Monthly Archives: July 2010

Our grand return

Our 16 hours on the flight home was spent very similarly to the 16 hours we spent on the flight to Johannesburg: in an endless attempt to either sleep or properly amuse ourselves so that we wouldn’t go absolutely insane.

Oh, and also eating.

The seat-back televisions are really a godsend.  Being able to watch the movie that you want, when you want is quite handy.  At little drowsy during my personal screening, I must’ve put Up on pause three or four times.  Great movie, though.

The seat-back televisions have a surprisingly decent variety of entertainment to choose from: everything from documentaries to new releases to television shows and DVDs.  I went for the sappy (Dear John), the sweet (Up) and the shocking (Intervention).  Lauren watched The Blind Side and Up, among others.  We both dabbled in the games, too.  A little Sudoku here, a little solitaire there.

Lauren popped an Ambien and was out for a good stretch.  I’d wake her up for food and she would stay alert enough to eat her meal and put her garbage on my tray table before passing back out. 

I didn’t sleep so well.  Or much at all, if I recall correctly.  That was not fun.

My many hours of wakefulness allowed me to spend quality time filling out our Customs Declaration Form.  How many t-shirts did we buy in the last two weeks?  And at what average price?  How much was that slingshot?  How do you spell biltong? 

When we arrived in Atlanta, we were welcomed back to the country with our Favorite Thing Ever: a line!  A lengthy one, too.  However, after standing in line for 40 minutes or so, we were cleared through customs.  Hurray!
(Side note: the number of people in that line who had a vuvuzela or four hanging out of their carry-on luggage was hilarious.  Definitely the souvenir of the tournament.)       

After passing through customs, we had to collect our luggage and stand in another line to have that inspected.  The man checking our luggage took one look at our Customs Declaration Form and – bingo! – we were shuffled to another line.  The line for people stupid enough to bring meat into the country.  I’m not sure why, but I’d been naïve enough to believe everyone who told me that bringing biltong into the country was perfectly acceptable, as long as it had been vacuum packed.  And when I say everyone, I mean a few South Africans and other foreigners and definitely no Americans.  Not smart!  For someone who researched as obsessively as I did, not to mention the fact that we’d decided to buy Dad biltong fairly early into our trip, it was a pretty amateur move.  I was kicking myself all the while we stood in yet another line, watching the time to our next flight tick down.  It was not my finest moment.

We made it through.  I dug the biltong out of my (overweight) luggage and handed it over.  We rushed to recheck our luggage, grab some McDonald’s breakfast and board on our plane to Detroit.

The trip from Atlanta to Detroit was largely uneventful, minus a little tiff Lauren got into with a flight attendant who labeled her “incapacitated” because she was wearing her arm sling.  (Note to all flight attendants: calling a physical therapy student something so politically incorrect after she’s been travelling for 18 hours probably isn’t a great idea.) 

And then – finally, miraculously, tremendously and not a moment too soon, our long day of endless travel was over.  We were in Detroit.  In Detroit with a lot of souvenirs, desperately needing showers and with our Mom was waiting for us at the luggage carousel.

It was good to be home.

Traveling home: lines, lines, more lines

Along with five very full suitcases and a backpack and a shopping bag and a lot of memories, Thierry wished us well and dropped us off at O.R. Tambo airport.

At the airport, we stopped at the Value Added Tax (VAT) counter to have our luggage inspected.  Luggage inspection is the first of many steps required in order to be reimbursed for the 14% tax we paid on all of the souvenirs that we were bringing home.  We opened up our bags, showed the inspector a few items, and waited for him to stamp all of our receipts.

Next was check-in, which would have gone quite seamlessly had my suitcase not been overweight.  Significantly.  We shuffled items around.  Lauren rolled her eyes at my lack of packing prowess.  I got annoyed.  And, finally, we sent our luggage off into the belly of the plane. 

