Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup Fever - Final Impressions, A Canadian's View

At the beginning of every World Cup game I'm struck by the colonial influence on each nation's anthem. Western instruments, chorus lines, and structure predominate. There's no rumba, salsa, or cross-rhythm, and that's such a shame, given the diversity among each nation's fans and players. Fortunately, the music at taxi stands, airports, and fan parks weren't restricted to western notions, and, of course, the vuvuzellas made stadiums their own.

I took quite a few bus-taxis and buses to get around from my remote abode. Although people on the bus-taxis were quite friendly, especially when I repeatedly asked Illovo? or some other destination, people on the bus ignored me. I discussed this behaviour with a white South African after, and she attributed it to the fact that a white person on such buses is a rarity, never mind one with an accent. By the way, from what I've gathered South Africans refer to each other as black, white, or coloured (any ethnic mix other than the former two). I struggled with this terminology due to my North American sensibilities, but soon tired of unnecessarily tip-toeing around.

Another sensibility that I lost pretty quickly was pedestrian right-of-way. Drivers gave me courteous beeps, but such notions can be dangerous (I had a few close calls in my jet-lagged stupor). Like Europe, standard transmission dominates the market, so drivers are quite skilled, but the numerous construction projects made navigation difficult. I still can't get over the lack of seat-belt laws. I desperately wanted to fasten a belt around the new-born in the front seat. Although I wanted to stay and try to get tickets for the Brazil/Portugal, which turned out to be rather flat, the time had come for me to go. I made it to Sandton (an up-scale suburb into which a number of downtown businesses fled when the fence came down) and then to the GauTrain.

The train was filled with residents excited by the prospect of travelling at high-speed. They marvelled at the new smell and efficiency, and some claimed superiority to London's tube (not a fair comparison). I was buoyed by their enthusiasm. The driver came on the intercom, introduced herself, and announced we were travelling at 160 km/h. I was one of the few to leave the train; I picked up some last minute souvenirs and made for my gate. I flew Etihad to Abu Dhabi once more. There were many empty seats so I quickly grabbed a middle row, so I could stretch out later. The meal included a chicken tandoori breast and three bean salad and a choice of chicken tikka, grilled hake or penne in cream sauce. Then I slept. No movies needed on this leg. No World Cup on a single TV in the airport. What's with this place?

After a drowsy day in Frankfurt I boarded a Swiss Air flight to Zurich. The stewardess had a topless picture of Drogba on her serving station and defended her choice, stating that he was her motivation. Swiss chocolate and a great Duty Free catalogue made their low take-off-and-landing priority bearable. I then flew Swiss Air to Montreal. The service, chocolate, and Movenpick ice cream was excellent, but the entertainment system ran on a rotation so you couldn't watch what you wanted when you wanted. The kicker, however, came when I boarded an Air Canada plane and paid $7 for a stale wrap.

Canada really needs to welcome its citizens. Rather than calculating potential tax revenue, citizens shouldn't have to fill out forms or stand in a general line. Where's the Canadian Passports line? It's as rare as a default choice of "Canada" on a Canadian website form. Anyway, I'm back; nearly over 29 hours in the air and nearly acclimatized to Victoria's poky drivers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Fever - Argentina Game, A Canadian's View

For the game, Argentina vs. South Korea, I had incredible seats very close to the field and not far from the goal. I saw three of the five cumulative goals. Messi appears even faster in person than on TV. It's too bad he didn't score, but his goal setup was invaluable. The crowd roared most, even overcoming the vuvuzellas's drone, when Maradona tapped the ball.

The only drawback was the belligerent Americans behind me; however, one benefit of their loudness was their attempt to start a wave. We nearly got one going and had lots of fun. Canadians were there, too; one wore a huge maple-leaf hat and the others were grad students who asked me to fill out a very long survey on the World Cup. They got half their way paid for. Not a bad way to go. I was surprised to find out that the attendance was a few thousand lower than the Holland game.

The park and ride bus service was excellent and got back with enough time to watch the end of the Nigeria game. It's very unfortunate that Nigeria lost on home soil, so to speak. Chris, a Ugandan staying at the same place as I, noted that he's been disappointed with Nigeria since the 90's. After the game I experienced my first brownout, but the power came back in time to watch the Mexico game and power my microwave dinner. One benefit of the darkness was seeing the Southern Cross without artificial light obscuring it. Very beautiful!

