Thursday, December 31, 2009


Ten years ago today, I rang in the new millenium on the roof of my friend Suzanne's amazing penthouse loft, watching fireworks explode over the city of San Francisco. We stayed out all night--we had no kids to come home to. I was milking the dot-com explosion for all it was worth and socking away half of every paycheck. Given the events of the next year, that turned out to be an incredibly smart move--savings really come in handy when one has a new baby and no work.

But at the start of 2000, we had no idea what was coming. And it's easy to say now, in hindsight, after eight years of presidential ineptitude, two downed buildings, a bust, another boom, another bust, and countless personal challenges later, that this decade kind of blew. But it didn't suck entirely. At the other end of the aughts, I have scars, but I also have two beautiful, amazing children; the fruits of a wise investment; a decent career; some mad skillz; a mountain view; my health; and the wisdom of a survivor.

I have no idea what to expect from the teens. I'm taking it one year at a time. As I am fond of saying, 2009 was a year to get through. No stopping. It was a year to hang on by your fingernails until there was solid ground to stand on. Or even shaky ground, as long as it wasn't about to cave. And we all did it. I don't think it's too much to ask that 2010 be the payoff for the struggles of the year before, bringing prosperity, love, joy, opportunity, and all those other good things we're all so desperate to savor. As for me, I'm not asking for too much. Above all, continued health and progress for my family. But I do have a few resolutions. In 2010, I resolve to:

--Work as hard as I can to bring my knee back to 100 percent strength, so that the only evidence of this injury is that pesky little scar down the front of my leg.

--Find my balance. I seem to have lost it somewhere in the last 2.5 years.

--Write about stories and actual humans at least as much as I do about machines.

--Take time away from my job and give it back to my kids.

--Change what isn't working and strengthen what is.

--See the world, and as many friends as I can.

--Be well.

--Be good.

No promises, but I'll do my best. Happy New Year, and New Decade.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Touch typing is awesome (if you have $1200)

It only took me 7 hours to type this post. But it was free.

When I was in high school, my parents didn't give a crap what classes I took--except for one. Physics? Feh. Calculus? Yeah whatever. But my dad insisted that I take at least a year of touch typing by the time I graduated. He and my mom both said that as long as I could type upwards of 70wpm, I could get a job doing....something. At least, something that didn't involve welding or operating a ferris wheel. Considering it was one of the few things they were totally sound on, and that my mom had started out in a typing pool and seemed to be doing pretty darned well for herself, I humored them. After a semester of typing, most of which I spent goofing off with my friend David, I actually did learn to type pretty quickly and talked my dad down to a semester of typing so I could have a period free during my senior year to fuck off even more.

In years to come, it turned out my parents were right. Typing served me very well. In journalism school, where everything was deadline-driven, I blew the hunt n peck kids away. I was able to get jobs doing data entry and other exciting James Bond-level jobs. And today, I can type up in the triple-digit wpm range. At least, I could until yesterday.

I still can--just not on this computer. Because this keyboard has had a keyboard lobotomy. A few days before xmas, I spilled some soup on the counter. My computer was also on the counter and had a little sip, which shorted out part of my keyboard. Not the WHOLE keyboard, just the parts I actually use. I no longer have a functional Return key. Or a Shift key on the right. Or a Delete key. All I need is for the F, U, C and K keys to crap out and I'll be completely paralyzed.

Of course, everything has a fix. We took the computer to the Genius Bar and they said they could fix the broken keys....FOR TWELVE HUNDRED DOLLARS. If they regularly get people forking over 12 large to fix three keys on a keyboard, they really are geniuses.

The poor man's fix is way cheaper but far, far more annoying. I can still have a Return key if I just use the Enter key instead. That's simple enough. (Why does my computer have both a Return key and an Enter key? I DON'T KNOW.) For the Shift key, I can use the caps lock key to cap all of the letters on the left side of the keyboard (RIGHT??). And for Delete? I bring up the Keyboard Viewer on my Mac, which activates a teeny tiny version of my keyboard that enables me to not only see what I'm typing, but enables me to mouse-click the teeny tiny Delete key whenever I want to backspace.

