Friday, July 30, 2010

Other People Football

Greetings faithful followers, I apologize for my absence. Life is Kerou hasn’t been very exciting. That being said, my life that just took place in South Africa was an experience I’ll be sharing with you and, quite possibly, any children/grandchildren I may ever have.

Before I landed in Benin I knew I would be going to the World Cup in South Africa. Being in such proximity to a global event of this magnitude was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. It’s true that I’m not much of a soccer fan, but events like this are so much more than just the sport they highlight. It’s literally a global gathering of sports enthusiasts and people of varying backgrounds and cultures. It’s an opportunity to meet people whom you may never have the chance to meet in the “daily grind.” It’s a chance to see faces, hear languages, and share cultures with those from all corners of the world. Literally.

During the first few months of my service I’d talked with some of my buddies and it was decided that Richard from Chicago and Doug from Brazil/Oklahoma would be my traveling mates. Richard is a genuine guy from the Midwest. He’s open-mindedly religious and painfully nice. Doug is reserved, but enthusiastic. He may have lived in Oklahoma, but he is decidedly not from there. We all love sports. We all love having a good time. And we all were looking forward to having a sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Planning our trip was a bit difficult as we all had to word together to get things done. Unfortunately for my friends, I don’t have internet and therefore couldn’t do much of the preparation. Doug and Richard both have Internet at their posts and, thankfully, took on the burden of getting the game tickets, reserving plane tickets, and finding places for us to stay (We’ll talk more about this later.)

We somehow managed to get dirt-cheap plane tickets to Johannesburg, the only thing is that the departure city was Accra, the capital of Ghana. Much to our luck, there is a Peace Corps presence in Ghana. So, we had some correspondence with people there that could help us if we needed. Also, Ghana is only one country over; about a seven-hour bus ride from Cotonou, which is Benin’s economic capital. Traveling through Togo was pretty uneventful, save for the 50 stamps and the onerous processing we had to go through with our passports. I mean, honestly, why must this be so complicated for just traveling through a country. You’d think we were trying to declare citizenry in this country there were so many documents to fill out. I think we were at the border for about 30 minutes getting stamps and paying money. The only problem that arose was when we were about to enter Ghana. We were standing at the border station working on getting our exit stamps to head into Ghana at the Togo office and we decided it would be a good idea to take a picture. Rich, Cara (a girl who was traveling with us) and I lined up and Doug snapped a photo. Unfortunately a security officer was walking behind us and he got caught in the picture. Well, this turned out to be a matter of national security and Doug had to work with the border patrol officers for about 45 minutes to get his camera back. Frustrating, I assure you.

So, we finally made it to Accra. Compared to Cotonou, Accra is about 25 years ahead of them development wise. There are movie theaters with new releases. I saw the new Iron Man movie and new Toy Story. There were malls. There are paved roads everywhere. It was the most developed city I had seen in almost a year. We felt like a high schoolers because we spent almost all of our free time at the mall. (Let’s go to the mall!!!) Aside from the developed areas, though, it was easy to realize that you were still in a developing country. There were shanty houses, polio-stricken beggars, and bush taxis aplenty.

Our flight was scheduled to leave at 11 pm. Unfortunately it started raining and when it starts raining the pulse of the city comes to a grinding halt. We planned to leave our hotel two and a half hours before our flight thinking that would leave us enough time to get to the airport. Think again. We were literally sitting in traffic about a mile from the airport. Sitting. It was a parking lot. Not to mention it was raining. So, we’re sitting there watching the time pass, along with people on the street, but we weren’t moving. It was getting dangerously close to the time when they would stop letting people check in. What could we do? The only thing we could. We got out of the taxi, in the rain, and ran. We ran all the way to the airport access road and flagged down the next available taxi. Thankfully there was a taxi turning onto the airport road from the parking lot we were just on. The driver was extremely nice and we told him that we would pay him entirely too much if he drove recklessly and got us there in enough time to catch our flight. Well, let me tell you that he may not have driven on the proper side of the road for the entire journey, but we made it alive and well. Check in was chaotic as most of the passengers for our flight were not-yet checked in. People were rushing around the airport frantically asking if Flight 207 for Johannesburg had departed. Thankfully they had delayed the flight in anticipation of their delayed passengers.

