Monday, November 14, 2011

south africa will steal your heart (and your wallet and your shoes)

"tonight we're gonna smash this place up
and then we're gonna deck it out with fairy lights till we are content
and then we'll maybe drown in Dewey decimal,
but leave our shoes off at the door..."

-Los Campesinos

I woke up at 6:45 on Saturday morning in Pretoria to the sounds of birds screaming. I’ve noticed that some birds make funny sounds on this continent, and it’s not always the singsongy sweetness of Disney Cinderella birds. Sarah was already gone from her side of the bed, making coffee and breakfast for us in the kitchen. She was playing kick ass host to the four of us travelling to Pretoria for the weekend to write the Canadian government exams. We’re all looking for jobs after our time in Africa, and so only for that reason are we willing to write public service exams first thing on a Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, Mathieu had woken up to discover that somebody had stolen his shoes. This was weird. Sarah is staying in a nice palatial home in a nice neighbourhood of Pretoria, complete with its own swimming pool, braai area, and most importantly a big gate. It was hard to imagine somebody would have jumped the fence, gotten past the locked door, and stolen nothing but Mathieu’s old dirty sandals.

This was causing us a bit of stress, because we had twenty minutes before the exam was supposed to begin and nobody wanted to confront Sarah’s roommates with allegations of shoe theft.

“I’m going to the High Commission barefoot,” declared Mathieu.
“No, you aren’t,” we told him.

I saw a pair of shoes that had been thrown into the bush.

“Are those your shoes?” I asked him.
“No,” I said.
“Why don’t you just wear those shoes?”
“I’m not wearing random bush shoes.”

Eventually one of Sarah’s roommates lent Mathieu a pair of flip flops and we left for the Canadian High Commission, although I remain of the opinion that Mathieu’s need for a job would have been much more convincing if he had shown up to the exam barefoot.

Mathieu's temporary footware solution

Sarah had rented a little beat up car for the weekend – she called him Chico – and gave us a ride to the High Commission, which took us through downtown Pretoria. I like the look of sunny Pretoria, parts of which reminded me of friendly Montreal, although everyone swears that it’s a boring place with nothing to do at night. The population of this South African executive capital is more than the population of all of Namibia put together, so I find it difficult to believe that there is absolutely nothing to do here.

pretty pretoria: picturesque streets...but this could easily be the Annex in Toronto.

And besides, a little bit of easy-going boring was something I could use that morning after a rather harrowing arrival in Johannesburg the night before. On Friday night, Allison and I flew in to the O R Tambo Airport and then moved over to domestic where Eleonora and Ali were arriving from Durban.

waiting for the girls at the airport in style

The plan was to have Ali rent a car and drop us off at a Gautrain station so I could make my way to Sarah’s house in Pretoria. We had planned to use a GPS to find our way there, but our GPS (which we named Sheila) was a sweet-sounding but completely malfunctioning piece of garbage that mainly specialized in directing us to the wrong locations through the more dangerous parts of the city while playing useless VISA commercials at the exact moments when we would rather be hearing directions. Plus, as we got lost in Johannesburg, we kept having conversations like this.

“Oh, put your backpack in the trunk.”
“Because otherwise we’ll get robbed.”
“While we’re in the car??”
“Yes. And push your purse under the car seat.”
“Because otherwise we’ll get robbed.”
“While we’re in the car??”

Clearly, we’re not in Windhoek anymore. Personally, I feel like it is way more work than worth the effort for a criminal break into moving cars when it would be must easier to break into a parked car. But who am I to be culturally condescending to South African robbers?

Sheila thought we were talking about the Marlboro train station, so we found ourselves pulling into Marlboro, which was a run down neighbourhood that gave us all an uneasy feeling. Mainly because Marloboro was on fire. Great big flames with black smoke rising up to the night sky, and people walking around like it wasn’t all that big a deal that the city was on fire. Okay, time to keep driving.

Anyway, I was glad to make it to safe, peaceful, boring old Pretoria. Let’s be fair: I’ve spent the last couple of months in a city with the population of 200,000 and that was the biggest city in the entire country. It was kind of nice, if a bit shocking, to be in a city with another zero at the end of that number and to be completely surrounded by capitalism and McDonalds, although I really did feel like I was back in Toronto rather than in Africa.

The series of exams on Saturday morning at the High Commission were about as pleasant as foot surgery by a drunk surgeon without painkillers, especially for those of us who haven't done math problems since high school over a decade ago. However, the invigilator was a cool young employee named Nicholas who took pity on all of us and took us out for lunch in between the exams. I assure you this did not happen when I wrote the LSAT or the bar exam. We had a lovely meal at the News Café, where I had the hangover breakfast in anticipation of what I was going to do tonight to forget about the exam experience. Just when I felt myself slipping into a blissful food coma, Nicholas told us it was time to go back to write the last exam. Time to face the beating. Time to face the math.