If you think this is the most RETARDED thing you've ever heard, I'm right there with you. But it's also $1200 cheaper than the next alternative. Anyway, the net result of these stupid, stupid fixes is that touch typing? Mostly out the window. I'm forced to have to think about every other word that I type and make random complicated moves to compensate for the dead keys, thus slowing my typing at least in half. That I am even typing this now is a testament to how much I love you all. Or how narcissistic I am. Or something.

The thing is, this computer is only three years old. And because it's a Mac, it's still going strong. So I'm stuck with this ridiculous situation for quite a while. This is the computer equivalent of someone T-boning your 2002 Nissan Sentra at a light so that it's seriously fucked up, but not totalled. So your insurance makes you fix it but it's never, ever the same. And it's still a 2002 Nissan Sentra. I cannot in good conscience spend $1700 on a new laptop, or $1200 for a fully functioning keyboard. But here I am.

So if you need me to type anything for you, be patient. And let this be a lesson to you--if you're going to spill soup near your computer, go big or go home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What would Santa do?

Gianni has unwittingly forced a moral dilemma in our house. A few days ago, while I still had two functioning knees, I went out to Pearl Street Mall to stock up on stocking stuffers for the kids. I went to their two favorite stores, Into the Wind (cool tchotchkes) and Powell's Candy (uh-huh), and picked out some choice trinkets and treats.

I try to be reasonably mellow about the holidays but I am pretty psycho about the stockings. It all goes back to the year when my dad forgot to pick up stocking stuffers for us and had to make do with whatever was available at the nearest gas station convenience store. We woke up the next morning and discovered that Santa had deemed us worthy to recieve a pecan divinity log, some circus peanuts, a pine tree air freshener and a can of Turtle Wax. It was almost as traumatizing as Christmas at Denny's, which I still can't bring myself to talk about here.

Anyway, no matter what, I try to make an effort to show that Santa Cares with some good candy and decent toys, quality rather than quantity (pine air fresheners are a dime a dozen--no, REALLY.) So again this year, I chose with care and stashed the stocking stuffers in the garage, out of sight. OR SO I THOUGHT.

I discovered yesterday, thanks to my friend/spy GerRee, that Gianni 'fessed up to her that he went a-snooping in the garage and found the stocking stuffers. But he doesn't KNOW that they're for the stockings, he just assumes they're cool loot. And therein lies the dilemma. Gianni is nine--I suspect he knows there's no Santa, but we're in that awkward period where either the secret is somehow out, or they still believe, or more likely everyone is playing in an elaborate charade to keep the Santa thing going and extend childhood just a little longer.

So in terms of stocking stuffers, what do I do? I have neither the time nor the mobility to go out and pick up different stocking stuffers. Nor do I want to--I'm not buying more stocking stuffers just because that little fucker can't stay out of the hidey hole in the garage. Do I just give him the original stuff and we all acknowledge that Santa time is over for G? Do I withhold the stocking because he was such a stinker? (NONONO I cannot do this. A pine air freshener pales in comparison to not getting ANY stocking at all.) Or do I try to cobble something else together? The Conoco station is just down the street.....

I'm leaning toward the first option. Gianni is a smart kid. I have a hunch he figured out this whole Santa thing long ago. It just makes me feel a twinge that we are at the point where Santa becomes an acknowledged myth and not the magic that the little kids experience. It's just another sign that my little boy is not so little anymore. But I also feel that it's time to acknowledge that and give him a role in the next phase of Christmas--giving and planning and keeping Santa cool for Tea for at least a few more years. After all, she just lost her first tooth--her own transformation from little girl into big one is not far behind.

I think it's just harder this year because I'm sitting here with my knee propped up and wrapped in ice and I feel like I'm just barely holding this Christmas together anyway. But in the end, it's all about the fundamentals--getting to spend time together after months of crazy work hours. Laughing about traditional Christmas craziness. Eating tamales. Seeing friends. That stuff is still here, and will be long after Santa is just some dude at the mall. And if I can hang on to that this crazy year, of all years, it will all be okay.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to Ponder, Parts I and II

Thinking rock, Table Mountain, Cape Town

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. Shut up. I didn't sprain my brain. For the past six months, I've been going, going, going without much thought to anything. Go here. Work on that. Help this kid. Now help the other one. Run. Eat. Sleep. Get up and do it all over again. It has been, to put it mildly, unsatisfying. Aside from the obvious reasons for being excited about South Africa--a chance to work on a standout project at work, and to see some bona fide awesome stuff--the trip was a chance for me to be alone. To stop. To think. About stuff.

