During our time in South Africa, I kept a list of odd events, funny situations, and just day to day activities that differed a little from home. A lot of these are not unique to South Africa, a lot of them are. None of them were significant enough to make up a post on their own or contributed to another story.
“Why are we being pulled over, officer?”
While our friends from the US were staying with us, we got a membership at a local video store. We’d been thinking about doing it for awhile, and Fiance and I found ourselves really wanting to show them the movie “District 9”, being in South Africa and all. We stopped by after being out and about one day and found out that this video store actually had some pretty strict rules. In order to get a membership, Fiance had to show his passport and student ID. He didn’t have those on him, so we ran home, came back, got the stupid movie, and that was that. Another strict rule: the movie had to be back by noon the next day or you get charged another day. Not a huge deal since it was the equivalent of about $.50 per day, but we’d still rather not waste money.
The next day, we went to return the video on our way to more sight-seeing. We were running late and had about five minutes to make it to the video store before noon. On the way there, we saw that a couple of cars had been pulled over. We were on a four lane-wide highway and Fiance tried to get over as soon as we saw what was happening. One of the cops then flagged him down. We were super confused at this point: traffic had made it impossible to drive over the speed limit, we were all wearing our seat belts…
He approached Fiance’s window and said, “Do you know why I stopped you?”
Fiance: “No, Officer.”
Officer: “Why are you so nervous?”
Fiance: “I just don’t know why we’re being pulled over.”
Officer: “License, please.”
At this point, I’m freaking out. The officer doesn’t seem very nice and is giving us literally no information. We’re wondering if it’s some kind of road block, since other people are being pulled over, too? It’s really scary to be pulled over in a foreign country, especially since none of us had our passports on us.
Eventually he came back with a slip of paper that says, “Busted!” Fiance asked what it was, and the cop told us that we could go and to read it later. Fiance tried to ask if it was a ticket or citation, and the cop just said again to read it later. So we drove away and I read the slip of paper. It said something along the lines of: “Busted! Don’t drive recklessly, talk on the phone while driving, drive without your seatbelt” etc. It was some kind of weird, inappropriate, poorly executed PSA that did nothing but scare us and make us late to returning our movie. It still confuses me when I think about it.
“I do have a bone to pick with you Americans. You had a star in your midst and didn’t even know it.”
Through most of our stay in South Africa, we rented a car from an awesome company called Acker Car Rentals that gave us a smokin’ deal (they do not know or care that I’m talking about them- we just had a really good experience and I want everyone to know!). There were some months, though, when we knew Fiance was going to have to work on his thesis extra hard or be bogged down with classes, so we wouldn’t keep our rental car for those months. If we wanted to go out and do something, we’d take a taxi, which was luckily super affordable and easy.
One night when we decided we wanted to spend the evening at V&A Waterfront, we called a taxi to take us. This particular driver was very chatty, and had lots of remarks ready to go about why America is silly. “You Americans have a funny word for petrol. It’s not a gas, so why do you call it gas? It’s petrol!” and “Here, do you know what we call the back part of the car? It’s a boot! You call it a trunk.”
Shortly into our drive, it became clear that the thing he was most excited to tell us about was one of his favorite singers. “I do have a bone to pick with you Americans. You had a star in your midst and you didn’t even know it.”
He then preceded to tell us the story of Sixto Rodriguez- you might be familiar with this story thanks to the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” Rodriguez is a musician from Detroit who released albums in the late 60s and early 70s that weren’t exactly successful. Somehow, one of those albums made its way to South Africa (there are many stories as to how this happened) and the album absolutely exploded there. In fact, a compilation album went Platinum. South Africans thought him to be in the same league as Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens.
Despite it being a good fifteen minute drive to our destination, we had to cut him off to get out of the car. He just thought it was completely ridiculous that Rodriguez hadn’t gotten recognition in the States and, even worse, that Fiance and I in particular weren’t fans. We actually got this taxi driver again for another trip, and although he shared the same quick quips, this drive was too short for him to lecture us on the infamous Rodriguez a second time.
“I’ll be with you just now.”
This, unfortunately, was a lesson Fiance had to learn the hard way. A few days into school, Fiance needed to meet with someone at the University. He went to her office and she greeted him and told she would “be with him now.” He then, of course, went into her office and sat down. She said, “No, I’ll be with you now.” At which point he looked confused, but understood he should leave. He waited outside her office until she called him in for their meeting.
