Musings of a Skeptical Tourist. Part 1: Johannesburg and Dubai –
On Ugliness, Smoking & Hyper-Reality
From Johannesburg: On Ugliness, Duty-Free and Smoking
Traveling to O.R. Thambo International airport on the beautifully clean and fast Gautrain, I am struck by how how little Johannesburg has to offer the international tourist. Besides the obligatory visit to Vilakazi street in Soweto to meet the locals and see the early homes of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, or a drive through a township to alert you to how things really haven't changed much in South Africa two decades into its democracy, there really isn't much to see.
Request a tour of a gold mine and you'll be taken to Gold Reef City – which is really more like the gaudy offspring of a Disney theme-park and a low-class Vegas casino (with a mine-shaft in there somewhere). There are a number of historical sites like the Apartheid Museum or Constitution Hill (almost all of which are associated in some way with Nelson Mandela). But even these leave you feeling vaguely unsatisfied.
Come to think of it, if you treated a visit to Johannesburg as a voyage into the life of Nelson Mandela, there is a lot to see and do. Nowhere did the great man leave his mark as much as he did in Johannesburg. Perhaps a good marketing move would be to rename the entire city in his honour, as we have so many parts of it. Mandelaburg, perhaps? Or Madibaham? Or maybe just Mandela? I kind of like that last one. So much better than naming a place after some guy called Johannes.
Johannesburg even tries to reach back to a more ancient anthropological history in order to establish some kind of appeal. You can visit the Origins Museum or travel slightly north of Johannesburg to the Cradle of Humankind. But really could see all there is to see inside Johannesburg in a day. Honestly, you really would be better off visiting any game reserve around the country for a few days or touring the 'mother city', Cape Town (selected as the number one tourist destination in the world for 2014 by both the New York Times and The Guardian.)
Cape Town really is a wonderful city to visit: full of colorful sights, lovely scenery, an interesting history and smug, slow-speaking Capetonians.
Johannesburg is hard – like the hardest parts of London or Paris (the parts you only see when you accidentally catch the wrong metro train), but unlike its brutal cousins in other parts of the world, Johannesburg has very few redeeming features – no beauty or lasting interestingness to offset its core ugliness. Perhaps this is what makes it worth visiting – perhaps the 'City of Gold' could be touted as an experience in violence and grime and ugliness.
What Johannesburg has done right is the Gautrain and the airport – both of which stand shoulder to shoulder with the best the world has to offer. (And by this I mean its efficiency, cleanliness and duty-free shops to waste your money on.)
These were my thoughts as I moved through passport control into the duty-free area, looking for somewhere to have a cigarette.
Life is hard for a smoker these days. Especially in airports. And restaurants. And airplanes. I blame the mass hysteria about second-hand smoke on corporate America. And like most of what they do, this manufactured hysteria is based solely on increasing profits. The rest of the world just followed their lead. Think about it: banning smoking has the duel benefits of saving money on refreshing air both in airplanes and airports, as well as creating a frantic set of shoppers who have to keep busy to stave off their cravings. Why else would cities like Paris have a strict ban on smoking in their airports where you can smoke practically everywhere else? If this is conspiracy is true, the next step is a ban on smoking on the Champs-Élysées. Watch it happen – and watch profits soar.
(As if to confirm the mindless hysteria around second hand smoke, people are now talking about 'third hand smoke' – where you breathe in smoke particles trapped in another non-smoker's clothes. There has to be a profit motive lurking behind this latest piece of manufactured scare-mongering – detergent companies maybe?)
Thankfully, OR Thambo has a smoking lounge – replete with lazy chairs and electronic charging stations – and coffee. You have to have coffee. I wasn't to know it, but I would spend more money on coffee during my travels than I did on food. And when I could have a cigarette with my brew, it was money very well spent.
