23 June 2007

Sh*t from an old notebook # 16: South Africa

There were monkeys on the side of the road, hanging out on a fence eating fruit from the trees. Our driver pulled over so we could take a closer look and visit. We jumped out of the car and ran towards the monkeys with our cameras like a bunch of dolts. They didn't flinch. They just kept on monkeying. We were excited and speechless. Light years away from the typical Belt Parkway fauna.

It was then someone noticed we were covered up to our knees in red ants. We'd jumped out of the van into a small patch of grass on the sidewalk and directly into a red ant circus. They were everywhere. I'm getting itchy just talking about it.

I mean literally we were standing around for maybe a minute, not even, photographing these monkeys and all of our legs were absolutely covered in red ants. Some of us were wearing pants, most of us were wearing shorts. It was the summer in South Africa. It was impossible to get these little guys off your body. Soon enough you were panicked because they were absolutely everywhere. And trying to shake them all off and be certain not to bring any of them back into the van was a real trial.

After we landed we soon realised some of our gear was missing. All of our luggage had appeared on the conveyor belts but our guitars were nowhere to be found. Soon enough I was a hauled away by two men in khaki and scary police uniforms. Oh, and they had machine guns. I was told to come with them. I had no idea why.

I followed them through a labyrinth of portals through the underbelly of the airport. I had no idea where I'd ended up. But sure enough I was brought to an office. And inside the office I could see our guitars, they were all there next to a desk. I waited and waited. Some other people turned up, they were waiting too but they didn't seem very concerned. By the power of deduction and assumption I realised these other dudes were hunters and they were online to declare their rifles. They all had various papers and forms with them. It all started making sense.

The rebel guerrilla airport police assumed our guitar cases were also guns for hunting. Fair enough. This was South Africa and bands don't come through here all that much and for the novice airport security chap, a rifle case isn't that much different than a guitar case... but his was only the beginning.

Do you have any idea how hard it was to explain to these machine gun airport guys that there weren't guns in those cases but guitars? They had no idea what I was saying and they wouldn't allow me to open the cases to show them because the last thing they wanted was a guy holding a machine gun in their office. It was very tense. I felt totally alone and had no idea what the f#ck to do.

Finally another a guard came by and understood what I was saying. They all laughed and lead me back to the arrival area, which now seemed like it was just around the corner even though I'd followed the guy for like 10 minutes to get where we were earlier.

I met up with the rest of the band who were waiting for me and seemed relieved to see me alive because they had no idea where I'd vanished to. Then I saw a soda machine in the airport that sold Tab exclusively and that made it all better.

A few nights later we were on the other side of the country and we went to this Indian place for dinner. It was like a British Victorian mansion converted into a restaurant; walnut wood floors were impeccably polished and the linens were so white clean they almost glowed.

Just as we exited the two cars we'd taken to the Indian spot, we heard screaming and some fireworks in the distance... and then we were told to "get down! get down! put your heads down!". OK, we thought. Here's where the sarcastic tour manager f*cks with the "tough guys" from Brooklyn and scares the piss out of us. But, no, it was real.

It wasn't fireworks but a shoot-out at a bar a block away. Apparently some dude walked into the bar, pulled out a big gun trying to hold the place up and the bartender said "oh yeah?" and pulled out a bigger gun and they started shooting at each other. Just another night in South Africa or the Wild West.

The juxtaposition of this trip is what has stayed with me most. The contrast of this serene cradle of mankind beauty of the country with this burgeoning undercurrent of absolute lawlessness and poverty. At every red light people would just about climb into your car trying to sell you everything from melons to batteries to carpets to Hefty garbage bags. It was like nothing and nowhere else before or since.

A day or two later we were on safari, feet away from these massive giraffes running free with rhinos, warthogs, gemsboks, hyenas, impalas and the serious zebras always pensive with suspicious eyes from the side.

I saw a silhouetted tribe of elephants on a mountain top in the distance with the sun setting behind them; like one of those black & white cut-outs. It was too perfect a poem but a few hours away from the shoot-outs and the Hefty bags.

That was South Africa, in a nutshell.

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