Johannesburg

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday’s post poked around a bit at some of my underlying thoughts about heading off to South Africa for a week of work around the Joy of Jazz festival. My internal resistance to the trip pointed to something more than the inconvenient travel. Nonetheless, I hopped on a plane for upwards of 15 hours, and only after only a bit of intermittent sleep I found myself on the other side of the planet where I stumbled off the plane and began my adventure. While I usually write more about myself when traveling Johannesburg was surprising enough as place that I am taking a departure to do a bit of an overview in this post today.

Those of you who are Pictorama readers already know I have traveled a fair amount with two trips to Tibet under my belt, Bhutan and a bit of Nepal along the way. (I had reason to examine those trips in a recent post about a trip to California which was somewhat disastrous in August. That post can be found here.) I did a brief turn in South America (Peru, Buenos Aires, Santiago) many years ago on my first trip representing the Metropolitan Museum. Shortly after taking the job with Jazz at Lincoln Center I had traveled to Shanghai. (That adventure was memorialized in my post which can be found here.) Mostly I note this because I have traveled a fair amount for comparison. To my surprise, Johannesburg is not the Third World, but neither is it the First and I will write more about that below.

I had not really considered what I would find when I got to Johannesburg and frankly there were things that surprised me. On a very basic level, I had not realized that Johannesburg is at an altitude of almost 6000 feet. While that wasn’t really high enough for altitude sickness (Lhasa for example is almost 12,000) the first time I went to run up a flight of stairs I couldn’t catch my breath. It is indeed high enough to get winded with exertion and perhaps to make me a bit dumber than usual – not good when you are trying to work in a foreign country!

It is extremely dry which I had considered (no umbrella in my suitcase, lots of moisturizer), but I was surprised that instead of desert vegetation there were deciduous trees (leafy) and even some evergreens, although also the occasional cactus. It was spring there (the seasons are opposite from ours) and we saw an abundance of beautiful flowering trees at the height of their bloom. It was one of the nicest aspects of the trip, the smells of these flowering trees (beautiful purple jacarandas) and other plants as well as seeing them in flower. At unexpected times I would wonder at what I was smelling and ask what it was. Generally people just looked at me like I was nuts – clearly enough of their day to day that they don’t think about it and no one could ever tell me what plant I was smelling. Giant aloe plants also seem to grow wild and at one point I am fairly sure I was enjoying wild jasmine when outside taking a break at the Apartheid Museum.

The food was simply amazing everywhere we went – much of it South African, but with an especially memorable Portuguese meal tucked in there. While, by nature of my business, many of my meals were in fine restaurants, even the more modest meals were notable. I was concerned that as a pescatarian my options would be limited, but there was a remarkable profundity of excellent fish and vegetables while meat of all kinds was indeed in abundance. The extreme spiciness which I experienced that time in London was evident – although the hot spices were full bodied and nuanced, not just a matter of blowing your head off. Many of the upscale restaurants based their menus on either traditional South African or pan African cuisine. Several meals will live in food memory.

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Lunch at a cafe in Soweto.

 

The extreme dryness however surprised me by making me cough and, perhaps along with the altitude, caused my nose to ooze bloody congestion endlessly throughout the trip – which I gather is not unusual for visitors and tormented me, waking me occasionally despite exhausted sleep. I battled these issues by drinking what must have been gallons of water. Although some of my colleagues drank the tap water I never do in foreign countries (it may be safe, but that doesn’t mean I want to take the time for my stomach to adjust to it) so I felt responsible for a vast number of plastic bottles which will need to be recycled. (I did spy a staff person at the hotel carrying out those bottles in a bag almost as large as himself.)

As I mentioned above Johannesburg defied category of First or Third World so I Googled it out of curiosity and discovered that it is indeed in a somewhat new category of Second World. We drove to Soweto for a Jazz for Young People concert and on that drive there was poverty not unlike what you see in Nepal or India – shanty towns, vast areas of trash. There are people begging, although my experience was that it was mostly at traffic intersections and of course you see that (to a lesser degree) when you enter Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. I was told that these were largely immigrants from the neighboring Zimbabwe who came to South Africa starving and looking for work. (Their immigration is controversial there.) Much of where we spent our time was like any cosmopolitan city however. We could have been any number of generic urban places. Joburg was a strange mix of things and in the end not quite like any place I have been.

