Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Two weeks in to the great African adventure and a chance to reflect on what has happened so far. A fellow novice once commented that I had the great ability to feel at home wherever I was – whether living in designer apartments in London or New York, or in the shadow of a Victorian church in Tottenham, or in a refugee camp. And the same seems to be true once more. I have slipped into life in Jo’burg with minimum angst. My philosophy is to accept how a situation is (and perhaps work to change some aspects) rather than spending time worrying how it might have been otherwise.
All of the necessary bits seem to be in place. I have a house – immensely comfortable and spacious and full of light and air. I have friends – not quite as many as in London but enough that I have only spent 3 evenings on my own since I got here. I have colleagues whom I think I am going to like – though I am not sure they yet know what to make of me. And I have a job which is certainly going to absorb me – more on that next time.
I also now have a phone. I know that seems trivial but, since all mobile contracts here are for a minimum of 24 months, choosing a phone could have more enduring significance than choosing a lover. The problem is that not only are all the schemes more expensive than in the UK but they seem endlessly complicated. However, the King of Brand Valuation is not to be daunted by a spreadsheet challenge. So I put together an analysis that took into account fixed vs variable charges, billing by minute vs billing by second, calls within network vs calls outside, voice vs texts vs data, decreasing charges after the first minute or after the first 5 minutes, peak vs off peak vs happy hours and calls to blacks vs whites vs coloureds. (OK, perhaps that was a pre-94 calling package).
You probably don’t care but I ended up with a Virgin Bundle (why does that sound rude?) and a Nokia Navigator that doubles as a GPS. Given the huge scale of the conurbation (the map book has 429 A4 pages), and my propensity to keep driving even when I don’t know where I am going, having the voice of ‘Ellen’ gently advising me to do a U-turn is a great asset. If only there were a GPS for life. Or is that what religion is….?
The other problem to solve is a car. The area is vast and the public transport system very poor. Of course, they promise that it is all going to be so much better – but not yet. A high speed rail link is in process; but it won’t be finished until 2 years after the World Cup (any Londoners feeling smug should just remember the words ‘Cross Rail’). And a dedicated bus lane system (trams without tracks) is emerging across town. But slowly.
Until then, the main means of public transport is what are called taxis here, are known as ‘mutatu’s’ in East Africa, and you and I might recognise as a mini-bus. There are thousands of them, they drive along with 12 passengers not as a maximum but as a minimum, and people just seem to know by telepathy which one to get. A mark of how dangerous they are is that I heard of one where the driver was steering using a monkey wrench since, having removed the steering wheel, he had more space to squeeze in an extra passenger. They are incredibly badly driven, keep stopping in the middle lane for people to get out, swerve unexpectedly, and indicate one way while they go in the other. In fact, they behave just like cyclists in London.
And cycling here is definitely not an option. Though it would be an easy 4 mile ride to work, it would be madness because drivers here have absolutely no experience of sharing the road with a bike. In fact, though cycling in the parks is a great hobby, I have only seen one cyclist actually on a road. So a car is essential. For the moment, the Jesuits have lent one me from their car pool. Curiously it has the letters XJ in the number plate. Is this the one that is especially reserved for ex-Jesuits? In fact, now I look again it is XXJ – so I guess this is the one for fat former Jesuits.
This weekend’s project therefore is to go car-hunting. Spreadsheets might not save me this time but a friend of a friend of a friend who is a mechanic is willing to come along and ask some of the difficult questions. When I walk into a second-hand dealer and say ‘Don’t you have it in cerise?’ they know immediately that I am not in my zone.
Cars are one of the many things that are more expensive in SA than in the UK. And that is certainly not because they are all imported. Thanks to the apartheid years, SA has a well-developed domestic car assembly industry with Toyota, Ford, VW and even BMW having local plants. You would have thought that would keep prices down, especially when the factories benefit from the cheapest electricity in the world. Nor is there any shortage of retail competition: the main roads radiating out from central Jo’burg contain mile after mile of second-hand car dealerships to rival any mid-Western American strip malls. But for reasons that I have not yet understood, cars are still more expensive. A three-year-old VW Polo for example would cost about £9,000.
Not only are cars expensive but insuring them is also expensive. That is partly because SA has a very high rate of accidents – some people (no matter what their colour) drive as if everyone else was an inconvenient fly to be swatted away. But there is also a very high rate of car theft. And, for people with very nice cars, car-jacking. So, despite the attractions of the sunny clime, this is not the moment to splash out on a convertible Mercedes, even if I had the money. I suppose I could tell myself that it is a commitment to living sustainably!
Actually, I have to confess that the famously sunny South Africa has rather let me down so far. If you were watching the cricket you would have seen how much rain we have been having (though sadly not enough to save the visitors). In fact, the afternoon when Russell and I spent 4 and a half hours at the Wanderers to watch the 4th Test, we saw only 4 overs. (For American readers that would be the equivalent to the ball being pitched a mere 24 times). To be fair I wasn’t really there to watch England’s bowlers and batters so much as to watch England’s barmy army of supporters. And they did not fail to entertain. There may have been little play but there was plenty of beer, and puddles to splash in, and girls in wet T-shirts. Needless to say I kept my silence, refrained from waving a flag of St George, and tried to blend in with the South Africans. Which is not hard at a cricket match since there were at least as many brown-skinned SA supporters as white ones (while very few black-skinned ones).
Thunderstorms aside, life here so far has been most pleasant even if it still feels like an extended business trip. And just in case you thought that I wasn’t really here you can tune in and hear my first bit of publicity. It is on a local Catholic radio station and so if a dozen of you listen on the internet you will probably double the audience. So if you are idle for an hour at 4pm GMT on Sunday 24th click on www.radioveritas.co.za and you can hear me being beamed out of Africa.