Weekend getaway: Johannesburg to Parys

Inside the Plum Tree cafe, Parys

We have a house rule. The best weekend getaways are less than two hours away and involve no cellphone reception (it’s the one time I thank the networks for a job not well done – that doesn’t excuse the dead spots in Joburg’s “under-resourced suburbs” like Sandhurst, Dunkeld and Parkhurst where for around two to R20-million you can get a house but not an uninterrupted phone call. Funny that.) Okay, they also involve crisp white linen, large bath towels, warm weather, a natural wonder (in this case a World Heritage Site), a smidge of shopping, delicious food and great company (these all necessary, in no particular order).
Human Right’s Day weekend in Parys checked all the boxes.
Parys lies just over a 100km south-west of the city in the Free State, where the sky lets you know how vast it is. Continue reading

World Cup 2010 in the Free State

#209 Follow the game – which we did to Bloemfontein on Friday to watch Honduras vs Switzerland. At this point we’re watching everyone – loving the mood, the spirit and fan fashion sense of World Cup 2010. And we are learning to love the team we are with. Wednesday was Germany vs Ghana at Soccer City (Go Ghana – of course one of my favourites; loved the men with pots on their head and the German guy wearing lederhosen also deserved a mention). Continue reading

Get me that Gautrain

#179. Celebrate the coming of the Gautrain.

The Gautrain at OR Tambo International Airport

On a good day – when the monsoon season is not in full swing, and it has been for three weeks – Joburg’s roads resemble the face of a pockmarked acne-ridden teenager. Crevices and dongas, all flaring and angry. The robots don’t work and if they do the roadworks mock them. I have spent the past few days in the car — not waving but drowning, not really driving but sitting. I have been gridlocked in Braamfontein and Rivonia, Bryanston and Rosebank. I have tried the radio and think I have started to master Sepedi – and listened to an audiobook in record time (an 8-hour one). I have made more calls to my mother than I ever should and been offered everything from cellphone chargers to peaches, badly-spelled werld maps to feather dusters. I have debated the merits of fong-kong school shoes with a street kid Continue reading

Why coffee is the key to urban renewal

#158. Go for a city walk. With the John Moffat Building at Wits University celebrating 50 years of being, today was declared a “Grand Day of [architectural] Celebrations”. So we joined the small crowd at the University for an urban walking tour taking in 40 of Joburg’s best historic buildings.
The route started at Brickfields, the social housing development that has transformed Newtown, bringing in high-volume residential accommodation that can sustain all the amenities that make city life worth living – coffee shops, a book shop, art galleries and restaurants. From there we crossed to the Market Theatre (once the Indian fruit market but that was in the the 1930s) to stand in Mary Fitzgerald Square and take in the view of Museum Africa on one side and one of the city’s hostel compounds for its mineworkers (now the Worker’s Museum) that was built in the late 1800s. Then this place was a crazy tented camp town that probably (to my mind anyway) looked and felt a lot like Deadwood Continue reading

Bafana Bafana 0 – Joburg airport 2

#154. Go to the airport and collect someone. And it took more than an hour for them to make it from the plane to international arrivals this morning. No complaints here though as it gave me extra time to find OR Tambo International’s best kept secret – a brand new super-cool Woolworths store. (Score one goal for the brand) But not just any store — the kind of store that would have made the Tom Hanks character in Terminal, a happy man. Continue reading

Japanese job opportunities

#147. Consider the option of becoming a professional stand-in. In yesterday’s Guardian I came across a delightful piece about how “lonely  Japanese find solace in ‘rent a friend’ agencies”. According to Tokyo correspondent Justin McCurry professional stand-ins are part of a “growing service sector that rents out fake spouses, best men, relatives, friends, colleagues, boyfriends and girlfriends to spare their clients’ blushes at social functions.”

Ryuichi Ichinokawa charges “a modest 15 000 yen (100GBP) to turn up at a wedding party, but extra if asked to make a speech or to sing karaoke”.He even played the part of the uncle to two teenagers who needed some support on a school sports day.

