomfort was compounded with frustration when my bags did not follow me to Johannesburg and I realized how foresightful indeed it was that I had packed the basic necessities of travel in my carry-on backpack: underwear, socks and a few toiletries.

For some undisclosed, mystical reason, we were late in departing LAX. So when we arrived at Heathrow I literally had to run to catch my connection to Johannesburg, enduring two sets of screening checks, emptying pockets and removing shoes each time before passing apprehensively through yet another metal detector under the watchful eye of some roughish-looking security employee twice my size and half as smart. Other travelers were not so fortunate; they had missed their connections and were now stuck in the terminal trying to negotiate a resolution with airline employees.

Once aboard and seated next to a young missionary woman from Minnesota (Lutheran, I guessed) en route to her mission’s relief outpost in Malawi, I tried to relax into the discomfort of an economy class seat. We were soon joined by a group of a dozen or so sturdily built Afrikaner men, ranging in age from mid-thirties to mid-sixties, all tan, all speaking Afrikaans in a boisterously fun sort of way and clearly having a better time than I. Seated around me on both sides of the aisle, they continued to joke and laugh as if at a party. Overhearing their conversations with other passengers, I discovered they were cricket fans who had been chasing the South African national side to England for a test match. Their celebratory mood owed to a South African win. It occurred to me that here, sitting in a 747 parked at Heathrow with 11 hours yet to fly, I had already begun my African journey, surrounded by the sounds of Afrikaans and laughter.

I followed our progress on the map channel for the entire distance, catching only an hour’s sleep here and there. Even at 500 mph, progress seemed deathly slow. I had flashbacks to childhood family car trips and eager are-we-there-yet inquiries every five minutes.

Dawn broke an hour or so before landing and I stared out the window with an inward awe as the southern morning sun struck the landscapes below that looked vaguely like California. But this was Africa, the continent I had dreamt about for so very long, in all her fairy-tale beauty. I felt the plane’s nose tip downward and a barely restrainable anticipation, with a touch of unprecedented thrill, overcame me. We circled Johannesburg’s vast sprawl and began the final approach. "Fasten your seatbelts" never sounded so beautiful. The runway came ever closer and the buildings grew ever larger until, bump. Here I am, I reveled. I have arrived. I’m in Africa.

Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport is under constant renovation that proceeds at a pace one can only describe as African, making it impossible for aircraft to taxi directly to the terminals for loading and unloading via the normal accordion boarding ramps. Instead, we were greeted by a mobile staircase to the tarmac and a fleet of efficient little yellow shuttle buses to ferry us to the arrival gates. I suppose I missed my first footsteps in Africa, choosing instead to notice the heat of the southern sun’s rays as they struck me, still dressed in my cold-weather clothing. It had an unfamiliar sting, even at 7:00 AM. Passport and customs declarations clutched tightly in hand, I stepped cautiously into Tambo’s thoroughly modern international arrivals hall and shuffled along with the crowd that moved like a herd of transient zebras, some faster some slower, toward the immigration stations. Joining an ill-defined queue, I stood and waited somewhat anxiously for my turn at the counter. The herd of zebras had reached a bottleneck. The queues advanced at a geologic pace and I wondered what could possibly delay the process so inexorably. I looked frontward to the bank of immigration officials, all black and about half women, dressed in smart slate-blue uniforms, who moved with an unaffected slowness as they processed each traveler. It was my first taste of how slowly Africa can move.

I handed my passport to the youngish black woman seated on a barstool behind a computer. She opened it, eventually leafing to the page with the unflattering digital photo and relevant personal data. "How long will you be staying, sir?" she asked, almost inaudibly, in a crisp South African accent.

"About six weeks," I answered, sounding cheery and perhaps a bit overexcited. A stick-on label visa and a rubber-stamp seal later, she handed me back my passport with, "Thank you, sir. Enjoy your visit."

"Baie dankie," I replied smilingly, nodding slightly in gracious appreciation. "Baie dankie." I beamed with pride. I had spoken my first words of Afrikaans in South Africa.

