1, 2: Next year in Jerusalem … this year in downtown Johannesburg with South Africa’s Jewish hipsters. Pesach of dreams.
3, 4: Easter, American style, at the home of the daughter of one of S.A.’s most famous human rights lawyers. Naturally.
5: Pub quiz, South African style. Whenever they ask a question about cricket I just weep piteously into my beer.
6: Anna’s Flemish friend E was staying at our place when, late at night, Anna demanded that the three of us play a round of Speed Scrabble. “Only if you let me play in Dutch,” E. mumbled sleepily. Behold, the result.
7: Rugby match, Ellis Park, Lions versus Blue Bulls. No, I didn’t stutter. There’s actually a professional rugby team in South Africa called the Blue Bulls. Also, don’t let Invictus convince you otherwise: rugby is whiter than a Wilco concert and always will be.
The journalistic integrity of my blog has been deeply compromised! Alas.
Your father was just maligned in your blog. I never said Sikhs carry a sword (its a dagger). And, the Sikh cab drivers are in Philadelphia, not New York. Nonetheless, the fundamental point about being raised to talk to cab drivers is accurate.
The question was supposed to be casual. “Where’s Blessing?” I asked Joseph, the groundskeeper at my apartment complex. Blessing was one of the security guards who patrolled the place in twelve-hour shifts, a friendly guy not much older than me who frequently came by my apartment while he was working just to chat. For months he’d had a deep, rasping cold and now I hadn’t seen him in over two weeks.
“He’s got cancer,” Joseph said calmly, pausing as he looked thoughtfully past me into the distance, “just like Mugabe.”
Joseph is an old man, and in the manner of old men everywhere, he loves a good ramble. Like everyone who works at my apartment complex, he’s also Zimbabwean, and he rarely misses an opportunity to redirect a conversation—any conversation—into a discussion about Robert Mugabe. I’m usually game for this, but on that particular day I wasn’t listening as he began to tell me about the Zimbabwean dictator’s (apparently) impending death. When I finally shook him off, I found another of the security guards, Oliver, and asked him about Blessing.
“I’ve been to see him on Wednesday,” Oliver said. “He’s not working now. He doesn’t talk. They’ve put a tube in his throat. He can’t say anything. He is very stressed, sister, very stressed. ”
Blessing lived in a township called Diepsloot, Oliver told me, in a metal shack he and his wife rented for R400 ($50) a month (Incidentally, it’s hard to afford much more when you make R2000 ($250) in a month, which is what they pay the guys on the front line of making sure all my nice, expensive stuff doesn’t get stolen every day). Oliver rattled off his phone number and I scribbled it down. “But don’t call him,” he said. “He doesn’t talk. You have to send an SMS.”
That evening I composed and recomposed my message. “Hi,” I typed. “It’s Ryan from apartment 21. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been sick.” — No, that seemed too trite.
“It’s Ryan from apartment 21,” I started again. “We’ve missed you here.” —That seemed bizarrely sentimental. Finally I settled on something more prosaic: I heard you’ve been sick, is there anything we can do to help?
A few minutes later, my phone buzzed. Blessing’s number flashed on the screen. “Hie sister,” the message began. “im so very hapey to reacive your sms it was so wanderful 2 me god be with you guyz. Yah im still safaring in oparation and im not talking just using signs is not perfact my sister life is difficult 2 me now im not working im at home its fine sister if u have something u can give me god wil be with u guyz lets have a day to met im so very hapy gud night.”
We exchanged a few more messages and arranged to meet at the end of that week at a mall near his home in Diepsloot. Anna and I weren’t sure what we could—or should—give him, and we’d settled rather randomly on…some groceries. So on Friday, the two of us and a friend visiting from Cape Town packed into my car and pointed ourselves north.
Johannesburg is a city almost predestined to sprawl, a mining camp set in the plains and left to grow, flanked on every side by miles of scrubby brush. Its landscape is a procession of flimsy government houses and gruff office buildings and tree-lined suburbs that seem to stretch endlessly in every direction. I am constantly amazed by how long I can travel in any direction and still be swallowed in it. But when you drive far enough north, past shopping centers and gated housing complexes and casinos, the six-lane highway frays to two, and the landscape finally starts to open up. There are houses with barns, then long stretches of open veld, dusty and brown. And then, suddenly, separated from the city by this buffer of open land, there is Diepsloot.
Diepsloot, like so many of South Africa’s townships, has the strange character of a place that refuses to be disposable, even though it’s clearly meant to be. It’s sloppily organized and crowded, with tin shacks slumping against brick houses and rows of mini-bus taxis kicking up a constant plume of dust in the street. Some of the roads look like they were once paved, before the endless march of shoes and tires reduced them to dusty rubble. As we drove up, people were sitting on stoops and standing clustered in the street, talking and frying meat and smoking cigarettes. I dodged a chicken meandering slowly across the street, his head bowed as if in deep concentration.
