Taking an Uber in Johannesburg is an Act of Civil Disobedience

There are two modern technologies that have made a huge difference on this five-week long trip — personal mobile wifi (mifi) and Uber. I’ll get to the mifi later, but let’s talk about Uber.

If you think it’s the tits in America, try it here in South Africa. Honestly, I don’t think I would leave my hotel without knowing I can pick an Uber up anywhere. It’s more about convenience than safety.

There’s public transportation and taxis here, but you don’t want to take it. Joburg is like Los Angeles in that it’s sprawling, not friendly for walking and the public transportation is not extensive.

The mid- to high-end hotels have their own taxi service, but Uber is just the way to go. It’s cheaper, there’s plenty to go around and the drivers have been pleasant and thankful.

You might have seen the taxi system in Johannesburg on TV. There’s a series of hand signals on what area you want to go. Then you’re riding with a group of other people. That’s for the local workers, not for the tourists, travelers and those with smartphones.

In doing my research of where to request an Uber at O.R. Tambo, a lot of disturbing articles and TripAdvisor discussions came up. Here’s what I found:

  • Uber operators fear attacks by meter cab drivers at OR Tambo — The Times, April 21, 2015. Basically, Uber driver were getting assaulted by cab drivers for taking their fares. “He said he was beaten by meter cab drivers while a client who had just landed in the country was in the car. The client fled fearing for his safety.”
  • Uber drivers intimidated & harassed in JHB — Eyewitness NewsUber says its drivers are being intimidated and harassed by meter taxi drivers who are unhappy that they have to share the same routes in Sandton and other major areas. 
  • Then there’s this discussion on TripAdvisor on Uber at O.R. Tambo — “All I can say is be very careful. As I came out of the airport I was almost ambushed by supposed taxi drivers. It appears they run a monopoly along with law enforcement which is rather disgusting and disappointing.”

Not good! When I landed, I was panicking a little because I didn’t want to be beaten and handcuffed on my arrival in Johannesburg for not taking a taxi.

So I used my past experience in getting Uber at airports — always go to departures level or area and pick up your Uber there. If that doesn’t work, go to the nearest car rental place or hotel. There is a train at Johannesburg Airport that you can take to city center, but my hotel isn’t near there.

In any event, I got to Terminal B Departures and fired up the app. The driver accepted and was eight minutes away. So I hid inside the terminal instead of outside while looking at my phone. That would have been a dead give away that I was waiting for an Uber and a cop or taxi driver could have harassed me.

There I was inside the terminal looking at the little pin icon … 8 minutes … 7 minutes …. 6 minutes, etc. and watching the car icon make some funky moves. Now it’s going north, and south, and north again. When it got to the one-minute mark, I went outside and started checking license plates. Finally, my driver arrives and was able to make a clean getaway. Screw you over-charging taxis!

I told my guy about my research about Uber drivers getting harassed. He heard about it but has not been a victim. Since then, all the drivers have been wonderful and always want to know about Uber in New York. I tell them that it’s faster to take the subway because traffic is a nightmare 24-7 due to crazy taxi cab drivers.

Visit Soweto Soon Before It Becomes Gentrified

One of those travel cliches you always hear is “You know, you haven’t visited (insert city) if you haven’t gone to (insert part of city).” So here we go — you haven’t visited Johannesburg if you haven’t gone to Soweto.

Indeed, the sprawling, densely compact area southwest of the city center serves as an eye-opening experience of how people live today and a history lesson on its turbulent and violent history. It’s proud people make the visit a worthwhile experience.

I took an extensive bike tour through the area starting with the shantytown-like section that doesn’t have running water to the suburban-like area that features Nelson Mandela’s house and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s residence. Its the only street in the world where two Noble Prize winners lived.

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Walking and riding through the hostels, my mind was asking several obvious questions, “How can they live like this? How did they get here? Is that what I think I smell?” In actuality, the people living in the “no-so-nice” part are content and smiled as we rode by. I do feel bad that a bunch of yahoos on cruiser bikes wearing helmets are sightseeing through their neighborhood.

Along the way, school children will run alongside you saying “Holahola!” which is just their greeting — a warped version of Hola! They want to give you a high-five or have their picture taken. For them, they feel like celebrities when a bunch of of foreigners chose to visit their little part of the city.

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Eventually, we rode to the section where the student uprising of 1976 took place where 69  high school students were killed in a protest. It’s first victim, Hector Pieterson, is immortalized in the famous photo by Sam Nzima where a man carries his lifeless body away from the violence. The woman in the photo, Antoinette, Hector’s sister, actually worked as a guide in the Hector Pieterson Museum that honors her brother’s legacy.

The uprising and the subsequent decades of violence during apartheid and even after its abolition in 1991 is something that you can’t shake in your visit. If you do take the bike tour, I encourage to ask many question no matter how painful. My guide lived through the period and told of running away from gas canisters and ducking from rubber bullets.