Johannesburg to Dubai: On Cattle-Class, Stopovers and The Imaginary City
Flying cattle-class from Johannesburg to Dubai is an experience in and of itself. It seems you get the worst stewardesses, the worst plane, the worst food, the worst weather and the worst air. A fact borne out by the wonderful connecting flights I enjoyed subsequently flying with the same airline. If you ever want a reminder of what the world thinks of Africa, fly out of Johannesburg: just as you're wondering why the stewardesses aren't giving you the safety mime, they march along the aisles spraying you with some kind of delousing fog. I can't help thinking that things would be so much better if we could still smoke – the air would be fresher, having to put out small fires would make the stewardesses more alert and smokers would be less inclined to substitute vices and make drunken nuisances of themselves.
I will never again fly on any other airlines other than the ones which offer 'onboard entertainment'. Except that, true to form, it seemed I was the only one who couldn't get sound out out of the wretched thing. As I swore all kinds of ugly vengeance on the turbaned stewardess who refused to help me, I tucked into the onboard meal (which I know is so salty that it is only edible at altitude, but which I ate anyway). I think it was George Carlin who raged against the fake military mileau of air transportation, with captains and crew and uniforms and the like, but you can see why they have to create some sense of order, albeit entirely made up. Hundreds of people stuck inside a bucking metal cylinder thousands of meters high is a recipe for mass panic. Inside a few minutes, I slowly started to drift into the half-sleep /altitude dizziness that comes with airlines stealing your air.
Asleep, I had broken dreams of turbaned pirates on rough seas fighting with cigarettes. It was a wonderful dream, except it was all on mute.
Sooner or later, the international traveller is bound to get stuck in Dubai waiting for a connecting flight. There are worse places to be stuck (Charles de Gaulle airport comes immediately to mind). The good news is that it only takes a few hours to see what needs to be seen before returning, shell-shocked, for your connecting flight. Of course, this is exactly why stop-overs are so long in Dubai. In a phrase: they want your money. It is no coincidence that Dubai rhymes with YouBuy (a little 'joke' the 'locals' always throw at you – but of course there a very few locals and even fewer jokes in Dubai.)
Dubai is the ultimate example of how far humanity can move from nature and still survive. It is a city built on desert sand and the pure force of will that has the world's tallest building (for now), lush green parks and golf courses, an economy based on oil and consumerism, and the most air conditioners per capita of any place on the planet. And nowhere could I see as much as a nod to the environment. I failed to spot a single solar panel anywhere or even a small wind turbine – things you see all over Europe. Even Dubai's much needed desalination plants are power-hungry and inefficient. I'm sure there must be rooftop gardens somewhere to offset the urban heat island effect, but I imagine the water and chemicals that would be needed to keep them alive would make their potential environmental advantage meaningless. (At present, there is an environmentally friendly settlement going up just outside Dubai called Masdar. But even this feels more like a tourist / business gimmick than any kind of sincere gesture. If you could take away the hotels, conference facilities and shops, I'm sure Masdar, like Dubai city, would be practically empty.)
Dubai is an object lesson in hyper-reality. A mirage, if you will, that is somehow too real to be real. One thinks of Disneyland quite often while in YouBuy. If you compare pictures of what it looked like 20 some-odd years ago with the futuristic place it is now, you can hardly believe that so much could change in so short a span of time. And there are new fantastical buildings going up all the time. The whole place feels beyond possible. In fact, Dubai seems to pride itself on the impossible. The 7 star Burj Al Arab hotel moored along the coastline like an improbable sailing ship is enough to spin your head. What must it be like to stay in a 7 star hotel suite? Do they have an army of servants placing cushions beneath your feet as you walk? Someone to aid you in your bathroom visits? Someone to mouth your mouth when you chew on the succulent flesh of a dodo? A direct line to god himself?