As I'm writing this, the patrons of this internet cafe are watching WWE. Western culture's everywhere.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup Fever - Johannesburg Impressions, A Canadian's View

Whenever I travel outside of North America I'm astonished by the grip of western culture. Johannesburg is no exception; a mall culture is particularly strong here. Malls host all the parties and have all the big screens and FIFA centers. They seem to be “the place to go”, much more so even than in North America. Thankfully, there's little evidence of big box stores although the city is car-centered and lacks efficient public transit. Nevertheless, this role's been filled by shuttle taxis which, although intimidating to visitors, seem quite effective. I was surprised at the lack of seatbelt use especially in the case of infants who rest on their mothers' laps in the front seat. There are some traces of the colonial past, the architecture and rusks appearing on aisle markers in grocery stores. Despite all this evidence of western culture many things set this city apart.
  • Some malls contain flea markets. Only a few are heated.
  • Entertaining store names and slogans:

Pick n Pay (As opposed to Pick n Run?) Their by-line, “Inspired by you,” has little to do with their brand.

Mr. Delivery for pizza.

Clicks Pharmacy: Clicks Clubcard. Saving is the point.

  • Fences. Electric, concrete, and steel. Every structure is well fortified. Perhaps the most striking example is the university whose fortifications seem to contravene tenants of higher learning, such as openness and right to protest.
  • BP appears to be doing quite well and has been running ads promoting their non-Fair Trade coffee.
  • No headphones on people. People spend time at bus stops in conversation.
  • Noises, of so many kinds, fill the air. Drivers toot horns to alert pedestrians who have no right of way here. Vuvuzellas fill the air, especially when South Africa is playing, then they begin at dawn and last until dusk.

People here are very friendly and most are quite excited to meet a Canadian. They ask many questions about Canada. Some, assuming I'm a white local have even asked me for directions. I've spent the most time speaking with Victor, the caretaker and my host, Alima. Victor is from Malawi and is working here to support his family back home. He's hoping to start an IT business here or a kindergarten back in Malawi. If anyone knows of some free school supplies, let me know.

Alima is fiery, passionate, and very kind. She addresses every black South African as brother or sister. They have a really cool culture which blinds the visitor to all the uncompleted projects, delays, bus strikes, leaky taps and lack of recycling.

A note on security: Although security is a major concern here, I've not felt threatened once. (I walk or taxi everywhere.) I have, however, felt a certain fear in the air, heard conversations about car-jacking, and seen reports of home invasions. This is enough to restrict my travel at night to well-worn routes.

World Cup Fever - FIFA Critique, A Canadian's View

At first glance the FIFA ticketing process seemed quite robust. I entered my choices in the first round of the lottery, was billed a few months later, and received an email notifying me that I'd purchased tickets a month or so after that. The trouble began when I tried to determine what matches I was seeing, in order to arrange all the necessary travel arrangements. My FIFA on-line account contained no information about the tickets I'd purchased. All that was there were FIFA bingo and fantasy football. No comparison to the VANOC site, which I'd used a few months before. I was informed that I'd receive a ticket confirmation in the mail by May 1st, which was extended to the middle of May. I emailed and got no response, I phoned and never got an agent. Eventually, I did receive the confirmation and was very pleased with my tickets, but the process was very stressful.

Note: After talking to a number of fans, some shared my experience, and it appeared to be restricted to the first two rounds of ticket sales.

Upon arrival at 5:00 am I learned that the automatic booths at the airport (a major ticket collection location) were closed outside of business hours. Imagine if ABMs were closed outside of a bank's hours. What's the point? Then there was the run-around I received prior to my first match. Only one private security guard knew where to pick up tickets. He told me that fans were in tears at the opening game, believing that they wouldn't be able to enter the stadium.

The name and passport number that I'd entered for me and a guest was not checked; furthermore, all the tickets had only my name on it. So much for all the rules on security and application forms to trade or sell tickets. FIFA created a convoluted system, required people to adhere to it and then abandoned it.

