Monday, May 28, 2012

Johannesburg, South Africa

Click on the images for higher resolution pictures. For some reason, the image gallery doesn't include captions so you might as well scroll down too.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (sort of)

I had to connect via Mumbai. The international airport at Mumbai is crowded, understaffed, chaotic and highly sub-optimal in every which way you can think of. The queues at the check in counters were the most number of very long parallel line segments I’ve seen since my engineering entrance examination days. An international transfer allows you to skip this part and move on to the immigration section which gets done fairly quickly, no one really wants you to stay. Then you join one of two queues, each arranged in a way one would tend to associate with Snake Level 5000 on a widescreen phone (I assume there already exists such a device) at the end of which is a burly Sardar directing you to one of the free security counters.

"We don't need no immigration."

Once the policeman stamps his trust on your boarding pass you are free to enjoy the many restaurants and lounges dotting the airport. Just remember that boarding begins an hour before take-off because the aircraft is parked a fair bit away from the gate. My flight to JNB was nine hours long and I had an economy seat. I took the last seat in the cabin hoping that no one else would want to sit next to the toilet. This would give me the luxury of having two seats to myself allowing me to curl up somehow and avoid the psychological battles for the armrest. No smell or sound escaped the technologically advanced confines of that smoke detector fitted chamber and this seat was as good as any other except for the psychological barrier. It was almost time for take-off and I was scrolling through the in-flight entertainment choices and feeling more and more hopeful, up went the centre armrest and left went the left leg and along came a big, bald, white guy and ruined it all. He had a bit of a superiority complex about him and his size put me at a handicap before the war even began. Instead of surrendering, I performed an act of kindness and withdrew the troops and settled on the other side. Even in the economy cabin, I can slide my legs under the seat in front but there was no way this man could have. The least I could do was let him have a larger share of the armrest.

We were going to land at about half past seven in the morning and I was up for the longest time in the morning, peering curiously out of the window. Africa is an uninteresting yet beautiful place to fly over. I had a map open on the screen and tried to identify places but there really wasn’t much to note. Flying over JNB didn’t give me the same feeling as the one I get when flying over somewhere in India. An Indian city from above looks too much like the rat race that most Indian cities are and the biggest rat race has to be Mumbai. The roads are marked by the slowly moving reds and yellows of millions of people returning from work or going out for dinner or attending a function or participating in any of the myriad of insignificant activities that society seems to revolve around, that colourful, blinking spot is probably somebody celebrating their marriage, the other one might be a big hotel, that area is probably a marketplace, the duller areas are probably residential areas dotted with streetlights and the light escaping from windows, that area is either wilderness or has a power cut, that area is yet to be conquered by the city but is surrounded and has no escape. But Johannesburg was not like that. I landed in the morning and that fact robs my earlier rant of some of its underlying basis but it did look like a land fit for lions and elephants. There were open spaces, greenery here and there, big patches of land, mountains, lakes. And in pockets between all these were the signs of human occupation – a power plant, a dam, a mine, roads and houses and finally the airport.

The return journey was during daylight hours and offered a much better view of things. I’d already seen most of the country but even the ocean has some very interesting sights to offer when you’re flying over it. For instance, the clouds can do some strange things over oceans and the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises are when you’re flying over water without any land around. The mile high club probably mostly consists of quickies but some of those quickies could have had a very romantic view if they had windows inside the toilet.

I’m a light traveller but I travel with a big suitcase because it affords me the luxury of not having to fold my clothes or be worried about how I’m going to take stuff back. The down side of that is that some of the more delicate stuff that you’re allowed to carry back to your country isn’t cushioned quite properly and you need to mark your suitcase as fragile, even if just for sake of the label, and then have them cart it back for you hoping nothing breaks or leaks and that they don’t dump big heavy things on top of it. Worrying about it doesn’t matter because you won’t know until nine hours and a few thousand kilometres later.
On the way back the aircraft was only about half full and you could stretch your legs out where you neighbour should have been sitting. The crew availed this opportunity and used the middle row very efficiently. The screen didn’t bend enough to be in visible range when you lay down though, so you faced a mean choice between the two.

Three movies and bit of a book after take-off, the rat race veered into view again. If you’re flying at the right height and light then you can even see a black layer of what must be smoke and dust hovering above it too. They feed you moderately well in the flight so you need to grab a bite after getting off, transfer some of the other fragile things to your suitcase from your cabin baggage and then stay awake long enough to board your connection and you should be back to your old life again.

That blue area in the center did a VIBGYOR as we traveled over it
That plant powers Courage's house
That's probably the Pole Star but I'm not sure.
My astrology is very poor. Astronomy, I mean.


