Archive for August, 2010

Hi. I’m The Beach, Huntington Beach

August 10, 2010

The first time I saw Huntington Beach was on that teen TV Series The 0.C. which I was temporarily, perhaps prophetically, addicted to, a year ago. The writers always set the slightly interesting near-sex scenes involving coke addicts at Huntington. And there are some strange places – an old age trailer park, and a seaside long lease that skips the holiday months, that lays bare the truth behind the healthy, rich, facade of the USA that South African advertisers and most TV tends to sell Africa. Not that I’d complain about living in that trailer park. It may not be a house with a pool-house, but it’s pretty close to the ocean. Then again, so is Khaylitsha (P.S. in this link how obvious is it that the main pic was taken out of the window of a speeding car? Gotta love the tourists).

The sign, which you’ll have to use your imagination to see thanks to the woesiness of my cell phone camera, is – not sure how he can afford to hire a plane if he’s broke. Perhaps the law firm fronted the cash. Or he’s a pilot.

One of the first things I loved about Huntington was the kites, and the planes and helicopters dragging signs across the sky – that weird Californian sky that’s so dirty at the edges, making light like no other – blindingly bright, but filtered. Hot, but unreal.

Some of the lekker local talent.

Huntingtone has a big fall-off shelf and fun dumpers as you get in. The Pacific is a bit rough, like Durban (but not as rough), clean and clear like Fishhoek (I saw a massive fish glassed in a wave as I waded in) and about the same temperature now as Muizenberg was when I left. So, cold enough for a wetsuit if you plan to hang around for hours. I kept having to shake that late 80s / early 90s one night stand track “popsicle toes”  by Michael Franks from my head… it was just so classically Californian. That light. The people. The insanely hot girls juxtaposed with the insanely not-hot (both in tiny bikinis).

huntington beach
The cliche is true. In the distance, the world-famous pier, which is not the equal of Durbs’ but still cool enough that I tried to walk there on the sloping sands, and now have lower back ache… glam, ne.

My South African friends, who may or may not admit to having watched The O.C. at some point, will be interested to know that

1. You can braai on the beach. It’s legal. But you can’t drink, and ha ha – here they enforce the rules. (Nevertheless, I did see some empty 100ml vodka bottles in the bins near where I went to change under my towel – old habits die not.)

2. Parking costs $15 a day – and you gotta be out by 10pm. Imagine if they tried THAT at home.

3. There are girls as hot as the chicks in US movies to be seen in bikinis on the beach. But there are fewer of them than you’ll see on Clifton. Mostly, it’s just regular people having fun. You know, lots of kids, and crowds of teenagers and 20somethings posing and preening for each other like mating pigeons, and parents, being parents (never completely at ease outside the nest really).

I’ll have you know that getting there required me to drive about 40km, mostly on highways. It shouldn’t have been that far but I missed a few turns. You know, having a few issues with my GPS lady. She’s argumentative, and confused, but if I pull over at a gas station and toss her in the cubby hole for a while without her power cable she does shut up and learn her place. And we may not be a fit, but hey, she’s the only person I know here.

If you liked this, you might enjoy my previous posts about my first few days in the USA.

– Day 1: Kaffa coffee, Tom Cruise, Cats and Dogs. It’s all unfamiliar.
– Day 2: Mexico – Just down the road from the Roach Motel
– Day 3: Buena Park – California’s Benoni?

Buena Park, California – America’s Benoni?

August 9, 2010

Day three of “A South African in California”

After exiting the Days Inn via a Mexican laundromat adventure in Santa Ana, I booked a hotel online and drove there. When I say I drove, I mean, I nearly died on the roads. I decided that despite being poisoned and exhausted, I needed to vasbyt and head out on the highway, looking for adventure. California makes Joburg look like a village. Six lanes, packed with cars all moving at 80 miles (about 110kmph) with about a length between them. Here, traffic doesn’t mean “slow down”. Luckily, pure blinding terror never stopped me, although I could tell from the frantic hooting of other drivers that at any minute, the cops might.

The woman in front of me drove an SUV with a "Proud Marine Mom" Bumper sticker.