Sarah and her car Chico drops us off at the High Commission

By the time I finished writing the exams, I had the wonderful feeling that you might have when you finally stop beating your head against a brick wall. We all loaded back on the Gautrain and got the heck out of Pretoria back to Johannesburg, where we would meet up with the rest of our friends to celebrate having our butts kicked by the exams. I wasn’t terribly excited to go back to the big city where the topic of every other conversation would be about how to not get robbed, but it was nice to be back with a big group of friends, and to watch the scenery from the train, which looked an awful lot like the Vancouver Sky Train. I watched the cityline of Pretoria whip past me in the window, and then at fields where homeless people slept under tarps like coffins. The Gautrain is a very pleasant experience, even if they are stricter than Singapore about drinking water or chewing gum or wearing a hoodie on the train.

the Gautrain kind of looks like the Vancouver Sky Train.

riding the gautrain after doing the math

view from the train

black smoke still lingering over Marlboro.

Thankfully, Joseph did not live in Marlboro (which seemed to still be on fire when I passed it again) but in the affluent and pretty suburb of Emmerentia. I took the time at his house to wash the smell of exam failure from my skin, pretty myself up for the evening (and by “pretty myself up” I mean I wore a Bump-It), and soon enough Joseph, me, Sabrina, Eleonora and Ali were out the door to meet up with the others for dinner.

We dined at Doppio Zero, a Mediterranean restaurant in Greenside that was incredibly patient about the fact that there were twenty of us and we all wanted to drink to forget about our day. Mathieu and I split a bottle of wine (or two, or more), I filled up on bread and then pasta, and caught up with the other folks who I have not seen since July to see how they were enjoying living in South Africa.

Then the power went out in the entire neighbourhood, but the wine, company and conversation was so enthralling that half of us didn’t notice and the other half just assumed that the restaurant was dimming the lights to be romantic. I had just enough wine that the power outage didn’t cause me to launch into my usual preaching about the upcoming zombie apocalypse. Ali, unfortunately, was all caught up in the romance of the dark and tripped, hurting her ankle badly.

After eating for a full four hours, we decided that it was time to go dancing, and we hit up a night club nearby. Unfortunately, at that point, Mathieu was still wearing the pink flipflops that Sarah had given him that morning in Pretoria, and the bouncer, a big man in a big suit, would not let Mathieu in.

“Not with those shoes,” the bouncer said with the most disdain a dignified man could have.

I tried every tactic to get Mathieu in. I begged. I threatened. I batted my eyelashes. I flexed my muscles. I offered bribes. I told the bouncer the long tragic story of Mathieu’s dirty sandal theft. I even told him about the bush shoes that Mathieu would not wear. The bouncer would have none of it, probably because he couldn't hear me through all the house music. Finally I turned to the manager, who I think had been watching with silent amusement all this time, and was ready to launch into the whole routine again.

“Please sir…” I began.

“Yeah, whatever, let him in,” the manager said.

I felt as victorious as a lawyer winning her client’s case in the courtroom.

I should also point out that once we got in, we discovered there was already an Afrikaner wearing swim trunks and flip flops, and it made me question the integrity of the night club's dress code.

It was hot and stuffy in the club. It took me a while to clue in that it was because the power was out all over the neighbourhood. I was impressed with the city’s ability to keep on partying, even without electricity. It just takes the right amount of wine and the right kind of spirit. We danced.

Afterwards we moved on to Melville, which had electricity, to a bar called Rats, which was playing Madonna music videos on TV screens all over the bar. Sabrina and I talked to a Nigerian guy who told us that he was a model. He was also trying to convince Sabrina that he was the most beautiful black man in the bar. Sabrina pointed out that he was the only black guy in the bar.

Finally it was time to leave. A South African friend of Joseph named Dave offered to give us a ride home. We left the bar, and then saw there was a fight going on in the street outside between two guys throwing beer bottles at each other. One of the glasses hit Ali, who was already limping from her fall in the dark.

“Maybe we should wait a few minutes before we leave,” she said.

Another passerby shooed us back into the bar. We said good-bye again to everyone that we already had said good-bye to, and then obce the bottle flying subsided, piled into Dave’s car...only to be pulled over by the police a block later.

I think the police were just checking for drunk drivers, and Dave had not been drinking, so I’m not quite sure why I felt so nervous since we weren’t doing anything wrong. Still, I wondered if we were going to have to go through a second round of negotiations like we had with that club bouncer, getting ready to beg, argue, explain, maybe bribe…

“Good evening, officer,” Dave said, putting his arm around the police officer’s shoulder. “I’m just trying to get these poor helpless Canadians home before anything happens to them.”

The officer shone his flashlight into the car, looked the lot of us girls crammed in the backseat, smelling like wine and sweat and failed math problems, and then threw the most pitying look at Dave. “Go, go,” he said, patting him on the back.

South Africans are all right, especially the ones that aren’t stealing your shoes or throwing bottles at your head.

"because that was the point
of us at home with the moon pouring through the curtains,
working on our attitude
towards the second hand book shop employees,
reading the inscriptions that were never meant for their eyes.

please don't tell me to do the math."

-Los Campesinos

this magical drink is made up of my three favourite ingredients: coffee, ice cream, and liquor.