Four pieces of luggage lighter, Lauren and I made our way through security and into the international terminal.  The international terminal houses the VAT Refund Administrator’s Office, where we were to take our stamped receipts and jump through the next hoop in the tax refund process.  The line was long.  And full of restless, frustrated, time-crunched travelers such as ourselves.  It really wasn’t a pleasant process.  And we didn’t have a ton of time to waste. 

The VAT Refund Administrator’s Office issues refunds in check form.  So, in order for travelers to get cash for their VAT refunds, they stand in our third line of the whole refund process: at the currency exchange office!  Lovely.  We skipped this step and brought the check home with us.  (Which reminds me that I should probably bring that to the bank.)

We found our gate and I headed off in search of some real food to get us through the flight.  I find a café, pick up a couple of premade sandwiches, get in line and…oh.  The credit card system is down and I’m all out of Rand.  Fail.
I return to the gate and Lauren and I settle for the coffee shop that’s just outside of our gate.  The flight has started boarding; we order a couple of smoothies and a muffin and get in line for our second security check.  They search our bags.  We both get patted down.  Lauren has her White-Out confiscated.  We both have our smoothies confiscated.  Supposedly, Delta is the only airline that doesn’t allow passengers to take liquids purchased in the airport onto the plane.  So annoying.

Settling into our seats was almost a relief.  At least we wouldn’t have to stand in any more lines.  …or queues, as they call them in South Africa.  …or torture, as I’d like to call them after weathering line after line after line as we (slowly) made our way through O.R. Tambo.

The feeling of relief was temporary.  How excited can you be about your seat when you’re stuck in it for 16 hours?

Not very.  Not very excited at all.

Last day in Jozi

Sadly, our trip to Johannesburg wrapped up on Monday.  When we were planning our trip, two weeks seemed like such a luxuriously long time to spend on vacation!  But, I swear, we blinked and it was time to go home. 

After we returned to the hotel following the Argentina/Mexico match on Sunday night, we finished a good portion of our packing.  I had a lot more to pack than Lauren, who had been rather disciplined about packing away her souvenirs and dirty clothes over the course of our stay, instead of waiting until the last day. 

I’ve learned my lesson.

Following breakfast and showers and the last of our packing, Lauren and I caught a cab into Rosebank for one final shopping expedition.  There were a few special items left on our list that we wanted to pick up and we wanted to squeeze in one last meal before we left South Africa.

The shopping trip, I am pleased to report, went swimmingly.  We knocked everything off of our list in record time and even found a few spare minutes to browse the mall.  …and buy a few other things that weren’t on our list as a result. 

To be fair, even though it wasn’t on the list, I totally needed the official World Cup album.  And now my life is complete. 

The most interesting part of our shopping trip came when we visited the biltong store.  Biltong is, essentially, South Africa’s version of beef jerky.  People go wild for it.  Everyone told us about how good it was, how much better it tasted than American beef jerky.  So, of course we had to try it.  I had actually bought a bag at Soccer City when we were there for the Germany/Ghana match and, well, I wasn’t crazy about it.  And Lauren was even less crazy about it. 

But would Dad like it?  Yes.  And that is how we ended up at the biltong store: in our quest to buy our dad a uniquely South African gift.

The biltong store was set up a little bit like a bulk food store.  Bins of biltong of all different varieties: ostrich biltong, springbok biltong, beef biltong.  All shredded up and ready for the taking (once you put on the proper rubber gloves, of course).  So we grab a few handfuls of biltong and shove it into a bag. 

And then I get the great idea of buying one of the ginormous slabs of beef that is just hanging off of a shelf like it’s a pair of socks.  Why not?  Anything in the name of an authentic South African delicacy for our daddy! 

We have our slab of beef shredded and then the staff vacuum sealed up all of the biltong so that we could bring it into the country.  All right in the middle of a shopping mall.  Completely natural!  We were getting so good at being South African.  It was a shame that we had to leave.

