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Of elephants, shebeens and Mandela

July 13, 2010
Hill By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com
(Archive)

ElephantsAP Photo/Fernando VergaraStaring down a sexually frustrated elephant has got to be on the list, right?

JOHANNESBURG -- It wasn't until I sat down in front of the screen that I realized how difficult this task would be.

Come up with my favorite World Cup memory? Geez, talk about The Decision. To narrow this 36-day experience of covering the World Cup into one or two events would be cheapening the time I've spent in this wonderful and fascinating -- yet complex -- country.

There was only one way to do it, and that was to come up with a list in descending order. So here are the 20 things I'll remember most about the 2010 World Cup.

20. There are hookers and hookahs. Until South Africa, I didn't know it was possible to smoke a hookah without facing a mandatory life sentence. But during my first and only visit to a South African club, a server put a hookah on our table before taking our order. Although the hookah looks like something Doc put on the DeLorean, it's a contraption people use to smoke flavored tobacco. I'm told hookahs are very popular in the United States. Completely legal, by the way. I didn't partake -- I wasn't trying to have anything misinterpreted as a Michael Phelps moment -- but I made the mistake of touching one and so I leave beautiful South Africa with a nasty burn on my thumb. I know, that's what he said.

19. Deli belly. Wouldn't wish it on Kim Jong-il.

18. The infamous chicken burger. It's known on our side of the pond as a chicken sandwich, and after eating a chicken burger for 16 days in a row at various media centers at the World Cup venues, I will scream uncontrollably if I so much as look at a chicken patty.

17. Vans. I spent 36 days hopping in and out of vans. As soon as I see a minivan in the States, I'll probably start drooling.

16. Vuvuzelas. Were they annoying? Yes. Did I make sure I sent vuvuzelas to my friends who have children because I'm evil? Absolutely. Still, the World Cup experience would not have been the same without the vuvuzelas. Despite what television audiences thought of them, at least 90 percent of the fans here loved them. I think they should be used at weddings, church services and on the stock exchange.

15. South African soap operas. Somehow I got hooked on this show called "Rhythm City." I don't know all of the plotlines, but someone was on heroin and there was in-fighting among this group of models. Don't judge me.

14. We don't need no stinkin' vegetarians. I'm convinced vegetarians are like unicorns here -- they just don't exist. You think America is overrun with Taco Bells? Well, South African has more steakhouses than Florida has strip clubs. And even better, unlike in America, where your meat is likely to have undergone a doping regimen at BALCO, you see your food everywhere in South Africa.

13. South African breakfasts. I'm not much of a breakfast eater, but I probably ate breakfast on a more consistent basis in South Africa than I have most of my adult life in the United States. America is the most obese nation in the world and even we don't do breakfast like this. At most South African hotels and restaurants, they serve breakfast buffets that have no fewer than six different meats, all of which look like your arteries' arch-enemy. One type of sausage isn't good enough. You must have four different kinds. And you can't have one pastry. You must have 23 different varieties. And best of all -- it's FREE (not at the restaurants, but at all of the hotels). If anyone wants a documentary on what happens to the body after 30 straight days of consuming South African breakfasts, I'm game.

12. I played with a lion and lived to tell about it. I went to a lion park near Port Elizabeth and, even though I've seen my share of "When Animals Attack" videos, that did not stop me from paying roughly $15 to spend 20 minutes with lion cubs in their pen. "Cubs" is really a deceptive word because most of these cubs looked as big as a 10-year-old. But they were cuddly, and best of all, asleep.

11. Soweto. I spent three days in Soweto, which included watching South Africa's national team with fans at a park in Nelson Mandela's old neighborhood, Orlando West. During apartheid, Soweto was the epicenter of the country's struggles with racism and democracy. Today, it's a symbol of the incredible change the country has undergone. White South Africans would never have dared come to Soweto, but it's not that way anymore; when Bafana Bafana played their opener, there were numerous whites there, celebrating with black fans and playing soccer with black kids. Given where this country was less than two decades ago, that is nothing short of amazing.

10. Interviewing an HIV patient for the first time. The HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa has been well-documented -- experts predicted that, during the World Cup alone, 22,000 would die from AIDS -- and as much as we're aware of the disease in the United States, I had never interviewed or spoken with an HIV-positive person. I went to a five-a-side soccer tournament in Johannesburg that was for HIV-positive players and couldn't have come away more inspired. I interviewed a woman who was younger than me, had lost two children to AIDS, and instead of wilting under such awful circumstances, she chose to become an activist. From her I learned the Xhosa word, "amandla," which means power.

9. The language of lust. As I mentioned in a blog, a World Cup coach tried to pick me up at a bar. He didn't speak English, but there was no mistaking what he wanted to accomplish. And no, I'm still not telling who it was.

8. The boisterousness of the international media. Boisterous or obnoxious, take your pick; but always entertaining. If you think the American media is relentless, you would think the foreign press is something akin to a team of assassins. They don't ask questions as much as they perform one-man dramas in press conferences. Seriously, each question is a 15-minute show followed by an intermission and a 20-minute epilogue. I'm going to miss those soliloquies.