Once I finished up in Jo'burg, I wanted to take a few days to not travel (four days of flying plus only four days on the ground in SA = tired, old me.) So I booked a cheap flight and a cheap, cute hotel in Cape Town to just get away. From everything. Cape Town is gorgeous--like suck-in-your-breath, ohmigod, GORGEOUS gorgeous. And I say that after living in nothing BUT gorgeous places for the last 19 years. The waterfront reminds me of Santa Monica, with a nice big promenade, a worn-out little area for train rides and Putt Putt and other activities, an eclectic mix of folks, and an inordinate number of people sleeping under trees. After Jo'burg, where the main afternoon activity seemed to be stressing out about whether you were going to be mugged, it was nice to be in a city where, at least during daylight hours, the main goal seemed to be bagging a few z's in the sunshine.

Yet another perfect day for a stroll.

I spent the first few days just walking. Exploring the shops, watching the people, talking to laid-back locals about their favorite topics--namely, wine and how much Jo'burg sucks. The last day I took a tram to the top of Table Mountain--the big flat mountaintop that casts a protective shadow over Cape Town. After days of driving and working and a series of seriously crappy phone calls, I knew what I wanted to do--WALK. So I walked and walked and walked through the low-lying fog and dry mountainscape, on trails that wound their way through an explosion of wildflowers. When my feet were covered with blisters and I could walk no more, I sat on a rock that overlooked the Cape of Good Hope and the blue, blue water and attempted to process the enormous amount of information that has been swirling in my head for a year. Life. Work. Knees. I had no answers, but at least I got to finally ask the questions.


Amazing, yes?

I prefer to think while I'm moving, or at least outside. But now I am neither. This morning I went into a nice hospital-like place where they knocked me out and repaired this nasty little ligament in my knee that has been cramping my style for several months now. The surgery went very well--according to my doctor, I have the hamstrings of a 200-pound-man (my first thoughts: 1. But then how does he walk? [Really, I crack myself up.] and 2. I certainly hope we're talking about strength and quality and not girth. I rarely hear men talking about women and their hot big hamstrings.)

But now, I am here on my couch with my leg nicely propped and icing, in a pleasant Vicodin haze. And with nothing to do but think. It is the anti-me. But it is a golden opportunity for me to: JUST. STOP. Stop moving or feeling responsible for the world. Stop worrying about work sucking or whether or not my knee is going to blow out on me--because god knows that train has left the station. I get to rest and be taken care of. And hopefully I get to blog often, and on Vicodin, which could be quite amusing for you all. But I've really never done this before. I'm not very good at it. I'd like to see improvement. So we shall see.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When Animals (and Clients) Attack

Take a picture of this, asshole

When we go on location for video shoots for my job, we often use local crews rather than truck a bunch of crap halfway around the world. Ty did bring his own NTSC camera from the States so we wouldn't have to convert video (Quoth the customs agent in NY, when clearing the camera to go to Jo'burg: "You are going to be killed.") But our crew booking agency also found us a nice, experienced South African crew to do the sound and camera work, as well as make the local production arrangements at the stage.

There doesn't seem to be much of a booming commercial and television industry in South Africa, and compared with the U.S. or Europe, not much of a business market. So I wondered--what does a local crew do down here for work? What do they shoot?

Fuckin' leopards, that's what.

Not leopards as in Leopard, my company. REAL . GODDAMN. LEOPARDS. Preferably ones who are trying to rip your arm off.

"We do a lot of work for the Discovery Channel," Alan, the head of the production company, told me. "We specialize in animal attacks. Crocodile attacks, monkey attacks, leopard attacks. We just did a shark attack a few months ago."

In case you were wondering who the HELL films this shit? Alan's your man. I immediately texted my husband, who has "monkey attack" at the top of his Google news alerts, to tell him that I just spoke to his hero and the source of 90 percent of his Internet entertainment.

Alan told me about the time that his crew went with a safari group to look for leopards. "The guide knew there were leopards there," he said. "She brought everyone up close anyway. And suddenly this leopard jumps out and GRABS HER BY THE SCALP. It was awful." So awful, so what do you do? FILM IT, OF COURSE. Aieeee.

