South Africa: Days 3-4
Day three in South Africa was at the Indaba Hotel and Conference Centre in the outer suburbs of Johannesburg. I was there to present at a three-day festival of learning (which I describe here), and it was the first time in nearly a week I’d get to go to sleep in the spot I woke up, so I was certainly looking forward to it.I arrived at the Indaba Hotel on Friday (day two in country), and from the name I thought it would be a hotel. And I guess it was. But it was more like a resort. And while it boasted primarily of former glory, there was certainly still enough charm and elegance for a very pleasant weekend. These were augmented by what the conference planners had in mind, and enhanced further by great company, so all it all it was a great way to spend a few days.
I was, however, without doubt in a white bubble. Here I was, in Africa, with black — and, once again, “black” is the preferred term — porters, waiters, attendants, and other staff, while nearly all of the conference goers were white.
At one point I went in search of orange juice. It turned out that I could purchase it (for some ridiculously low price, thanks to my strong dollar and the weak local currency) at the bar, so around 4:00 in the afternoon on Saturday I walked into the bar, bringing to three the total number of people there: me, a black bartender, and another black worker whose function wasn’t clear to me.
This was my chance. I told both workers that I was from New York, and that I wanted to know about their country. I explained that if all they knew about New York was what they saw on T.V., they would never understand New York. And I explained that I feared that I was in a similar position regarding South Africa.
“What,” I asked them, “should I know about South Africa that I’m unlikely to see on my own?” I followed up with, “what would I see if I could leave my bubble?”
There were some language barriers, and, I believe, some cultural impediments. At first both workers seemed hesitant to venture beyond catering to me as a guest. But after about 15 minutes we started making progress. The bartender seemed eager to answer the question once he understood it. His English wasn’t as good as the other worker’s, though, so the conversation was slow going. But I could be patient.
Until a white woman walked in and monopolized things. She insisted on answering my questions herself, even though — the workers and I knew — she epitomized the bubble I was trying to leave behind.
Nothing worked. No matter how clearly I addressed the bartender, the woman answered. So after about half an hour, I gave up. I told the group that I unfortunately had other obligations.
“We’ll be here all night,” the bartender offered.
But I knew I wouldn’t have time to return.
Another missed opportunity.