Thursday, October 6, 2011


My coworker, D, invited me to a poetry reading in Newtown one evening. Newtown is located in downtown Johannesburg and is part of the inner city revitalization project. Many of the city's poorest live downtown and condemned buildings are a common sight. Newtown, however, now has a hip, artsy vibe to it, with museums, cafes, restaurants, a theater, and bookstores. The city's young, educated crowd can be found congregating there discussing art and poetry over wine (the poetry reading I attended had free wine and snacks). It was a great experience for me because it was neither a tourist attraction (lion cubs) nor something I could see back home (highways). The headlining poet was from Jamaica, but the opening acts were all young South Africans. Their poetry maneuvered effortlessly between  languages, cultures, and slangs. One second it was in English, the next in Zulu. One moment I could understand what they were saying, then the next thing I knew the crowd was laughing at some phrase I didn't understand. It was a fascinating experience, and one which was reinforced throughout my time in South Africa.

"Jozy's cabs will never be like Durb's" said one of the young poets. My coworker saw my blank look and turned to me: "Jozy is Johannesburg and Durbs is Durban." "Jozy's cabs will never be like Durb's" he repeated. "Jozy's cabs will never be like Durb's" he said yet again, this time miming something with his hands. The crowd hooted and whistled.


I found myself in Newtown a few weeks later for a modern art exhibit in a converted factory. It was a lot like how I imagine Greenwich Village; Hipsters abounded as I'd never seen before. There were vintage clothes and posters for sale, and stalls selling weird organic/alternative/funky food. I decided to try out the hot dog stand, which had some unique condiments: tomato and onion chutney, peanut and sweet chili sauce, and smashed Fritos (which they pronounced "fry-toes"). Since they allowed you to choose as many condiments as you wanted, I went with the latter two. While the peanut and sweet chili sauce wasn't bad, the crunch of the smashed Fritos sort of made my hot dog taste gritty. My opinions weren't shared by everyone, however: I overheard another patron dubbing the hot dog toppings "epic."

My fellow interns and I had been invited to the art exhibit by a girl who had come by our office one day looking for a job. She'd just graduated from college in the US and had studied abroad in Johannesburg, so she came back looking to do some women's rights work (though her South African boyfriend might have had something to do with it). There were also two undergrads from Harvard who were working at the Special Olympics and teaching people basketball (apparently it's not very popular in SA). Meeting these young people made me realize how boring I'd been at their age.* I had always considered myself quite adventurous for studying abroad in Europe and teaching in Korea, but going all the way to South Africa was so much more interesting. After the art exhibit, we went to a karaoke bar in Greenside, a wealthy suburb of the city. This particular bar has a famous drink called the John Deere, which is a 2-liter bottle cut in half and filled with a mix of cane (like rum) and cream soda. I assume the beverage was the reason why everyone was singing terrible pop songs from the 80s.

*I was their age 2 years ago.

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