That's South Africa - or as the world called it when apartheid officially ended in 1994 - the Rainbow nation!
A country of contrasts. Diverse colors that paint its canvas. Extreme strains that pop up without a warning shot. A melting pot with forces of surreptitious undercurrents running thru its ever changing landscape. My couple trips to the country last year made me look at first hand, observe and absorb the paradox that is South Africa. Living in Johannesburg, or Jo'burg as locals call it, it came out as a bunch of strands formed with extreme ends of capitalism and socialism, rich and poor, bravado and stupidity, all existing together. Now before this becomes a serious writeup that works as an antidote to sleep disorders, let's take a light stroll on the country's whims, fancies, and realities.
Intimidating. The right word to describe what you feel when you try to take a cab out of Jo'burg airport to your hotel. Though being an Indian, am a little used to archaic ways in which cabbies pounce upon you, like you are a golden nugget. So here, once you look at all the cab-walas trying to get your attention, and more importantly, your luggage, you don't feel its an airport, rather a train station in Delhi and you, the proverbial desi, is seen as a Phoren ka gora who matters so much to these people! You can enjoy that rare moment, but you rather be careful, because it is extremely important in this city to choose your first cab wisely. First cab is usually more important than first date, as you can survive a bad date, but a bad cab...well, there are only two outcomes - either you will reach your Jo'burg hotel you intend to, or, you will never reach any hotel! Simplicity at its best!
The fences of Jo'burg
My cab started driving from the airport to my hotel in the upscale suburb of Sandton, also branded as the commercial capital of Africa. As we moved towards Sandton, the scenery started getting better, and you would start seeing finer, larger houses in decent neighborhoods. All with one commonality. Electric fences. Mostly all houses have them. Now India is not the safest place on earth, but I haven't seen homes having electric fences. Here they were, omnipresent. Be it a regular home, a hotel, a hospital, a community, a mall...everything had these multiple row electric wires running on top of high boundary walls. Making sure that they don't become part of the statistic in a country where a home is broken into every 7 seconds or so. Hmmm, so they make sure that the bad guys can't come in. But what about the guy who needs to go out discreetly!? Like what? Ok so those who have watched bit of hollywood's finest genre, may concur with the scenario...like if someday a guy is having a steamy session with boss's wife, and boss's car rolls in. Poor guy for sure can't use the boundary wall to sneak out !! Oh what a shame...fences suck mate! You need a plan B in Jo'burg! ;-)
Hills and valleys of Panorama route
I had seen it on Discovery and Nat Geo, but the incredibly beautiful countryside of SA will please even the most discreet. More so if you are a fan of driving. Apartheid era was all unjust, but it gave this country, probably only country in Africa, with such an awesome network of roads. Got a chance to drive on those long, serpentine, magical carpets of tar and concrete, all in pristine condition, that take you thru one of the greatest scenic drives on the continent - Panorama route. It covers some stunning natural wonders SA has - God's window, Bourke's luck potholes, Three rondavels, and the breathtaking Blyde river canyon - world's largest green canyon! You could overcome all worries of driving in an alien land, or apprehensions about the rulebook or unknown unknowns of a hinterland, to see such scenery which can't be described by adjectives on a blog. It has to be witnessed! And that thru driving a 4x4...take it all the way to Graskop, see those natural wonders plus a dozen waterfalls along the way and then use it to do bit of off roading in the canyon. It can't get better than this! Just make sure you don't fill gas late in the evening. Yours' truly attempted that, and with a dozen guys gathering around the car while it was being filled, it wasn't fun. Remember - Scenic drives are more fun when you still have your car while going back :)
Be it the awesome resort in Graskop, the lake cabins of Hartbeespoort, my beautiful hotel in Sandton, or the upscale Monte Casino, SA has all the luxury money can buy. Full of dressed up, party going, educated people you wouldn't mind looking at. And then you drive down 20 miles to the Jo'burg CBD, the once glorious downtown, and the other extreme pops up. You almost see a haunted version of Detroit. 40 floor skyscrapers without any electricity or tenants, all torn up and standing just on the steel that went into them decades ago, occupied by odd people. Everyday, there is a carjacking on the streets in public daylight. Even youtube is full of Jo'burg carjackings. As you cross the Nelson Mandela bridge into the CBD, you are warned not to show your gold ring with the stone while steering the wheel. Coz once you stop on a light, someone might shoot you for the ring, if not for your car (as it is easier to sell gold). And to think of it, this place has the State assembly and other important government buildings. A perfect example of what too much of political correctness / politics can do to a society and its governors.
What this tells an Indian like me is - So next time you go to CP or India gate, just appreciate the fact that we still have a national capital with a beautiful center, where we can party till 2 in the night, click all the selfies with the flag on central park, and not worry too much about the gold ring while clicking the selfie. Yes, I am talking of males, and females accompanied by males. Just a caveat before you question my judgement :)
Striving to find its soul, again
Enough of beating Jo'burg for crime? Well, it certainly overwhelms you if you stay and drive there a few weeks, so you can't blame me. But then, it also has its silver linings. Some people have gotten together to bring up art scene in the CBD, cleaning up few blocks and setting up beautiful little artisty boutiques and galleries and pubs where you have live music. Usually, some famous celeb from SA tv industry might pop in as well on a friday evening, and you won't recognize him, till the time your local friends tell what you missed. Multitude of people from all backgrounds and races come and have fun without a care, and that kinda tells you what Jo'burg is striving to be, or what it once was.
1 1. the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association.
Strikingly different! The most pervasive aspect of SA society! You can find contrast in everything at every place here. Its almost on the surface and you just need open eyes and senses to notice that, more so while interacting with locals. Take a glimpse....A super-modest Avis driver who proudly told me he could speak all 11 languages the country has. And then, a South African-Indian colleague in office who was born there, but couldn't speak any Indian or South African language, coz all he learnt and spoke was English...A sweet humble guy in the hotel staff whose face would beam up whenever I said to him a simple 'thank you'. And then a headstrong airport cab driver who was persistent that he demands high tip from his passengers coz its a favor that he is taking his passengers directly to hotel, and not to robbers!...A Malay office colleague who didn't have a clue what was the difference between Red Indians and us Indians. And then, a Dutch bar tender who knew more about cricket and Johnty Rhodes and Tendulkar than I know about any of the three!...A man driving his Porche at the costliest resort in Blyde canyon. And then, an employee of that same resort walking 6 miles one way to and from his village to save bus money...A Black singer performing near Mandela's statue at Sandton, fondly telling how Madiba (as Mandela was fondly called) was the only South African who really cared for people, and that White discrimination was root of all problems. A White owner of a store selling Ts, saying that Blacks truly are responsible for all problems, but she still holding almost equal reverence for Mandela.
And there were more. A land of vast, almost fascinating diversity, in people, their thinking, their conduct, their dreams.
This rainbow of a nation was described on couple of T-shirts I bought from that lady's store - one saying - "South Africa is not for sissies", and the other - "South Africa - Flippin' epic"
Nothing could have summarised this nation better.