We had seafood for our final meal in South Africa at a restaurant called Ocean Basket.  Ocean Basket has all of these platter meals on the menu, which consist of several types of seafood in enormous quantities.  We split the Princess Platter, which had princess prawns, fish, some salty fried cheese concoction, calamari, fries, …and maybe something else?

When we ordered the meal, we asked the waiter if it would be enough for us to share.  “Oh, it depends, he said.  Did you eat breakfast?” 

Yes, we had breakfast.  And, no, neither of us could have even made a dent in a Princess Platter even if we hadn’t.

Something crazy happened, you guys.  We couldn’t eat it all.  Me and Lauren!  I am not even kidding.  The world may stop spinning.

So, with very full bellies and an armful of shopping bags, we took our final cab ride back to our hotel.  We squeezed our goodies into our suitcases, turned on the Netherlands/Slovakia Round of 16 match and waited for our beloved shuttle driver, Thierry, to take us to the airport. 

And then Lauren fell asleep on our bed, which I unsuccessfully tried to prevent her from doing.  We were about to embark on 22 hours of travel and that’s a really good place to catch up on your sleep, right?!

Of course, she slept way better on the plane than I did. 

That’s what I get for interfering with someone’s nap.

Argentina vs. Mexico

When we were through with the Soweto and Johannesburg tour, the tour company dropped us off at the hotel.  We went straight for lunch at Lorenzo’s.  Lorenzo’s is the restaurant where we ate breakfast every morning.  It was just across the courtyard from our hotel, in another one of the buildings on the college’s campus.

After lunch, it was most definitely time for a nap.

Then it was time to pull on our Argentina gear and get ready to go to Soccer City for our very last World Cup game.  We watched the Germany/England game while we were getting ready, completely shocked at how Germany was dominating the match.  Yes, England was robbed on a goal.  But that game was all Germany.  They would’ve won anyway.

While I never would have guessed that the atmosphere at Soccer City could have been any better than it was during the first three matches was saw there, the Round of 16 seemed to bring the atmosphere to greater heights.  There was urgency, anxiety and expectation in the air that the games in the group stages didn’t have.  Not to that extent, anyway. 

Fans seemed just a touch more intense.  Vendors sold with greater pressure.  Even the security guards seemed tenser.  It only makes sense.  It was a knockout game, after all.

Both teams were well represented in the stands.  Mexico fans came dressed to impress, wearing gorgeous sombreros and other traditional garments that I can’t even imagine dragging halfway around the world.  That’s true passion, folks: loving your country so much that you’ll haul an intricately feathered headdress past airport security, across an ocean and through the endless dirt parking lots of Soccer City.

Inside the stadium well before the start of the match, we took some time to walk the concourse.  We bopped around to Shakira’s World Cup song (like we had every time we’d heard it in the previous two weeks).  I bought a coffee.  We feasted on meat pies (chicken for me, beef for Lauren), a nice change from the cheese dogs that we’d had at nearly every other match. 

While both teams had a strong base of supporters, Mexico was outnumbered.  Argentina had more fans at Soccer City.  Over and over, they threw rolls of streamers onto the field.  Over and over, we watched the security guards (and the referees, and a player or two) gather up the mess and properly dispose of it.

The match, much like the atmosphere in the stadium, was more intense than the group round matches had been.  It was quite clear that the World Cup dreams of one of the teams were going to end that night.  And, it wasn’t long into the match that it was abundantly clear that that team would not be Argentina. 

It isn’t that it wasn’t a good match.  It isn’t that Mexico didn’t play well.  Argentina was simply the superior team.  And they played like it.

When the final whistle sounded, the score was 3-1 in favor of Argentina. 

It was sad that we wouldn’t be in the stands for any more World Cup matches.  But, if our South African World Cup adventure absolutely had to end (and, unfortunately, it did) Argentina/Mexico was a great game to end with.

