The flight seems a little shorter every year, I think. I spent my first week as a tourist in Johannesburg and Pretoria, two very different cities that sit right next to each other in the northeast. This is my fourth trip, and I’ll be here for six weeks.
I arrived in the evening and was met at the airport by my good friend Andile. We stayed at a nearby guest house. I originally found this place in a brochure at the airport in 2007, and it’s become my tradition to stay here my first night ever since. It’s a bit overpriced, but comfortable enough and they serve a good breakfast. It’s also around the corner from the airport, which seems no small benefit on the ugly end of all that travel.
I haven’t really spent any time in Joburg before. I had the notion that it was a run-down city, but didn’t want to make the judgement prematurely. After a couple days, I now feel fairly comfortable saying that it is a run-down city.
We looked around the central business district and went to the tallest building in Africa, which is the Carlton Centre. The downtown is busy, but it’s not pretty. It looks like it’s been in decline since the fall of apartheid, which would be a sad statement. I have read that they are working hard to renovate it, and the crime levels have been on the decline. Without a comparison point, though, this would not be a visitor’s first guess.
Much nicer was the nearby Origins Centre at Wits University. It’s a very well put together museum on the ancient history of South Africa. It covers evolution from the “cradle of humankind” through to the original inhabitants of the area, the Khoisan, and their culture. There was a wonderfully passionate Sotho man working there that we had a good conversation with about education and how he promotes it through the museum.
I also had the pleasure of visiting some of Andile’s family in the suburbs. We drove down with two of her sisters from Hillbrow. Getting to know the locals is my favorite part. We met up with a cousin of hers in Vosloorus that seemed to be doing very well. He’s a firefighter and EMT and had a nice place with his family in a relatively upscale township. They hadn’t seen each other in many years, so we looked at family photo albums from the old days. Having just done the Origins Centre, Andile joked we were now visiting her family’s museum.
Latere we zipped over to Soweto, an enormous township to the southwest. We visited the house where Andile’s father grew up. Some aunts and cousins still live there.
Soweto has a reputation of being a bit rough. As we drove in I saw a car by the side of the road with a group of young guys around it. Someone who had just got out of the car was being bear-hugged by another guy. At first I thought it was a friendly if overbearing greeting. Then I noticed that the guy being hugged had a gun holstered under his arm and was trying to get to it, and the guy doing the hugging was trying to stop him from drawing the weapon. They struggled a bit as we drove by. I told myself that the chances of a stray bullet coming our direction were infinitesimal. In any case, I heard no shot.
There was a group of young men drinking and smoking outside the family house. They ran a small tuck shop; little more than a room with a street-facing window, barred-up, that sells snacks and drinks. Out back were a few ladies caring for a few kids. After greeting the folks, Andile and I walked to a nearby shop that sold “kotas” – a cheap, filling ghetto food that is made from a hollowed out quarter (kota) of white bread, filled with greasy fries, ketchup, hot balogna, “cheese food” slices, spicy sauce, and optionally fried eggs and other random luncheon meats for a few extra rand. As I watched them prepare the kotas, I was shocked and delighted to see that they deep fried the balogna.
We bought eight of these for less than a dollar a piece and brought them back to share with the kids at the house. Terribly unhealthy by American standards but absolutely delicious, I also imagine the calorie/cost ratio is off the charts.
Even though Soweto is the old township, and has many problem areas, I found our visit here it to be more pleasant than much of Joburg.
Later that evening we drove up to Pretoria and spent the rest of the weekend there. Pretoria, in contrast, is a lovely city. We stayed in the Hatfield area alongside the University of Pretoria. There were many bars, restaurants, and cafe’s in walking distance, including a place that poured latte art for breakfast.
We stopped by the Union Buildings and enjoyed the lovely park and gardens out front. We went to the Pretoria Zoo, which was large and well maintained. We ate at a fine restaurant, Cynthia’s, where we tried springbok carpaccio, as well as some less excotic food.
Though it lacks the coastal beauty of Cape Town, I’d put Pretoria up there as an equally nice city in South Africa. Clean, lively, and fun. Of course there are slums in and around any decent sized city – but the overall feel of Joburg is run-down and the overall feel of Pretoria is lively and upbeat. It’s inspiring to see places here where improvement efforts clearly outpace decay.
Finally on Sunday we drove down to lovely old Dundee. After saying “hi” to Alan and Donna I dropped Andile off at the Taxi Rank to head back to Durban. I settled myself into my comfy old lodgings, and planned my goals. Among them:
- Get internet access at Thalana High School where I helped with the PC lab last year
- Get Hlubi School back up and running – a hurricane tore the roof off their computer lab a few months ago.
- Get Celimpilo, a young lady I sponsor, back to university
- Get the Khan Academy videos installed all over.
- Avoid athlete’s foot this year.
Ok, time to get started!