The Johannesburg airport here is called OR Tambo International. That’s the name of a former president of the African National Congress. I did see some other places that sounded like names of people but I’m not sure if they also subscribe to the Indian method of sticking to only politicians. I landed early in the morning and once the fairly bored immigrations officer thought it was okay to let me in I entered the Republic of South Africa. OR Tambo International, unlike Indira Gandhi International or Chhatrapati Shivaji International, is open to non-fliers as well. You can hang out with your friends, eat at one of the restaurants, browse the shops or just check out air hostesses and no one will ask you for your ticket and ID proof. My hunt for an ATM and a way of reaching my hotel somehow ended up in me buying lunch for this one chap and refusing a tip to another chap who was more explicit about wanting one. I finally reached the hotel about an hour and a half after I’d landed even though the hotel was only ten minutes from the airport.


Our clients had a partial stake in one of the hotels and they encourage us to stay there. However, there was no space available so they had booked me there from Wednesday morning. Until Wednesday I was booked at this other hotel which was just down the road. This was one of those business-ey, spacious hotels with big rooms and bathtubs. It was empty and dead and the staff looked bored and tried to be courteous and formal. Even the TV channels took their own sweet time when commanded to change. You had to purchase internet and when you did they handed you the password and a LAN cord.

On Wednesday morning I shifted to the Protea which, in line with the light hearted partial owners, had some humour sprinkled around the hotel from the no smoking note titled – “Just to Clear the Air” to the toilet paper labelled “Oh sheet!” The staff was friendly and helpful, the room was comfortable enough, the food was pretty decent and the ambience comprised of a defunct flight simulator lying in the centre of the lobby, a hacked wing hanging over the entrance, airline jokes in the elevators and flight plans for room numbers. My room overlooked the airport and the view was unbeatable.

One of those windows at the back was my room
I never thought about the amount of time we waste
opening and closing the door to the bathroom
"Tired and buckled"

As a vegetarian my favourite meal in foreign lands is usually breakfast. If you’re staying at a good hotel then there’s five kinds of cereals, toast, five sorts of jams, slices of cake and five kinds of muffins, five kind of juices, milk, coffee and a couple of cooked dishes and another two with dead animal parts inside. The rest of the time you rely on sandwiches and soup. I didn’t get any breakfast on the first day though because I had to get ready in half an hour to catch a tour to this place called Lesedi Village.

National Geographic

Lesedi Village

On Sunday, just after I landed I went to Lesedi Village. Lesedi Village is this set of five traditional villages recreated in one spot, complete with people in costumes, weapons, fake animal skulls and dried worm snacks. You have The Storyteller taking you around, greeting people from all these villages, showing you the basic layout and the way of life of those villages and their history. It starts with you requesting ancestral blessings by spitting on a stone which hasn’t been spit upon yet, and throwing it on a pile of stones that have already been spit upon. Without waiting for some sort of confirmation you then dive into the villages and facts float around you as you try to see and absorb all the things, secretly hoping that there are some topless tribals somewhere too. One wife is worth eleven cows, married women carry a wooden pillow around, the women always sit to the right of the hut, behind the door, because if someone is attacking then the men get to face them first, the doors are a little low because when you enter you should bow a little in respect, spreading cow dung on the floor makes it nice and even and allows the women to draw patterns in it, the fireplace is shaped like a laid down X so that the fire can be built irrespective of the wind direction, the Pedi wear kilts because they refused to battle the Scottish division thinking they were women, and then suddenly you’re at the end. You look around and see people still walking about looking for photo opportunities and wonder how many of them actually saw and heard anything while they were here. Some of their ancestors, if they could, would have picked up that stone and flung it back trying to knock some sense into their heads.

No animals were harmed during the
production of these skulls
The chaps who thought the Scottish soldiers
were chicks and chivalrously refused to fight
Then someone told her that she has equal
rights as men and she wasn't happy anymore
Security guards had fancy uniforms
"Here you can see a member of the Marley tribe."
What a penthouse looked like back then
This is the ancestral hut / the master bedroom
The long spear at the back is isiphapha, because it
flutters in the find with a phaphaphapha sound.
The short one in front is called ikiqhuaech-something
after the squilch sound it makes when ripping out
the innards of your opponent

Fries with that?

A grand performance of tribal dances awaits you and while you enjoy the show, others are concentrating on their camera screens, some of the older African ladies are being good sports and joining the song and dance and throwing some cash on the floor and the staff are cooking all sorts of non-vegetarian delicacies for you to dig into afterwards. Thankfully, in a place like South Africa, dessert is abundant so you needn’t go back hungry. On your way out you walk past the shopping complex where you can blow a vuvuzela, try on a giant African mask, brandish a spear or try on an amulet and then maybe buy something too. The gate bids you well as you pass under it, hambe kahle!

