Thursday, November 7, 2013

My First Impressions of Johannesburg

I've got to start being nicer -- or at the very least, just a tad more cheerful. Like Australians, Thais, and Jordanians before them, South Africans make me feel so mean in comparison to themselves.

Everyone here has been incredibly friendly and welcoming so far -- even the taxi driver who took me from O.R. Tambo International Airport to my hotel in Johannesburg's Melville district yesterday. Despite my exhaustion and the lack of breathtaking scenery en route (only a few hills and the city's skyline in the distance as we approached it), he made the 35-minute, 400 South African rand (ZAR), or $39, trip pleasant and informative, and if I immediately liked Johannesburg, it was largely because of his good nature and pine-scented car.

I'm not sure how long my initial good impression will stick, for when it comes to the city they live in and love, the South Africans in Johannesburg are a tough crowd. They aren't afraid to build it up and tear it down -- sometimes in the space of one sentence. The political angle has been alluded to, and it likely will be prominent in my experience here, but after the Israeli-Palestinian politics in the Holy Land, I'd like to focus on something shallower for a while. I'll get to the heavy stuff later, maybe after a few more nights of my usual restless, interrupted sleep.

At least three people I've spoken to have praised Melville as being one of the coolest neighborhoods in Johannesburg, mostly for its easygoing and non-touristy vibe, while commenting on its reputation for being "unsafe." "You need to be mildly aware of mugging on Melville's 2 high street late at night but it isn't too bad," the friend of a friend in Cape Town warned me by email before my arrival.

Several Melville bar recommendations by locals and non-locals have come with negative reviews of the food being served in them. It's a good thing I didn't heed the gentle warning of the one who told me to go to Six on 7th Street, if only for the "super friendly" vibe, not for the "questionable" cuisine, because the chicken pasta that I had there last night made me forget the surprisingly delicious ostrich burger I had for lunch at Lucky Bean, the eatery/hotel beside Saffron Guest House, where I'm staying.

Despite my reservations about consuming a bird that's always kind of freaked me out on a visual level, I put my food fear away when Conway, Lucky Bean's co-proprietor, offered me a deal: If you don't love it -- not like it, love it -- you won't have to pay for it. I happily handed over my 90 ZAR ($8.77).

I hope the Lucky Bean Guesthouse is as good as that ostrich because I might have to spend Friday night there, since I was only able to book Saffron Guest House for four of my five days in Johannesburg. I knew I'd chosen the right place when the first thing I saw upon entering the Saffron check-in area was a flyer promoting the South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. It didn't leave me as hopeful as the sight that greeted me upon my arrival in Tel Aviv (a gay couple holding hands while crossing Mapu and Ben Yehuda), but it was a positive sign of good things to (probably) come.

My suite didn't disappoint either. After the secondhand smoke-infested hotels in Jordan and the overpriced ones in Israel, it's nice to land in the lap of luxury at a nightly rate of only 650 ZAR ($63). The five-star trappings include a terrace, a living room, a bedroom, a walk-in closet, high ceilings, a hardwood floor, a tasteful white and brown-dominated interior design and a bathroom that doesn't make me want to pee and run.

Diversity rules right outside of the Saffron on 7th Street, which a variety of ethnicities and accents visible and audible while window browsing. The feel is remarkably different from the downtown area on the way to Melville. The population over there appeared to be mostly black (I don't believe I saw a single white person as we drove through), which was completely unexpected after my predominantly white flight.

For the previous 24 hours before my 8.30am arrival in Johannesburg, I'd been venturing into the great unknown with knots in my stomach, which tend to upset my digestive system whenever I'm about to enter a previously personally uncharted country. But as I looked at the human scenery on the streets of the city center, a wave of ease swept over me. It wasn't that I felt comfortable being around "my people" (I reject such categorizations based along color lines), but I can't say that I'm not looking forward to not being the black guy, el negro, el morocho, el moreno, for the first time in years.

For at least the next few days (I'm not automatically assuming that Cape Town will fit the same demographic profile), I won't be the exotic anomaly. Even if I'm the only American in any given room, people won't be able to tell just by looking at me. I can blend into the crowd, and if anyone singles me out, it will probably be for something other than my skin color, or in addition to my skin color.

I doubt that there'll be any white people here patronizing me by pointing out that I'm "blessed to be black," as an Israeli guy was telling me just last week in Jordan. I'm blessed to be me, and hopefully, in South Africa, I can feel that way without horny, ignorant white guys who've rarely, if ever, been exposed to black people, much less bothered to brush up on their history, try to tell me otherwise.
Post a Comment