Johannesburg and Soweto

So, 7:15 am.  It came very early.

Sunday was our last chance to squeeze in a tour of Soweto.  Going on just a few hours of sleep was far from ideal, but the only other option was to skip the tour entirely.  Please!  There would be ample time to catch up on sleep during the 16 hour plane ride home. 

Our tour was a combined tour of Johannesburg and Soweto.  We were the last pickup of the six in our tour group; as soon as we got in the van, the tour guide began his spiel. 

The guide was quite knowledgeable and he had obviously given this tour dozens upon dozens of times before.  Had I not been able to see that his eyes were on the road as we proceeded through Johannesburg and into Soweto, I would have thought that he was reading off of a script.  Needless to say, it was a bit robotic, but undoubtedly informative.

The best part about the tour guide’s speech was that he regularly referred to us as “good people.”  It was so unnatural that it was humorous.  “And next, good people, we will be driving through the most dangerous part of Johannesburg, Hillbrow.”  “We are now turning onto Vilakazi Street, good people, the only street to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize recipients.”

The tour started with the drive through Johannesburg.  Despite having been there for nearly two weeks, we actually hasn’t spent much time within the city limits of Johannesburg other than when we were attending matches.  The tour of Johannesburg was brief but it was certainly worth it: we saw where Nelson Mandela currently lives, we visited Constitution Hill, we drove through Hillbrow, which our driver described as once being “South Africa’s Hollywood” but is now one of the most dangerous areas of Johannesburg.  We saw St. John’s College, the most prestigious boys’ school in South Africa.  We saw abandoned buildings and stunning statues. 

Following the Johannesburg tour, we made the short drive into Soweto.  Soweto’s origin was as a black township during the apartheid era.  It’s a fascinating place.  It wasn’t about going to see the slums, or to gawk at those who were less fortunate.  It was about the history of the place, about the role that it played in the struggle against the Apartheid movement and about how it fits into modern-day South Africa.

Following a short drive through some of the more prosperous areas of Soweto, our driver took us to an area where we could exit the van and see Soweto up close.  We walked down a dirt path past a handful of tiny, tin houses, accompanied by a Soweto resident who is a volunteer tour guide. 

He took us to a house where the young mother of four welcomed us inside.  She showed us the three rooms of her house: two bedrooms that barely fit the beds that they contained, and her kitchen, as narrow as a hallway.  The tour guide coaxed the answers to a few questions from her.  We watched her children dart in and out of the door.  It was humbling, really, to see how she lived and how unabashedly she showed it to us.  I suppose that it could have been just for the Rand that we all gave her when we left but, whatever the reason, she opened up her home to a half-dozen tourists. 

I had brought along a bag of Tootsie Roll Pops.  When we left the house, I worked up the nerve to ask the tour guide if it would be okay to hand them out to the children.  With his blessing, I broke open the bag and handed them to the children who were in the woman’s yard.  Word, of course, spread quickly.  I was looking at an awful lot of eager faces and outstretched hands; the bag was empty before long. 

The Soweto guide escorted us out of the neighborhood and back to our van.  After a pit-stop at a KFC so a few on the tour could go to the bathroom (a break that featured our tour guide accidentally driving our van over a substantial concrete barrier), we headed further into Soweto.  We saw where Desmond Tutu lives when he is in the area, we saw where Nelson Mandela lived prior to his imprisonment (and for a mere 11 days after his imprisonment).  Finally, we wrapped up our tour at the Hector Pieterson Museum.  Pieterson was the first student to be killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising against Apartheid and the museum was built in the honor of him and the others who were killed during that time.  It was a small museum (we were allotted just 30 minutes to browse), but I found it was a neat, comprehensive way to wrap up the tour.

Sleep deprived and all, it was an enlightening and interesting way to spend our morning.  And we even got back to the hotel with time for a nap before our last match of the tournament: Argentina/Mexico.