7. Nelson Mandela, the business. I don't think I've ever seen a person commercialized as much as Mandela is in South Africa. President Barack Obama runs a close second, since you can buy Obama Nike Air Force Ones online and liquor-maker Hennessy put out a special Obama-themed bottle (seriously). But the Mandela brand is almost suffocating and there were times I wasn't always sure that was a good thing. Is it disrespectful to do that to a man who spent more years in prison for his beliefs than I've been alive? Or is it just paying tribute to a man who improved the lives of thousands with his dignified struggle? It's just one of those questions that I'll wrestle with.

6. There's a shebeen with my name on it. A shebeen is the term for an illegal, or barely legal, bar in South Africa. And despite their lack of legality, they are everywhere in South Africa, especially in the townships. After a great dinner in Soweto, a few of us were taken to a local shebeen and I see why they're so popular. For roughly the price of Dentyne Ice, we were given beers as big as Barry Bonds' head. Although this shebeen was run out of a woman's garage -- and that is not an exaggeration -- it had a digital jukebox, flat screens, and a full bar. The owner couldn't have been more charming. She took pictures with all of us and made sure we signed her wall. I'm thinking of hiring her to "redecorate" my garage.

Shebeen
AFP/Getty ImagesTurns out a shebeen is a decent place to form memories.

5. The showdown with Babar. On one of the rest days, a group from ESPN.com and I went on a safari near Rustenburg. Our safari was uneventful, until we ran into a very, very angry elephant. He ripped up three trees and was in such a mood that our guide cut the engine and told us to be completely silent so as not to disturb this creature's destruction. Unfortunately, this other car didn't get that message and tried to drive past the elephant as it annihilated a tree, causing the elephant to turn and glare at us the way I'm sure Dan Gilbert will glare at a LeBron James poster from here until eternity. Our guide whispered to us to look at the moisture on the elephant's hind legs, which he said indicated that the animal was sexually frustrated. I sat there thinking, "I'm going to get killed by a horny elephant. Just as I planned!" Thankfully, the elephant turned away from us and we managed to escape, but not before we getting a whisk of elephant musk. If that's the scent of love, I fully understand why the elephant is frustrated.

4. Dear Tourists: You're smarter than you appear. I know I've put a lot of things on this list, but if there is one thing I'll miss, it's the way that this country assumes you haven't had a lobotomy. They also assume there isn't a part of you that wants to be a nefarious criminal. In America, we assume both -- that you're stupid and, therefore, dangerous. In South Africa, you don't have to take your shoes off to go through security. In fact, their metal detectors look like they were designed by Coleco. And you know what? I like it. I like that, when you go to game reserves and animal parks, there aren't 600 signs that tell you not to touch, agitate or insult the animals. The assumption is, if you are dumb enough to climb into the lion's den, then he's going to be full for three days.

3. Overwhelming hospitality. We were given so many warnings about the crime in South Africa before coming here that I polled my friends to see if any of them would be willing to avenge my kidnapping like Liam Neeson did in "Taken." Not a lot of luck there, but I saw that reports of the dangers lurking in South Africa were greatly exaggerated. All you had to do was use common sense, which is to say that you probably shouldn't go in the worst neighborhoods in Johannesburg at 2 a.m., looking for something that rhymes with "back." The South African people were unnervingly nice and everyone, from cab drivers to policemen, always asked me if I was enjoying South Africa. They were looking for validation that this place wasn't as bad as everyone kept saying it was. It wasn't. I've been scared for my life riding through Newark. I never felt that way in South Africa.

2. Ghana vs. Uruguay. As a sports writer, I'm sure I've seen 1,000 games, everything from Olympic wrestling and curling to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Maybe once out of 100 times you see a special game, one that you never forget -- the Patriots' loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl, Chris Webber's timeout game and Michael Jordan's iconic shot against the Jazz, to name a few. Uruguay-Ghana was just like that. This match had tension, skill and excitement, all of which were under the cloak of Africa desperately wanting to see an African team advance to the semifinals for the first time in World Cup history. And other side, you had a tiny nation of 3 million aiming to make its own history. Dynamic.

1. Nelson Mandela's appearance at the World Cup final. I'll never be able to put into words what it meant to see this anti-apartheid icon, and to be that close to him. Mandela, or "Madiba" as he is known in Africa, changed the world. How often do you get to be in the presence of people who altered the course of humanity? I never expected to lay eyes on Mandela since the World Cup began with the tragedy involving his great-granddaughter, but his presence at the World Cup final was the perfect topper to this tournament. It was Mandela's dream for Africa, not just for South Africa, to again become a treasure to the world. And though problems remain, the World Cup being in South Africa is the culmination of Madiba's precious legacy. When the fireworks lit up the sky over Soccer City after Spain had been crowned the champion, I knew Madiba was at home smiling.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.