Then Alan shows us his incredibly scarred up arm, apparently caused by an extremely pissed off leopard. Unclear whether it was the same scalp-lovin' leopard. I kind of forgot to ask.

Ah, well. In Omaha, you film Warren Buffett. In Orlando, you film oversized Disney characters. In Africa, you get mangled by leopards. All in a day's work.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sawubona, Soweto

After, oh, about 12 hours of being in our fancy-schmancy W-style hotel in the middle of our fancy schmancy shopping complex, Ty and I decided--we need out. Like I've said, it's not that it wasn't lovely. But if I wanted to sip cocktails in a hip bar surrounded by white people, it's a lot cheaper to go to Cherry Creek. As long as we were in Africa, we wanted to see real Africa stuff. So we went to Soweto.

What most people, including me, know about Soweto, we learned from the news. Or heartfelt books. Or crusading fundraising rock stars. And what we heard about is the uprising, struggle, the symbolism, the hope. But there's a lot I didn't know about Soweto. For instance, this collection of townships forms a city of between 3 and 5 million people. It's HUGE. They don't know exactly how many because much of the population is undocumented. And Soweto is not all tin shacks and dirt roads. It's as varied as any city, with dirt poor slums sitting beside brand new housing developments, across from neat 4-room houses, down the street from bona fide mansions with BMWs in the driveway. It's home to many people from the native South African ethnic groups, like the Zulu--also to a huge immigrant population from other countries in Africa. I didn't know any of that stuff. Until I spent four hours biking through the place.

There are lots of tours of Soweto, but we didn't want to see the area from an air-conditioned bus. I'm also wary of tours in general, especially tours whose main theme seems to be, "Let's point and take pictures of poor people!" So I did some looking (thank you, Lonely Planet!) and found a good alternative--a bike tour of Soweto. Over the course of four hours, a guide will pedal with you around the neighborhoods of Soweto, where you'll see everything, smell everything and talk to everyone. The tour also included all of the major Soweto sights like the Hector Petersen Memorial, Nelson Mandela's house and all the stuff that you really shouldn't miss if you're going to go all that way. So we booked spots for the next day.

At 9am, a van picked us up from our hotel for the 20Km or so trip to Soweto. The van trip itself was a fascinating journey. First it took us through the posh northern suburbs of Johannesburg and wound down the main drag (a Sunset Boulevard of sorts) past the leafy green--but empty--parks closer to downtown. We passed the zoo. Apparently Johannesburg has a lovely zoo, but seriously--a ZOO? In AFRICA? I just can't get down with that. Then we got on the freeway that closely bypasses downtown. I wouldn't call Jo'burg a beautiful city--it's more concrete jungle than architectural treasure--but it's intriguing, with its towers and a deserted amusement park called Gold Rush City in the shadow of the skyscrapers. The mean streets we heard so much about were down there, looking burnt out and ghetto-ish. It reminded me of the scariest parts of West Oakland or Chicago's South Side, with trash-strewn vacant lots, sad looking corner stores and people hanging out on those corners without much to do. But we saw signs of the impending World Cup--sparkling new plazas and loft-like apartments standing out amidst the blight.

The new Soccer City is just past downtown on the way to Soweto. The main stadium for the World Cup is designed--no joke--to look like a traditional clay pot of African beer, down to the canvas roof with its many peaks looking like the foam at the top. There is so, so much right with a football stadium designed to look like a giant beer. Well done, South Africa.

The first thing you see when you get to Soweto is a rolling sea of red--the red tile roofs of the classic 4-room houses. Most of the homes have tin shacks in the back yard, additions to hold extra family members or to rent out to the many recent immigrants from other parts of Africa. There are thousands of these houses with their shack appendages, stretching out far along the horizon. Look back the other way and you see the towers of Jo'burg in the distance, and thestripped out yellow mounds left over from gold mining.

Soweto, far as the eye can see
The hostel that runs the bike tour is across the street from a neat little park and playground full of local children. The hostel is like a little oasis on a quiet street, with neat rooms and a plant-lined patio with a hammock, a mini-cantina and a foosball table.

Chillin' in da backyard

It looks like a terrific place to spend the night, and many backpackers do. There were about 15 people on our tour, and they soon issued us bikes and helmets. My bike was no-frills, to say the least. About 1.5 of the gears worked and about halfway through the ride my quick-release seatpost stripped out. I could either pedal out of the saddle or in low position with my knees akimbo, like I was riding my daughter's bike. But it got me from place to place, and I'm all about the flow.