When I first heard that I would be flying Air Namibia to Johannesburg I was a bit anxious. My friend described my presumptions most accurately when he said he imagined I would be flying on a World-War II-era bomber with Ford Astro Van bench seats bolted to the floor and goats and chickens roaming about the plane. Thankfully, it was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was nicer than 90 percent of the flights I’ve taken in the U.S. Though, that may have something to do with the fact that I was on the same flight as the president of Ghana, who was also on his way to the World Cup. (Side note: coming from America, I thought presidents had their own planes. I mean, our president has NUMEROUS planes, which he brings with him everywhere, you know, in case one breaks down. Cause that happens.)

In Johannesburg we stayed with a distant cousin of Rich’s, Sandro. When we arrived we had no idea what he looked like, Rich didn’t remember meeting him at the wedding they both were allegedly at, and we didn’t have any pictures. And, our phones didn’t work in South Africa because they had Beninese SIM cards. We were just shooting in the dark. Not to mention the airport was swarming with people from all over the world whose planes had just landed AND their distant cousins who were searching for them. So, we went on a search to find Sandro with no idea who we were looking for. I kid you not, I was walking around the airport yelling “Sandro, hello, Sandro. Where are you? If you’re Rich’s cousin and your name is Sandro, we are here.” Thankfully we found someone who was kind enough to let us use his cell phone and we dialed Sandro’s number. Come to find out, Sandro looked at me and was like, “No cousin of mine would be caught dead with this guy.” (I was wearing air plane clothes and dressed for weather in west Africa, not the winter-like conditions that greeted me in South Africa.)

We spent our first day in South Africa catching up on some sleep, chatting with Sandro, getting to know the country, and walking around another mall. (I’ve not spent so much time in malls since I worked in one as a teenager.) The second night we were in Johannesburg we decided that we were going to spring for tickets to an opening ceremony concert the night before the opening ceremony. It was pretty cool as we saw acts from all over the world, as well as the Black Eyed Peas, whose songs have been all over our party play lists back in Benin. It was interesting hearing music from most of the countries playing in the World Cup. And, it was really cool just to be at a concert and feeling like I was in America again.

The next day we had to wake up and go to Rustenburg where were would be watching USA play England. Rustenburg is not a big city. To be honest, it’s not on most maps and was extremely difficult to find on Google maps. Because of this, hotels were not plentiful, let alone transportation out there. Beforehand, Richard had found us a place to stay on The girl who had set everything up with Richard, Vicky, came to meet us at a McDonald’s and gave us a ride out to Rustenburg. Because of where we had found our lodging I fully anticipated that I’d be sleeping on the floor with my jacket as a pillow. As it turned out, we would be staying on a ranch in a villa in the back of their yard next to the pool with other World Cup travelers such as ourselves. We had our own shower, two bed’s, and they cooked us dinner that evening, and breakfast the next morning. It was actually nicer than staying at a hotel, and cheaper.

Before the game we had a little barbeque, or braai as they call it, before we went to the game. Because we didn’t have transportation Vicky said that she would take us. She is a writer for some blog and had to cover the game anyways and she had a few friends who were going to the game, as well. So, we all piled into the Land Rover Defender, one of my favorite vehicles in the world, and started off for the game. Because Rustenburg isn’t a large town, the traffic to the game was atrocious and we were stuck in a caravan of cars that stretched for miles. On our way there we saw a few Englishmen on the side of the road evacuating their bladders. I took this opportunity to haze them a bit and screamed, “Look at all of you bloody bastards! You’re all too pissed to play, (pissed is British English for drunk) and even your bladders are small!!!” It was quite ironic because about 50 feet down the road Doug, Rich, Vicky’s friends, and I all got out of the car to pee. As we were walking back a fellow football fan called us over to his car and asked if we would like a beer. “Of course,” we responded. He asked us what we would like and Richard said, “Whatever you got. That’ll work.” To which he replied, “You greedy f@#%ing American!” Thankfully he was just raggin’ on us and gave us some much-needed refreshments.

