Life as a Joburger

I’m going to tell you a little story about Johannesburg. Partly informative and partly as a warning, cause life ain’t always easy here as a foreigner. I think I’ve lived here long enough to give my honest opinion about this city, and I would like to take this opportunity to make a few things very clear to other visitors. I mainly want to warn people that come to Jozi with certain expectations, when they are crazy enough to visit this city in the first place. Jeh, Africa ain’t for sissies and Joburg definitely ain’t.

Firstly, let’s talk about crime. People love talking about crime in South Africa and Johannesburg has been a specifically hot item. Tourist agencies and travel guides will tell you to avoid Joburg by all means, and rather spend some extra hours on a detour when Joburg is on your path. So I would like to state the following: you will be very, very disappointed when you do dare to visit Johannesburg and expect crime, as it is largely absent. I have lived here for 4 years and have not yet looked death in the eye. To make matters worse: I’ve had zero crime-related encounters thus far, none. No guns, no muggings, no harassments whatsoever. It is actually very likely you will leave this city without any cool stories to tell your friends at home. To illustrate: those many “I was shot in Joburg” T-shirts and posters often refer to photography, as all these people have actually never been shot. It is highly disappointing for some people.

A second issue I would like to warn tourists about: people in Joburg are extremely nice. They tend to have small conversations with strangers, help them out whenever needed, invite them for a drink at their table, or even open their doors to them. The strangest thing is that these Joburgers want nothing more from you than a nice chat, and will leave you alone afterwards. This is unheard of in many European cultures and might take some getting-used to. Joburgers also laugh a lot and make jokes that will make other people laugh. For strangers visiting this city it might be considered uncomfortable, because they are not used to such open and genuine human interactions.

Moreover, people that sympathize with racism and think South Africa is the place to be will be distraught when visiting Joburg. Joburg is actually very mixed and in most places people get along no matter what race, age or background they represent. It is even okay to be gay or transsexual. Joburg people seem to simply like being in the presence of other nice people, no matter how different they are. So please be aware of this.

Another thing I noticed about Joburgers is that they don’t care how you look or what you wear, which might be shocking to foreign visitors. They come all this way from fashionable Europe and no-one pays attention to their designer dress, which is not always appreciated. Because people don’t really focus on looks in Joburg, they tend to build more character. This can cause conflict, as many fashionable visitors from abroad have never worked on their character. So if you solely depend on your looks, Joburg might not be the place for you. I have also seen disappointed visitors that were told to never wear jeans, bags or jewellery in Joburg because it will attract crime. You will find out that all people in Joburg wear these items without any problems.

Then let’s move on to the aesthetics of Johannesburg. People often picture a large, dark city with high buildings and dirty streets. So if this is your thing, I’m gonna have to disappoint once more. Only few parts of Joburg are dark and dirty, and the part of the city that has high buildings is only very small. In fact, most of Joburg is hidden amongst trees, only has one-store buildings, and many parks and dams. Highly disappointing.

Even the traffic is different in this bad-ass city. Traffic rules do exist but are not considered to be there for our own safety. Traffic lights, referred to as robots, cheer up the streets in the same way as Christmas lights do, but are not to be taken too seriously. The same goes for indicator lights on cars. They look nice when flashed, but rarely serve the purpose of showing other drivers what direction one is heading. There are also many stop signs and roundabouts in this city, and they are used in whatever way suits the driver at the moment. When traffic rules are violated you don’t have to worry about police cars too much. Well, not more than usual that is. Because in Joburg, the police is your enemy even when you do nothing wrong. They always find something to fine you for, so you might as well give them some value for your money. I have occasionally created life threatening situations in traffic just to avoid an encounter with the police in a road-block further down the road. Pretty bad-ass.

Another thing I want to address about Joburg is that the weather is exceptionally nice. I come from the Netherlands where people bitch and moan about the weather all the time, and I felt uneasy with the lack of bad weather in Jozi when I moved here. I had nothing left to moan about. It’s never too hot and rarely too cold, and it’s sunny most of the time. Very annoying. To make matters worse: when it does storm it storms so bad that there is literally no time to complain about the weather. When roads are flooding, roofs are falling and bridges are collapsing, you just focus on making it home alive. And the next day it’s sunny and 30 degrees again, which makes it so inappropriate to moan about the weather the day before.

The last good advice I want to give to my fellow Joburg visitors is that there is no need to spend too much money here. People are often advised to only book the fanciest hotels, dine in restaurants with ultimate security, and to never walk around but rather stay in bullet-proof taxis. It’s not that fancy hotels aren’t nice, but so are cute guest houses of which we have many. And we have many lovely restaurants that sell the finest food for little money. And they even have outside tables, right on the street, surrounded by plants. Because Joburg has many nice plants. And although taxis are nice to get around with, you can even walk in Joburg; in fact we do it all the time! And we have bicycle lanes, and people actually cycle around too! And we have city parks where you can picnic without bringing armed protection. And there is a lot of street art too. There are even walls with the most stunning graffiti without a single drug dealer around. We also have many events with live music, food markets and performances with a zero-terrorism record.

So my conclusion: Joburg is pretty bad-ass and it takes some getting-used to, but once you do it’s a pretty damn good city.

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Ugly people and boredom

I have never feared becoming 30 or put an emotional value to this age, as it’s really nothing but a number. But then I actually turned 30… Even though I still feel the same, and convinced myself that wrinkles give me that classy look, I somehow became more observant. Or was I just in denial before, unwilling to give in to my intuitions and accept my observations? Somehow, my first holiday as a thirty-year-old has changed my perspective and I can no longer look at humans the same way, or myself for that matter.

