Sunday, 25 October 2009

Joburg days 8 and 9

The weekend kicked off with a family visit. I met an aunt I had never met before which was something I hadn’t expected to be doing when I came here.

In the afternoon we navigated our way through the road works to Gold Reef City to visit the Apartheid museum. This is an impressive place. It rightly lauds the most influential figures where credit is due but it doesn’t shy from criticism either. It deals, for example, with the ANC’s change of policy on violence; with the impact of the struggle for pre-eminence between ANC supporters and Inkatha and even with mistakes Mandela himself made between 1990 and 1994 and in the early stages of his presidency. Probably the biggest of those with failure to address the HIV/AIDS issue until after the death of his son from AIDS. The proportion of HIV + people in South Africa is somewhere around 20-25%.

The museum paints a grim picture of life under Apartheid and develops the evolution of it from the late 19th Century right until its demise. The heroism of some of the people that fought the regime is contrasted by the vile arrogance of those that instigated and maintained it. It really is brilliantly done. It is a little odd that it is next door to a theme park. It is also a little sad that the theme park car park was packed and the museum’s was almost empty. Perhaps, though, people still recall it only too well and would rather enjoy themselves. It is disturbing to think that a lot of the police officers seen brutally attacking blacks in townships are still here and could easily be around my age. The Nazi AWB doesn’t seem to have much of a presence any more but it doesn’t mean their members/ former members have changed their views.

Today we drove north with our new Aussie mate to a lake, dam, biker meeting place and monkey sanctuary. These were all interesting in their own way. Because you have to drive past miles of shanties to get anywhere though, having a good time feels hollow.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Joburg day 7

A half day (well 8-1.30) at work left us time to take a drive out to Walter Sisulu botanical gardens. If you like plants and stuff, as my mum does, you’d love it. It was pristine and impressively kept with all sorts of types and varieties all carefully labelled as were the rocks and anything else that might prove interesting to the budding botanist, geologist or paleontologist. Eagles and other birds were everywhere. The thing that I liked best were the tortoises that were wandering around not giving a crap about anybody or anything. Those guys have real personality. It’s a tortoise equivalent of misanthropy. I had tortoises as a kid. I think we buried one once then found out it was most likely to have been hibernating. Somewhere there’s a picture of me on a swing in out back yard and behind me there’s wooden cross marking its grave.

The waterfalls there are beautiful though more impressive are the rock that look like they were made from fibre glass to bedeck the set of an episode of Star Trek. They’re all cumbersome and misshaped and russet coloured and would have got the prop boy the sack if he’d presented those as landscape for anything of a higher budget than Doctor Who or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

We visited a local supermarket and I nearly bought a 5 bed villa with pool, maid’s quarters and a football pitch garden for R2million (about £180,000). Instead I bought some ostrich biltong to tune my palette for dinner at The Carnivore.

Although no vegetarian should ever set foot in the place, the Carnivore is impressive for a number of reasons. They have the atmosphere right and the smells and dynamic of the place give it real buzz. Copper statues of great men and women of SA history line the corridor and each has an informative plaque. Queen Modjajdi (I think that’s right) is there as is the Zulu leader of Rourke’s Drift fame and, of course, Mandela. He’s taller than I remember .

Dinner was skewer after skewer of at least 10 meats until we’ surrendered’ the flag on the table to say we couldn’t eat any more. I limited myself but my companions had just about everything. I still managed, amongst other things Zebra and Crocodile. I’d happily have zebra sarnies everyday (it’s a little like beef but lighter) but I won’t be ordering croc if I see it on a menu again. Maybe it’s something to do with eating a predatory animal.

Post match analysis

In some ways going to a football (soccer to South Africans) match here is like going to a game in the UK; in others it is a world apart. Traffic seems perpetually heavy in Joburg but the approach to the stadium is extra slow. Shepherd and Becki found a way to get to within a half mile of the stadium and the parking guys tried to turn them back. I suspect that they pointed to us in the back of the car because suddenly a traffic cone was moved and we were ushered into a spot a short walk away. The Orlando ground itself is surrounded by tin shacks and is in the heart of Soweto. It seems crude to make comparisons to the UK but White Hart Lane's situation amongst some of the shoddiest housing in London resonated a little. One thing that is different is the ticket price. Whereas most of those in Tottenham living in the council houses that surround the Lane would be unlikely to afford the 40 odd quid for a ticket the 20 Rand we paid (about £1.80) is reachable by a lot of people who live in what we would consider abject poverty.

The ground was impressive. Pretty much an all-seater stadium, the capacity is about 35-40,000. It was less than half full but most of the chiefs fans were bunched into our side of the ground along with a few hundred Swallows supporters so the atmosphere was still outstanding. Fufuzellas were being blown on the approach, while we were searched and throughout the match. Chiefs supporters continued to blow them even in defeat after the game. I saw one fight in the ground. It was pretty brutal and, as is often the case in the UK, the police sauntered up after it had dissipated.