I stepped forward. Before me, on the polished red granite wall was affixed a hammered metal relief map of southern Africa with mountains, rivers and coastlines all clearly distinguishable. Above it, in elegant, 3-inch shiny brass capital letters, were the unforgettable words: Welcome to South Africa • Cradle of Humankind. Was this a homecoming? I wondered. I mean, if it all started here, if this was indeed the place where our collective ancestors first learned to walk upright, to speak, to make tools and create art, then aren’t we all coming home when we come to Africa? Can it be that somewhere, deep in some twisted little strand of DNA, we all carry the memory of those defining events and that it tugs us instinctively back home?

Other travelers from my flight, now strung out loosely, followed the signage directing us to customs. A tinge of fear haunted me as I wondered whether the three thousand US dollars rubberbanded tightly into my bulging wallet would create an obstructive issue. Handing my customs declaration form, neatly printed in clear block letters, to the slightly heavy black official, I stood, awaiting his inspection and perhaps a prying question or two. He took the form, placing it matter-of-factly into the stack of similar documents in his left hand, and gestured with a jerk of his head down the hallway behind him. That was easy, I thought, mildly surprised and relieved. I was learning early that South Africans don’t take rules terribly seriously.

I always stress at baggage carousels. Perhaps it’s the crowd hovering and posturing just at the rim, hoping to grab their bags first, oblivious to the second tier behind them who struggle to break through when their cases come shuffling by. I hung back, waiting for the over-anxious crowd to thin and hoping impatiently for my cases to pop out and tumble down onto the spinning carousel. The crowd thinned. I waited, my anxiety climbing with each moment. They’re coming, I thought, just a few moments longer. The crowd was gone and I was bagless, along with half a dozen other travelers whose agitated dismay was obvious. We huddled involuntarily ever more closely. Lost luggage is apparently a misery that loves company. I turned toward a row of desks tucked neatly into a long niche 7 meters or so from the carousel. The conversations were sharply tense and not at all reassuring. The sign hanging by thin chains from the niche’s low ceiling was not good news: Lost Luggage.

"Oh shit," I thought, now in a palpable panic. "Oh shit."

The questions to the white woman with a British accent in a British Airways uniform were all the same. When? "Oh, twenty-four hours at the very most," she offered back each time with an effervescent confidence that bordered on glee. My panic waned. I have always been gullible and I needed consolation, simple reassurance that no disaster was at hand. I smiled, then laughed, almost uncontrollably at the wry turn my fortunes had taken. What else could I do?

"Will 35 Pounds help?" the woman asked, handing me a debit card embossed with the BA logo. It seemed generous at the time, but I was definitely looking for silver linings. I tucked the card into the pocket of my backpack and gave her my name and local telephone number, still laughing at the randomness of it all.

"Things like this happen," I said, leaning over her desk. "I’m here to have a good time and I’m not about to let this muck it up," I insisted. I really meant it. Barely six months out of chemotherapy, I was overdue for something good. Africa’s magic was already at work. I had adopted a distinctly African come-what-may attitude without even trying. Africa would work much more of her magic in the weeks ahead. Much, much more.

I trotted off with no sense of direction whatsoever in search of a long overdue, very large cup of coffee.

Chapter 2

Money, I thought. Cash. I needed an ATM, knowing full well that my three thousand dollars wouldn’t buy me a drop of coffee anywhere around here. For an international airport, Tambo is remarkably small and uncomplicated. Its lobby and mezzanine offer the usual airport conveniences of newspapers, snacks, and shops catering to every taste, whim and pocketbook. I stood, surveying the walls, searching for that familiar VISA logo that would send me confidently on my way to relaxation and a few treasurable moments to recompose my scrambled brain.

But standing still can be a mistake in Africa. It suggests confusion, uncertainty, loss of way, vulnerability. The local taxi drivers wait in the lobby with baited anticipation, like crouching lions in search of prey, hoping to snag their next fare. In my uncertainty I must have looked to them like a stray from that herd of zebras I came in with. They pounced. They had me surrounded, four of them. I had nowhere to run. "Taxi, baas. Taxi. Where you want to go? I take you, baas," they chattered at me, jockeying for advantageous position in front of me, each trying to outshout the next. It was more than I could take. Lack of sleep and lost bags had left me a bit edgy and the cabbies’ pushy, in-your-face and touch-your-body attempts to snare me was offending my American sense of personal space. I snapped.