It started with an innocent trip to the zoo. Seeing all these beautiful and weird animals, whether they were birds, antelopes or cats. They are all pieces of evolutionary art. But then I also saw the creatures that were looking at them and I had a little out of body experience. I became aware of my fellow humans looking at majestic tigers stuck in a cage, and unlike the tigers, it wasn’t a pretty sight. The humans around me were hairless, except for a patch of excessive hair growth on top of their heads. Their white skin displayed an array of colourful sunburns, pimples and rashes. The creatures on the free side of the fence were generally overweight, which they didn’t mask very well with their poor choice of clothing. Their bodies all of a sudden seemed odd; standing upright with their arms hanging beside their plump bodies, a concentration of fat around their nipple areas, heads that were sized out of proportion, noses that stuck out, hanging bellies and no tail to balance them. Sexual selection clearly wasn’t favoured during human evolution.

When I came home I tried to shake my thoughts off and recover my faith in human aesthetics, by watching movies starring the Collin Farrells and Scarlett Johanssons of Hollywood. But soon after I went to an animation park in Johannesburg, which didn’t do much good regarding this matter. The many day visitors were no treat to the eye, and I was often stuck in queues with people that actually did the very opposite to my eyes. Again I pictured those majestic tigers, colourful parrots and fluffy tamarin monkeys, wondering where it all went wrong. But it didn’t just stop there. I became aware of the ridiculous situation I found myself in.

There were about 150 people standing in a queue, waiting to go sit in a little train that went up and down a track. Everyone was queuing up for the duration of an hour to get a little rush of artificial adrenaline, by sitting in a seat than spun around for no more than three minutes. And that’s not all we do outside working hours for entertainment, this is only the beginning. First of all, we often involve ourselves in sports, either out of social desperation or to get rid of excess weight caused by consuming food items that are so unnatural that our bodies are not capable to digest them. So we go on eating chips and sugar cones, and afterwards go out to get some body movement in ways that could also be considered unnatural. We start running for hours to return to the very same place and call it jogging; we gather in groups to move limps under the weight of water and call it water aerobics; we sit on mats and bend our body in impossible ways and call in yoga; and lift objects so heavy that our muscles can hardly support them and call it weight lifting. In nature, these activities would be a complete waste of valuable energy, and evolution would have filtered this nonsense right out.

But we have overcome evolution by domesticating animals, cultivating crops, storing water supplies, building comfortable houses, and inventing means of transportation. These days, we only have to walk from our doorstep to our car to get to the nearest shopping mall. We have made sure that even the very weakest will survive. But the downside is that we have become spoiled, overweight and bored. And boredom has a hold on us, as we seemingly do anything for some entertainment in our corporate, westernized and digitalized lives. We jump out of airplanes, climb up walls only to descend again, hit balls with golf sticks so far that it can take up to an hour to find the damn thing, and hit balls with rackets so other people can catch them and throw them back again. People have also made a sport out of cars, by driving them down impossible terrain or in endless circles, to see who can drive the fastest or most circles in a certain time frame. We also run in circles, or wear shoes on wheels while doing so, and jump over high obstacles, and throw heavy discs as far as possible, or slide down snowy mountains on a plastic board; just to see who can do it the fastest or highest. People that aren’t fit enough to run or jump tend to avoid boredom in other ways. They throw darts at a board trying to hit the right number, fill in numbers on a piece of paper in hopes it’ll match somebody else’s, or throw numbered cards on a table in a variety of ways. Others collect miniature trains or other weird objects, or yet others dive into a digital world full of dragons, fairies and Pokémons.

Some people get bored with their own bodies and dedicate their time to getting as skinny, tanned, or muscled as possible. These people even get together on stage sometimes to compare their lack of body fat or excess of muscle tissue. During these little get-together’s, there is a tendency to focus on the cloth they wear and specifically on the fabric, shape, colour variation and person who made the body coverage of choice. And there are often hundreds of people spending their free time to go look at these people on stage, clapping their hands to make noise whenever they get the chance. To cheer up their ugly appearances, people also put make-up on, ink in, and metal through their skin.

And it gets more bizarre. We consume things that were never intended to be consumed, either by swallowing it, smoking it, injecting it, or snorting it. Just to feel a bit happier, crazier, or more relaxed. It was boredom that led to the invention of these drugs, and chronical boredom that led to excessive consumption at the cost of our own health. Many people choose drugs over the basic needs in life: nutrition, sleep and sex. Not everyone though… some people rather solve their boredom by having freakish, and totally unnatural forms of sex. The way in which some people have misunderstood sex has shocked me to the core. Absurd role playing, disturbing fetishes, swinger clubs, violent bedroom rituals; let’s rather not go into detail. We surely got some explaining to do when intelligent, alien life forms find our planet.

Suddenly, I get snapped out of my thoughts, as it is finally my turn to hop in the seat that will make me go up and down, and do a few loops and flips on the way. After these exciting few minutes I go home. Firstly, I watch a little story on a screen about somebody else’s life. Next, I put some metal objects through my ears, hang some beads around my neck, apply some dark lines to my face and make my eyelashes look bigger than they are. I’m meeting a friend and we normally do little more than sit at a table, while drinking alcoholic beverages that make our brains feel funny. When I come home after hours of endless babbling about nothing memorable, I cuddle my bunny; a little being that probably doesn’t even recognize me and has no memory of me feeding him every day. I go lie in bed to read a story about yet another person’s life. I’m either too drunk to admit that I’m just the same as all those other ugly, bored humans, or just too young. Maybe I’ll be ready when I’m 40.