"Why the long face?" I asked him. "Bah," he said.
You know how African elephants are bigger? Well...
Late ostrich (left), late crocodile (right)

The Lion Park

The Musicians of Johannesburg

Wednesday had been marked for a visit to the Lion Park, which is a cross between a safari and zoo. It’s split into two parts, one is the enclosure area and the other is the game drive. The star attractions in the enclosures are feeding the giraffe and playing with the lion cubs. Feeding the giraffe is how it must feel to be a doting South Indian mother, it is a very unhygienic activity which involves the giraffe wrapping its tongue around your palm and transferring the food from your hand to its tongue while you smile and feed it some more. The giraffe I chanced upon was one of those socially awkward foodies who refused to be petted or patted but shamelessly hung around waiting to lick my palm clean. The lion cubs more than made up for the giraffe’s shyness though, they’re lazy to begin with but much more amiable to petting. These cubs are fairly young but their claws and teeth can still injure and you’re warned to stay away from those parts and stick to the belly and the back. Unfortunately, the cubs don’t know that and the lazy ones smack you with their paws while the more excitable ones jump on you and try to bite at your clothes. You only get ten minutes with the cubs after which you head out to see the hyenas and a couple of souvenir shops with very African looking items. This marks the end of this side of the enclosures.

The game drive is where you can take your car on this open area where all the herbivores are roaming outside, and then you can drive in into the carnivore enclosures. You are advised to stay in the car and keep your windows rolled up and are not permitted inside if you’re in a soft top. The drive takes you amongst ostriches, zebras, giraffes, various kinds of deer and a couple of sorts of birds and also offers a magnificent view of the city far on the horizon. Most of these creatures are too busy grazing to offer any excitement and having appreciated whatever little of their grace and beauty you witnessed you roll up your screens and turn towards the carnivore enclosures. Each enclosure has a separate set of animals, lions stroll within touching distance on the other side of the window, leopards laze on the grass not caring so much about your windows being rolled all the way down, wild dogs sleep, more lions lie about on the grass striking poses and one lion decides to roar for you as well. You could drive around for another hour and not get enough but you eventually manage to tear yourself away and drive off into the African sunset.

That's how much they couldn't be bothered
Add a big flowery hat and it's fit for 18th
century English society

Once the male is satisfied he rolls over and goes to sleep
If you're any closer then you're probably being eaten
I don't know if they were looking for
something or just ignoring us
Paint me like one of your French girls.
Or I'll kill you.
The King of the Jungle's gentler side
Dubstep Lionness

The Cullinan Diamond Mine

Thursday I found myself headed to The Cullinan Diamond Mine. Tourists are offered two options - if you’re rich then you can avail the underground tour during which they dress you up in mining gear and take you deep into the mines, otherwise take the surface tour and look at whatever they have to offer on the ground and above it. You need to be fairly well of to get to the mine itself since it’s in Pretoria and it costs a pretty penny getting there from JNB. What attracted me was that this was the hole that gave the world the biggest diamond found yet and it would be a great experience to just see the operations alone. The biggest diamond, by the way, was unimaginatively named the Cullinan Diamond and expectedly found its way to the English crown jewels. Another famous diamond released on the hundredth year was disappointingly named Centenary. DISCLAIMER – the facts mentioned are as per the guide and haven’t been verified by the author. Verify them yourself if you want to use any of the facts or use the same disclaimer.

There is a township around the mine and an open area that hosts some of the equipment they used in older days and some stories from back then. A hundred years ago, in black and white, a bunch of grimy men were going through the contents of this grease table and loading those cocopans or riding the world war discard armoured car which replaced bulls. I was the only one for the tour on that fine Thursday afternoon and so it started only after I finished an indulgent round of that park, it began with a museum which houses replicas and lots of other facts about diamonds in general. The Indian tourist in South Africa stereotype, apart from being good at math and science, includes knowing a lot about diamonds already and you’d be guided more elaborately if you were to clear this up before the tour starts. This museum is followed by a peek into the above surface operations, you can go into the control room from where they oversee the movement of machinery in and out of the shafts and within the tunnels. You can’t touch things or get too many technical details out of the guide but it’s quite a thrill to just be amongst these big machines that facilitate people working somewhere in the 700 kms of tunnels up to 800 m below surface. You then move on to see the kilometre wide hole from a safe distance, each day they dig eleven thousand tonnes of soil somewhere in and around it expecting about forty five hundred carats of diamond. Only a fifth of that quantity is gem quality and the rest goes towards industrial uses. In the distance you can just about see where all this is dumped.