 

It is no secret that parts of Johannesburg are dangerous and women in particular are told to be very careful. Night travel in particular seems to be considered carefully. As a result, and because I worked almost every waking hour I was there, I did not attempt to go anywhere alone which was unusual for me as well.  We saw some wealthy enclaves with walls around them which reminded me of Lima, although I didn’t see many individual homes this way – mostly sort of gated communities. When being driven to the north and the Apartheid Museum on the one morning we had to ourselves, our driver gave us a most interesting impromptu tour. He began by discussing the immigration issue – in his opinion the people from Zimbabwe had a right to come looking for a better life as had generations who had migrated to Johannesburg in prior decades. This is clearly a controversial issue there.

As we drove down a highway that could have been I-95 in Connecticut, I was fascinated when he pointed out a developed area of high rise buildings (could have been Stamford) and said that it had once been the heart of Johannesburg, but as the commerce moved to Sandton (the area we were staying in) this area had become desolate, deserted and ultimately unsafe. All the buildings we saw were now in disuse and inhabited by the aforementioned immigrant population. He pointed out a brick building that had been the stock exchange, a high rise hotel and said they were empty now and had been for years despite periodic attempts at urban renewal. (As Kim said, it begs to be the beginning to a story.) Further out he motioned to mountains covered in yellow sand that contained the famous (infamous) gold mines which were responsible for the creation of Johannesburg and said the mines of platinum and diamonds were further to the north.

Later that day we found ourselves at what was called a craft market which appeared to be the prescribed place to buy our tourist bits and pieces in a sort of one-stop shopping. Despite (or perhaps due to) my travels in Asia I have never been good at bartering. I might occasionally offer someone less for something, but that sort of expected to and fro has never been my strong suit. Therefore I was hesitant to even begin the game.

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Eventually I put my toe in the water with this cat figure which I gather is a leopard (their version of the king of the forest) and based on Benin bronzes. The seller had a few versions that were larger than my real life kits Cookie and Blackie and weighed five times what they do. He tried to tempt me with one of these, assuring me that he could ship it. (I didn’t think I could make him understand that I lived in one room in New York City with a husband, two cats and a heck of a lot of stuff already which made the size undesirable. I was the only person visiting the Mandela three room house in Soweto and thinking that the space was pretty good and about a third larger than our apartment.)

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Side entrance Mandela house museum in Soweto.

 

The seller then set his sights on selling me a pair of leopards – how lonely one cat would be without the other! I assured him that it was going to a destination with many, many more cat friends than he could imagine. We finally arrived at a price for the single cat and I dashed away while he shouted after me that the other cat would be waiting. I found a quiet corner where I purchased some fabrics made in traditional patterns and with vegetable dyes that would become gifts.

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Craft market from my bench perch, resting!

 

I chose one among a myriad of beaded elephants for Kim who spent several months drawing elephants earlier this year – trunk up for good luck. Lastly I added these few birds below and a couple of beaded bowls and then found a bench to rest on while my colleagues finished their shopping. Several members of the orchestra were also there and we compared acquisitions as we planned a route back to the hotel. Whew!

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We were to travel home on Sunday and the orchestra had been invited on a tour of a lion park early in the day so my colleagues and I joined the group. While it turned out to be a glorified zoo (which reminded me remarkably of my childhood trip to a then spanking new Great Adventure park in South Jersey which ran more to baboons than lions) it was interesting to finally get out of the city and see the non-urban landscape.

 

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Petting zoo where this cub uses a tree as a scratching post.

 

Working in another country (even out of state domestically) is always hard – event planning is most easily and successfully done when you can eliminate the unknowns and nothing is known to you in a foreign place. Therefore, this was a long and difficult trip (two seated dinners, welcome packages, a reception, a lunch, a lecture, four concerts – two which didn’t start until midnight – all tucked into five days) from a work perspective. Suffice it to say I had no trouble sleeping on the plane coming home.

