Out of Africa!

Diary of The Travelling Seanchai

Out of Africa!

2007-08-13 to 2007-08-16

Out of Africa!

Sometimes when you go to a place with absolutely no expectations and anticipating nothing good, you get a pleasant surprise! This was not one of those times! Joburg, a city so flattened by crime and mediocrity that even it`s own inhabitants have little to say good about the place. It`s the world`s only `major` city that hasn`t been built near a river, lake or sea. Yep, there was something very different about this place…

I got a lift to the airport and waited 90 minutes for Willie (pronounced Villi) to come and pick me up from the overrated Diamond Diggers backpackers. Ironically Willie was to become a good mate of mine and one of the only decent things about this place.

I agreed to meet Jennifer from the Safari (the prude who wouldn`t take a nip of whiskey at 6am, sheesh, Yanks) in Joburg and that was why I was here so soon. I went over to her flash backpackers (more like a complex really) and had a few drinks with her and Tony, one of those great barmen that are more like entertainers! We showed off a few card tricks and peeled off story after story from around the world.

Then Willie, Jen and I went to a pool hall come bar. Now as many of you know, coming from Limerick, I tend to take my pool a little too seriously at times, striding around the table with purpose, working out the multitude of options and flawlessly executing them to the detriment of many a vanquished opponent! Well, my air of confudence was well and truly deflated when Jen actually cracked a funny joke (for the first time since I had met her) about smoking and I stumbled and poked myself in the face with the cue stick!

I damn near took my eye out and left a nice little bruise there which I had to apply ice to immediately! Muppet!! We all know that smoking kills, but it can blind you just as easily!

In another variation on a health warning, a huge sign over the freeway in Joburg stated that; “Jumping off high buildings while pregnant can harm your child”. It has to be said that it was an attention grabber and underneath it said – “You wouldn`t ignore that message if you were pregnant so why do you ignore the smoking warnings?” Fair enough then!

Not to be outdone by the Swaziland press, the sensational headlines of the day were, “Woman boils her lover” and “Killer Kills his Family!”. Now that is undoubtedly a tragic story but I haven`t added that exclamation mark for effect, it was on the poster!! It was like, `well what did you expect, he`s a killer, it`s what he does!`

The next day, we set out on a tour because it wasn`t like we could take a walk around the city by all accounts. We had a mixed group of English, German and South Koreans as we set off first to the highest building in Johannesburg (220m high, 4m higher than my bungee!). We went to the famous Soweto townships and we had a tour of one of the shanty areas. One outdoor tap for every thousand people and they could only get water between 4-5pm. One portaloo amongst several families who all had a key for the bicycle lock that secured it.

It was so poor but you couldn`t help but suspect that even this was the better side of things, a side where it was poor enough for us to get a feel for it but not so bad that we would tell other travellers not to go there. Then things got political, as this was an area which was a hotbed of activity in the 60`s, 70`s and 80`s. We had an excellent tour of the Regina Mundi Catholic Church where our humourous guide showed us where the bullet holes of the police had penetrated the walls with equal aplomb as he reverentially told us about the painting of Our Lady of Soweto.

He was impressed that I spotted the eye in the photo and asked if I was an artist, I said no but was terribly proud of myself. He then moved me over to a certain spot and asked me a question (which I got wrong) and he told me that, `It is a pity that you are wrong as you have spoken in the footsteps of Mandiba (Nelson Mandela)`. D`oh! Damn it! Please ask me something else, anything else! Can I phone a friend? 50/50? Damn that pride before a fall saying!

We went to the Hector Pieterson Museum (he was the first child to be shot and killed in the 1976 riots) and the famous picture of him being carried away by another young man

caused the latter to have to leave the country and he has never been heard of again. The museum was on the site of the riots and some of the footage was truly harrowing.

We went to Nelson Mandela`s small little house in Soweto which is now a museum with diplomas and messages of goodwill from around the world. Then we went to the very impressive Apartheid Museum and it took hours to go around, a full history from the early days, the background, the implications and affects to everyone in South Africa, the seemingly impossible coming together of ideologies and ultimately the triumph of common sense and decency. It was powerful stuff.

Back from an emotional day, Willie and I teamed up to play in a doubles tournament that evening in the hostel (because you simply couldn`t go out) and made the following night`s final.

The next day, I set off on another tour with the same gang albeit without Jennifer who had flown to Cape Town causing my South Korean friends to wonder where my `wife` had gone! When I explained that I wasn`t married, Huengsoon kept asking me `why?` repeatedly regardless of what answer I gave him! He was truly amazed that I wasn`t married, he clearly didn`t know me very well!

We took a drive out to Sternfontain Caves where the Cradle of Humankind is (not Mankind of course, thank you very much suffragettes!). It was a series of underground caves like you would see in a lot of places in the world but two sets of bones (those of `Little Foot` and `Mrs Ples`, 3.5 million and 2.6 million years old respectively) had been found.

According to our guide, Gift, there was some recent academic argument as to whether `Mrs Ples` was in fact a female or a male but Gift whispered to me that he was assured that when the remains had been found that the mouth was still moving so he was sure she was a woman!! Move over Racism, hello Sexism!!

It was somewhat disappointing because of course we couldn`t see the bones in question, just where they had come from so it was a very cold tour to the depths. We went back into the city to do the Beer Factory Tour but it was closed so we had longer to spend in the woefully poor Museum Africa where the only bit of interest came from a Steve Biko exhibition and a Ghandi that took strange pride in telling us that he had nearly twice been killed in Joburg, once having been thrown off a train and the other when he had been mugged and assaulted.

Being a target so many times, it seems amazing that he took on a policy of passive resistance, considering the Karate Kid movies thought us that if we `wax on, wax off` enough, any wimp can beat up bullys. Maybe Ghandi didn`t have a Mr Myagi in his neighbourhood!

That night we were in the final against the grumpy manager of the hostel and another guy and I had a right go at him because of his defensive, deliberate snookering tactics (ok I told you that I do take pool too seriously!) and when we won he told me that I was a bad loser, to which I pathetically replied in a cheesy 1980`s Disney comeback way, `only thing wrong with that is that I didn`t lose`. Judas, is there pool anger management?!

My last day in Joburg, I got a lift to the shopping centre and despite the fact I was only there for 30 minutes, I was treated to the sight of four kids with bags being chased by two cops. When they came back with one of the thieves, they were all smiles, both thief and cop alike, like this was a game they had played many times before…

You know sometimes, when the inhabitants say that their city isn`t worth seeing, you just have to believe them…


South Africa in a nutshell (chocolate bar)

The Travelling Seanchai

The Travelling Seanchai

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