Let’s just say that by the time I arrived at my Howard Johnson in Orange, I was sweaty, palpitating, and very relieved to stop driving. But relief was not to be. At the counter, the mild-mannered Jay informed me that they’d been fully booked since that morning, and had not received my booking. Of course, I didn’t write down the reference number. No idea what happened there. I burst into tears… well not loudly, you know, in that pathetic way where your eyes just start leaking and you are so humiliated you can’t look anyone in the eye. I only found out later, on Google, that one of the side effects of bed bug poisoning can be extreme exhaustion and emotional instability. Who knew.

I will forever be grateful to Jay, who then calmly called bookings on my behalf, and checked out the situation. I retreated to the water cooler and a box of tissues in a futile attempt to get myself together. When he called me, a sweet woman was on the phone. She did what the best customer care people do: sympathised. I really never care how badly things have been screwed up IF someone starts out by admitting that my situation sucks. Over the phone, she organised me one night in a place called Buena Park, about 11 miles away, and booked me into the Orange branch til this Friday. I wish I knew her name.

Established as an instahood, originally as part of a railway development, Buena Park soon fell victim to big oil and car company pressure. Now you need a car to get a take away.

So I proceeded to my one night in a new neighbourhood: Buena Park. I don’t know where it is, actually, although I did find it on my GPS and on wikipedia.

As soon as I arrived, I understood why Americans so love Die Antwoord. Buena Park is just like Parow, or maybe Benoni actually – flat, pedestrian-unfriendly, suburban, low-ceilinged – but with some redeeming touches that seem glam to me still, like awesome classic cars. The other plus side is that the lower real estate prices mean it’s an ethnically diverse place, with some cool food to offset the fast food glut, although you can also get your teriyaki “ranch style”.

If any South African were asked to guess what this picture was of, they'd probably say "The Liesbeek - but not in a good area." Outside the local Target, where I went to buy cortisone cream and some other essentials, young drug addicts begged for spare change for "food".

After three days here, I feel McDonalds has taken the blame for an entire industry’s crimes against animals, health and culinary taste. There are many places as bad for the planet as McDs. Deep-fried burger patties? You gat it! Cheese chips? You gat it. Corn dogs? Just looking at the picture made me gag. One place advertises that they have “the biggest weiners” or something. I don’t even wanna go there.

In Buena park, the temple for a guru on the main street of the city. I didn't go in, and now regret that. Next door was a cool looking curry place which also sold spice. It was closed at night however.

I felt obliged to, you know, DO something. A whole new neighbourhood and it was only 9pm. So I put on my shoes and a shirt that hid my unsightly neck and arms (and pants, obviously) and went walking. Driving at night seems just way too daunting and I was dangerously tired. I walked about a mile in one direction and found nothing but a steak house. Then strode a mile in another, and came across the Japanese restaurant I’d scoped out earlier. But when I walked in, everyone there completely ignored me.

I stopped by during the day to ask for booking. The waiter looked at me suspiciously. "Table for one?" he repeated, as if I had calmly suggested I take a dump on the carpet. I resolved to come back later, which didn't really work out.

The food looked amazing – people sat around tables with cooked food on dome-shaped metal things in the centre of the tables, laughing and drinking Asahi.

Very Little Japan, Buena Park, California, USA, DAY.

I have rarely felt so strange, in any country, as I did there that day. Perhaps it compares to this one time, when I returned to London on Christmas day, having forgotten it was christmas and – still thinking I was in Europe – tried to hitch from the bus station to Brixton on the wrong side of the road (at some point, the cops picked me up and mercifully drove me home). This time, I was the only person walking alone down the six-lane boulevard dotted with drive-thrus, at 9pm on a Saturday. It was so surreal, so utterly dislocated, that my explorer spirit failed me, and I ducked into the first place I could find. Thank god, though their specialty was broiled burgers, they also had ok “wet” burritos. I ordered one from the woman behind the till, who was refreshingly incompetent, and though it tasted bland as hell, it was a bit better dipped in the chilli sauce it came with. I fell asleep watching Cheaters or something very similar. Not sure; never made it to the AHA moment in the show.

