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What I learned in South Africa

Thursday, May 13, 2010
May 13
JOHANNESBURG -- To some people, South Africa is the great unknown. How will the country handle being under the microscope for all 31 days of the tournament? And, really, what is South Africa like? During a recent visit, these are the things I learned:

• It's OK to drink the water.

• Cars drive on the left side of the road.

• "Tiger Woods' real name is Eldrick Woods," according to a massive billboard advertising campaign bearing no other words or sponsor names.

• Soccer City is in the middle of nowhere, right next to the IBC, where I'll be based for 35 days.

• The people of South Africa are incredibly friendly and good-spirited.

• Every house owned by white families in Johannesburg is protected by massive walls topped by electrified razor wire ("It is Joburg, after all," said one home owner).

• Cold to South Africans is 32 degrees F (the World Cup will be held during their winter).

• Nelson Mandela Square is not a high-minded area where ideas are exchanged and oppression is fought, rather it is a mall that could be located anywhere in suburban America, with restaurants complete with slow service and culturally neutral dishes (I had a BLT).

• 1,000 rand is not a big hotel bill (divide by 7 to get the approximate exchange rate).

• Despite contrary advice, you can stop at red traffic lights (during the day).

• People in South Africa still read newspapers.

• The newspapers they read are as wide as your arms are long.

• Extreme headlines from said newspapers: -- "Syndicate stealing baggage: Airport security implicated"
-- "'Blue light' cops manhandle journalist during Zuma visit"
-- "Why Jub Jub faces murder rap"
-- "Chaos as taxi drivers strike"
-- "Pair of gunmen killed in mob justice"
-- "Four arrested in farm attack"
-- "Bystanders shot with rubber bullets"
-- "Beckham out for six months."

• If you're coming to the World Cup and haven't booked your accommodations, you are hosed.

• If you are going to the England-U.S. game in Rustenberg, you'd better leave now -- one road in, one road out.

• South Africans can sleep anywhere -- on the shady grass while waiting for the bus, in their hot cars during lunch breaks, on the medians of busy streets.

• South Africans do not believe in clocks, especially in hotel rooms.

• In perhaps a related topic, the light-rail project connecting some of the venues is unlikely to be ready before the tournament.

• Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

• The issue of poverty in the country is serious and real.

• South Africans are totally stoked about the World Cup.

• It's going to be a fun ride.

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