"Stop," I hissed, raising a stiff index finger and holding it motionless in the face of the cabby nearest me. I locked eyes with him and glared unflinchingly. The aggressiveness of my gesture and the ensuing silence shocked even me. "I’m tired and they’ve lost my bags. I want to sit and have a cup of coffee, that’s all," I asserted, still hissing slightly. Silence. Wow, I thought, I should do this more often, turning to escape them.

"OK, baas, oraait. Maybe later then, baas."

I, the lost zebra, had defeated the lions. "Now," I thought, concentrating anew on my own hunt, "please give me an ATM." There, on a nearby wall, I spied that ubiquitous symbol of American capitalism, the VISA logo, on a cash machine kindly placed there for my convenience by ABSA, the Amalgamated Banks of South Africa. They must have known I was coming.

I fumbled for my oversized wallet in my backpack and removed my debit card, hoping it would work. I gingerly slipped it into the slot, following all the directional diagrams, and waited. A menu popped up asking me to choose a language. It offered English, Afrikaans and at least two others I didn’t care about. I gulped and pressed Afrikaans.

"Welkom. Tik jou persoonlike identifikasie nommer in." So far, so good.

****, at least I hadn’t forgotten my PIN.

I tapped the green button marked Gaan voort.

Onttrekking. Tjek. R1000. Gaan voort, again.

Wag asseblief. I waited. The machine hummed, then clicked. The jaws opened and out slipped 10 one-hundred Rand notes in a lovely neat pile. I was home free. I folded and stuffed the bills into my pants pocket. My card clicked out and I had done it. I tried to look nonchalant as I took the receipt, also in Afrikaans, wanting anyone who might be watching to think I was a native and that Afrikaans ATM transactions were nothing new, nothing daunting. If anyone was watching, it was probably an unconvincing performance.

"So," I thought, confidence renewed, "where’s that coffee shop?"

I hopped an escalator toward the mezzanine, drawn by the neat rows of tables and chairs and handfuls of people sitting casually about while others milled about the floor, attending to children or pull-along travel cases. It’s odd, but with a few minor variations, these places look the same anywhere in the world, with their Formica-topped tables and hard resin chairs placed with deliberate order on freshly buffed artificial tile floors, everything gleaming invitingly. But in South Africa, you get twice the needed number of service personnel.

I stood, slightly confused, at the perimeter of a café offering pastries on doilies carefully placed in glass-front displays, the countertops stacked with sturdy restaurant-style earthenware cups and saucers. The place had a comforting familiarity about it. A young African woman wearing a bleached-white, starched apron approached me, holding a plastic menu, the whiteness of her apron making her native skin look all the blacker. "You sit here?" she asked, gesturing with the menu to the table nearest me. Dropping my backpack onto the next chair, I sat, placing my face into my palms. The waitress set the menu on the table and asked, "Everything oraait?"

"Ja, oraait", I answered, half gasping. She shuffled away politely, unsure of me and just what to make of me. Head tilted back and eyes shut, I breathed three or four breaths of surrender. It was the most relieving moment I’d had in two days. There was space, empty, unpeopled space, all around me. It was glorious.

The tall laminated menu looked like any other quick-stop café carte, offering the usual assortment of baked goods, small sandwiches and assorted hot or cold beverages. I fumbled with it, dumbly trying to decipher the new South African code names for old favourites, and still trying to comprehend my newly-acquired breathing space, using the moments to sigh heavily. I must have looked like a sick and aged zebra, gasping on the savanna between life and death.

The waitress returned. "Hmm?" she muttered, forming no word but making herself clear nonetheless.

"Coffee," I replied, "just a coffee."

"Filter coffee? Nothing else?" she queried, made curious at my limited order. She hovered, expecting an additional request, adding "Hmm?" several more times.

"Ja, just filter coffee." I was learning the South African name for a house coffee, the likes of which do not exist down here. She shuffled to the counter, leaving me still fidgeting with the menu, searching confusedly for the early morning nibble that would put all things aright and restore my sanity.