Once inside the arena everything ran smoothly and there was a surplus of information volunteers. The match was an incredible experience, but FIFA has to do much better in this modern age. Maybe that day will come when some form of television replay gets incorporated into the officiating.

I am surprised that empty seats have been shown on TV. Apparently in 2002 buses went into the Asian countryside to get spectators to fill seats. The only deception here was the 1,000 or so Chinese actors at the North Korean game.

On a separate note, SABC provides local commentary for all the African nation matches, which provides a different take on the game that I quite enjoy.

World Cup Fever - The Holland Game, A Canadian's View

I'm sitting here in a South African house huddled around a space-heater while the weather forecaster states that it will go down to minus 3 tonight and that snow has fallen in some parts of the country. I notice that the forecaster uses clucks in her speech and that the kids in a snowball fight behind her must be a rare sight. Two days ago, I was in the same seat when Daf, attired in a bright orange suit, came through the front door with Marcel on his heels. These were the house-guests I was expecting, but had no idea they would be Dutch fans. I was there to support Holland, so was quite happy. The orange clad Blues Brothers set to decorating a house that had only sported a few South Africa flags.

The next morning everyone was quite excited about the game and dressed in their finest orange. Daf was kind enough to give me a cool hat with red, white, and blue dinosaur spines across the top. Chantal, Daf's girlfriend had arrived in the night and soon some other fans showed up. We got a ride to the stadium in threes. About 2km from the stadium we got out of the car to walk due to the congestion. Every three cars we passed cheered, clapped or honked. As the enormous calabash stadium drew near people started to ask if they could get their picture taken with Marcel and Daf, and sometimes all of us.

Then began an extremely frustrating time of tracking down my tickets. Volunteers were either uninformed or misinformed; furthermore they were too few in number. We finally found someone who knew where we needed to go and escorted us there. We entered the stadium to find the Dutch party. Holland supporters usually party in a city square before the game and then follow a double-decker bus to the stadium, but here, likely due to the remote location of the stadium and security concerns, the party was inside the stadium. We sang songs, danced, drank, chanted, and cheered. Marcel and Daf gave a number of interviews, and I gave one. I was assured by the reporter that it would appear here.

My seats were pretty good and the vuvuzelas not nearly as loud as I'd thought they'd be (I still wore earplugs). All around me were jubilant when the Netherlands' side scored a goal rather than winning by an own-goal. Many after were not too impressed by the Dutch side, but everyone concluded that it's better to start a little slower than come out blazing and lose to the likes of Russia and Portugal. Robbyn's appearance when they need him should also add a huge flame to the fire. Hup Holland Hup.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

World Cup Fever, A Canadian's View

My trip began in a dull dreary Vancouver. Calgary was even wetter during the six hour transit, so wet that the roofs were leaking. Buckets marked by placards collected the drops. Frankfurt was very warm 29, by comparison and muggy. After a day there I boarded a plane for Abu Dhabi. I had an emergency exit seat, which soon became vibrant with conversation. I talked with the two German guys on either side and the Slovakian stewardess in front.

When the plane landed one German and I sought out a screen to see the highlights of the first World Cup game. We could find none. They had TVs, but they showed volleyball and car racing. No soccer to be had. I asked an information steward and he mistook my request of “football” as “food court”. Not impressed, especially because the stewardess had told me of how many fans have been funnelling through the airport.

I'd rank the airports as follows (1=little effort; 2=some effort; 3=noticeable effort; and so on) Vancouver as a 3, Calgary a 2, Frankfurt a 3, and Abu Dhabi as a 1. Johannesburg, of course, was filled with welcome posters, red carpets for players, but what really set it apart was the multi-clad fans and horns, drums and chants.

The environment in Jo'burg airport is quite playful with announcers proclaiming that smokers violating the non-smoking policy will be banned from football games. On the last leg I got my first run in with England fans. My neighbour took up much more space than his small body would seem to be possible. He preempted the flight attendants' questions, slurring out “Lager” and “Bir”. I re pronounced his request and he got his beer. He must have had a prostrate condition, and if he does I have sympathy for him, because he went to the bathroom twice for every beer he consumed. Quite a different experience than the last flight.


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