As my second week in South Africa began, I could feel the excitement mounting on every corner and in every building. Two days before the first game there was a country-wide call to action. Everyone was asked to don their Bafana Bafana gear, grab their vuvuzela, and take to the streets at midday, when the sun was highest in the sky. That was almost a week ago, and the horns literally have not stopped sounding since then, with one exception (I’ll get to that later).
On the eve of kick-off day, I decided to check out Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Just before I left California, a friend told me that if I only did one thing in Cape Town, this had to be it. That’s saying a lot, so I jumped a cab to see one of South Africa’s six World Heritage Sites. Like Robben Island, also a World Heritage Site, Kirstenbosch is something to be seen and experienced, not described. This is the kind of place where you spend the day when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you feel like you just might cut the next person that looks at you funny. Thankfully, I am nowhere near that point, but I still found the park to be among the most peaceful places I’ve visited in my life… a true woosah moment. I do wish I could have seen the park during South Africa’s spring or summer, when it’s a little warmer and more colorful. After more than an hour walking the endless crisscrossing paths, over bridges and along creeks, I found myself a nice quiet place to sit down with my book for a while before heading back to the city.
That night I had my first experience with Kurdish cuisine, which was not-surprisingly tasty. After dinner, I stepped out into the streets just in time to catch the Cape Town World Cup Kick-Off Parade. I can’t think of ever being a part of a bigger crowd in the streets… maybe the 2004 protest in New York City to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The Cape Town Parade reminded me of what it felt like to be in the streets of Downtown Oakland on November 9, 2008, except on the scale of Carnival in Rio De Janeiro.
After enjoying the first days of the tournament on TV in Cape Town, I headed north to get a taste of the action in-person. At the newly rebuilt Cape Town International Airport I had a chance to use my two-word Japanese vocabulary when I spotted Yuichi Nishimura and the FIFA Referee Crew from the previous day’s match between France and Uruguay. They were visibly confused and surprised when I asked to take a picture with them, but I explained that I, too, was a referee, and yes, I did think they were cool.
I mentioned earlier in this post that there has been one break in the constant horn drone since Wednesday. That was when we were about to take off, and the flight attendant announced that the blowing of vuvuzelas was not permitted while on-board the airplane.
After a two-hour flight north to Johannesburg, I rented a car at the airport, and prepared for yet another first. This time, it was driving on the “wrong” side of the road and on the “wrong” side of the car. Fortunately, my first exposure to driving manual transmission was as a youngster, when Ayana (my first piano teacher) use to let me help her shift gears from the passenger seat. Actually, shifting with my left hand was surprisingly comfortable… navigating the South African “highway” system was a little more challenging. After a brief pit stop at the home of my (amazing) hosts in Johannesburg, I hit the road for the two-hour drive to Royal Bafokeng Stadium north of Rustenburg.
Rocking my “Mr. President” Obama t-shirt, and my U.S. Soccer Supporters Club “Founding Fan” Scarf, I got to my seat just as the players were taking the field. I am now officially a member of “Uncle Sam’s Army,” the seating section reserved for the die-hard U.S. fans. Honestly, I’ve been to enough Raiders games and sat close enough to The Black Hole to know that Uncle Sam’s Army is relatively tame as far as “die-hards” go. Still, there was no place I would have rather sat, and I enjoyed our amateur hooliganism—especially the vulgar songs about the Queen of England. As for the game, Clint Dempsey’s goal wasn’t the prettiest, but our boys played well and I’ll take the point against England any day. I won’t harp on the logistical nightmares of getting home after the game. I’ll just say that two hours after the final whistle blew, I had only made it 6 kilometers from the stadium.
On Sunday, my first proper day in Johannesburg, Sonja and Moiketsi (my hosts) showed me around some of the city. We had a tasty outdoor lunch at Tasha’s, at Melrose Arch. Hundreds of international tourists and locals gathered on the plaza to enjoy their meals while watching the afternoon matches on a massive jumbotron screen. In between the two matches, a musical group from Rwanda gave a concert that included everything from traditional music to Hip Hop
We wrapped up the weekend with a Sunday evening barbecue at the home of Moiketsi and Sonja’s friends. As always, Germany kicked off their tournament by absolutely mollywopping their opponent. The game was entertaining. The food was delicious. The company was excellent. I slept like a rock.