After waiting in the line for about a half hour Vicky decided it was time to use the power of her press pass and skipped through the line of cars. We got up to the security guards, she showed her pass, and we drove on through. It was a rock star moment. We got to the stadium energized for what awaited us: Americans, our national anthem, football, and crazy Brits who would be just as if not more obnoxious than we. I’ll assure you that we were not let down. As we made our way to the stadium there were American flags aplenty, riotous Englishmen, and lots of screaming and vuvuzela blowing. The game was relatively uneventful and ended in a tie. The only reason we actually scored was because the English goalkeeper let a horrible shot slip past him and go into the goal. It wasn’t because of our athleticism, nor was it because we were the better team. I love America. And I love sports, but we have a long way to go on the global stage with regard to soccer.

The next day we caught a ride back to Joburg with friends of the Bourhills. We had to rush to get to the airport as we had to catch a flight to Cape Town. I was super excited for this leg of the trip. I’d heard nothing but amazing things about Cape Town and was expecting nothing else but a beautiful and international city filled with an electric nightlife, fantastic dining, and breathtaking scenery. I would not be let down.

The flight from Joburg to Cape Town is quite pleasant as you fly over the heart of the country. It gives you the opportunity to see the landscape and vastness that comprises most of the country. Joburg is in the northeastern corner and Cape Town is in the southwestern corner. So, you bisect the country as you fly over. South Africa looks like what you imagine the grasslands of Africa to look like: high, brownish colored grass with a sprinkling of green from the trees and bushes that hadn’t dried out during the winter season. There are rivers that seem to carve out imagined boundary lines. Mountains that make it feel as though the rolling grasslands are hiding the bones of ancient giants. It was truly a beautiful sight.

As we descended into Cape Town we flew through some huge and fluffy clouds. It was pretty cool to fly into and then out of these big fluffy clouds. I imagined that I was out there among them touching their fluffyness. After popping out of the clouds you notice how Cape Town is situated. The terrain is rather flat a few miles out of Cape Town and there isn’t much out there. As we’re making our final decent the ground just drops out from under us, and crests down to the ocean. This is Cape Town. Its northern border is literally defined by the cliffs around it, other wise known as Table Mountain. At night, the cliffs around the city are lit from below and if there’s fog, which there was most nights, it’s like the city is tucked away in a hidden compartment sheltered from the savagery and underdevelopment that defines the rest of Africa. To be honest, Cape Town is not Africa. It is literally the farthest point away from being in Africa while still being on the continent. All throughout the city you can see its European roots: from the Cape Dutch architecture to the names of the streets, Long Street, Oranjezicht, Malteno Avenue, to the restaurants, Irish Bars, and shopping. I’m sure the World Cup being in town had a lot to due with the fact that almost everyone I spoke to was not from South Africa, but the city has a very worldly feel. It’s also a boating hot spot, and the Victoria and Arthur (I think that’s its name) Waterfront is replete with million dollar yachts, luxurious hotels, and exotic dining. At that moment, Cape Town was exactly what I needed to help me feel right again. We were lucky enough to stay with a friend of Doug’s cousin, who is a model. The house we stayed in was at the base of Table Mountain and over looked the city. Most of the people we lived in the house were models. They invited us to go out with them most nights and liked cooking dinner at home with us. They were extremely nice and a lot of fun to be around. It was a really international house. The guy who owned the place was German. One of the girls was from South Africa and the other was Brazilian. We met some Dutch, some Canadians, and some English throughout the week with our new friends. It was a lot of fun.

One evening we went out to eat in the downtown/harbor. We really had no idea where we were going and just decided to walk around and see what we would stumble upon. Before hand, while we were standing in the airport terminal I had seen an advertisement for a restaurant called the Belthazar. The ad said they had the best wine list in Africa with over 1200 wines from which to choose. They also had an amazing cut of meat surrounded by some delicious looking red sauce and leaks. As I stared at the ad drooling and waiting for my baggage I thought to myself, “Bring it, Belthazar. Cause I’ll drink your wine.” So, we’re stumbling around the waterfront and I walked around a corner and see some outdoor seating at a nice restaurant and five flats-screen televisions surrounding the dining area. (Watching the soccer matches is extremely important when you’re at the World Cup.) As I approached the host’s stand I looked at the name of this restaurant and low and behold it was the drool-worthy Belthazar!!! I literally had stumbled upon a gold mine! I ran back to Doug and Rich and told them that we would be eating there regardless of what they said. It was a nice restaurant and I think we deserved it. I’ve been eating rice and beans and red sauce out of an aluminum pot from the side of the road for a year now. I think that it’s time to eat some delicious meats, yummy salads, and drink some expensive wine.