The next morning I cut my losses and stayed in my motel room with the curtains closed until check out time.

Mexico – it’s just down the road from the roach motel

August 8, 2010

California, Day Two

I feel roach motels get a bad rap, internationally. Sure, nobody LOVES roaches, but while they’re creepy looking, they’re actually clean, and they don’t bite you. Bed bugs, on the other hand, suck your blood. I know a lot about bed bugs now. For instance: the male impregnates the female by simply spearing her body and shooting his wad straight into her womb. No courtship here… and they didn’t sparkle, look tormented or glamour me before sticking it into my skin and covering me with oozing sores, either.

The Days Inn in Main Street S, Anaheim, Orange, California seems to be more welcoming to bed bugs than to guests. They refunded me after a bit of a fight, but weren’t terribly nice about it, and still charged me for the first night. They also showed no interest in debugging the room, or my luggage. In fact, they wanted to simply move me, together with the infestation, to a new room. Let’s just say I will never stay there again.
Here’s a photo of me with The Plague… – I’d embed it but it’s kinda gross.

So I needed to hot-launder and hot-dry all my clothes at temperatures above 50 Centigrade. I figured the most likely place to get that done would probably be Mexico, so I headed South down South Main and pronto, I arrived. Signs began to pop up offering modifications to cars, the cars got cooler and cooler, the food started to look like it might actually taste of something other than trans fats. And I found a coin-op, next door to this Chinese dry cleaners.

Everything in the mexican areas around Santa Ana seemed old. In the laundry there were arcade games I recognised from the 80s. No idea why these posters were up there, or what they are about. Can anyone tell me? The owner-lady had no idea that a sign outside the dry cleaners advertised the cleaning of sleeping bags. I had to show it to her. She then said yes, she would do my sleeping bag, but wasn't sure how much it would cost... "About $15 or maybe much more?" She said.

Everyone in the Laundry was staring at me as I loaded my clothes. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was the only whitey in the place, or because I was laundering 5 loads of clean, folded clothes, or because I had the plague… I guess I guess it was all three. Everyone was very friendly, though, and an old man looked up from the toweling granny panties he was folding, frowned with concern at my bite-spattered neck and said softly “Ah no, chica… que se pasa?” I didn’t know how to explain in Spanish, so I just shook my head ruefully, as if that said it all.

notice board in santa ana

I felt more comfortable in Santa Ana than any part of Orange I've seen so far. I have started looking for an apartment in the area.

The shop next door sold things I needed, like detergent, and black bags to replace my newly purchased, bug-infested luggage. They also had a butchery decorated with a beautiful mural of happy cows, and a donations can on the counter for their kid, who apparently needed money for operations. I felt it would be rude to take pictures of either of those, even with my cell camera.

catholic saints candles for sale in santa ana, california

I wanted to buy my mom the whole set. She loves catholic kitsch like this with a un-ironic love, even though she is not catholic. I think perhaps the nuns at her high school beat it into her.

Santa Ana was a welcoming and welcome relief after the manicured, disposable, new-ness-is-goodness vibe of the richer areas of Orange. It’s not that I think poverty is cute, but I do find flaunted wealth and wastefulness nauseating, and the first-world of malls and motorways where nobody walks is weird for me, as a South African. I would have spent longer there and grabbed some food, but I needed to find a hotel, so I carted my ropas out of the laundry to my un-cool rental car. About six men offered to help me, despite my disheveled, sweaty, red-eyed and diseased appearance. So kind, just really, so kind.

food stamps aceptamos food stamps

Signs of survival-level living: "We accept food stamps"

Funny… when you’re new in a place, a disaster is just another word for adventure, and the funny side of things is a means of survival. And this is going to make a great, great story.

UPDATE – It didn’t work. Read about my ongoing War on Bedbugs in a later post.