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Soweto is not all metal roofs, stone huts, Orlando Stadium or the unfinished cooling towers you can Bungee Jump off. The suburban neighborhood that houses Mandela’s and Tutu’s houses have stores and nightclubs (Thursday is Ladies Night!). This got me thinking about the dirty word in this decade, gentrification.

It’s when once poor neighborhoods become thriving communities with Starbucks, H&M and the cafe that charges $6 for a muffin, thus driving locals out due to rising rents. It will happen to Soweto as it has in other part of Johannesburg like in Mellville and Braamfontein.

I give you the case of the hutongs in Beijing. Similar in feel to Soweto, the hutongs are narrow alleyways with ramshackle homes that dominate the city. Those are getting town down by the government to put in high-end apartment complexes or gutted to be made into boutique shopping zones like in Dongcheng.

It might not happen in this decade, but with the rapidly expanded city, it’s inevitable. As I my guide acknowledged, “I hope they keep some of the old.”

As a side note to Nelson Mandela’s home, I was more interested on what the neighbor’s thought of the Mandelas. “Oh, he was never home. Pretty quiet. Didn’t see him much. Winnie would come over to borrow some eggs.”

 

 

What I’m Learning in South Africa — Everything Is Cheap So I Can Tip Like a Player

Greetings from Johannesburg. It’s 61F at 11pm as I write this. Joburg is my final destination before I head back to London and eventually the U.S.A. I think I can eek out a few more adventures in South Africa before I have a mental breakdown from exhaustion.

In any event, I can tell you that doing things here, whether it’s eating, drinking, getting an Uber or tickets for admission, is ridiculously cheap. I thought Hong Kong and China were cheap, but I’m a king here with the currency exchange. Thanks Mandela!

XE.com has 1R equaling seven cents. To give you a few ideas of what my spending is like, I’ll share some of my receipts.

Starting with a hearty breakfast at Truth Coffee — french toast with bananas and honey (56R), drip coffee (14R) and iced coffee smoothie (25R).  Add VAT and generous tip to 130R and that’s $9.50US. I came back to buy a 225g/8oz. bag of beans for 89R ($6.40US)

Roundtrip to Simon’s Town for the penguins from Cape Town on a local train, 35R. The trip was about 45-55 minutes at 27 miles and made several stops. That $2.55, which is less than a cost of a NYC subway.

An UberBlack (because I ride in style, yo) from O. R. Tambo International Airport to my hotel was 37 minutes at 21.4 miles. With base fare, distance and time, it was 513R, which equals $37. It costs me that much to get to Newark Airport, and I’m 12 miles away.

Finally, my four full-pint craft beers at the Foundry with the sexy clientele with the local mover and shaker local who would not leave me alone. Sample conversation:

Him: “Bro, I love everything about New York. The culture, the style.”

Me: “Oh, so you’ve been?”

Him: “No.”

Anyway, 210R for $15.31. I’ve been tipping over 10%, and the reaction has been like I’m some international hot shot making it rain, when in reality, it’s a drop in the bucket for a big, fast rich American.

The Penguins of Boulders Beach Just Like Chillin’, Because They Are Jackasses

One of the most popular attractions on the Western Cape of South Africa is the seaside village of Simon’s Town. Located about a 45-minute drive from downtown Cape Town, its main drawn is the penguin colony on Boulders Beach where you can get up close and get your nose bitten off.

Part of Table Mountain National Park, the colony is a protected space for the birds. The residents are commonly known as “jackass” penguins for their donkey-like call and habit of taking up two parking spaces and man-spreading.

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After your 60R ($4.40US) admission, you’ll make your way across the wooden boardwalk where you’ll get some offshoot penguins separating themselves from the pack and also learn about these unique African penguins. The majority of the birds will be on the beach, where you’ll see them doing penguin things. You’ve seen the movies. They have happy feet, they like to march and on a quest to kill Batman.

On a 99F degree day in Cape Town, I welcomed the ocean breeze. It’s a fun little experience seeing penguins in such a unique climate. They got the nice beach there to swim in, they are well-protected and they have each other. I’m sure they get annoyed with humans gawking at them the whole day, but what can you do?

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Here’s what I learned about the penguins: like all animals, they just eat, poop and make little baby penguins. These penguins mate by the male honking to make their presence known and marking their territory to others. The two penguins will start flirting with each other by mutual preening to strengthen their relationship. The males will bow, dip and stare down the female. Eventually, it’s sexy time. Often, the women will reject them if they are not in the mood.

Penguins! They are just like us!

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Along the boardwalk is your chance to see the birds up close. There are signs every ten feet telling you not to touch the penguins because they will bite your finger. I had this little dialogue in my head:

“Whatever, man. I don’t have to play by your rules. Hey there, little fellah. *CRUNCH* Ouuuucchhhh. Get it off of me! Get it off of me! The pain! THE PAIIIIIINNNNN!”