We later learned that in South Africa, “now” does not actually mean now. Now means shortly, just now means eventually, and now now means, well, now. I think this is just confusing for the sake of messing with foreigners.
For those who don’t know, Robert Mugabe is the president of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has a complex and incredibly unique political history, somewhat similar to South Africa’s in terms of it recently gaining liberation from white minority rule. Their transition to democracy took place in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Mugabe was the first freely elected prime minister. In 1988, he collapsed the positions of president and prime minister to give himself more power. He has been prime minister or president since 1980. Let’s just say there have been more than a few accusations of corruption and abuse of power, here.
More than just corruption, there are several institutionalized violations of human rights happening in Zimbabwe. It’s nearly impossible to freely assemble (peaceful demonstrations), for journalists to write freely, and even people to speak freely. Journalists and even everyday citizens who speak out against the government and Mugabe have been horribly insulted and threatened by police in Zimbabwe.
All this to say, just before leaving for our trip to Victoria Falls, Fiance tells me, “Oh yeah, don’t say anything bad about Mugabe while we’re there,” and then proceeds to explain all this to me. A slightly terrifying introduction to the country we’re about to spend several nights in.
When we got to our hotel in Zimbabwe, we were both mildly entertained and a little weirded out to see that there was a framed photo of Mugabe above the check-in desk:
Notice that it’s not like there is any other artwork up there or anything like that. Can you imagine going into a hotel in the US and seeing a framed photo of Obama in the lobby? I seriously can’t.
Anyways, none of this was included in my Victoria Falls post, because, well, I didn’t feel like bad-mouthing this guy when I was in a country that neighbors his. Now that I’m safely 10,000 miles from there, I will giggle away.
Movie Theater Popcorn
I’m including this little tidbit because popcorn and I have a close relationship. I enjoy the salty snack probably three or four nights a week and about half of my excitement going into a movie theater is dedicated to the extra buttery version. I should also note that Fiance and I see a whole lotta movies.
Going into our first movie theater in South Africa, I was really excited because I was a bit homesick by this point and going to the movies was something that was familiar. We got in line at the concessions, where we were thrilled to find out that popcorn, a soda, and candy cost the equivalent of about $6, and when I ordered our popcorn I added, “with butter, please!” as I always do. She looked a little confused but otherwise ignored this and handed me a dry box of popcorn. Then I noticed that there were none of those containers with pumps that squirt out the mysterious “butter” that’s constantly a liquid. I took the popcorn and on our way to our theater, we noticed all these bar-height tables with different flavored salts on them. So we figured out that this was the way South Africans give their popcorn flavor. And you know what? Tons of buttered flavored salt is pretty good on popcorn. By the time we left South Africa, Fiance was a master of shaking the boxes of popcorn just right to evenly distribute the salt all the way through. And, just for the record, we went to four different movie theaters owned by different companies during our stay, and this was the drill for all of them.
If you’re a Californian, you might be familiar with load shedding. Before going to South Africa, I most certainly wasn’t. A few months into our stay, our power went out in the complex. When the power goes out in Oregon, it’s because there’s a storm and a tree has knocked down a power line. This was a perfectly sunny 90 degree day in Cape Town, so I went down to the security desk to ask what was going on. The confused security guards said, “I don’t know, they must have shut the power off.” Fiance and I learned shortly after that Eskom, the government-owned power company and country’s only source of power, often has shortages and does rolling blackouts to help save power when it needs to.
A few weeks before we left, Eskom started doing two hours of scheduled load shedding on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and sometimes Mondays because one of the bigger plants went down. I cannot begin to tell you how annoying this was. Not because it’s difficult to kill time without power for two hours, but because it would horrendously screw up our internet each time it went down, so it essentially meant 3-4 days of no internet. For someone who works from home online and blogs full time and a student attempting to finish his thesis, this didn’t work so well.
Load shedding isn’t just bad because it totally sucks for regular people like Fiance and I, but because it means that businesses are without power for those two hours, too. Restaurants can’t serve anything that has to be cooked on a stove, grocery stores can’t run their fridges, and, worst of all, it could cause a serious hit to South Africa’s economy. Eskom is expecting about $20 million to get bailed out and maintain operations and customers will see an almost 13% increase in the tariffs they pay to the company. This is something South Africa has got to get a handle on, and soon.
Or, those are the big ones, anyways. I’m sure I will think of other little things, and I might come back and add them. There are about a million political and cultural differences, but I couldn’t begin to cover them all. Thank you for letting me share so much about our experiences!