Blast from the past: RIP, old South Africa

August 7, 2010

“You live een South Africa? Because I don’t mean to comment but… your skeen ees very light?” said a Mexican-American cab driver to me yesterday. It was weird – I keep wanting to pinch myself when people talk… the squeeky co-ed valleygirl behind the Starbucks counter, the super-helpful geeky white-guy at Bestbuy, the truculent chinese hotel owner with the “from Bejing” name tag, who looked at me like it was MY fault the bed bugs bit me… Anyhow, I explained to the Snr Driver that I was third generation – fourth if you counted my Afrikaans great gran from Zim. It was cool to be able to talk about South Africa, say that things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, and be proud that I have only one passport (although of course, I wish my passport did the PASSING part a bit more effectively, and South Africa’s rainbow is a little muckier than I tend to tell foreigners).

sea point beach

It was pure fluke that on the day I went to photograph this natural gravestone, someone in blue shorts, and an orange T-Shirt was tossing kelp for a white dog...

So some genius saw this stone that looked exactly like a gravestone, and painted the old SA flag on it. I loved walking past it on Sea Point promenade. Sadly the council decided just before the FIFA 2010 World Cup that it was potentially controversial, and painted over it in black.

Of course, this is wishful thinking. The past will never rest in peace, although sometimes time can wash the pain of it away and leave the good memories we tend to cling to.

I wonder if anyone has blogged yet about the weird South African chick, who’s covered in bed bug bites and talks all funny.

California, day one

August 7, 2010

So I started my morning with coffee, here. It was almost 12 by the time I made it out of my motel. I kept getting woken by sirens last night. At some point, about 20 police cars swooped on someone in South Main Street – yes, I can count cop cars by ear, I’ve lived in Sea Point for two years. And American motels seem to be basically three-story prefabs. Every time someone closes their door, shags or showers, you hear it.


I dread explaining to Americans why this is weird, but ok... Kaffa sounds just like Kaffir, which is a word so rude in Africa, that it's worse than Nigger, because unlike with Nigger nobody even WANTS to take it back. And also unlike "Coloured" which is not actually at all rude in South Africa. Any more than Mexican is in the USA. There... done!


Anyhow, Kaffa’s coffee was good. Very good. Kaffa is actually the name of an Ethiopian kingdom, as it turns out.  When I arrived, someone behind the counter said “You studying at Chapman? Yeah? Oh, they all come here on the first day and ask for Wifi.”

Next stop: the cell phone shop. T-Mobile sorted me out. Damn, Americans in shops are polite, and kind, and helpful. I just want to spend all day buying stuff. Actually, I did. I was very tired of walking very early in the day.


pedestrian crossing

The pedestrian crossings in Orange work very well, but they are slow, and it's hot. I doubt California still has an ozone layer. Notice how someone has scratched the word "ouch" into this sign?


So I hired a car. I could have pretty much BOUGHT a cheap car for what that cost me. It started off as a good deal, but once they’d added tax, optional insurance, and compulsory insurance, I was gasping for breath. They tried to upgrade me nonetheless, to a car that “wasn’t so small”. Their small car, by the way, is a Hyundai Accent, which is bigger than the ones they sell in SA (they’ve never heard of the Atos, or anything with fewer than four doors). It’s actually pretty cool.


Yes, I am driving a car with California license plates.


So cool, in fact, that I went speeding off, and got completely lost. Then I got lost even more, looking for a mall where I could buy a GPS. By the time I found one by fluke, I was almost in LA. Well technically, I was in LA, but it wasn’t LA proper, just an outskirt with a BestBuy. I stopped and got one. More awesome service. I’m not saying South Africans aren’t friendly and helpful, but they don’t act like Americans. Here, everyone seems to believe that everything is better with sugar, and that includes taking your cash.


Is that Tom Cruise? No, but it looks a bit like him. It seems to be a common technique here to hire models who look like big stars for shoots. I keep thinking "Is that..." and then "No." A deal on offer at Bestbuy.


So, with my GPS to guide me and keep me company, I headed home. It’s amazing listening to American music IN America. It makes all the difference. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever driven across South Africa playing only South African. The first station I hit on was doing a 70s hour, and in it they included hilarious old ads from the time when the songs they played were charting. Some Neil Young, some Fleetwood Mac… and then I was home. Here’s a picture of my first sunset.