Our mate at the hotel was right when he said we'd be the only 2 white faces in the crowd. There were (literally) more white people on the pitch than on the terraces. One of them was a German centre back for the swallows; he must have been a good 3-4 stone overweight. It was like watching one of those celebrity matches where Johnny Vegas or Peter Kaye dons a tight fitting shirt and huffs and puffs around for half an hour. We did get some odd looks but the unifying power of football meant that all my conversations with people around me were about the match. When I leaped up from my seat after a dodgy referring decision shouting 'he got the ball!' a bloke behind me slapped my shoulder and did the three stage hand shake thing that I still haven't fully mastered.

Constant dancing behind each goal added colour to a game that was in part skillful and fast and in part naive and unsophisticated. The close control and passing was at times first rate but the defending (especially from the Chiefs who I am told sacked their entire back line recently and now have 4 players who don't know what the others are doing) was appalling. The first goal for Swallows looked offside from where I was and I was told the following morning that TV replays from a hundred angles confirmed this. The Chiefs goal was a 25 yard effort from outside the 'D' and would have graced any Match of the Day montage. After Swallows second goal the Chief tried to pile on the pressure and at one point the owners son (named Kaiser) missed an absolute sitter in front of goal. The crowd was brutal. To a person (apart from the many babies swaddled and strapped to their mothers) the Chiefs fans did the 'get him off' signal (hands circling backwards around each other) until the coach relented.

Half time food was a slab of beef on 'Pap' which is like stodgy rice or porridge with veg and a tomato and chilli salad. I'd eat that every time over a White Hart Lane pie.

At the Lane you stand in queues behind a chosen urinal if you need to pee and basically wait your turn. the system at the Orlando stadium is similar though the blokes there squeeze two to a urinal which was a little disconcerting.

We were warned to be careful but I have to say that I never felt in the slightest bit threatened. It was exciting and perhaps a little edgy but you get that in a crowd anywhere. Few white people in SA are interested in the league soccer here. They focus on La Liga, The EPL or the Italian league. They can't helped themselves when it comes to 'Bafana Bafana' (the national team) but by and large there is an anxiety about being part of something that is so essentially a part of black South Africa. It too a long time for black and Asian people to feel comfortable attending English games though they, of course, had good reason to feel intimidated. I hope that white South Africans can start to get involved to an extent though not to the point where they take over.

The journey home enabled us to talk about the game, slag off the players and agree on men of the match. The guys stopped for a coke at the hotel and we carried on the footy themed conversation. It doesn't matter if you're talking Zulu or English; when it comes to football a dive is still a dive, offside is still offside and a crappy ref is still a crappy ref. Football is a language that people understand all over the world.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Joburg day 6 chiefs v swallows

We've had a hard day today. Adapting our materials to the reality of SA education has been a challenge to say the least- we're having to do constant updates and do a lot of thinking on our feet. I am (and the boss of course) becoming pretty expert in the complexities of SA education. Our reward for this graft is a match in Soweto between The Kaiser Chiefs and another Sowetan team: the Swallows. I was told that the people at our work place had sorted a driver and a 'chaperone' by one of the guys there who is built like a tank. I asked them if these guys were like him and he laughed. Moments later I saw why- two nervous guys about a foot shorter than me; one with a very dinky tie that only reached the second button. I think in fact we are the chaperones.

The barman here is a big Chiefs fan. I asked him what proportion of the crowd tonight would be white. He said "about 2".
"2 %?" I said.
"No, 2..just you two"

Monday, 19 October 2009

Joburg day 4

Suited and booted we set off for work at 7.55am today. The office is literally 1 mile away. Walking is not an option apparently. We were due to set up at 8 so we were worried we'd be 5 mins late. The talk of rush hour joburg traffic only really resonated when at 9.45 we managed to get to the offices. I could have hopped there backwards quicker. Every 'robot' was blocked and this was a normal day. 'You should see it when there's an accident' the locals said.

Day 3 Sun City

If Montecasino was extravagent then Sun City is the very definition of opulence. Sol Kerzner has a gift for going over the top. I've never seen anything like it. Much of what I said about Montecasino applies here but moreso. The two golf courses are incredible. I liked the idea that at one hole you hit the ball over a lake full of crocodiles. My boy's driving would soon get better if he played here I'm sure.

We also visited the Pilanesberg game reserve and did a safari thing. We saw zebras, giraffes, rhinos and other assorted fauna. I found it hard to get as excited as my colleagues for some reason. The reserve itself is massive but driving over rough terrain, squinting through glass while the sun beats down and occasionally spotting a sleeping rhino would have left me cold if I wasn't so bloody hot. Lsst year two tourists were mauled and partially eaten by lions when they got out to get a better photo. If I'd seen that I probably wouldn't be so negative.

