Friday, December 04, 2009

South Africa, Day 1

It takes a long time to get from Atlanta to South Africa. Not as much time as in the 1700s or anything like that, but 15 hours on a plane is painful. 15 hours in a seat that is bludgeoned by passing carts and flight attendants every 30 minutes is excruciating. The medical emergency did add a bit of excitement.

Winds were favorable, and we arrived almost an hour early. Surprisingly (unlike many other airports), Johannesburg’s airport (Tambo) was ready for us and immigration and customs was a breeze. Unfortunately, that meant that I was in the lobby before my driver arrived, but not too much before. I had time to change ugly green pieces of paper for lovely brightly colored pieces of paper before embarking on the drive to the hotel.

I sat in front with the driver, the better to view the surroundings and listen to the odd driver stories (“did you know that when you assign numbers to “Sun City” and add them together you get “666”?). Some impressions from the drive and conversation:

  • Nearly everything that I’ve ever pronounced from an Africa map, I have been pronouncing it wrong. For example, Lesotho is pronounced Lesootoo. Also, a “q” is pronounced as a tongue click. (I’m still waiting to find something with a q in it so I can try that one out.)
  • There were people walking everywhere on the sides of the roads. In some areas, where there were large grassy fields on the side of the road, I would see five or six people walking through the veld. The driver explained (and this was confirmed later) that most of these people are illegal immigrants who live in “the bush” as squatters. It’s a significant problem in South Africa.
  • I was initially somewhat offended as the driver referred to people as “blacks” and “whites”. Apparently those are accepted terms and even codified in law (along with “coloreds” – people from India, etc.). Upon reflection, “African-American” wouldn’t be appropriate, would it?
  • Traffic was bad, but not China bad. People generally follow the rules, although driving off the road into grassy areas (e.g. to point out some interesting sight) is not unusual.
  • Everyone speaks at least two languages. Everyone (or close to it) speaks English. A large majority of whites and some blacks speak Afrikaans. Most blacks speak one of the other “native” African languages. People flow into and out of languages with ease.
  • South Africans consider rodeos to be barbaric. Bull riding in particular is seen as extremely cruel. Defending the Texas position on this topic in a South African bar would not be a good idea.
  • For those (like me) who never understood what the Boer war (pronounced something like Booorr) was about, it was the English trying to take over the Transvaal, which was the area in the north of South Africa where the Dutch/Afrikaaners moved to get away from British rule. It was an atrocious war, and some still refer to “the English” with disdain. (In some places, merely speaking English was considered treasonous.)
  • There are no Starbucks in South Africa. Really. None.
  • South Africans are ambivalent or worse to the US in general. Many believe that the US did not do enough in the apartheid era, plus there’s the usual rich country envy going on. These feelings are directed much more towards the nation than the people, however, and I was treated very well.
  • In general, South Africans like President Obama.
  • There are fences everywhere, many of them electric. Nearly every home, business, school, etc. has a spiked, razor-wired, or electric fence. Private security outnumbers police. Crime is a ubiquitous problem, although most people said that being street smart (don’t walk alone at night, don’t leave things in view in your car, etc.) generally ensures safety. Much of this, I was told by others, has to do with a swing away from the police state that existed under apartheid. It will take a while to swing back towards the center.
  • This is an emerging country with significant infrastructure and political problems to be solved. It is also beautiful and friendly.
I have no cell phone coverage here, so all of the “call us when you get in” instructions were useless. This was confusing, since Verizon claims coverage in South Africa. Apparently, however, Verizon does not have a roaming agreement with any carrier here, so “coverage” means that you have to call them in advance so they can send you another phone and port over your number. Like that helps me now.

The lodge where I am staying is “The Whistletree”. It was recommended as an alternative to boring, usual hotel accommodations. It is in a beautiful setting (behind a fence) and feels more like a home or B&B than a hotel.

I was greeted by a very friendly staff who helped carry my luggage to my quaint little room and showed me all of the amenities, including the European style bath with hand shower and no shower curtain. The balcony off of my room looks onto part of a garden and the tennis courts. There are a huge variety of birds chirping and laughing at all times of the day, and I left the doors open during the day to enjoy the lovely breeze.

Unfortunately, after traveling extensively in Asia recently, I didn’t even think to tip the staff. I may find reptiles in my bed later.

Dinner was served in the well apportioned dining room (no dress code, fortunately). The ostrich was quite good. After a shower and dinner, the big fluffy bed beckoned and by 8pm I was unconscious.

The rest of the story:

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