Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Day 4: Kensington, Ellis Park, Nasrec, and Eastgate



Previously during my trip: Michael Caine from Children of Men picks me up from the airport and a Portuguese restaurant doesn't know the meaning of ambient music.

I awake the next morning, and I have a few errands to run before reporting as a volunteer tomorrow. I first need to acquire my accreditation, which is a badge that needs to be worn while in the stadium area. The badges are color-coded, depending on the type of badge issued (volunteer, media, etc.), and each badge has numbers (one through nine), that indicates the areas where the person is allowed to go.

Since my hostel was located close to Johannesburg’s other stadium (Ellis Park), I figured that I could probably go get accreditation there and save myself a trip to the other stadium (Soccer City, where I was assigned to work), which is about a twenty-minute drive across town.

Since I don’t have a car (the preferred mode of transport for Johannesburgians(?)), I start to walk to the stadium, but I first need breakfast. I pass a local grocer (not a supermarket), and I look around to find something to eat. I see a lot of weird packaging, strange food items, unfamiliar brand names, and nothing particularly portable or appealing for breakfast. I opt to buy some things from the bakery in the back of the store, where they have freshly baked bread. I get some rolls, which are very inexpensively priced, less than one rand ($0.15) each. The rolls prove to be delicious, and I start trekking downhill, and I see the stadium in the distance.

(Image courtesy of Google StreetView)

With the stadium as my guide, I make it to the bottom of the hill and climb the next one with ease, and I find myself outside the stadium. Well, a stadium, really, because I have found the Ellis Park Rugby Stadium, and not the soccer one. I look down the hill I just climbed to see the soccer stadium in the distance. Also looking down, two rats scurry across the sidewalk and into the bushes. No, that’s no typo – I saw two rats while trying to find the stadium.

Lucky for me, though, the accreditation centre (that’s how they spell it here) is next to the rugby stadium. I enter through the gates, and ask reception where the accreditation centre is. They ask for ID, look at it briefly, then allow me to go to the elevators. What’s odd about the path between reception and the elevators is that there are turnstiles separating the two. The turnstiles don’t appear to be counting anything, nor are they really blocking anything, either. I take the elevator from floor 0 (the ground floor) to floor 2, to find that the elevator is a glass one, and it reveals a multi-story atrium sort of thing.

I exit the elevator and I’m directed around the corner to the “lookup” station. They take my passport, enter my name into a computer and give me a slip of paper. I take this paper to the “image capture” station, where a volunteer with a laptop and webcam double-checks my information and says he is going to take my picture for the badge. He tells me to look at the camera, but never says when he is going to take the picture. Consequently, my photo isn’t that great (but is any ID photo?), but I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of the tournament. Some confusion over the printing of the badge results in six people huddled over the same laptop, but they clear me, invite me to sit on some couches in the center of the atrium, where they tell me they will call my name when it is finished.

(the Accreditation Centre looked vaguely like this, but less functional)

I look around at my surroundings. The building appears to be an abandoned office building, vaguely resembling the Sheraton Suites in Cuyahoga Falls. The upper floors above wrap around the atrium, and are in varying states of repair: some are missing ceiling tiles, one of the elevators is out of order and stuck between two of the floors, but the floors occupied by the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) are in relatively good shape. The LOC has installed some temporary walls to create offices and rooms, but the building has seen much better days.

They call my name after a few minutes (I’m pleasantly surprised by the quick turnaround), and I get a shiny new laminated badge, as well as a pouch-necklace thing to hang it from. I’m surprised by how many areas of access I get (see for yourself):
(look at them numbers)

According to the back of my badge, I have access to the following areas: (3) Public Areas, (4) Operations Area (Offices), (5) VIP Areas, (6) Media Tribune, (7) Media Centre, (8) Broadcast Area, and (9) Hospitality Area.

Hoping to finish my volunteer-related tasks, I try to find the Ellis Park Volunteer Centre, where I might be able to obtain a uniform, so I don’t have to wait to get mine at Soccer City. I wander through the Ellis Park sporting complex and discover the Ellis Park Shopping Centre. Inside, I find cramped stalls and perhaps the only Chinese people in the entire city, selling mostly clothing, shoes, and handbags (all of the goods have questionable legality and authenticity). A store filled entirely with mannequin heads sporting various types of wigs ultimately creeps me out, and I leave the mall.