The trip was also an opportunity to get to know colleagues and iron out problems and issues. We managed that in the 2 hours drive down. Most of the rest of the day we spent talking about the nature of post aparthied South Africa. I'm still trying to get to grips with some of the ideas and attitudes but, by and large, the white people we're talking to at least seem to be liberal and fair minded though the way they express their views would sit very uncomfortably in a lot of the UK (maybe not Dagenham). One thing that seems to unify them is a willingness to say what they think. The blacks, malays/indians and coloureds that we have met can be very open or very cagey. It's surprising how much consensus there is when it comes to government failings and the reasons for it.

Joburg day 2

[can't shift the pics into the text from here- sorry]

One of the consequences of being ‘guests’ of an institution in a foreign country is that your hosts feel obligated to keep you occupied. The obvious thing to do is to take you to the famous places, notably tourist spots. This is happening a little here. We could have done with a bit of down time on Saturday or a little local colour and some local food but instead we ‘did’ the visit to the cradle of mankind. Don’t get me wrong, I’d definitely go to any World Heritage site given enough time and on my own timeframe. It’s an amazing place with an interesting take on the whole evolution debate. On the one hand they have the oldest human remains and pride of identifying this as the ‘cradle’ while on the other they do not dismiss other interpretations and belief systems. Instead they try to present evidence as something a visitor can consider and draw conclusions on and alongside it give excellent summaries of relevant sections from sacred texts. There’s none of the Dawkinsesque dismissiveness though of course the weighting isn’t exactly 50-50 and this is understandable given the site and its focus. The site includes caves that were mined for lime and have produced countless fossils though the biggest excitement on the day was the appearance of a poisonous snake (it was one of the 10 most dangerous but I didn’t get the name). The museum in Maropang nearby has tried to bring a thrill to science and a ‘message’ about environmental catastrophe and humanity. It achieves this in part though it is no different from going to the Science museum and, as a consequence, much more interesting to me were the visitors rather than the exhibitions. There were at least 5 school parties there. Each group was kitted out in immaculate uniforms and distinct as a pristine football kit. They looked like private school kids but were regular state school kids and seemed to be enjoying themselves and engaging. There didn’t seem to be too many behaviour issues that you might expect taking a group of kids in the UK on a trip- it wasn’t as if they were being watched over closely; they just behaved and appreciated and worked. Like most of the people I have met here they liked to chat so a potentially dull part of the day was redeemed by them, their teachers and other visitors to the site.

Somewhere I’d have definitely baulked at visiting was Monte Casino. For me this was Cradle of mankind to cradle of profligacy in just two hours. It’s a giant casino, village, bunch of restaurants that is modelled to look like an Italian village. It is actually quite impressive but, like a lot of South Africa, a little distasteful when juxtaposed with very evident poverty. Inevitably it does provide jobs but, as I have seen in several places already, there is a part of SA that likes to go for it big time when it comes to comfort, food, entertainment, hotels and the like. I have to say that I gawped like a kid at the roof. It’s painted like a cloudy sky and looks bloody realistic. I know it’s not the Sistene chapel but it impressed me nonetheless. Apparently it’s designed to persuade people to stay and spend money longer when they might otherwise worry about travelling back to Joburg in the dark. Service and food, unlike the real Italy, are excellent and people seem genuinely friendly.

Saturday finished nicely with some premier league footy on TV and a Spurs win and Chelkski and West Sham losing. I’m writing this while watching Fulham v Hull. Most of the black and coloured South Africans I have met have an English team as well as a South African one. Most know more about the EPL than I do. The Afrikaaners tend to follow rugby. It’s the cup final this weekend coming. This may well be our opportunity to do something for ourselves because the hosts all have ‘other commitments’ on cup final day. I was having an excellent chat with one of the trainees here this evening until he told me he liked Les Arses. Bang goes his chance of passing the course. That's not true of course: I beat him to within an inch of his life with his fufuzella.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Joburg day 1

We left at around 3pm on Thursday and arrived, doomed to be forever fixed in the awkward Swiss Air seated position, at around 10am on Friday. The last couple of hours of the flight were rendered at least tolerable by the film I watched and the humbling landscape below. Hundreds of miles of what I guess were Central African Republic and Botswana revealed nothing more than a dry, flat terrain with the odd settlements connected by miles of roads that would have had any Roman nodding in appreciation. We also flew over the nearly finished 'soccer city' that will host the World Cup final. It looks pretty spectacular although there is more than a hint of the inflatible rubber ring about it.