We met Blessing in front of the ShopRite in Diepsloot’s mall. He had a towel wrapped around his throat to cover the plastic trachea tube, which he adjusted periodically to wipe the gobs of spit and phlegm from the wound in his neck. He smiled widely when he saw us, and hugged each of us stiffly. “Alright,” Anna said, “should we go inside?” He nodded.
And then there we were, three young American women following him around a grocery store helping him fill a cart with food, less white-savior-industrial-complex than white-savior-bay-of-pigs—hapless, uncoordinated, and kind of awkward. I wanted terribly not to embarrass him, but how, when what we were there for seemed so obvious? I didn’t know whether to hang back or stay close, and finally I settled on walking beside him, as though we were just two friends on a jaunt through the supermarket. Since he couldn’t talk I tried my best to just ask yes or no questions, tailing him from aisle to aisle in a kind of extended game of Twenty Questions. Do you have any kids? (he nodded) More than one? (he shook his head) A boy? (no) Is your daughter very young? (yes) At one point we turned the corner into the cereal aisle and a little boy standing there shrieked. Umulungu! He yelled to no one in particular. White person!
When Anna and I had paid for the groceries, the four of us loaded into my car to drive Blessing home. Away from the crowded supermarket, I began to ask the questions I had been paranoid to ask when other people were around. How many years since you came from Zimbabwe to South Africa? He held up four fingers. “You came in 2008?” I asked, and he nodded. 2008 was the year that South African townships—and this one in particular—had erupted in anti-immigrant violence. Thousands of people, migrants from across the African continent like Blessing and his family, had been driven from their homes, beaten, or killed, all of it underlaid with a rhetoric that will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever lived in the United States: that’s what you get for taking our jobs, our houses, our social services.
We inched along the highway for a few more minutes behind a line of mini-bus taxis, then Blessing gestured for me to turn left at a broken traffic light. We followed that road for a while, then another, and another, twisting into the township until he finally motioned for me to stop in front of a small house. He pushed open the gate and led us past the main structure toward a cluster of five or six shacks in the backyard. We followed him into one and set down the bags of food. As we walked back outside, a woman emerged from another of the shacks, her face taut, arms crossed. Blessing pointed to her and then back to us. “Your wife?” Anna asked. He nodded. We shook hands and I made a joke about how her husband was now a captive audience—she could say anything she wanted to him and he just had to sit and listen. Blessing smiled gamely, his wife laughed weakly and looked away. For a few long minutes we all tried to make small talk but soon there was nothing else to say. We said goodbye and walked back to my car.
On the drive home we were mostly silent. I felt strangely uneasy. Americans, I thought to myself, have a nasty habit of feeling that we always know how to fix the world’s problems. We tend to charge in to new places with our eyes closed, dragging with us a thousand ideas about how to make a place better, freer, more like us, all the while pretending there’s no one already there with an opinion or livelihood of their own. And I know about the strange destruction that even our most well intended charity can unleash. In Senegal, for instance, a flood of used Zach’s Bar Mitzvah / Operation Iraqi Freedom / Duke Blue Devils t-shirts donated by well-meaning Americans is destroying the local textile industry. In Swaziland, my Fulbrighter friend N. tells me, she’s met people who burned their neighbors’ farms when they started to grow enough crops to compromise the area’s USAID food allocation. And then, of course, there’s Kony2012. That’s our go at charity, clumsy and senselessly destructive. The white savior bay of pigs.
I know all of this, but I still don’t know what I’m meant to do with this information exactly, what it means for me and Blessing, or me and the blind man in Rosebank I give money to nearly every morning, or me and the car guard in the park who told me he sleeps out by the cars and couldn’t I spare something extra? Eighteen years after the end of apartheid, Johannesburg remains a city parceled, cut apart by the clean lines of apartheid’s geographers and the scars they have left behind. But across its history and its present, it is also a city of individuals reaching across those borders, straddling the fault lines and stepping across them.
There’s a way over, I thought as I drove back from Diepsloot to my suburban apartment, I just don’t quite know what it is yet.
The first rule of a Brown family vacation is you must always talk to your cab driver.
We’re coming from a bar in Abu Dhabi when my cousin L leans forward and asks our driver if he’s Emirati.
He laughs, but nicely. ”Emiratis do not drive cabs,” he tells us. He’s from Bangladesh, he’s been here three years, and he wants to go home. We ask about his family, about what he thinks of Abu Dhabi, about where he lives in the city. He tells us about his son and how he thinks Egyptians are cruel. When he drops us off in front of our aunt’s house, we leave an outrageous tip.