I discover that the volunteer centre is located in an arena of some sort, and I find some crumbling stairs leading down the hill to it. I pass by some outdoor tennis courts (deteriorating and overgrown with weeds), and some boarded up buildings surrounding the court. Like other facilities in Ellis Park, these too have seen better days.

I find my way into the arena, and walk around it, trying to find an open door or reception desk. A door is open and I enter, only to find myself in the middle of the arena itself. Thousands of red, white, and blue seats (plastic 1970s-looking ones) surround the carpeted area in the center, where there are a number of services set up for the use of the volunteers (some laptops and a foosball table).

(Some police training event held in the stadium)

I walk over to the table that reads “uniform distribution,” only to learn that uniforms are stocked for each venue, so I can’t obtain my uniform as easily as I did my accreditation. Now I have to make my way to Soccer City before starting work tomorrow.

I buy a road atlas at a gas station so that I’m not aimlessly wandering around the city in the future, and get a taxi to take me to Soccer City. As the guidebook I read before I left the United States warned me, the ride was expensive – about 150R each way, but I figured it was a necessary expense since I had to have my uniform before reporting to work.

(maybe it is only me that sees the resemblance to the Bird's Nest in Beijing)

I get my first glimpse at the Soccer City stadium, and it looks great – strangely reminiscent of Beijing’s Bird Nest (both are not traditional, entirely-solid structures). You can see it from miles away, with two gigantic geometric hills as its backdrop. I ask my taxi driver about the hills, and he tells me that they are mine dumps, and that Soweto lies beyond the hills. I look around the highway and see other manmade hills – regardless of your opinion about mining, you have to admit that what we can do is impressive.

(an aerial view of the mine dumps behind the Soccer City Stadium, which is in the upper right of the photo above)

Approaching the stadium from the south, I am dropped off near some temporary structures to the south of the stadium, one of which is the Volunteer Centre. The dirt parking lot reminds me of Sedona, Arizona: a fine, red dust stretches as far as the eye can see and quickly stains my shoes and cuffs of my pants. I approach the Volunteer Centre, and the structures have surprising features for non-permanent buildings: they all have power, heating and air conditioning, carpeting, and glass doors. The walls and roof are made of plastic-like material, supported by metal beams. My trip, however, appears to be for naught, as my uniform is not yet ready. I get another taxi back to my hostel, frustrated with the needless trip, but I am comforted knowing where the stadium is located.

On the trip home, I look at the map and discover that Ellis Park is close to Berea and Yeoville, one of the three areas designated by the guidebook I skimmed as “unsafe and dangerous for tourists” and should be “avoided unless accompanied by a local guide.” I guess that explains some of the things I saw in the Ellis Park area.

Safely back at my hostel, I look at my map for something to do. I decide to make my way to a local mall to see if there is anything interesting there, and maybe get some groceries while I am out.

On my way to the mall, I see not one, but two posters for a Wayne Brady comedy show that happened a few months ago. It is odd to see random American stars make the transition to international audiences.

The mall is further than I originally had anticipated (it looked so much closer on the map!), but I arrive around 4 PM. Small problem: nearly all of the stores in the mall are closed. A glance at the store operating hours reveals that most stores close at 1 or 2 PM on Sunday, opening around 9 or 10 AM. I can kind of deal with that, given that it’s the weekend, but it seems rather short. Worse is my discovery that stores close at either 5 or 6 PM on weekdays. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, SOUTH AFRICA? WHY DO STORES CLOSE SO EARLY? (I guess I'm just used to long hours by American retailers).

After I had my fill of shouting at closed storefronts (which took a while), I find a restaurant (which closes at 5 PM) with free Wi-Fi. I check my e-mail (something I hadn’t done in days, as the promised Wi-Fi and Internet at the hostel isn’t working) and eat a below-average burger (sorry "Wimpy's"). The sun is already setting (I keep forgetting that it’s winter and that the days will be short), so I need to head back to the hostel soon.

