Yesterday’s hail and thunderstorm came out of nowhere. It sent us running across Gandhi Square looking for shelter from the falling ice and soaked to the bone.
I am leaving Johannesburg for the next two weeks. It’s an early flight to Cape Town, starting with another Gautrain glide from Sandton to the airport. Twenty minutes of flat African plain dashing by in near complete silence, punctuated by prerecorded dulcet Afrikaans, English and Xhosa that goes Marlboro… Rhodesfield… OR Tambo… A brief stop across the road from Alexandra township, one of South Africa’s poorest urban dwellings. People play football in a waste ground.
The 50th floor of the Carlton Centre, Africa’s tallest skyscraper, is gritty and a little bit dirty and no-nonsense, as far as these urban observatory things go. Every picture comes out dusty and the lifts are squeaky and heavy with determined office workers and it doesn’t get much prettier on the way down – the former five-star Carlton Hotel is still closed and what I am told was once an elegant and upscale below-ground shopping centre is now a loud bustling mess. Street-level is more of the same, with every corner and flat surface taken up for the purpose of selling something, displaying something, browsing, sitting, waiting, chatting and occasionally dancing to your pick among several tunes floating in the air like street food smells at any given time. Sandton seems a thousand miles away.
They built an ersatz Manhattan, it came out great, everybody ran away and other people filled the void, and this is what Johannesburg is like nowadays. I wait for a bus to take me along what once would have been a sort of Fifth Avenue, chatting with two locals, Joburg born and bred, who want to take me to Soweto and ask me very nicely to report on my blog that nobody is getting shot or mugged around me. I look over at a white man withdrawing money from an ATM, unmolested. I am a bit embarrassed that I left my mobile phone behind in Sandton, just in case. My bus stop companions think it’s hilarious. They want to talk about Spanish football. I want to talk about what it’s like to live here some more but the bus has stopped and I am off, email addresses scribbled on the back of a sandwich wrapper and handshakes and promises to tell people to come, come to Jozi, we’re nice here, tell people to come.
Braamfontein is a bit to the side of the CBD and I am told that it survived the worst horrors of the 1990s apocalyptic blight without too many scratches, which is remarkable considering that it’s barely three disoriented street turns away from Hillbrow, Johannesburg’s murder and crime ground zero. People, businesses, academia and the arts gritted their teeth and bore it, and are now being rewarded with phenomenal returns, sun-soaked urban life, Eurafrican hipsterdom, the creative capital of the land, wonderful food and the best coffee in town.
And then there is the rooftop sand beach that’s open only on Saturdays. Because what else are you going to do when you are the country’s largest city and it’s hot and you’re hopelessly landlocked? The entrance fee of R150 gets you a truckful of sand on a rooftop, lounge chairs, five free drinks, a DJ and the surreal experience of a waterless beach on top of a high-rise in the middle of Johannesburg. It’s at 68 Juta Street and it’s open from 2pm to 8pm and you must. You. Must.
Come to Jozi, they say, we’re nice here. I am so in love with Johannesburg, it’s going to get me in trouble.
Fifteen minutes in a Gautrain airport shuttle, pancake layers of escalators and ping, in no time you are delivered onto early-morning African sunlight. I am in Sandton, the heart of Fortress Johannesburg, the 156 square kilometres said to move and shake the entire continent. It is both very green and very ochre, the refuge of the white population of Gauteng as well as its booming black upper middle class, aseptic, fortified and charmless without even being ugly.
Not that I would know what the thing even looks like, really, because mostly there are the brick walls and electrified fences promising 24-hour armed response and what appears to be a constant traffic jam and after two days nothing, but really nothing, has gelled into any form of aesthetic coherence in my eye.
I don’t like it but what can you do, right, fresh off the plane as I am and saddled with so many stories about brutal crime that they have become abstract and meaningless. I have been twisted and bent into several variations of the human pretzel for South African Airways’ 11-hour long night flight, and I am so full of joy I want to jump around. I have gotten a whole row of two seats in Economy for myself, proving once again that God exists and is probably a Spaniard, and I have traded chats with an Afrikaans-speaking middle-middle lady across the aisle who insists Bloemfontein is nicer than Cape Town. And now here I am. Continue reading “Johannesburg I: Sandton”
I find myself in a most elemental space, a warehouse of sorts, repurposed and upcycled comme il faut. I find myself facing a wall to my left, and to my right a sheet of glass, the Bosphorus, and Asia.
And in the distance covered by just a flicker of the eye, I find myself looking straight into someone else’s hell.
Istanbul Modern, the contemporary art gallery, shares with the Beyoğlu district this most matter-of-fact way of emulsifying things that don’t naturally go together, like oil and water, or casual brutalism with lite kindness. It’s in the structure and the infrastructure, countless concrete gray walls softened by one or two or several things organic and humane, and also almost always a cat.
So it is with Middle Eastern princesses and abstract expressionism.
Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid’s My Hell is placed a few meters away from a set of constantly clanking chains holding up iron steps that lead to a lower level, where all sorts of things get constructed and deconstructed in photographic tales of power and the giant hanging flags of long gone countries and landmines made of hard plastic and so on, the usual fare of Every Art Place. Me, I just kept revisiting Fahrelnissa’s Hell, clanking chains notwithstanding, and thinking without meaning to, thinking how does an early-century Turkish girl marry into the royal family of Iraq and heads East and paints this and calls it Hell.
Such voyages just don’t happen anymore – how could they, you know, I think and I look at the ferries and the Bosphorus bridge, which is now my favourite thing in town and why should it be any other way, here in this city of wedges that jams Europe into Asia and works Asia into Europe, with dashes of bright red over grey concrete blocks. Wedges here and there. And so it goes with the Princess’ hell – who knew there was such a thing, but if there was it stands to reason that it should be hung here in Istanbul.
In Sirkeci, my 120-hour home, the gleaming T1 trams cut through old streets so narrow that passers-by press themselves against the wall.
My bewi-fied café in Bebek, the kind of area guidebooks enjoy describing as ‘chic’, comes with resident street cat. Resident street cat is not used to taking no for an answer and camps on my lap for a late afternoon siesta and the long-haired goateed barista does not want to talk about football. This is a first. Outside the window, men are fishing. Istanbul has that thing that my own city also has, so like Madrid it’s a little village that got big all of a sudden, and its little village people are all at once big city people but they don’t really think so, so they are both small and big at the same time and more than slightly bemused.
They work so well, these Istanbul wedges. It is no boiler plate CNN Travel ‘land of contrasts’ blah blah bollocks. It’s just… what shows up, if you are like me and you like that sort of thing.