However, when I consider what I actually thought of the country I am torn. South Africa, and perhaps especially Johannesburg, is earnest in its self-examination and forth coming about the issues and history they wrestle with which are real and difficult. The politics of their situation is well beyond my capacity to comment on in an intelligent way. However, I found the people of Johannesburg to generally be lovely and welcoming of us as visitors, but also well informed and involved in the continuing evolution of their city and their country.

Below is a few moments from our Jazz for Young People’s concert in Soweto which was so well received it ran over by more than half an hour as Wynton and the orchestra improvised for the appreciative audience of students. In the end I believe our music brought joy to all those who encountered it and in that way was indeed successful.

 

South Africa

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I have occasionally done in the past, I write today from an airplane as I speed home (if a 15 and a half hour flight could be called speeding by the stretch of any imagination) from a far flung destination. I travel not infrequently for my job and this time it was to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Joy of Jazz festival.

While I mostly groused about the very long flight and the difficulty of leaving Manhattan in the fall, a very busy time for fundraising, the truth was I was extremely ambivalent about going. The history of the country, within my living memory, tainted it and I tried to unwrap my hesitancy and it wasn’t easy. I reached back my mind to the time I spent living in London when I was in college. I had made friend with a man who went by the name of Don Bay (his given name is Azad Bayramian) and who owned an African music distribution business, Stern’s. It was through him that I first heard High Life music.

 

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While it never quite established itself the way jazz ultimately did in my sensibility, I enjoyed it immensely. Don brought me to concerts – often outdoors in summer, going for hours over steamy British summer afternoons into evening and then into night, lines of dancing women in colorful, brightly patterned cotton outfits, the audience drinking, smoking and of course dancing, dancing and dancing. I was twenty-one and living on my own in a city for the first time and exploring every new thing that came my way and this was certainly far different from anything life in New Jersey or Connecticut had to offer. The music was a big part of it.

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The shop, which I believe is no longer there, as it looked when I lived in London.

 

In this way I also seriously contemplated the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. While the lure of India and Central Asia had ignited via studying the art in high school, I had never deeply considered Africa. For the first time I became curious about it in a real way and because of my friend Don I was meeting a never-ending stream of African musicians as they passed through London, playing gigs and promoting their music. I remember being told that at home in Africa they might fill a stadium with fans while playing more modest festivals, theaters and even clubs in London.

Meanwhile many would stay at Don’s house in Putney which always seemed to have a room enough for a few more people. Don and I both enjoyed cooking and we would make wild lavish meals and invite all sorts of people over for massive dinners and the musicians were frequently in attendance. However, they could often be found just as often, making themselves dinner or a coffee on a quiet evening.

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King Sunny Ade – I did meet him and loved his music, although he was too famous to join our gatherings in Putney.

 

On one occasion in particular I remember coming in just as one fellow, I do not remember his name, was just putting the finishing touches on his meal and he asked if I would like to join him. In the pan was a very small fish in a red sauce and a large pot of rice. I felt dubious about depriving him of any. However, he explained that the fish was so spicy I would only need a small amount to a large amount of rice. I can still remember it – the spice just about blew the top of my head off and it was great!

To be very honest, this was the first time in my life I met a large number of black people. It feels odd to say that but it is the truth. I had grown up in a very white town in a wealthy enclave in New Jersey. Quite simply it was extremely white. Our minorities, as such, were Jews and Catholics. (I lay claim to a fair portion of both but have come out looking sheer WASP – more about that another time.) It was the sort of town which would turn on its ear when one of its own football types dated a fellow student who was Asian and brought her to the country club. Now here I was living in a foreign country and meeting people from Africa. Amazing!

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I lived in the basement of the building on the far right and on the right side of the entry. It was much more run down back then!

 

During this time I dated any number of people – a random cross section of mostly British young men. One I discovered to be a heroin addict (fascinating and another first for me), another a very short good lucking man who was trying to break into modeling, but whose height barred him from success in this area. (Oddly he got one gig in a party scene for a liquor ad and I saw him plastered all of the tube for weeks.) He was a bit mean and we only went out a few times.