My coffee arrived, served smartly in its tall, bright white, handled cup and saucer, accompanied by a tiny metal pitcher of heavy cream. A proper metal tea spoon and two long, cylindrical packets of white sugar lay elegantly in the saucer. Two sleepless nights were still distorting my sense of time, so I couldn’t tell if the service was prompt or slow. I didn’t care. I had my coffee and I knew it was Step One on the road back to normalcy. I topped up the cup slowly with a shot of the cream, my hand shaking with nervous fatigue. I stirred and sipped. This was not house coffee, I recognized, not at all, as I ripped the end off one sugar packet, trying not to look displeased with its thin, bitter taste and slightly grainy texture. But it was coffee, and that was all that mattered. I sipped with my well-established American haste, feeling its curative effect increase as I drained the cup. My breathing slowed. Perhaps this wasn’t coffee at all, but some magical African potion that restored harmony to the mind and order to the world. Whatever it was, I was now at peace. Finishing the cup, I stared at it, thanking it for its beneficence.

Stumbling awkwardly with my chair, I rose and covered the few paces to the counter, where yet another crisp-aproned native woman stood. She looked like a palace guard, standing dutifully, but with nothing real to do. "You finish?" she asked, looking thankful she now had something to do.

"May I have another filter coffee," I wondered aloud, feeling guilty that I had made her move.

"Another?" she half-asked, giving me a curiously surprised tilt of her head.

"Yes, please." I half-stumbled back to my chair to await another dose of African potion.

In the time it took me to consume that first of cup, the world had slowed to a pace I recognized as real time. Truly this was a magic potion, served by a white-aproned ngoma with ancient powers and wisdom.

As I half-enjoyed my second serving, two well-dressed white women entered the café, looking efficient and business-like. Their stylish clothes, their well-coifed hair and designer briefcases, everything about them, would have fit well into Santa Monica or even Beverly Hills. Standing a few feet from my table, they surveyed the space, clearly seeking a suitable table for themselves. "Waar is daar ’n plek?" one of them asked.

The magic coffee potion had clearly worked its wonders on me and I was feeling the lost luggage frustration and a kind of low-grade anger. "Kom sit hier met my," I offered, now sounding distinctly irritated. They turned, looking a bit baffled by my invitation. "Ek was twee dae in die lug en nou het hulle my bagasie verloor. Kom sit hier met my." The coffee, coupled with my newly appreciated frustration, had awakened my Afrikaans.

"Jou bagasie is verloor? Twee dae? Waar kom jy vandaan?" the one woman asked, clearly surprised by my offer of so much personal information to a stranger.

"Ek is Amerikaans," I continued, my Afrikaans now flowing with an unprecedented freedom.

"Jy’s Amerikaans?, asked the one, with a noticeable astonishment in her voice. "Maar jy praat baie goed Afrikaans. Waar het jy Afrikaans geleer?"

They were words I would hear repeated countless times in the coming weeks.

"Ag, net ’n bietjie, en dis nie so goed nie," I responded, trying to sound appropriately modest and knowing my Afrikaans could fail at any moment. I explained how my bags were indeed missing, and that I was tired, felt unpleasantly dirty and was desperately in need of a shower and new clothes. My functional use of Afrikaans impressed even me. They sympathized briefly before dropping their fashionable ladies’ briefcases onto a nearby table where they began discussing what sounded succinctly like business.

I finished my second cup of coffee, fumbled with my backpack to ensure all was in order and rose to settle my tab at the till. The palace guard came back to life.

"Thirty-two Rand."

"Twee-en-dertig," I repeated, flushed with my newfound success in Afrikaans.

Little did I know that 16 Rand for a cup of coffee was an enormously high price, an airport price. But I didn’t care about costs at this moment and handed her one of the lovely blue 100-rand notes the ATM had so graciously conceded to me. I had no notion of correct tipping in South Africa, but ten percent seemed decently gratitudinous. I offered her 3 Rand or so on the counter, noticing a shiny American quarter in my handful of now mixed coinage. "Here," I said, "this is from America," offering her the strange, bright piece.

