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.

I Heart Athens! Who knew?

Raise your hand if you’re a big fan of Athens. I know, right? It’s hot, it’s noisy, and as Yogi Berra probably didn’t say, nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.

Well, the hip, happening bars are crowded, that’s for sure. And so are the very good restaurants. It’s crowded in a good way. Now that summer’s over, the only tourists here are the childless and the Dutch.

I’m not entirely sure why we’re here in the first place. Janine always wanted to go to Greece, but she really wanted to go to the islands. Having decided that beach season is over, we plugged Athens in for a week anyway, just because.

We have been delighted by the warm reception. After Greece’s brush with economic death, Athens feels like that girl who has finally been asked to dance and she responds with, well, let’s call it enthusiasm. People have been friendly and welcoming. I have to confess that by contrast more than a few Italians seemed like they were doing their best impersonation of Parisians.

We arrived with no expectations whatever. Would we be able to communicate? In most of Europe we seem to be able to get by just fine, but Greek is, well, Greek.

What looks good to you, honey?

What looks good to you, honey?

We needn’t have worried. Pretty much everybody in this part of town speaks English better than we do. I had assumed that we would like the food, but I didn’t realize how much. Greeks know how to eat (although they’re not sure when).

Our Greek arrival party started ominously, when a dour woman answered the door to the apartment we rented. The apartment is right off Monastiraki Square, which is not as touristy as Plaka (which boasts pedestrian alleys all selling the same I Heart Greece t-shirts), but more conventional than Gazi, where you find the techno clubs and gay bars.



Our landlady Valentina, a serious woman in her fifties, started to warm up as she pulled out a map and gave us the lay of the land, telling us where to go and what to do. She also wanted to make sure we felt safe. “In Athens, you don’t worry from nothing,” she reassured us, although she reminded us to leave our passports in the room. Trust everyone, but cut the cards, as the saying goes. Why does every city think it has the best pickpockets?

Often, the first night in town sets the tone for the visit. For us, it’s the most unstructured time of the trip. I usually haven’t found the out of the way restaurant in the hip neighborhood yet (more on THAT later). Most of the time, you just want to get your bearings and find something to eat. Sometimes this results in the lousiest, most touristy thing you do. Other times, you hit paydirt. On our first night, we made a trip to the supermarket, and then started wandering in search of a meal. At first, the pickings were looking kind of slim. We were in a fairly commercial part of town and nothing was open. Then, all of a sudden we found ourselves on this charming plaza full of restaurants and cafes in which happy, hip young people were tucking into plates of fish and meat and bowls of other stuff. Things were looking up. We approached one of the restaurants, called Melilotos, and were greeted by a fellow who seemed genuinely happy to see us. I wanted to hug the menu. Everything looked good. We settled on a very fresh salad and a roasted boneless chicken leg coated with some nifty blend of Greeky spices and stuffed with greens and just a bit of greek cheese. For four euros, we had a half a liter of a light, fresh, white that was everything I love about Mediterranean wine. I think the whole thing was thirty bucks. This was a very good start.

On our first full day in town we did one of the most touristy things you can do – we hopped aboard the hop on, hop off bus. I actually like these things. They’re an amusement park ride of whatever city you’re in. You sit and watch all the attractions go by. Sure, you can hop off and do something, but doesn’t that really defeat the purpose? The goal, as far as I’m concerned, is to sit and do nothing, but feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. If you’re really ambitious, you make a few mental notes of places to return to. This also was very much in keeping with our sightseeing philosophy – try to walk the thin line between boredom and exhaustion.

A perfectly good view from the hop on hop off bus.

A perfectly good view from the hop on hop off bus.

After we finally hopped off, we settled into what has become our evening ritual – cocktails at a bar or café, preferably on a nice plaza, and then dinner.

I should note that Athenians eat really, really late. Like Madrid late. We have pushed the cocktail hour later and later and we are still the first ones in the restaurant at 8 or 8:30. Anyway, we had our cocktail at a fun little place around the corner called Bar Osterman, and headed off to dinner. (I herewith make a very shameful disclosure – I discovered all three of the establishments we patronized this evening in an article in the New York Times. I am now the middle aged, post-yuppie who outsources his travel advice to the New York Times.)

Our division of labor generally proceeds thusly – Janine is the expert in selecting our lodgings and does so with verve and panache. I make restaurant recommendations and I am the navigator. For dinner, I had selected a place called Manimani, at which you can get a “modern taste of hearty Peloponnesian cuisine” according to, yes, the New York Times. Armed with Google Maps, which has changed the modern traveler’s life, we set out for the restaurant. Things didn’t go quite according to plan, however. Google Maps seemed confused, with the little blue arrow twitching this way and that. Janine wasn’t fully invested in the selection of the restaurant in the first place, nor did she particularly feel like walking the twenty minutes the Google told us it would take to get there. When this happens, she either starts walking slower or she just pulls up, like a steeple chase horse who refuses the jump.

By this point, my confidence in the whole endeavor was flagging, but I was not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I was a one-eyed Sherpa with diminished lung capacity and a bad back, but I was determined to lead the summit push. After much backtracking, we arrived at our destination, but something was obviously wrong. There was no hip, New York Times-recommended hotspot, just an empty storefront. “I think we’re on the wrong street,” Janine offered, unamused. Thank heavens. We redirected to the proper street, where we found…another empty storefront.

Oops, I was looking at the wrong number. There it was, little more than a staircase with a very small sign leading to the restaurant above. There was still hope.

Once inside we were welcomed like old friends. We had no reservation but were seated at the last two-top in the place. We had a great meal with more ridiculously cheap but delicious Greek wine. The highlight was a perfectly roasted lamb on a celery root puree.

Roasted lamb on celery root puree. Even Janine admitted it was worth the shlep.

Roasted lamb on celery root puree. Even Janine admitted it was worth the shlep.

Our server wrapped up the meal by bringing us a complimentary little bottle of mastiha, a grappa-like boozy thing from the island of Chios, wherever that is. It’s hard to describe, but it smelled like a pile of raked leaves on a fall day and tasted like I imagine the bark of a tree would taste like if you fermented and distilled it. But in a very good way. I love a meal that ends with a bit of free tasty hooch that I’ve never heard of. Janine forgave me.

We ended the evening with a nightcap at a very cool spot next door to our apartment called Six d.o.g.s, a place that would be quite at home in Soho. It has a gallery space, a club with live music, and a courtyard bar packed with hip young people. We sipped our drinks, took in the vibe, and couldn’t believe that we were in Athens, of all places. I heard about it, you guessed it, in the New York Times.