I don’t remember how I met David, probably at the coffee house I used to frequent for the only decent cup of coffee in all of London (a sort of a cappuccino – this was long before the Starbucks-a-fication of the world) and it was also an inexpensive warm perch on cold evenings when my flat was largely without heat. He was a white South African and that alone oozed romantic unknowns. Older than me by a few years and clearly more worldly, he was living in London in a sort of self imposed exile, north of where I lived, in what was at the time a somewhat suburban enclave.

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The Troubadour Coffee House pretty much as I remember it from the endless hours spent drinking coffee there. It is still in business although the owner, Bruce Rogerson who I knew well, died a number of years ago.

 

Opposed to Apartheid David had left South Africa without fulfilling his mandatory military commitment. He did not wish to fight on behalf of a country with politics he did not agree with, however his exile stung him and he opined on missing his homeland frequently. I did some reading up on Apartheid and I guess I couldn’t figure out why he’d want to go back to a country which sounded horrid to me – nor did exile in London sound especially bad. Admittedly, while very enamored of his exoticness, I was perhaps in my naiveté unfairly unsympathetic.

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Enlargement of an early pass carried by all individuals in South Africa under Apartheid – this is from the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

 

However, where I encountered my real nexus of confusion was around David’s discomfort with interacting with actual black people. (We never discussed other races and I have no knowledge of his thoughts about let’s say Asians although they certainly suffered under the rules of Apartheid as well, and I now wonder if his unease extended to them.) In retrospect, all these years later I want to hope I can have more compassion for someone who was struggling to find his way out of the dubious lessons he was raised with, even if unable to fully transcend that formative training. Despite an inclination to support a view that was different from he how was raised, his discomfort with people of different races mingling was extremely uncomfortable for him and I was simply flummoxed by his inability to accept.

Needless to say, my interactions with the musicians and my new found fascination with High Life music was an insurmountable issue for him – he was horrified – and our relationship never really got out of the gate. It wouldn’t have anyway – we did not have much in common other than my romantic fascination with the exotic and whatever it was about me that had a passing fancy for him. I was just sizing the whole world up at that point.

We parted genially, but it stayed with me and to some degree I wrestled with it all through the subsequent latter part of the 1980’s and early 90’s as the fight against Apartheid received more international attention. Along with AIDs it became the a central political issue of my young adulthood, although to be frank I have never been politically active. Oddly, he wrote me a letter when I was back in the United States. It didn’t really say much as I remember and I can’t imagine why he did; perhaps the encounter with me continued to nag at him. He still was in the no man’s land between England and South Africa. I wrote back and never heard from him again. I remember wondering later if he was ever able to return home.

In some ways all this to say, while there is no excusing prejudice and everything about Apartheid was heinous, looking back I think my youth made me self-righteous in a way that I understand now was simplistic. We all want to believe we are free of the tribalism of whatever clan we claim, but the reality is more tangled than that. Even with the best intentions I think in reality we have to struggle to understand the other guy – whoever that is at the time. I know that better now that I am a few decades down the line. And that truth is far more uncomfortable to live with, but more real.

My friend Don’s business interacted largely with Nigeria and Ghana as I remember, and there had been an opportunity to travel to Nigeria with him but I could not come up with the money. I regretted the missed chance for years – it would have been fascinating to travel that way and a great introduction to that country. Although Don and I stayed in touch for a long time (he was at our wedding – our 19th anniversary is coming up in a week or so), he stopped traveling to this country post 9/11, when his Iranian place of birth on his passport (he was a naturalized Iranian of Armenian descent and faced painful prejudice his entire life which is its own story) became an entry issue each time he attempted to enter into the country.

Stern’s shut down the New York office of the company in the early 2000’s. They also had a location in San Paolo, Brazil which I believe may still be in existence as well as an online presence. I am unclear if they have a retail outlet in London although the location I knew on Warren Street was sold and redeveloped. Don removed himself from the daily operations of the business in the early 2000’s and was spending part of each year in Thailand in semi-retirement.

All came slowly back to me as I tried to unpack my resistance to this trip, confronting my discomfort, as well as some anticipation about finally setting foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I have already gone on too long for today and I will attempt to tie up the story about my trip tomorrow.