Welcome to Shakedown Street

Where was I?

Oh yeah. We had the bright idea to rent a car in Johannesburg and drive to Kruger National Park. It didn’t go according to plan. And now for the thrilling conclusion!

On the morning in question, we took an Uber (three cheers for Uber, which we have used in Rome, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, and now Johannesburg) to the nearby train station for a fifteen minute ride to the airport, where we picked up our Toyota Corolla for the 5 ½ hour drive to Kruger National Park and environs. We decided on a real splurge – a luxury safari camp in a private reserve open to the park on the shore of the Olifants River. From there we would move a short ways upriver to a much cheaper camp hidden deep in another private reserve. From there we planned to head to a camp in Kruger Park itself, where we would go for a three day wilderness hike. So we needed our own car to do all this, right? Sure.

We had directions from the lodge, but they were a bit cryptic, so it made sense to reconcile them with Google maps, which worked fine on my iphone. (Although for some strange reason, using GPS turns my phone into a handwarmer. This can’t be good. I half expected it to burst into flames on the seat beside me.)

I drove and Janine served as navigator. She doesn’t like navigating. This would become an issue.

I should mention that when we booked into the second lodge on our trip, I received an attachment from the place warning us not to pay bribes to the police. Huh? The fellow told me that there are cops in the area who would like to make a quick buck, which I assume is where nice tourists like us come in. I put the minor warning out of my mind, but reminded myself to be very careful about obeying the traffic laws.

After a few wrong turns out of the airport, we finally put ourselves in the proper direction, and things seemed well in hand. I made sure to always travel under the speed limit, and I was feeling pretty good. And hey, driving on the left side of the road is fun!

Google Maps had us arriving at our lodge at about 3, which was perfect. Lunch was at 2:30, after which we’d have our first safari into the bush at 4:30. Africa! Bush drives! Things were looking good.

I was enjoying the moment, doing about 100 km/hour on an easy stretch of road when I looked up and saw a man in an orange vest waving his arms IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HIGHWAY. I was being pulled over by a cop on foot standing in the highway. My first impulse, strange as it may seem, was to ignore him, but some combination of fear, sanity, and curiosity got the better of me and I eased the car to the side of the road. Then the depressing reality sunk in that I was about to take a ride down shakedown street.

The fellow in the vest approached the car and informed me that I was going 96 in an 80 zone. It seems that the speed limit goes from 120 to 80 very quickly (this is an international practice, apparently). If there was a sign, I never saw it. The gentleman handed me a piece of paper that described the fines for speeding. (Was he an actual cop? He didn’t wear a badge or a nametag. Should I press him on this point? Perhaps not.) I felt like I was being handed a menu for bribery and corruption. “Sir, can I interest you in a nice 750 Rand bribe for doing 96 in an 80 zone that comes on you so fast that you couldn’t slow down if you wanted to? Or perhaps our top of the line bribe strikes your fancy – 1500 Rand for doing 120. That’s a nice one.”

The warning about not paying bribes was ringing in my ears.

I did a variation on what I do naturally – I played dumb. This worked extremely well on our way out of the Cairo airport. After screening our bags, the customs agent asked me if I had any money. I told him that I didn’t understand the question, partly to buy time, and partly because I didn’t understand the question. It seems that the stack of brochures we’d been collecting resembled stacks of currency on the x-ray.

In any event, the more the traffic cop spoke, the more confusingly I responded until the guy gave up and called over his supervisor. The supervisor said that we’d have to pay a speeding fine and I recommended that he give me my ticket and that I’d pay the fine on my way back through town, which was certainly not a part of his plan. This went on for some time until the supervisor seemed to tire of the whole enterprise. He finally said that we could go together to the police station where I could pay my fine, but that they only had one police car that they couldn’t spare, so I was free to go. He also mentioned something about not wanting visitors to think ill of the police. Oh heavens no! Why would I think ill of these upstanding keepers of the peace? The supervisor urged me to go slow because, as it put it, “speed kills.” Indeed. I would later find out that tourists have a tendency to get pulled over and end up having to pay off the cops to be let go. Next time I’m taking the bus.