Home is where the DO NOT DISTURB sign is.


The last thing I expected to see at Atlanta Airport, USA

August 5, 2010

Yep, art, from Zimbabwe, Southern Africa.

The walkways between concourses are usually soulless. But T is different. I couldn't believe my eyes.

It is amazing how art brings out humanity, encourages people to talk about how they read what is signified. For instance, someone saw me standing looking, and pausing said, “Beautiful, yeah.” And just because of that, we shared a smiled.
Just afterwards, I saw a kid walking past this thing, and he said to his mother: “What is that?”
“A foot,” his mom said.
They walked past, and the kid turned to look back.
“No it’s not,” the kid said.
As it turns out, they’re both right. This work can be read both ways. As a foot, or as a portrait of a migrant family (which is what the artist says he intended).

The artists who created these works are all well-respected people from various parts of zim, and plaques give short biographies and other info about each person.

And this all reminded me of something my mom bought in Kalk Bay the other day. This time, we have no idea who the creator was. But whoever he or she is, he “finds” animals in wood. She has this elephant on the roof of her garage where she also has a swing. My mother is an unusual (and amazing) woman.

I think this is more brilliant than anything in the collection at Atlanta Airport. But I'm biased.

Anyhow, now you know: If you’re bored during a layover at an airport, or between flights at Atlanta, go to an art exhibition.

1111 is the magic number

August 5, 2010

I’m stuck at Atlanta airport. At some point my flight was scheduled for 11.11 am (that’d be the one I got on after my “interview” at passport control made me miss my original connection). So I bought a copy of Rolling Stone. Guess the issue number? 1111… weird ne? Is it a sign?

If I were superstitious, I’d be confused right now, because Delta Airlines canceled that flight 25 minutes before takeoff because the aeroplane was broken (not their words).

Now I’m due to fly 7 hours later, via Salt Lake City (somewhere I never intended visiting) and arrive at my final destination of John Wayne International (I’m not kidding you, this is the actual airport name) exactly 12 hours later than planned, and about 48 hours after leaving South Africa. I’m gonna be tired.

I look much worse than this right now and not back to front. Hence the photo booth effect. Thanks, mac.

Extremely weird to be reading a copy of Rolling Stone that’s not at LEAST a month old.

Playing chicken with the Maputo Police

August 5, 2010
jinty jackson

This chicken - some of the best I've ever eaten. At some point later that night it began to look like it might become my last meal too.

It was already the chicken’s last meal; a fact that really bothered my friend Jinty, who doen’t like eating chickens when they still looked like chickens, but didn’t really have a choice because we were in a proper late night frango place in Maputo, Mozambique, and they don’t do skinless, boneless breasts around there.

We’d stopped for food, and to de-stress, shortly after being pulled over by a cop on the way home from Motala Jazz club. The officer loitered menacingly by the window, asking if we could perhaps offer him anything to drink – if we maybe we had some stuff in a coolerbox in the boot. I had heard of the Maputo police’s reputation for being corrupt, and picking on tourist drivers, who are always easy to identify by their South African or Swazi number plates.

He let us go without much of a fight. We were clearly sober, and clearly unwilling to bribe him. But we felt a bit shakey, so we pulled over to grab something to chow. Even a policeman who’s just abusing his power to beg a six-pack of beer out of you is pretty intimidating when he’s carrying a loaded rifle, and it’s 1.30am.

Anyhow, great chicken. Moist, throroughly cooked, charred by not burned. And the restaurant (Avenida 24 Julio, in case you’re there) is such a trip; such a weird mix of the old and the new. The clientel were all cool partying locals, the lighting the usual unromantic neon, the music was african, the tables simple and the beers large-size or gigantic. But the walls are still decorated with line drawings of the old days in Maputo – drawings in which there seemed to be only Portuguese people on the streets, all wearing the kind colonial clothing that the Waterfront Cape Union Mart branch sells to Germans visitors year round, marking them as TOURIST beyond all reasonable doubt.

Maputo, in colonialism's heyday.