We were looking forward to freshening up and using toilet facilities where you didn't have to roll up your trousers. A navigation problem (no map) meant that our host took a wrong turn just as she was saying there some areas in Joburg that should be avoided at all costs because of the number of car jackings. 'Oh no, Jeppestown, it looks like I will get to show you. But don't worry it should be OK at this time of day...' and then in a quiet voice to herself 'Please God let us get through here...' In fact it looked OK to me. I'd sooner be there than some parts of Bradford, Manchester or East London (the one in London not the one in South Africa).

The rest of the day was spent fighting through Joburg's horrendous traffic to the north. We went to the lion park. Me and my girl went to London zoo recently and spent the day looking at empty cages and forlorn looking animals in small enclosures. This was nothing like that. The project is about rearing cubs who would otherwise die in the wild. I admit to being a little unappreciative of this side of creation; preferring man made structures or spectacular land forms. I went along for the ride and resisted grumbling about how tired and hungry I was but, to be honest, I find it hard to get excited about birds and things like my work colleagues do. We go to Newcastle once a year and they all look at the birds in the bridges and talk animatedly about them while I shuffle about awkwardly with a puzzled look on my face. This was different though. It was so good I'd even sit in that traffic again to go for longer. We went in with the cubs- 4 months is a lot more developed than their human equivalent I can tell you. Boss got bitten on the arm and one tried to chew into my knee. The drive round the park also gave us a stern reminder about why there are signs everywhere saying 'keep windows closed'.

[The picture took about 10 mins to upload on this connection so the rest may have to wait. Love to my family in UK. ]

Sunday, 4 October 2009

staple in nail

I was hoovering. I swept my hand under some stuff on the floor. I whipped it out as I felt a sharp pain. I'd managed to get this staple under my nail. Instead of taking it straight out I took a photo though so that I could send it to people and get sympathy.

The most unusual thing about this isn't how far down the staple went or that I bothered taking a picture. It was the fact that I was hoovering.

That's life 2009

There is a type of nostalgia TV that assemples a few c-list celebs and gets them to say vaguely amusing things about tv shows, adverts and films from the past. The attraction is obvious: it's cheap to make and we like to see how easily pleased we were in the 70s. Often referred to in disparaging tones is 'That's life'. The celebs mock it because the programme pretty much depended on dogs that could say 'sausages' and vegetables sent in by a relative of Mrs Trellis (of I'm sorry...fame) that were shaped a bit like a knob. As a kid I'm pretty sure i found that funny like everyone else diod at the time and, to prove the point, here's evidence that I still do. We found this ice cream in France. Of course we took a photo but the product itself didn't appeal enough for us to actually buy it. Ice cream sellers must get sick of English speakers doing that. Going back to That's Life: it wasn't the dogs, the creepy bloke or the veg that I didn't like; it was the time it was on. I knew that when it finished at 9pm on a Sunday that the weekend was over and I had to go to school the next day and explain why I hadn't done my homework. No amount of phallic carrots can assuage that gut churning sickness.

Fully comp

I can often be heard moaning about people with too much money and too little sense (and little other things they're compensating for) who drive like they own the road, never learnt how to use a roundabout, think the disabled sign means 'parking for arrogant toffs' and specialise in sitting in the middle or outside lane at just under the speed limit until you try to overtake.

Whenever I see one of that type pulled over I suddenly throw away all my anarchistic tendencies and actually give a small cheer for the old bill. This sort of divine justice is, for me, the perfect definition of schadenfreude (along with sneering, gloating Gooners, Hammers, Chavs or ManYoos who see their lead overturned in the last minute by a lucky goal off someone's arse and another that didn't actually cross the line- a too rare event I know).

I just happened across this site. This is someone I see eye to eye with. 6000 expensive cars, all totalled. Of course I wouldn't wish anyone any physical harm and I guess some of these accidents must have resulted in injuries but, as the public safety cliche says, if it makes just one person drive more carefully...

I ran some one over once. He ran between two parked cars, straight in front of me. It was the worst feeling and slowed me right down for weeks. Not that I was speeding, it's just that- like when you fire a gun for the first time- you suddenly realise the power of the thing you are controlling.

Bolt-on entertainment

The match was definitely entertaining yesterday: 4 goals shared, monsoon conditions followed by sunshine followed by gale force winds, a comedy of errors in defence and a novelty linesman who seemed to have forgotten his glasses and rule book. The best thing though was this poor bloke they sent on at half time. The tannoy is so bad at the Reebok that I didn't catch his name but you had to feel for him. He ambled around in the centre circle singing his head off while the bulk of the Bolton fans and all the Spurs fans laughed. Between songs a chorus of "shall we sing a song for you?" rang out between playful boos which, to his credit, he had a laugh about. It was the little, jiggy dance that he did that made me wince most. I bet, unless he's really skint, he won't accept that invitation again.