Having dodged a bullet, and more than a little jangled from the experience, we pressed on for our lodge. We were still several hours away, and, while we were making progress, the directions to the lodge showed a lot of turns ahead.

Somewhere along the line, we missed a turn. The problem is that rather than being a strong guiding force, Google Maps is at best more like a weak-willed enabler and at worst a passive aggressive son of a bitch. If you miss a turn, it does not call out, “Hey schmuck, you missed the turn! Go back and do it the right way!” No, Mr. Google takes it all in stride. If you miss a turn, Google either finds you the next best way to get there (which, as it turns out, could be a VERY BAD IDEA) or it takes umbrage at your rejection of its previous excellent suggestion and says, with Midwestern passive aggression, “Fine, if you don’t like my directions, let’s see what you think of this dirt road, bub.”

Which is exactly what it did. When we missed the turn that would take us where we needed to go, Google spat in the proverbial soup and directed us to a 12 km long dirt road. This didn’t seem right. I thought that maybe the road would be paved just ahead, or that we’d soon be on the right road, but no, this was a long dirt road. At this point both parties in the car were expressing a combination of worry that we’d miss lunch and frustration that the journey was not going according to plan. After a very cordial conversation, it was agreed that I would now be the navigator, and Janine would pilot the craft.

I recommended a backtrack – Google said that maybe we’d be interested in this other nice road a few miles back, so we decided to give it a shot. Sadly, this road was worse than the one we just quit, but for reasons that remain mysterious to me still, we advanced, hoping again that what we were seeing was not actually what we were seeing. And what we were seeing was baaad. This road was just hideous. Janine plowed through a deep rut that was filled with water. After cresting a short ridge, she gamely pushed her way through a deeper, muddier rut, nearly bogging the car down in a trough of water and mud. The mud went spitting in every direction as she span the wheels at full throttle. There was no way in hell we were getting through. I had visions of being stuck in a mud rut miles from civilization, and hours from our destination. I’m all for adventure, but I have my limits.

I suggested an about face and Janine managed to re-ford the two mud ruts and we were back on the main road, but with no good idea about where we’d gone wrong or how we’d make it right.

It is at moments like these that a couple decides whether it would like to remain married.

We gathered our wits and decided to press on. I returned to the somewhat cryptic directions to the lodge and attempted to reconcile them with the options that the Google now presented and made a series of executive decisions. If I was right, we’d make it to the lodge just in time for our game drive. If I was wrong, we’d drive straight to Joburg Airport and fly home and straight to the office of the nearest divorce lawyer.

The fates were with us. We were finally able to find the road we missed and pushed on to the lodge, avoiding any more interactions with the local constabulary. As we pulled into the lodge just in time for the evening game drive, the world’s kindest woman was standing there with welcome cocktails. I wanted to live again.

We rented a car in Africa. That’s a good idea, right?

I’ve always wanted to go on a real, live African safari. Normal people would fly into the closest airport and have people who know where they’re going take you there, right? Fiddlesticks, I thought. Door to door service is for the soft. We’ll rent a car and drive ourselves. Then we can go where we want and stop where we want. What could possibly go wrong?

This is a story of fear, loathing, mud, cops, deprivation, negotiation, backtracking, driving on the wrong side of the road, and how when I return to the United States, I will go to Mountain View and personally pummel the putz in charge of Google Maps. In this missive there will be no food porn, and no whimsical tales of chance encounters with charming ladies of a certain age displeased with the weight of our footfalls (how quaint!). There will be no beautiful photographs of wild animals in repose, just stark, muscular prose. This is a story of an African safari in its purest form.

