Unlikely Johannesburg – Part One
The other day I got a call from New York – a friend’s Uncle on his way to the World Cup in South Africa called me to get some advice. His faraway voice calmly explained that bien sûr, he was excited to be visiting South Africa, but after reading a couple of recent scathing media reports citing violence, violence, violence, he was beginning to question the wisdom of choosing to stay in Johannesburg for their entire visit. Ironically enough, I was on a train out of Brussels and nowhere near the city of my birth, I have been away from Jozi for over two years now, so despite my heart & head being firmly rooted there, I couldn’t say I’m a local right now. This recent absence, coupled with the fact that talking rather loudly on a cellphone in downtime traintime in this part of the world incites targeted headrest incineration, meant that I had to think fast. And so, I took the path of least resistance, I told him to relax and enjoy himself, that yes, Johannesburg had a dangerous side, but that everything was going to be just fine. The police are on diet and the security companies on high alert, I told him, big brother is awake; ‘people are living there and life goes on’ I drawled- conscience of my slow accent I fell on old ways of explaining things away.
Let me explain, when I read the email preceding the call and saw that he and his family were staying in Johannesburg only, for nearly two weeks i.e. for their entire visit…I felt a thrilled kind of fluttering in my chest. At last, I thought, our soulful neglected city, most often treated as a trampoline for tourists to bounce off to some other fabulous beached or bushed corner of our country, was being taken seriously as a tourism destination. By a New Yorker nogal! Let’s face it, when have I, or you for that matter, ever met tourists who have come to South Africa with only one destination on their list: the scary city of Johannesburg? I could feel the swelling pride in my voice as I described to him the place he was lucky to be visiting and the place that I can never quite shake off, that always pulls me back no matter how much of my oyster I believe the world to be. I was flattered, appeased and willing to please. And so, I started to tell him the inside story that any (and only) good Johannesburg-loving citizen can and probably will tell you. We’ll all agree Johannesburg is a bit of an ‘unlikely’ holiday destination, however I assure any visitors on their way to check it out that it’s really worth it, Johannesburg is a pleasure to uncover just because it’s not at all what you expect. With me gushing and bubbling away like the Braamfontein spruit in the rainy season we soon ran out of time and I promised to follow up my call with an email. That email gave birth to this article.
Johannesburg , Jozi, Joburg, eGoli, Joeys, JHB, call it what you will, is such a curvaceous, contrasting, complicated city that one can never quite stretch one’s arms or head around all of it. On a Saturday morning at month-end its gritty inner streets brim over with bravado, brawn and sassyness, the rejuvenated city boldy banging away at it’s chest; and yet you can cross a bridge and turn a corner into a dappled, verdant quiet avenue that gracefully and sensually reveals the shimmering mettle that rests stubbornly at the core of it’s alchemy, refusing to budge. Rich and Poor, Black and White, North and South, Hot and Cold, Spicey and bland, Joburg is a pot of many flavours. Yes, Cape Townians and Durbanites may pooh-pooh Johannesburg and its bipolarity, preferring their predictable beach and nature lifestyles, we don’t hold it against them, Joburgers love both Durban and Cape Town, for holidays and retirement, in that order.
But seriously, I think the best approach I can suggest for a visit to Johannesburg, is the Tough Love one: know that Joburg is as unpredictable as it is temperamental, that there’s a chance you may have to deal with it’s rebellious self-destructive side, or, that you’ll be so charmed by its substance and raw gumption, that you’ll wonder if it was all just nasty rumours. The fact is, it can have a fatal sting in its tail, but only at random, odd moments that no one can predict. This is also what gives it its addictive edge. Take the time to scrape beneath the city’s badboy reputation and you’ll be rewarded with a kaleidoscope of pleasurable freebasing moments that will have you (hopefully) coming back for more and blogging all about it.
Slotted comfortably hand-in-hand with Tough Love, comes tuning in to your Intuition. Joburg is alive, it is pulsing, it is moving, it is shaking, and it is at times slightly loco, but in my mind, it doesn’t require more than an open heart, sound travel sense and a good dose of INTUITION to map your way through it. Oh and quick pull off skills. LOL. Travel sensibly, follow what feels right, don’t hesitate to ask when you’re not sure, and just be wise. And streetwise.
And I would also suggest applying the mantra of WWJD to guide you in those moments where your intuition is not playing ball – ask yourself, What Would the average sane, normal Jo’burger Do (that’s 95% of the population I believe)? Would they go into the dangerous parts of any big city around the world after dark, on foot? Do they walk around with gold blinging off their necks (ok maybe some do, but they’re the 5% you don’t wanna cuff with!)? Do they get into a car with strangers? Would they stop at a red traffic light on a lonely road after 10pm? Think like the locals, blend in with the locals, hang out with the locals, go where the locals go, ask the locals, apply WWJD logic, keep your senses on alert and just relax. The worst thing you can do for your holiday is go to Johannesburg with fear in your heart, for not only will you stifle your freedom, something which our people hold very close to their hearts, but you will spoil what could have been a sublime holiday. Fear breeds fear and those 5% have a nose for it.
Talking about the people of Johannesburg, it’s time to shine the light on the city’s greatest asset: its diverse, smiling, laid-back, fun-loving, colourful, party people. Jo’burgers are generous of spirit, easy going and go all out to pursue their main goal of how to find the balance between work and play – oh believe us, they work freaking hard, that big city ain’t built on sand, it’s built on the big dreams, entrepreneurial spirit, survival instincts (and need) and the hardened commitment of its people to their future. But when the lights go down, the weekend arrives, or in this case, the FIFA World Cup freaking Football, the parties begin and go on till the last person falls. Deep basey beats fill the Joburg air, bouncing off the cars and pavements, interweaved with laughter and story-telling. Whether around a braai (bbq), in a sunny park, at a pavement (sidewalk) café, on a pavement or in the queue in the supermarket, Jo’burgers are generous storytellers and entertainers, they’ll seduce you and bemuse you – you will certainly go home feeling like your circle has been made beeega.
By the way, if you didn’t know, it’s winter in Johannesburg during the world cup – which means cold nights and mornings, sunshiney afternoons and not much rain. It’s totally bearable, particularly if you come from places that have real winters, Joburg’s weather is its second best asset.Bring warm shoes, socks, jerseys and jackets.
In terms of where to go in the city – Johannesburg has so much to offer, where does one begin? Considering my current absence, and to corroborate my take on Johannesburg city, I asked a few of the (current) locals to give us their tips on how to discover the Jo’burg nobody in Sandton will tell you about 😉 That will be in Part Two. Watch this space! Oh sorry, did I remember to mention Sexy?