Johannesburg is the other side of the world, in so many ways. You notice immediately when you slide into your rental car, on the wrong side of the car, and drive on the wrong side of the road, shifting with your left hand. Everything is backwards here, or sideways, or upside down, and there’s no getting a handle on it. Even the people who’ve lived here for years don’t know the neighborhoods well. (Returning my non-functioning cell phone, I told the customer rep that I was staying in Greenside, and she said she asked her colleagues and it was as if she were talking about Mars. Greenside is a nice, established neighborhood in Joburg, and three seconds of googling would have told her where we were.) Coming in from the airport, we were out on a limb when our GPS couldn’t locate us as we tooled along the freeway, and had to make a semi-frantic call to the house for spoken directions; driving to dinner tonight the GPS didn’t recognize roads closed for construction and we ended up zooming the wrong way down a major boulevard; driving back from dinner the GPS again got us lost and we happened upon a few of Joburg’s friendlier female citizens. The point being, locals and guests alike don’t seem to know the city, and rely on a global positioning satellite to guide them from place to place. A few handwritten directions be more efficacious, or a good, reliable map.
[The boy who shall not be named] and I arrived in Joburg on Wednesday morning after a 15-hour flight from JFK, during which we were doubly blessed the screaming baby and the rambling toddler in the row behind us. Having done New York-Tokyo and back, however, I’ve come to realize that you don’t experience time at all on these long-haul flights. You are
timeless, outside of time. Sleep comes and it goes, meals are served and consumed, movies watched, books read. Lights go off, then go on, and you look out the window to see the sun rise somewhere over Namibia.
We landed in JNB, found our bags and made it through customs easily, then were met by some nice girls handing out free Cokes.
A solid 45 minutes in the madness that was the Vodafone shop, with a rainbow nation of customers trying to rent phones, SIM cards, GPS systems and 3G routers, then upstairs to retrieve the game tickets at the FIFA kiosks, down to Avis and into the rental car.
Very proud to have made it to the SI compound in one piece after only a little bit of frantic back and forth with the navigator over the functionality of the GPS system. We pulled up to the gate and were met by SI soccer guru Grant Wahl, who proceeded to direct us into what passed for a parking space. Sadly, even the tiny Mazda rental seemed too wide for the opening and at the first sound of metal against cement wall, my New York driver’s instinct was not to stop and back off, but to plow ahead. We will have some explaining to do with the fine people at Avis when we return the car.
As noted, we are staying in a lovely house (compound, actually) in Greenside, a leafy suburb of Johannesburg where the streets are named for famous golfers. I used to own a set of clubs inscribed with our street’s eponymous linkster, for which I received much ridicule, the clubs being four or five decades past their sell date. The house is a beautiful 1930s era bungalow with four bedrooms, a large living space that opens onto a covered veranda and a small swimming pool in the back yard. There are three other buildings on the property: an office that has yet to be set up but that will serve as a workspace for everyone staying here; and two cottages, one occupied by Gladys, the housekeeper, and the other by yours truly, the Boy Who May At Some Point Be Named, and our blogging partner.
The compound is a nexus of soccer cogniscenti: Wahl, of course, plus Ital-Anglo-American journo Gabriele Marcotti of the Times of London, Wall Street Journal, SI.com and various other outlets; Spanish football expert Guillem Balague of Sky Sports, SI shooter Simon Bruty and his assistant Nick (I Can Hear) Muzik, plus Mravic (x2) and Bechtel. Safe to say there is more soccer convo in this house than you’d here in a lifetime most anywhere in the States, and it’s a blast to tune in. Even better, Next door is MLSsoccer.com editor Jonah Freedman, formerly of si.com, and MLS PR guru Will Kuhns.
Did anyone mention that it’s winter here? Brisk during the day, and downright cold at night. The pool beckons for the daring.
There is no avoiding the fortress mentality here. As you drive down the street, there is very little to look, as literally every house is surrounded by an eight-foot wall topped with barbed wire or electrified wiring. It’s impossible to get a sense of what any one neighborhood is like; houses and business establishments are hidden behind walls. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s unsettling.
Joburg is crazy and scary and strange, but lovely too. I was on the veranda in our house this afternoon—most of the rest of the crowd had gone out on various missions—and I listened to the wind chimes and the birds chirping and the wind whistling through the trees, and it reminded me of nothing so much as a cool late fall afternoon in Los Angeles. Then I looked up at the electrified wiring, and our security guard strolled by, and I thought about all the ways this place could be better. That’s an outsider’s perspective, sure, but it’s inescapable.
The woman we are renting the house from, a wonderful and outgoing scientist from Wits University who specializes in sustainability studies, stopped by on Wednesday to check on us and explain the workings of the house. As she went on, she naturally began discussing the security issues, bringing up the various “weak points” in the compound—one of the bathrooms that didn’t have fully secured windows, the sliding doors to the patio that needed to be padlocked at night—and the strategies for pulling in to the house at night: drive up parallel to the sidewalk rather than into the driveway, so that you have a means of escape if someone comes up to the car. Waiting for the security gate to open is a natural hijack point, and you need to be aware.
We have 24-hour security on the premises, and it’s comforting to know that it’s provided by the NYPD.
Though I had worked hard to secure tickets for the SI contingent to tonight’s big concert in Soweto, the general consensus was to blow it off and have a big get-together instead. We ate at Bukhara in Mandela Square, essentially an enormous upscale shopping mall surrounding a 10-foot-tall statue of Mandela. The incongruity between Mandela’s decades in prison and the gaudy ostentation of the mall in his honor. But it was a great time, made even better by the soccer bigwigs who strolled by on their way into and out of the Michelangelo hotel. Sepp Blatter whisked past with an entourage of security, but when Bora Milutinovic walked by, I shouted out his name and waved. He would have politely shifted past us if not for Grant, who’d written a lengthy piece on Bora before the 2002 Cup and who flagged down the Serbian soccer impresario. He came by the table for a quick hello and an awkard exchange about the Serbs’ chances this time around. Bora coached Costa Rica in 1990, the US in 94, Nigeria in 98 and China in 2002, as well as, at various points, Mexico, the Metrostars, Honduras, Jamaica and Iraq. (When I told him my people were from the Krajina, he scoffed, saying there were no Serbs from the Krajina. So much for Bora, I say.) Meanwhile, Marcotti was chasing down Gabriel Batistuta, the former Argentine legend who’s now a spokesman for Qatar’s quixotic but frighteningly promising 2022 World Cup bid.
Less than 12 hours to kickoff tomorrow. Let’s rock.