Our story begins in Buenos Aires, four days ago, although it feels like the time before disco. We had a midnight flight to Johannesburg. Thanks to the vagaries of international travel and the whims of United Airlines, whose miles we are using to traipse from one place to the next, we were routed through Sao Paulo, where we had a fourteen hour layover before our ten hour flight to South Africa. Normally, you would find a local hotel, maybe work out, take a shower, get some sleep, and head back to the airport refreshed and ready for your journey. Sadly, the nice people of Brazil require Americans to secure a visa the old fashioned way – in advance, through an embassy or consulate somewhere. Needless to say, we were not going to go to the trouble of getting a visa for a half-day layover, so we were stranded in the airport like Tom Hanks in that movie. Well, fine, we’ll just camp out in the Star Alliance lounge, right? Wrong. The Star Alliance lounge in Sao Paulo keeps hours better suited for bars or maybe brothels. It’s open from noon to 3 am, and we have arrived at, you guessed it, just after 3 am.

We espied a couch attached to a Starbucks, and for the price of a grande latte, were able to secure a place to park ourselves, but the spot turned out to be noisy and no terribly private, so we decamped to a distant corner of the airport, attempting to fold ourselves under the armrests of a disused gate seating area. But Janine was alarmed by the presence of an airport worker who kept ducking behind an opening in the wall near us, and besides, there was a funny smell, like we were downwind from a dog biscuit factory, so it was back to Starbucks. It was now about 8 am, and our flight wasn’t until 6:30, so something had to give. After a bit of research, I discovered that there was a layover hotel (of sorts) in the international no-man’s-land, about twenty minutes’ walk. After smacking myself in the head for a while for not figuring this out sooner, we made the trek to a teeny room with a bunk bed, which felt like a suite at the Waldorf.

We finally made our flight and arrived at Johannesburg on Thursday morning. We spent the next day recovering at a friend’s apartment (he was out of town), where we made the fateful decision to rent a car instead of having to get back to the airport to try to catch a 7 am shuttle bus to Kruger National Park. Our own car would give us freedom! Besides, we have booked at three separate places in Kruger and getting from place to place using drivers would be complicated and hellishly expensive. And besides besides, driving is fun! And our friend Francois, whose apartment we were staying in (and with whom I may now have to have a little talk) said that renting a car would be just fine. Nothing to worry about.

Who cares that we’re driving on the wrong side of the road and that we don’t know where we’re going? We’ll be fine! We’ve got Google Maps! What could possibly go wrong?

Next time – things go wrong.

Malls, Steaks, and Nice People – A Hodgepodge of Buenos Aires Stuff

We put Maggie on a plane the other day and after three really terrific weeks with my mother and/or our daughter, we have now returned to normal programming, if you can call traipsing around the world normal.

Back in Buenos Aires after a week in Uruguay, our first order of business was to go…to the mall. It seems that Knucklehead Jones left a small pile of clothes in a dresser drawer at our last stop, and I was down a number of vital pieces of clothing. One of them was my new favorite shirt, made by the same nice people who make my special undies – Ex Officio. Another, alas, was a pair of those undies. I’m down to four.

The big tragedy was losing that shirt. It dries fast, doesn’t (er, didn’t) wrinkle, and it just looked snazzy. And there it sits, lonely, scared, and abandoned, in a dresser drawer in Uruguay. (The owner of the apartment, bless him, said he’d send the stuff home to the States, but a fat lot of good that does me here.)

With my favorite people (and my favorite shirt)

With my favorite people (and my favorite shirt)

I hate losing stuff (especially snazzy wrinkle-free shirts), I hate shopping, I really hate buying clothes, and I hate malls. I was full of hateful hate. After several hours of scouring the mall for overpriced pale imitations of my beloved shirt, among other lamented items, I was able to procure some replacement duds, but the experience was like a bladder exam, only not as fun.

The mall of hateful hate notwithstanding, I liked Buenos Aires a lot. It’s a cosmopolitan, peppy, fun, tango-y place. People eat, they drink, and they dance. I cannot think of a single person we encountered who wasn’t cheerful and friendly. Can you imagine that? Cabdrivers were honest and efficient (although once, when I was going out to the airport to meet my mother, one cabbie asked if we could stop at McDonald’s for coffee – I explained that her flight had already landed, which he took in stride). Shopkeepers were gracious, even on the rare occasions when we didn’t buy anything. Waiters seemed genuinely glad to see us. People were amazingly patient with our infantile Spanish. This is easy travel, and it’s a jumping off point to places like Patagonia and Iquazu Falls that we’ll return to someday, I hope.