"You from America?," she asked, raising her eyebrows in obvious surprise.

"Jaaa," I smiled, drawing out the deep Afrikaans vowel.

She inspected both sides of the curious coin, clearly piqued by its novelty.

"How much this?" she asked, still intrigued by my laundry change.

"Twee Rand," I said, attempting a quick mental calculation.

"Two Rand?" she repeated, adding a curious "hmm" as she dropped it into her apron pocket.

As I turned to leave, without even a faint clue where I was going next, one of the well-dressed businesswomen called to me, "Do you have a place to stay?"

"Yes," I answered, now forgoing any attempt at Afrikaans. "I have a reservation at a lodge."

"Which one?" she asked, suddenly very interested in my plans.

"The Airport Game Lodge, in Kempton Park," I offered. "I’m going to phone them now to come collect me."

She wrinkled her lips and shook her head this way and that. The gestures looked disapproving. "Well, if it doesn’t work out, you must call my cell number. I have a very nice B&B. You’ll be very happy there." She penned a number with careful haste onto a scrap of paper and handed it to me.

"Yes, thank you, I’ll do that," I said, taking the slip of paper. Rather than a blatant attempt to solicit custom for her business, I recognized her gesture as a thoroughly sincere offer of South African hospitality. She really wanted my stay to be pleasant. But I had every confidence that the lodge I had chosen would be the best imaginable, a welcome respite after my inglorious journey and a place to chill out while I adjusted my body clock to the ten time zones that now separated me from the nearly-forgotten American West. Nothing would go wrong, lost bags notwithstanding. My faith was unshakable.

Thanking her again, I left the café, feeling a bit brighter of mood but still acutely aware of my disheveled appearance. My clothes were sticking to me and my BO threatened to embarrass me. My hair was hopeless.

I needed a phone. Fortunately, Telkom, the South African telephone provider, maintains public calling centers here and there for people whom the techno-revolution has left without a cell phone. I knew their structure well after using the German version years ago while living in Munich. Their green and white logo in the lower lobby told me I was only a phone call away from a shower, a bed and a restful day in the country. I had tried to kill time in the coffee shop, not wanting to offend my lodge hosts with an early morning wake-up and summons to duty.

The small efficient looking room consisted of a service desk on one wall, and rows of phones along the other three. "How much is it to make a local call," I asked in English of the white woman behind the desk. Her demeanor was impressively sprightly for a woman with a doubtless boring job. "Oh, give me a few Rand and we’ll settle the difference when you’ve finished," she said, perhaps stimulated by the mere appearance of a customer. I plopped a few coins, some silver, some brass, onto the desk and she fished out what she wanted. "There, that’s good," she peeped, pointing me to the grey phones.

I punched out the number I had carried in my wallet in preparation for this moment. The line buzzed in the continental manner and a young man with a delightfully thick Afrikaans accent answered, announcing that I had reached the proper place.

"I have a reservation with you and I have now cleared customs. Can you come fetch me?" I asked, using fetch to sound British, but wincing at my own appalling American accent. It sounded oafish and Bush-like next to his.

"Go to the pick-up and go area, through the tunnel. Look for a white VW with our name on the side. I will be about ten minutes." His rhythmic speech and accent charmed me.

I thanked him. Another success.

"Oraait. Good-bye."

Who, I wondered, was attached to this rich and enchanting voice? I wanted to fall in love with him.

"So how was that?", I asked the desk-keeper.

"I owe you…a bokkie," she answered, using the colloquial name for the Rand. She slid a 1-Rand coin across the counter, still sounding far too chipper for the morning shift at a dull job.

I headed for the street exit, through the lobby and past the prowling pride of taxi drivers. This time they recognized me and held their distance. This time I knew where I was going. My string of simple successes at negotiating the country’s novelties told me I was quickly on my way to becoming a native. It was more of Africa’s magic. She snaps you up and transforms you into an African before you even know it.

portia says:
I should be more verbose... I felt like I was right there with you in that airport reading it. Wonderful.
Posted on: Jun 02, 2007
portia says:
fascinating read! need translation though. Enjoy your trip there!
Posted on: Jun 02, 2007
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