A few days later, L and I are in another taxi, this time in Dubai, talking with another Bengali taxi driver who works seven days a week, twelve hours a day. He’s been away from home for ten years, he says, and he shares a room at the taxi depot with the man who drives his taxi for the twelve hours a day that he’s off. He makes $1000 US per month. He wants to know who drives our cabs in America. “Lots of Indians?” he asks. As we’re getting out of the cab, L mutters to me, “we’ve got to stop talking to all these drivers, we’re falling for all of them.” It’s true, but really we can’t help it. We come from a family of the obsessively curious and we love nothing more than a captive audience to shoot intimately personal questions at—where do you live? how old are you? how much money do you make? how often do you see your family? do you miss them?
If you don’t believe me that it runs in the family, consider this: a few weeks ago when my dad was in Johannesburg he asked me if any of the cab drivers here were Sikhs. No, I said, I didn’t think so.
Well, he told me, there are lots of them in New York, and whenever you run into one, you must ask him if he’s carrying his sword. (Apparently they are all meant to carry a ceremonial dagger on their person at all times). Only in my family would someone tip you off to the fact that you should be asking your cab driver if he’s carrying a sword. Seriously.
Then again, if anyone were to solicit my advice on cabs in certain parts of the world, I’d have some tips as well. In Washington D.C., you should definitely ask your cab driver where he likes to eat—the place he takes you to is guaranteed to be an insanely delicious, ridiculously cheap Ethiopian restaurant (or alternatively, drive up and down U Street until you find an Ethiopian restaurant with a lot of cabs parked in front of it). In Dakar, you should never believe the driver when he says he knows where he’s going. He didn’t understand your French anyway and he’s just driving you to the airport because you’re white and isn’t that where all white people are going? In Moscow, if you value your sanity, it’s probably better to just close your eyes when you get in the cab and not open them until you arrive at your destination.
When I got back to Johannesburg from Cape Town last month, I took a cab to pick up my car at the mechanic (story of my life). “Where are you from?” the driver asked when he heard my accent.
“Zimbabwe,” I told him.
“No you’re not,” he said.
“It was a joke,” I said.
He was silent. There’s something else I got from my family, I thought, a love of conversations with cab drivers and a sense of humor bad enough to shut them down before they even start. What can I say, I was born like this.
On the highway outside Abu Dhabi we repeatedly pass exits that say simply, Camel Race Track. If I were the kind of person who kept a highway exit names greatest hits list, this would definitely be on it.
But today there’s no time for racing camels. Today there is time for one thing and one thing only, and that is the fastest roller coaster in the world. (File under “sentences I’m pretty sure I’ve never uttered before”)
This roller coaster is the centerpiece of an amusement park called Ferrari World. Given the name, there’s not a whole lot left to explain about this place, except this: it’s entirely indoors.
Let me say that again. It’s an indoor amusement park. Yes, inside. Inside a giant red building shaped like a six-legged octopus (a hexopus? a sexopus? Wait, that didn’t come out right). Anyway, observe:
The first thing you notice when you visit Ferrari World is that no one really visits Ferrari World. In the parking garage an L.E.D. screen flashes the number of spots available in each row: 94, 76, 88, 91, 60.
We park close to the door and wander inside. As we approach the ticket line, we see a sign advertising the ride wait times. They are all less than 5 minutes. We agree that this is either a very good sign or a very bad sign. Our powers of deduction are strong, very strong.
Anyway, once we’re inside it becomes pretty apparent that this was a very bad sign. There are exactly four thrill rides at Ferrari World. And one of them is broken. The 25 visitors to the park seem to be looping through the other three in an endless cycle.
“But it got such good reviews on TripAdvisor,” Z mutters. (It’s true, I later discover. A lot of people freaking loved this place. Also, between this and Lonely Planet’s persistent insistence that there were good restaurants in the country of Zimbabwe, I’m officially cutting off all travel recommendation websites forever)
There’s only one thing to do in this situation, and that’s drink. But this is the UAE, so that’s not an option. Plan B: Z and I ride the world’s fastest roller coaster twice (review: I wish it had lasted more than 45 seconds*). The most interesting thing about it is that if you ride wearing a hijab, the ride operators give you a special strap-on hijab hood to keep it from flying off. Ferrari World, you think of everything!
Just as we’re about to leave the park, we pass a little boy and his father arguing with a ride operator. He’s too short to ride, the operator is saying. No, his father says, the top of his turban touches the height bar. But, the ride operator says, that’s his turban, not his head.
As Z points out, in America this would have all the makings of a successful religious freedom lawsuit. Somehow I don’t think it works that way here.