For the next four hours, we pedaled in and out of different worlds--the first one full of modest 4-room houses and paved roads. It was simple, but there were signs of at least the second world, if not necessarily the first.

We turned a corner and we were somewhere else. Tin shacks outnumbered brick houses. Trash littered some areas and piled in others. An open sewer ditch ran along the road. We stopped in front of a tumbledown main "street," in front of a tiny tin shack. This was a "shebeen," a small illegal tavern. I've seen storage sheds larger, but the shebeen was packed to the gills. About a dozen older African men sat on benches that ran along all four walls, all smoking and trading jokes. We joined them and soon there were a couple dozen of us squeezed into the tiny space. In summer. In Africa. The term "sweat lodge" comes to mind. It was smoky. And sweaty. And dark. And fascinating. I lost my sunglasses through a crack in the floor. I didn't go after them because I truly wasn't sure what was living down there. I looked at the older guy next to me and we both smiled and shrugged.

"Shebeen," African for "dive bar"

Our guide brought us two white buckets. One contained a non-alcoholic beverage (bootleg African root beer, if you will.) The other contained fermented hooch. The contents of the first bucket smelled like bubble gum and tasted vaguely like a day-old papaya smoothie. The stuff in the second bucket tasted like finely aged vintage ASS. Really gross. I took a polite sip and passed it along to my quiet, smoking hosts. Cheers, fellas.

For the next hour or so we wandered through this neighborhood, and it. was. AMAZING. This is how the rest of the world lives. The poverty was jarring at times. There's nothing happy about children playing directly next to a spot where six dead rats are rotting. But the thing is--the children are playing. Just like children do everywhere. They were thrilled to see us. They smiled, hugged and gave us hearty welcomes. They tried on our helmets and sat on our laps and looked at our photos. Africans have the most genuine beautiful smiles. All of the people we met in Soweto greeted us with smiles and handshakes, and I'd like to think it's not just because we had tourist dollars to spend. Even in the poorest, hardest corners of Soweto I felt more welcome than I have in some U.S. cities, and definitely safer than I did in Jo'burg


our hosts

We continued to ride and walk through the lower-rent district of Soweto, down back alleys and past hanging laundry and throngs of children giving us high-fives as we walked by, until we got to a small food stand with piles of fruit and veggies and some cooked meat on a plate. They invited us to dig in. My basic philosophy on food is: is it a mushroom? No? Then eat. I will try anything once. So with out looking too closely or asking too many questions, I grabbed a piece of the meat, rolled it in salt and ground red pepper, and popped it into my mouth. First impression? Hot as HELL. Holy holy. The meat wasn't bad at all. I steeled myself to hear that it was some kind of brain or intestine or foreskin, but it turned out to be the meat of the cow's head, around the skull. Wives tale has it that if you eat the meat of the head, it will make you wise. I think I ate at least 5 IQ points' worth, so I've got that going for me.

Don't ask, just eat

After our, uh, tasty snack, we pedaled out of the slum and wound up at a modern town square for the historic portion of the tour. We were at the Hector Petersen Memorial, the site where, in 1976, Soweto schoolchildren were gunned down by police for protesting the mandatory teaching of Afrikaans in schools. Hector Petersen was the youngest boy killed, at age 12, and a museum and memorial fountain now stand a few hundred yards from the site of the shooting. It was incredibly emotional, I teared up looking at it, thinking of my own son, who is not much younger than Hector was. We spent 15 to 20 minutes here, mostly in silence.

We went from there to a neighborhood that is clearly the Beverly Hills of Soweto--big gates, swimming pools, movie stars...or at least political and musical luminaries. We saw Desmond Tutu's sleek modern home and a couple of phat pads that were bigger than our home in Boulder.

We ended up at Nelson Mandela's home, which has been turned into a museum next to the Mandela Family Restaurant. It was lunchtime and nearly the end of our tour. We sat down and chatted with our tourmates, a really interesting bunch. They included a doctoral student from Luxembourg who was researching the effects of Chinese economic growth on the South African economy, and three young women--two English, one American--working at NGOs and on fellowships in Swaziland. They had driven over for the weekend to see The Killers in Jo'burg. We were all starving and watched excitedly as our neighbors were served heaping plates of very African-looking dishes of meats, curries and rice.