That's just the tip of the 700 m deep shaft
Each of those diamonds has 58 facets. That's what they said.
The expected diamond yield per day from the whole mine
Cage obituary
Just in case you're not very bright, there's
also a sign that asks you to stay away

You are then invited to the diamond showroom where you can gladly avail the drink that they serve and hold up a shameless palm when they try to get you to buy something. You can request the woman in the window to polish a diamond just so you can see but they are unable to give you too many details into how that whole process works. You can flip through the coffee book they have about the mine with stories such as how the enterprising Cullinan wasn’t permitted to explore the grounds for the possibility of diamonds and his solution was to secretly kill one of the then-owner’s a cow and offer to bury it for them. Once the gleam of showroom has worn off you are led to another hall that holds some yellowing documents which include letters and agreements and reports around the setting up of the mine. You can’t pick up much because Englishmen many years back seem to have had very poor handwriting irrespective of their profession. That brings the surface tour to an end, which turned out to be a bit of a damp ending to sight-seeing in South Africa.

Dear Weobnasu,

The City (and Country)

Johannesburg, despite being the commercial capital of one of the BRICS nations, is nothing like any of the cities back here. It’s a city of wide spaces and clear skylines and open roads. The people were much more relaxed and most things were more colourful than they need to be, from flowers growing on pavements to clothes to name tags to Coke cans. Strangely, that’s not the reason the country calls itself the Rainbow Nation and the reason they do call themselves the rainbow nation didn’t quite hold. The city seemed to have a clear distinction because save two, I did not see any white person in the hotel staff. The number of unskilled positions occupied by white people outside was very low too. Cricket, it seems, was primarily a white sport whilst soccer was primarily not. One of the problems I faced in South Africa was identifying people because they looked very similar, but I got better at it as I stayed there longer. And I don’t mean that in a racist way, I have the same problem with some of my extended family.

JNB has a very high crime rate despite which I didn’t get mugged even once and only saw one dead body in my five days there. Reports on the radio were talking about this gang of rogue cops operating in certain areas of the city and looting people. For a country that apparently holds claim to the title of the murder and rape capital of the world, people respect traffic rules a whole lot. They slow down at turns, give right of way, signal their intentions, maintain lanes even at traffic lights, don’t honk at obstructions and motorcyclists keep their headlights on even during the day. But transport does cost a bomb, unlike hairstylists who are probably dirt cheap given the effort that’s gone into some of those heads. I’m not sure how much in poverty the country was because except for those guys at the airport who tried to squeeze out hefty tips from me I didn’t see anyone else trying to do that. That could also be because I’m Indian and there are a few Indians around and everyone probably thought I’m a local. The advertisement industry was just as low on creativity as the one in India or their diamond mining industry, a frequent ad on the radio went like this -
Man’s voice: “…and she kissed me. And I said, “Cherry!” She said, “No, Gloria.” I said, “No. Cherry.” She said, “No, it’s Gloria.” I said, “No, it’s cherry!” She said, “Oh! You mean my lips?” “Yes,” I said. Something something lip balm tastes so good.”

That sounds suspiciously close to a ploy to extend foreplay in which case, if internet humour is to be believed, bacon flavoured lip balm would be the clincher. The next step would then be flavoured underwear.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to check out downtown or go see one of the flea markets or just explore the city on foot, partly because people told me that it was unsafe and partly because transport was expensive. But on my last in town, I did go out with my colleagues one night to a place called Tribes which was located inside a casino-mall named Emperor’s Palace which also had Hooters. Tribes is a big place and is probably expensive too. As we settled ourselves I couldn’t help but notice again that everyone dining was mostly white and all the waiters were mostly not. About four litres of beer and a bottle of wine later the group was in a jolly mood, tottering in that region where the two choices are to stop drinking or drink some more and pass out. They had two vegetarian dishes and two vegetarian starters on the menu and between me and another vegetarian colleague we ordered all their vegetarian offerings. Neither of us could finish it thought because the servings were huge. The same goes for the breakfast that I had at the airport the next morning and I couldn’t help but think that Africa probably has enough food and the problem lies in their appetites. Meanwhile, the staff burst into some sort of a traditional happy birthday song for one person, complete with percussion and vocals, and were preparing for another. It was the sort of things that some adults enjoy but makes babies cry and gives weaker souls indigestion. Having given up on finishing the food I skipped dessert and waited for the night to end. A surreptitious loosening of the belt would have let me be more comfortable but I didn’t have that luxury as all of us stuffed ourselves into a cab and drove off back to the hotel one last time.

There's also a Uranium Street, a Venus street
and a Helium street amongst others
They had their own Oprah. It's definitely an emerging economy.
David's is right there, God's is in the sky
Laurel and Hardy


  1. Liked it... quite a travelogue :)

  2. i love pictorials. when they're not on football players.