In a day filled with bad realizations, I realize that my journey back is all uphill. What seemed like such an easy journey to the mall is now going to take a lot longer going back. Making matters worse is that a quick measurement with my map finds me 5 km from the hostel, and even with my poor proficiency of the metric system, I know that’s still pretty far.

On my walk home, I see more unsettling sights: abandoned parks and playgrounds, basketball hoops without backboards and nets, empty schools, and tons of security signs. Say what you will about the United States and its over-emphasis on fear and “protecting yourself,” but South Africa is a bit more hardcore about it. Nearly every home has a seven-foot high concrete wall surrounding it, a sign that boasts how the home is protected by armed security guards, a few intimidating dogs, and to top it all off, an electric fence. That’s right, an electric fence.

Even the fence retailers' websites creep me out:


I admittedly don’t know much about electric fences, but I wonder how much it costs to keep electricity flowing through the wires. I’m also curious to learn the voltage of it, but I’m not about to scale the wall and find out. I’ll give South Africans some credit though: they might be responding appropriately, given their #2 ranking in assault and murder per capita.

I arrive back to the hostel and fall asleep almost immediately at around 6 PM.

I wake up at midnight and turn on the television. I first find the UK version of The Apprentice on BBC, where the teams are designing a new facial tissue brand and associated marketing campaign. This quickly bores me, so I flip to a local South African channel, which is experimenting with a live game show similar to GSN Live.

I am about to change the channel from it when one of the hosts starts bickering with her off-screen producer about the difficultly of the game. The game is to tell which image on the screen is different from the others in a 5-by-10 grid. They start the prize jackpot at a few hundred rand, but grow the prize pot significantly over the duration of the game. The producer claims not to see the answer and says that because the puzzle is too difficult, it should be skipped.


Accompanying the South African female host is an Eastern European male host of a similar program there. He apparently is the one who created the puzzle and is adamant to protect the integrity of the game. The entry method is a bit bizarre: you may either send a text message for R7.50 ($1) or enter for free online. It is not clear how contestants are selected.

The contestants that do make it through are not put on air, however, as over the next half hour (yes, I’m sorry to say I watched that long, but how often do you see a live TV broadcast fall apart?), the producer attempted to explain to the on-set talent that callers were complaining that the game was too difficult (footnote: this may or may not have been manufactured drama, since I found the solution almost instantly).

When no caller had called in with an answer after a while, the girl pleads with the producer to raise the prize money – and he begrudgingly does. From this episode, it appears that the producer and the female talent have bad blood between them, and she yells the producer to shut up on multiple occasions.

But when more time passes, and the girl host and the producer make an unlikely team against the other host when they demand that they give some hints out for the game. He looks like he’s about to, but he then only gives the clue to “BE CONCENTRATE.” He then demands that the music be cut so that people can concentrate, and there is about three minutes of dead air as the two hosts allow the audience to “BE CONCENTRATE.”

When no one calls in, they ask for a better hint, as the jackpot increases to R6,000 ($788). The guy refuses, and asks for more time. They give him ten minutes additional time, at which point, they say they are going to move on. That comes and goes, and their show is running out of time. The producer finds a document with the answers to the problems (why he didn’t look earlier or look beforehand, I have no clue), and gives the row letters for the three correct answers. The host who invented the game is super pissed-off now that the producer has “ruined the game.” The guy pouts for the next ten minutes, but no one is put on the air.

The girl host begins a dramatic and drawn-out (Ryan Seacrest and Tom Bergeron couldn’t hold out for this long) countdown from 10, replete with a soundtrack of klaxons and air raid sirens.  The host pleads with the audience to “not let her get to zero,” and wouldn’t you know it, someone calls at the last second. They take the prize home, and the hosts and producer are relieved. The host in charge of the game is further pleased to hear that the guy who won “got it from the very beginning and that it wasn’t hard at all,” which by now is over an hour ago.

The show unceremoniously ends, and I look at my watch, and it is already 2 AM, and I need to report to the Volunteer Centre at 8 AM the next day….

What do I do next? Check back soon to find out!

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