We sat down and it was just as it should be: people waited on me hand and foot, there was water at the table that wouldn’t give me diarrhea, and fancy menus. At first we didn’t remember how to act. This being the first time we’d been at a restaurant of this caliber in almost a year. That being said, it didn’t take me long to remember the proper comportment and feel just as I did while dining out in D.C. After looking over the menu I decided that I would like an assortment of meats only found in South Africa. I ordered a spread of Wildebeest, Spring Bok (the national animal of South Africa, or, the mascot for their rugby team, of which they’re extremely proud), Kudu, and some other bok, with a Caesar salad. I had been craving a Caesar salad for about nine months at that moment and couldn’t think of a better way to start my meal. We ordered a few bottles of wine for the table, as well. When my food arrived I noticed that I would be eating my meat from a sword. Literally my food came to the table on a sword. I looked at the sword in front of me and looked at the four little hunks of meat placed upon it. I was giddy with excitement.

Living in the bushes of west Africa has taken some of my snootiness and desire to be surrounded by class and wealth out of me. Sure, this was one of my intentions of joining the Peace Corps, but as soon as I found myself in this once-familiar environment, things felt right again, right as rain.

The rest of our stay in Cape Town was filled with soccer, clubs, restaurants, models, climbing mountains, and going to raves. It was a most fantastic experience. Ask me about it when I see you again and I’ll give you the details that are a bit too sordid to be shared with the rest of the world.

After leaving Cape Town I feel terribly ill. I somehow contracted tonsillitis, and then after taking the medication to treat the tonsillitis, which killed all of the bacteria in my body, both good and bad, I got a fungal infection in my mouth and was bed-ridden for seven days. Thankfully this happened in JoBurg where there aren’t many things to do. Unfortunately I had to miss the Cote Ivoire vs Brazil match. This was a bummer because my traveling buddy, Doug, is Brazilian and I didn’t want to miss the chance to support the other team to ruffle his feathers.

By the time is started feeling better again our vacation was almost over. We were a few days away from our return to Benin and the US team had made it to the round of 16, which is the round immediately following the group stage. Somehow they had managed to tie enough times and not lose that we advanced to the next round. We then decided that we had to find tickets to the game because they were playing Ghana. The problem with this is that we would be traveling back through Ghana on our way home. That means that if the US won it could be a bit dangerous and if the US won we wouldn’t hear the end of it from every Ghanaian we met. So, we were sitting in the mall trying to figure out how to buy some new tickets and I said allowed, “God, you wouldn’t think it would be this difficult to get tickets to go see the US lose to the last African team in the tournament. All we need are three tickets.” Much to our surprise there was an Thai/American sitting behind us who had three extra tickets because his friends had just bailed on him. What luck?! He literally answered my question with I have three tickets. If you have a ride I’ll sell them to you. The game was in Rustenburg, so we called up our friends, the Bourhill’s and asked if we could stay with them. They were just as accommodating as before. The last night we were there, after the loss to Ghana, they had a braai for us. A braai (pronounced bry) is a South African cook out. They grilled up some ostrich, wildebeest, springbok, and regular cow. The meat in South Africa gives anything we raise in the States a run for its money, especially the exotic meats like wildebeest and ostrich. This was actually the first time I was able to eat solid foods without pain in my mouth from the infection I had, and let me tell you, if there’s anyway to introduce yourself back into solid foods, fire-burnt exotic meats you’ve never eaten before is SURELY a way to do it.

The return trip to Benin was a bit depressing. Going from the exoticism, luxury, and civilization we had acclimated ourselves to in South Africa to the underdevelopment of west Africa can really bring one’s spirits down.

If any of my readers have never been to a global event like the Olympics or the World Cup, I highly recommended it. You get a chance to see the way people from other corners of the world carry themselves, dress themselves, express themselves, and amuse themselves. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and will surely be something I share with friends and family ad nauseum.