So imagine our shock when we each got one of these:

That's right, a big starchy bun stuffed with French fries, topped with a hot dog and a few Kraft singles, and then topped with more bread. It was like a processed food sundae. And it was perhaps the weirdest, most out-of-context lunch I've ever seen. It was like, hey, Whitey's coming, get out the hot dogs and American cheese! And African ketchup? Don't ask. It's the thought that counts but it actually made me nostalgic for the cow's head.

Right before we got back to the hostel, we pedaled up a hill and hiked up a small ridge to look down on the expanse of Soweto once more. Our guide pointed out a very large house on a well-appointed lot directly below us. It was Winnie Mandela's house. After two days in Jo'burg, we had seen big walls coiled with razor wire on every dwelling we passed. But at Winnie's house the walls were low and not festooned with spikes and barbs. We were perhaps 30 feet and a simple stucco wall away from the yard of the former first lady of South Africa. Can you even imagine standing less than 50 feet away from Hillary Clinton's back yard without at least a dozen people trying to tase you? But no one, not military, not law enforcement, not civilian, tried to so much as ask our intentions. It was just us and Winnie. It implied a trust that doesn't seem to exist in the rest of the country and I'm surprised it existed there of all places. Not because people are untrustworthy, but after so many years of shit, why should the people of Soweto trust anyone? But there we were, in the bars, on the roads, eating the food. And it was all good.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Yep, Still Here

Downtown Jo'burg, in daytime: C.H.U.D.-free

Ms. Dorrie Fletcher of Newnan, Georgia, would have pooped her pants tonight. We ventured out of the mall to go to a real restaurant in what we heard was a real neighborhood, according to a very fascinating doctoral student from Luxembourg. Melville is the one neighborhood in Jo'burg that is actually a neighborhood, in that Highlands, Cole Valley, Park Slope sense of a neighborhood. It has shops, bars and restaurants. On actual streets. With sidewalks. Where people actually walk. What a concept. Done and done. We made a reservation at a restaurant that Lonely Planet seemed to like a lot and considered it a plan.

Of course, to get to this walkable neighborhood, you have to drive there. So we got in our cute little African-issue VW, with Ty behind the wheel because I am an idiot who can't drive stick, and headed out of the gate--literally. Melville is by all accounts in a relatively safe area, but it is very near downtown. The same downtown that everyone, from the guys out front to the guidebooks to the guy behind the rental car desk, tells you, FOR GOD'S SAKE NEVER GO THERE. AND NEVER EVER GO THERE AT NIGHT. Because, apparently the zombies and C.H.U.D.s and bad people come out at night and you will not come out alive, or at least not with your wallet.

So where were we at about 7:15 pm? In the dark, driving around, the only thing we're sure of is that we're headed downtown. Yeah, that downtown. How did this happen? Well, here's how. Johannesburg is missing a few key elements that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. They are:

1. Proper directions. You can ask 17 different people in Jo'Burg how to get somewhere, and you'll get 17 different routes. And none of them will be exactly right, failing to take into account extra streets here and there, one-way roads, and entire buildings in the way. If you're going anywhere in Jo'Burg, plan on stopping at gas stations. A lot. Sometimes the same one twice. I think that people don't actually know how to get anywhere in Jo'Burg because they don't actually go anywhere. How can you get lost OR know the city when you're behind walls and in malls? We actually had one gas station attendant give us directions to the next gas station so we could get directions to where we were going. Which, in the end, turned out to be about 1/4 mile away from where we were speaking to him. Oh, well. it's a journey.

2. Street signs. When giving directions, people in Jo'burg tend to forget that there are NO STREET SIGNS on streets. We get a lot of, "turn right, then go past one robot, two robots, three robots...and then turn on Main Road." But not all robots are created equal. Do the ones that aren't lighted count? And when you pass three or four robots and you still haven't seen a street sign, then what? Downtown Johannesburg, that's what. Eep. Anyway, a little pre-World Cup advice, J'Burg--for the love of god, street signs!

3. Things that would have been nice to know before we started out: that our restaurant changed names entirely. No one ever told us. D'oh! That the onramp sign for the freeway going north is not at all where you would think it should be, and is covered by shrubbery. That the main street you're supposed to turn on actually has an entirely different name. Johannesburg is Dutch for YOU'RE LOST. Little known fact.