If you like steak, it’s a particularly good town. After a few culinary misses, we decided to play to the place’s strength – meat. We wandered into a relatively pedestrian-looking steakhouse and did what you’re supposed to do – we ordered some salad, a steak, some fries, and some Malbec – and life was mighty fine. Today, we hit the jackpot at an absolutely charming place called Gran Parrilla del Plata with almost the same format. We had a simply perfect meal of skirt steak, a salad of lettuce, tomato, carrots, and beets, a plate of fries, a morcilla sausage (made from blood – Janine was not nearly as happy about it as I was), and a 500 cl bottle of simply smashing Malbec. When the waiter couldn’t interest us in dessert or coffee, he brought us a round of sparkling wine on the house anyway. The bill came to thirty bucks. It was all waaaayyy too much fun for a Tuesday afternoon, and I almost felt guilty, but not quite.

Does this meal rival the chivito?

Does this meal rival the chivito?

On our return from Uruguay we repositioned ourselves closer to downtown in the neighborhood called San Telmo. Our new apartment was just a short walk to a great weekend flea market, but more than that, I think it’s good to have a chance just to try different parts of town on for size. These extended visits give us that luxury. We arrive in town, suss the place out a bit, wander out of town for a spell, then resume the visit in a different neighborhood.

Janine does love a flea market.

Janine does love a flea market.

If Palermo Viejo was Soho (New York’s Soho), with cafes and boutiques, San Telmo was the West Village (um, with cafes and boutiques). Today, we also wandered through Recoleto, which could easily stand in for the Upper East Side, complete with dainty dowagers and older gentlemen in summer suits and ties. The Upper East Side does not have the gravesite of Eva Peron, however. Wander the streets of Buenos Aires and you could be in New York, Madrid, Paris, Barcelona, or even Rome, but remarkably free of the attitude.

We also took in an actual tango show. Mind you, we didn’t dig deep for the fancy pants tango bar extravaganzas, which will run you at least a couple hundred bucks before the night is out. No, cheapskate Eric lobbied for the intravaganza presented by the non-profit Borges Cultural Center, which, if you ask me, put on a perfectly fine tango show for twenty bucks. There were men and woman, they wore fedoras, they danced, they twirled their legs in that Argentinean way, and it looked like tango to us. There was also this earnest young fellow who repeatedly crooned at us (while the tangoers changed costumes) and who made up for in passion what he lacked in subtlety. Next time, though, we’ll go to a milonga, which is basically a neighborhood dance hall that starts at midnight and goes until dawn. They usually start with a tango lesson and then let people loose on the dance floor. To do this, though, you need to take a disco nap at around eight, and then drink a pot of coffee chased by a couple of Red Bulls. If you do all this you might be able to pull it off, but then again, maybe not.

Finally, we made yet another visit to a famous theatre without actually seeing a performance in it. The Teatro Colon is said to be one of the finest acoustic opera houses in the world. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve seen. I would spend a month shopping for socks in malls to see an opera here.

Just another beautiful theatre without a performance. (Photo courtesy of Janine, who graciously agreed to let me use it.)

Just another beautiful theatre without a performance. (Photo courtesy of Janine, who graciously agreed to let me use it.)

On the other hand, while the acoustics may be nearly perfect, whoever designed the men’s room needs to find another line of work.

I swear I took this photo in the Teatro Colon and didn't crib it from somebody's PowerPoint presentation on failure.

I swear I took this photo in the Teatro Colon and didn’t crib it from somebody’s PowerPoint presentation on failure.

We are now off to South Africa and Kruger National Park. We may or may not have internet access, so if I go quiet for a while, please don’t be alarmed. After that, we’re off to New Zealand and Australia, about which we have done ZERO research. Any recommendations about where to go or what to do will be most welcome. See you in the funny papers.