Clearly, the whole of Dubai is designed to spin your head and empty your pockets. You don't see any trinket salesmen, or gypsies or pickpockets like you do in the other great cities of the world because, well, the whole city is a conman. Let your guard down even once and it will relieve you of everything you have. Take the famous aquarium in the Dubai mall. While you're wondering around, seemingly aimlessly, you pass photographers, restaurants, souvenir shops and the like. And you're spat out somewhere very different to where you started, disorientated and facing a line of shops, sparkling with designer brands, 80%-off deals, and the friendliest shop assistants you've ever seen. Play it like a game, though, and you realise the whole experience will cost you points unless you orientate yourself properly, dodge the money-crazy bad guys, thread your way through blank-eyed zombie shoppers, and get out with your wallet only slightly lighter than it was when you went in.
Dubai constantly makes you feel like you're on a different planet playing by different rules. And as wonderful and crazy as all of this is, Dubai has absolutely no soul whatsoever. This may be why so many South Africans – and Joburgers in particular end up there. Although it seems the exact opposite of a place like Johannesburg – it's clean, there is no graffiti or crime, things are well run and efficient, and Dubai's dictator is benevolent (ours is just corrupt and dumb), in actuality it is remarkably similar. The drivers are just as bad as Johannesburg's (even though they stop very politely to allow anyone crazy enough to be a pedestrian to cross anywhere, anytime), and Dubai (like Johannesburg) feels a bit like a One Direction song: sometimes catchy, but mainly empty and soulless – and more than a little dangerous to your personal well-being. (Dangerous because you always suspect that you could do something subtlety wrong – like being an atheist or sharing a room with an unmarried wife-like girlfriend – and end up being made to work the day shift at the airport landing strip for all eternity.)
All of this aside, there are some wonderful adventures to be had in Dubai – so long as you're ready to pay for them. You can tour the man-made islands shaped like a child's drawing of a palm tree and a map of the world, you can go to the very top of the $2 billion Burj Khalifa and look out on nothing from the above the clouds. And so on. But the best thing is to go dune bashing. You pay upfront, and thereafter, everything is included (with the exception of a short 'relief break' at a roadside shop with no bathrooms, no price labels and a man who shepards you into his shop to buy things you don't need at ridiculous prices). Having dodged this obvious con job by having a cigarette, and smiling sympathetically at those who paid close to R200 for crisps and a cold-drink we continued on to the dunes in our fancy air-conditioned 4×4 – where we stopped to wait for the other 50 or so 4x4s. But fear not, this is not a production line experience. Stroke your driver's ego with a few whoops, and eventually you're alone in the desert inside your dune-surfing 4×4. This is not a gentle ride – it can get decidedly rough – a fact substantiated by the vomit packets discretely tucked into the door recesses. After a brief stop to change a tire and to admire the sunset, it's on to a faux Arabian village experience. Withhold your disbelief and you'll be treated to wonderful food, and the most dazzling belly dancing I've ever seen (not that I've seen many). Even though the local Arabs clearly disapprove of all of this, and mostly keep to themselves (no doubt discussing ways to make more money), it is about as authentic and wonderful an experience as you will get in Dubai.
The most difficult thing about YouBuy, though, like most Arab countries, is the toilets. They have no toilet seats and a little water nozzle – which means that the floors and walls are wet. If you're not familiar with Muslim bathroom routines, this can be very disconcerting. Worse still if you are unable, or unwilling to defrock and squat strangely to do your business. Even more so if you accidentally walk into the stall which doesn't have a lavatory at all, but just a hole in the ground. I'll bet its not like this at the Burj Al Arab. Or if it is, there are magical djinns who take care of it all for you.
In the end, you're more than a little thankful to fly away from Dubai.
(By the way, if you happen to be stuck at Dubai International for a shorter span, try to find the gym for a shower – it costs $10 or so, but it is absolutely wonderful. Also, for a cigarette, take the elevator to the hotel on the second floor, walk past the bar down a little passageway to the most incredible and quiet little smoking room. Order some coffee and a sweet pistachio biscotti. Just don't tell your friends.)
Note: All of my international travels have been conducted with a travel company called Travel Again – operating out of Johannesburg. Travel Again specializes in cost-effective high quality school / group tours (which is how a poor school teacher like me gets to go). They are simply superb and are highly recommended – and neither Gordon nor Shaun have paid me to say so!