Anyway, after about two hours in the park, we can’t take it anymore. We need something to refresh us, something to restore our faith in humanity. So we go out to a gigantic palace that’s been converted into a hotel.
(Still to come: That time we stayed on a man-made island in Dubai shaped like a palm tree)
*that’s what she said.
(This is what the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi thinks of Ferrari World)
In the airport in Doha, Qatar, I realize that Americans are the single most highly identifiable group of travelers in the world. It’s something about the bad shoes and the constantly confused faces and the fact that our man-folk categorically refuse to wear capri pants. But I can spot the Americans here from across the terminal, bumping into women in black abayas and clutching their telltale blue passport books like they’re about to be snatched away by one of the Indian cleaners shuffling across the floor in front of them. My people. My loud, nasally, bleary-eyed people. I close my eyes and wait for my flight to be called.
Two hours later, I am in Abu Dhabi, sitting on the concrete outside an airport terminal clutching a Starbucks cup (Starbucks!) with Arabic writing on it and watching cars drive on the right side of the road. If I’d slept the night before, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been nearly as fascinating, but after eight hours on an airplane crushed against a silent Frenchman, the fact that these cars are all turning left into the far lane is unbelievable to me. I realize I’m definitely going to crash a car when I go back to the US, definitely.
Here are my other opening observations about the UAE: it’s over 100 degrees at 10 a.m. and everyone drives a BMW.
I’ll tell you, no sleep really does great things for my powers of perception.
A few minutes later my cousin L. and her boyfriend Z. arrive in their rental car to pick me up and soon we’re zipping down the Sheikh Zayed freeway towards a cluster of tall buildings vaguely visible in the distance behind a cloud of sand and smog. When we get closer, I see that Abu Dhabi isn’t so much a city as the set for a Star Wars movie. Every building is about 50 stories tall and slanted at some dizzying angle that makes it look like it’s about to tip off its foundation. They’re also all 100 percent windows, reflecting a fractured image of hazy sky and gray concrete. I can absolutely say this is the newest, shiniest city I have ever seen, which seems appropriate since the UAE is the country of ridiculous superlatives (the biggest indoor scuba diving tank in the world! the tallest building in the world! the fastest roller coaster (wait for it, wait for it)…in the world! More on that one later)
As we drive I start to have many of the questions that make me a singularly irritating person to travel with, like, where do all the poor people in this country live? Is there anything old to look at? Do we have to go to the beach?
(The answers, by the way are: in workers’ hostels somewhere you can’t see, absolutely not, and yes, of course we do)
L and Z are remarkably good-natured about all these queries. They’ve been in the country for two days already and they’re rattling off street names and pointing out landmarks like old pros. Today, they tell me, we are going to jet-skiiing in an inlet outside a giant mosque.
Fine, I say, good. Why would we not go jet-skiing in an inlet outside a giant mosque? This is a question I have been asking myself my entire life.
The whole city, I’m beginning to realize, seems to have emerged from the following thought exercise: what would happen if we took Las Vegas and put it in a Muslim country in the Middle East?
Well, let me tell you, jet-skiing around giant mosques is what would happen.
Until the 1960s, what’s now the United Arab Emirates was a sparsely populated desert. Several of the world’s empires—the Portuguese, the Ottomans, the Brits—had poked their heads in and had a go at ruling the place, but except as a port, there wasn’t much to keep the imperial powers interested. Abu Dhabi and Dubai were fishing villages.
Then, in 1958, someone decided to have a look underground and found out there was some pretty interesting stuff down there (like 80 percent of modern world history pivots on that one sentence, if you think about it). Five decades later, oil has made this the sixth richest country in the world, and its cities are some of the most concentrated centers of wealth on the planet. In the decades since the beginning of the oil industry here, the number of foreigners pouring into the UAE has so outpaced the growth of the population that now only one in ten residents of the country is Emirati. They’ve been crowded out by rich people coming to get richer (Europeans, Americans, other middle easterners, Indians, etc) and poor people coming to get less poor (Bengalis, Pakistanis, Indians, east Asians, eastern Europeans, etc). I’ve never been to a place with less visible sense of identity, or a place with more American fast food restaurants (and I am, incidentally, from America). I think the two are related.
Anyway, so there I am, surrounded by all of this, experiencing a level of mixed horror and fascination that I’d previously reserved for fried oreos and America’s Next Top Model. I want no part of it, but I can’t. stop. watching. And by watching, I mean jet-skiing. So. There you go.
Still to come: the world’s fastest roller coaster, the world’s tallest building, and the world’s most crotchety and sarcastic tourist (spoiler alert: that’s me!). STAY TUNED…