And it’s not confined to the Japanese. About ten years ago we visited the Taj Mahal and kept getting asked to pose for photos with Indian families. After the third time we declined (it was starting to get a little weird). When we questioned our guide about this practice he said it was because some families thought it might elevate them socially to have their friends from Europe in the picture on the mantelpiece with them at India’s most famous landmark. On the other hand it may have been because my spouse had been mistaken for a Bollywood star by the taxi driver.

Back to Japan the number of agencies for renting friends has doubled to about 10 in the past few years, says McCurry. This period has also seen the rise of the phony friend and an increased demand for “bogus bosses among men who have lost their jobs”. I wonder what bumper sticker japanese taxi drivers are sporting? Perhaps “When days are dark, go for an hourly rate”.

Of killing machines

#132. Share a piece of Singapore.

The Love Tank

The Love Tank

This is what you see in the entrance to Singapore’s National Gallery — Indonesian artist Teddy Darmawan’s Love Tank, an artistic representation of the confrontation between Eastern and Western cultures. Traditional Indonesian shrine structures contain a number of levels symbolising ‘the levels of pure love in Hindu-Buddhist thought. Pagodas are always adorned with lotuses, believed to be the seats of the of gods and goddesses who rule the world … The killing machine is now a machine bringing love and peace to the world’.

Share the love

Joburg taxi drivers have nothing on the city's commuters

#111. Come to the realisation that Joburg’s minibus taxi drivers — reviled by many; the stuff of radio talkshows, and endless letters to newspapers; and the bane of government transport agencies and of drivers who believe those white lines on the road and the yellow ones are more than just a work of art — are not always to blame for their actions.  Continue reading

Country rocked by scandal

#109. Read the headlines. Ministers of parliament have been claiming false expenses, the health service failed to detect that a child was being abused despite repeated visits to hospitals and clinics in search of assistance (the child subsequently died), a young man was shot while waiting in his car outside a bar and people are starting to resent the public broadcaster for what they think are extortionate license fees and poor content. Continue reading

When my baby smiles at me I go to Rio

#102. Go to Rio de Janeiro. We left Sao Paulo where the city’s highrises are crying out for a lick of paint, the pastry shops are bulging and there is enough fresh juice to make even the Breakfast Bandit blush (there is no such thing as a juice that isn’t fresh in Brazil), and travelled to the island of Ilha Bela – two hours drive and a ferry ride away. There we stayed overnight at a pousada where our hosts were more than hospitable and we spent a lot of time using hand gestures to get around our lack of Portugese. Ilha Bela is all about the beaches although there seems to be very little left of them. This doesn’t seem to put anyone off as the islanders and thousands of local tourists jam-pack every available spot of sand.

And then it was time to head for Rio – a five hour drive made into 11 hours as thousands flocked back into the city after an Easter weekend.

This city has an edge. You can feel it in the huge police presence (federal, municipal, tourist), and in the towering favelas that rise above the city, by night their winking lights all pretty, by day they are shanties hanging off the mountainsides and commanding the best views of the rich. Around the Copacabana the streets smell of homelessness, and of one too many drunk having relieved themselves on the once pristine black and white stone paving that is the trademark of Rio’s major beaches.

The morning was spent at the Corcovado – the statue of Christ the redeemer – whose outstretched arms and beatific smile command the highest point of the city overlooking a dramatic landscape of mountains and sea, of scattered islands all haphazardly arranged.

Then a walk from Copacabana beach across to Ipanema. The Copacabana feels like Durban’s marine parade before it got messed up by bad design – one long boulevard to be walked, strolled, jogged or cycled, the little beach shacks offering fresh coconut water and caiparinhas.

But no girls to inspire songs here just lots of people covered in tattoos and dressed in very little and with lots to show – it seems North America’s problem is now South America’s problem.   Rio has gone large. McDonalds is everywhere.

We joined in by having lunch at a churrascaria in Ipanema – traditionally Brazilian with mountains of sushi (not so traditional)  and Argentinian beef (OK, I am not sure where the Brazilian part comes in) until more walking was needed.

Everywhere there are people – the rich sandwiched between the poor – and you get the feeling that the city belongs to all who live in it.  In the haze of the afternoon you can warm to this city, its shapes start to become familiar, its edges less rough.