All I can say is, thank goodness for Ty's wrong-sided stick shift driving, lighted 24-hour mini-marts and U-Turns. We managed to stay safe and to spend the evening in a terrific little neighborhood, eating great food. It was great to be in a spot where people actually are out and about, with funky little bars and skater shops and a little character. I petted an adorable puppy at dinner. I had a superb chenin blanc with my tasty fish, and a macaroon the size of my head for dessert. I shared half of that with a Zulu security guard who had never eaten a macaroon before and thought he'd died and gone to heaven. It took awhile to get there. But all in all, worth getting lost over. For sure.

Behind the Wall

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

"A visit to Johannesburg? Are you out of your mind? It is possibly the most dangerous city in the world besides Baghdad. I just got back from Durban, and was told by residents of Johannesburg that when our plane stopped there en route, under no circumstances were we to venture beyond the is irresponsible to blithely suggest Johannesburg as a tourist destination."
--New York Times, letter to the editor, June 30, 2006

So, uh, hello from Johannesburg! You'll all be glad to know that, despite the dire warning of Ms. Dorrie Fletcher of Newnan, Georgia in 2006, I've been here three days and I'm not dead yet. I have crossed the street, I have driven from the airport to my hotel and around Jo'Burg, I have seen townships and stopped at traffic lights (amusingly called "robots," beep boop boop) and I'm still here. And I'm completely fascinated by this city, which is the mother of all case studies on race, class and urban sociology. I've never seen anything like it.

Let's start with the walls. Johannesburg is a city of walls. Walls around homes, around shopping centers, around other walls. I've seen more razor wire and security on this trip than I've seen around most minimum security prisons. Seriously, if I were in one of these houses and peeked over the wall, I'd expect to see no less than 50 zombies trying to get in, like something out of I Am Legend. But what's really outside the walls? Silence. Nothingness. Street after street of sidewalks with no one walking, except the occasional African domestic worker on the way to a job. These are neighborhoods without neighbors. It's creepy, a whole city in hiding.

But of course there are people in Johannesburg. You know where they all are? At the mall. The mall is the neighborhood in Jo'burg. People do all of their eating, drinking and socializing in contained, sterile enclaves protected by armed guards. I am staying in a lovely hotel. It is on a lovely brick courtyard with some lovely bars and restaurants across the way. It is quite idyllic. But it is also a big fakefest, like Main Street USA at Disneyland. It bears no small resemblance to...Broomfield. But imagine Broomfield if the entire city of Denver hung out there and nowhere else. If it were the epicenter of social activity for every man, woman and child. Ready to kill yourself yet? That's what I thought.

As delightful as this mall is, it's still a mall. So I, along with my video producer, Ty, have been pushing the boundaries of the security booth each day, trying to get to the other side of the wall to see what the fuss is about. Yesterday, we headed down to Soweto (the un-mall). Today, we went to the city flea market, which is also in a mall but it's in the parking lot of the mall so I feel like we are branching out. (Scores: a Kaiser Chiefs t-shirt for my son and an awesome Johannesburg Bridge Club ashtray for those special smokers in my life.) We both suspect that a lot of the fear and paranoia that prompts people to build these walls is caused by the walls themselves, and the REAL wall was constructed out of years of hostility and oppression and xenophobia. A hundred years of racism and mistrust takes a long time to dismantle.

But what is the truth? Is Johannesburg any more dangerous to the average person on the street (or behind the wall) than Detroit or West Oakland? While caution is certainly prudent, as it is in any large city, is the razor wire really necessary? On the one hand, based on the people I've met, I'm skeptical. On the other, as a person with a family waiting for me at home, I'm not sure I'm ready to completely test that theory and wander the streets of downtown. So I've been listening to the word on the ground, from bellmen and backpackers and other people who really have a sense, feeling out what's okay to explore and what truly falls under the category of Don't Go There.

What are we finding? A lot of kindhearted people with beautiful smiles. A lot of generous South Africans who invite us to call them and offer to show us the way around this vibrant country. A lot of kids who love to hug. Maybe the World Cup next year will be the catalyst that will get people out of the malls and onto the streets and talking to each other. I hope so. Because it's too quiet here.