Cape Town’s Table Mountain Fulfills All Your Sunset Dreams and Desires

To the young woman who I took a picture of in front of this sunset, I hope you found what you were looking for.

Two minutes before I took this photo, the lady was by herself taking a selfie I asked, “Would you like me to take your picture for you?” She smiled and said that it would be great. I took several photos from different angles and gave her camera back to her. She looked at the photos, smiled and said “Thank you”.

I don’t know where she’s from, what country she hails from or her background, but I figured she needed a little help. I’ll never see her again, but I think I took a picture she would like to be remembered by.

In other words, fuck your selfie stick. Ask a stranger to take your photo instead.

And that’s one of the reason I travel. I read a lot of travel journalism, and the majority of it is about what they take away from travel. I’m sort of the opposite — what did I leave behind that I made somebody’s experience a little better, whether it be a solo traveler, a group, a waiter/waitress or some local group of friends that I happen to come across? Yeah, I get something out or it but I hope I leave something behind.

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Table Mountain has that affect on those who visit. Everyone has a similar reaction, “Am I really here? Does this really exist? Was it that easy to get up here?” Yes, yes and yes.

For the cost of a movie on opening night (240ZAR or $17US round trip), you can experience something beyond your comprehension. I encourage you to go during sunset. Just look up when sunset is, I went Sunday and it was 7:07pm. I timed my arrival at 6pm. There’s no line and no waiting to get up even though it is the beginning of summer high season here.

It takes 2 1/2 hours to hike up to the top or 90 seconds to take the cable car. Choose your path.

Take into consideration a little common sense. You’re going about a mile above sea level. The air will be thin. It may be very warm down there, but very cold and windy up there. If you suffer from shortness of breathe, don’t spend too long up there. If you been walking or biking the city all day, it will zap all your energy because of the thin air.

In any event, mark off three hours minimum for Table Mountain, starting with an Uber/Taxi or bus to get to the base. There’s a lot to explore up there.

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Sunday here was a milder day than usual, cloudy in the mid-60F. Today’s high was 88F, which is the norm in the summer. Thus, it was a lot clouds rolling along the mountain, which made the experience of being there surreal. Sure, the clouds made it hard to see the city below, but to be among the clouds as it rolled over the mountain is an amazing site.

As guides and locals will tell you, it is a National Park and they will shut down if they feel the winds are too high. 8:30pm is the standard for the last car down. They will instruct you that if you hear a siren, that means to start making your way to the cable car because the winds will be too much for you.

I got that message load a clear and the last car when I visited was moved up to 7pm. If you miss it, have fun walking 2 1/2 hours down. Yup, it was rather windy and pretty cold. My hat flew off my head, so it’s best to keep everything on you on lockdown.

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South Africa Mourns As Rugby Team Loses To New Zealand in World Cup

Saturday was a big day for sports in Cape Town. The national rugby team were set to play New Zealand in the World Cup semifinals. I saw Invictus, I know how much rugby means to this country.

My Uber driver who took me to the Old Biscuit Mill for the Saturday Neighborgoods Market was jazzed for the 5pm start. I thought the market closing at 2pm showed that the city is serious about its rugby. Then I realized that the market always closes at 2pm. I guess Cape Town hasn’t heard of prime retailing hours.

In any event, I watched some World Cup while I was in London, and could figure out some of the rules. It’s a lot of lateral tosses back, scrums and grown men chewing each other’s ear off. It’s very homoerotic.

On my way to Weinhaus and Biergarten on the popular Bree Street in the city’s center, the streets were already empty and you can see folks piling into bars and pubs similar to Super Bowl in America. This was going to be one big celebration if South Africa won.

South Africa didn’t win, they lost to the reigning champions 20-18, which I believe is a close score. Let’s face it, this win for New Zealand is the best news the country has had since Peter Jackson announced that The Hobbit would be three movies instead of two.

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A Couple From Brooklyn Took A Selfie In Front of Nelson Mandela’s Cell on Robben Island

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I witnessed this today. Feel free to be outraged.

Robben Island off Cape Town is where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 26 years. Part of the tour is you walk the grounds and through the prison where he and many other political prisoners were held.

During the part of the tour where you see prisoner 466/64’s cell for the majority of his time on the island, a couple from Brooklyn, NYC took a selfie in front of the cell. He was smiling while she goofed around and had a scared look on her face that said, “OMG. I’m in prison. Yikes.”

Let’s break this down. First off, fuck you to the couple. Second, have we lost all sense of decency and decorum? For tourists, yes. This narcissistic society we’ve created for ourselves and our children will lead to our demise.

I felt like asking the couple, “What are you trying to prove? Who is this for?” I hope if they share the photo that their friends call them out for their bullshit.

As for them being from Brooklyn, that just reinforces my notion that the majority of people who move and live in Brooklyn are douches and assholes. When cities start comparing their cool area to Brooklyn (like Woodstock here in Cape Town), I say, “You don’t want to do that.”