Maputo is boom town right now… and of course, there are those who are only in it for what they can take. The SA tourists exploiting the poor for cheap sex, cheap labour, and cheap beach holidays. The foreign construction companies exploiting the need to rebuild after the war (the city’s looking much improved since I was last there in 2004.) And then the corrupt civil servants.

We left the chicken place, and headed towards Hotel Halima – more of a guesthouse of faded 70s glam. As we turned into Julius Nyrere avenue, we saw a crazylooking drunk-acting white guy standing at the side of the road, desperately gesturing to cars to turn around, turn around. I didn’t pay any attention. I don’t pick up strange dudes.

Maputo today... a chicken lovers' paradise, where late night clubbers go to heaven when they die.

Yes, I could see the police road block ahead, but I thought “Come on… clearly the reports of corruption are exaggerated. I’ll just tell them sorry, no beer.” And I hadn’t been drinking. I’ve always wanted to be stopped when I was sober!

This time, however, we were pulled over by five men with a decidedly more military vibe, who demanded to see my licence.

My license. My license… oh. No. No-no-no… It was at the hotel.

I tried to explain this. The policeman just kept repeating “License”. Eventually Jinty took off her seat belt, found her drivers’ license in her bag, and gave it to me. I handed it over.

The policeman looked through the window at Jinty.
“Why you’re not wearing your seat belt”, he said. “That’s R100 fine”.
“But… she took it off to find the license!”
The policeman ambled off with my license in his hand.
I got out of the car, and chased him.
“Give me the fine”
“You have to come with me to the police station. You want to go to the police station?”
“No problem,” I said… I hoped I’d call his bluff. “Just write out the fine for me, like you are supposed to.”
“I don’t have paper. You must come with me to the police station.”
“Ok. I’ll drive behind you.”
“You want to go the police station?”
Across the road, a few of his buddies pulled over a 4×4 with a South African family in it, and started working them over too.
“You must pay.”
“Fine. Write out the fine please.”
And so on… luckily, at no point did our guy realise that Jinty and I didn’t really look alike. That would have been worse; even worse than the fear I felt as their hands casually touched their rifles each time I furiously demanded my license back.

But just as I was considering swallowing my shame and my pride, giving in, and coughing up some cash, the ‘crazy guy’ who had been gesturing in the road earlier came walking up.

“English?” he asked us. “Why did they stop you.”

I explained. He took a couple of the cops aside and rapid-fired them in Portuguese, friendly but with the confidence of someone who had clearly had a fair bit to drink, and some power somewhere. He explained to both parties that this was clearly a misunderstanding, and that if we were both happy to leave it, he would let it go.

After a few minutes, and once I’d agreed to give the dodgiest of the cops my telephone number, we were allowed to go, and agreed to give our saviour Paulo Frederico a lift home. “They know me in these parts,” he said. He was a journalist, which explains the booze. He said that the cops do this all the time: stop foreigners and ask for bribes late at night, and that it’s scaring off the tourists. And so on… I could feel exhaustion wrapping me up as I sat there at the wheel, listening to him raging on with the rage of the drunken just. I just kept nodding, thinking that we needed to get up at go in about three hours time, wondering how I was going to do it now.

Eventually the nice man got out the car and waved goodbye from outside the window.
“Paulo Frederico”, he said. “Never forget the name.”
“I won’t,” I promised. And I never will.

A few days later, safely back in Swaziland, I spoke to one of Mbabane’s many NGO professionals about it. He said that in Mozambique, you pretty much have to bribe your way into a job in the police force, so by the time you get a job, you owe too much money to pay back from your salary, and are forced to take bribes. “So in a way, bribing is just part of the system,” he said. “If you are doing it, you are helping things work.” He laughed unhappily.

I managed a shocked, exhausted little smile. Perhaps I’m a prissy, pale over privileged South African chick, but I find that impossible to condone. Unlike him, I’m from this continent. I have no other passports. I don’t feel I can afford to become part of a system so unfair, so threatening and so embarrassing to me. And I say this for selfish reasons, because I’m the one who’ll have to live with it in the long run.

Forget the separation of church and state. That’s a luxury! The separation of the law enforcers and the criminals may be an even better start.