Saturday, March 04, 2006

Good Morning, Dark Continent

Johannesburg, South Africa

Due to the rash of theivings and muggings that we experienced in Brazil, I was a bit worried about coming to South Africa, which has an even worse reputation for the unauthorized re-distribution of wealth. Johannesburg itself, Mike assures me, is the "second-most dangerous city in the world". I'm not sure what that means, but it doesn't sound good.

And our first few hours in the city didn't really make me feel any better.

The airport was alright, and after going through all the passport and visa yim-yam, we found a call center from where we could contact our chosen hostel. The nice man behind the call center's counter had some not-so-nice stories to tell about his hometown. Apparently, he had been robbed at knife-to-the-neck-point for a near worthless jacket and, in a separate incident, a friend of his had been stabbed with the spoke of a bike wheel and died. For reals. Needless to say, he was in agreement that Jo'Burg wasn't the safest city.
When we finally managed to contact the hostel lady (the lovely T.K.), she regretfully informed us that their pick-up van wouldn't be at the airport for another five hours or so, and a taxi would cost about 300 rand ($50 USD). When we inquired about other safe ways of getting across town and to the hostel, she just gave us a flat no. Though there may have been various buses and such that we could take, none of them were remotely safe. So, the nice man behind the counter hooked us up with a taxi driver who could take us to the hostel for the bargain price of 250 rand, and sent us on our nervous way with a hearty handshake. His last words to us were: "Don't trust anyone." Duly noted.
The drive from the airport wasn't as much stressful as it was eye-opening. Our hostel is in one of the nicer suburbs in the Northern section of Jo'Burg, and while we were driving through it, I noticed that all of the buildings were surrounded by tall brick walls. And atop these walls, there were another two feet or so of razor wire, or electrified fence, or both. And when I say all the buildings, I mean all of them. Homes, strip malls, office buildings... I didn't see a single structure without. Even our hostel had an impressive security system, surrounded by a 12-foot-tall steel fence with a two-layer buzzed gate entrance. How bad must things be if every building in the well-off suburb has to be so heavily defended?
By the time we arrived at the hostel, I was not feeling too happy about being in Johannesburg. I was tired off constantly feeling on guard, stressed out and paranoid about my own safety. Plus, I was literally tired after being up for over twenty-four hours, eight of which were spent cramped into a tiny airplane seat. The OC then took a nap.

We've been in Jo'Burg for over a day now, and we haven't strayed far from the hostel. We've done some shopping in the area to buy a replacement camera, and some other knickknacks we've needed for a bit, but that's about it. Tomorrow morning, we're leaving early on the Baz Bus, a backpacker's tour bus that will take us all the way to Capetown. Along the way, we'll be hopping on and off to stay for a few days in places of interest. It's a very backpacker-y and touristy way of seeing South Africa, but it's also safe and convenient, which is what I'm looking for right now. Normally, we try to avoid the well-defined, prepackaged nonsense, but I think I need to go for a month or so without getting mugged before I'll be ready to stretch my legs out again.


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