Big beaded Madiba says welcome! Although he fails to do the Madiba shuffle.
Johannesburg has a particularly nasty reputation on the international scene. Most people wanted us to know that once we went into the Thunderdome we probably shouldn't expect to continue that rest of the trip. We heard such charming quips as, "Don't worry. They can only slit your throat once." And "It has a certain charm, you know, if you like the slums of Islamabad."
For all that though, the place is fairly fascinating.
The city owes its start to gold and the outskirts of town are still defined by massive mountains of left over gold processing debris known as gold dumps. We hear they've been reprocessing the all these huge hills as the price of the metal suddenly makes last century's trash into brand new piles of treasure.
Driving into town we passed dozens and dozens of these entrepreneurial hair salon shacks. I'd say I'd come back and make a coffee table book out of them, but somebody already beat me to the idea.
We also happened across the International Restaurant and Action Bar, a name I will now insist on for all future dining and drinking establishments.
The downtown is eminently walkable, and street vendors are hardly deterred at all by the clever zoning signs that the city has invested in.
Besides, it's not every day that you can wonder into a protest for the disgraced leader of the ANC youth league and get accused of being an under-cover anti-party journalist, out to make a mockery of the rally's small turnout size. Or maybe it is. I'm just mad they saw through my clever disguise.
Is this a parrot with amazing balance or an explosive anti-theft distraction decoy?
The food is just as interesting as the city. I mean how can you not riot for a second helping of these mopani worms. This particular batch wasn't quite cooked enough so we were left with an overly chewy bowl full that tasted in turns nutty, pungent, and muddy- like old pecans scavenged from a ditch and rubbed with durian or blue cheese.
More enjoyable was this helping of phutu. A lady at our hostel took note of our interest in local eats and whipped up this mix of fermented milk (Inka Maas) and pap, a corn gruel similar to grits. The end result is slightly tangy, a bit bland, but comforting and quite addictive.
When were weren't stuffing our faces, we tried to pack in a little culture.
A definite highlight of the city is the Apartheid Museum. This world-class facility leads visitors through the grim history of the establishment of some of last century's most atrocious laws to their eventual dismantlement and the complete restructuring of the government.
You enter the museum based on your "race" as it's randomly assigned on your ticket. To get an idea of how convoluted and ridiculous the idea of "race" became in South Africa, check out this summary:
You can easily spend hours working your way through the engaging and often stomach turning displays.
Here in the noose room, one rope hangs for every victim that mysteriously died while in police custody- often from falling down stairs, throwing themselves from rooftops, or "slipping" in their cells.
The city is worth a visit for the museum alone, but while you're there clearly there's lots more than mugging to fill your time. Not that that's not fun too.