I've landed in Port Elizabeth, alive and jet-lagged. More jet-lagged than alive. So jet-lagged, in fact, that I'm writing this in the middle of the night. I slept a few hours to repay a bit of sleep debt, but then I awoke and rolled around for an hour or so until deciding that I had enough of an idea to put out a few words.
My flight from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg, and the subsequent Johannesburg-Port Elizabeth flight were each remarkably unremarkable. Nice take offs, nice landings, no crying babies.
When I first boarded in D.C., I noticed that a woman, whom I would later find out was from Botswana, was sleeping in my seat. I decided I'd take the next one over, but then a nice American woman walked over and told me I was in her seat. At this point a nearby flight attendant asked to see my ticket.
"Perhaps you are mistaken; maybe you are in first class," he said, smiling, to the tired-looking boy wearing sweatpants and standing 50 rows away from first class.
I smiled back and produced a crumpled stub from my pocket, one that indicated that I belonged in the seat of the sleeping woman, who had since awakened. The flight attendant asked for her ticket, which actually gave her a seat one row back.
"Ma'am, you are in his seat. Is it okay if he takes your seat?"
She nodded. He turned to me.
"It's okay with you?"
It was, and without further incident I was in 57A.
This was my first taste of South Africa, and it was not lost on me. I know the frazzled state of airplane travel in my country, and I'm quite sure that on an American plane this kind of mix-up would have resulted in both of us being detained. I would eventually have been released, and sued the FAA, and the sleeping woman from Botswana would probably have been shackled and sent to Guantanamo for further questioning.
But here, on South African Airways? We smile and joke and switch, and it's over.
It was one of several differences I noticed on the flight alone. The most startling would come from the flight attendants: three pretty young women, and four men, three of whom I'm quite certain were not gay. I'm not saying that it's better to have pretty young women--okay, it is--or straight men serving you on a plane. It's just different.
But what was different and decidedly better was the attendants' attitude. For 15 straight hours, they smiled at passengers and laughed with each other. And they didn't laugh like the American, where's-my-Prozac, I'm-only-laughing-to-keep-from-crying kind of fake laughter. More like, "Did you see that guy in the Hawaiian shirt in 78D? He might as well wear a hat saying, 'PLEASE, TAKE MY TRAVELER'S CHECKS.' " Which I suppose is the kind of thing you can get away with when you speak a native tongue.
One of the guys was even nice when I blanked on a regional phrase. He came around with drinks and I asked for water.
What do you mean, 'still?' I thought. I just asked for it. I stared up at him for a second, and he realized my confusion.
"You want sparkling or still?"
The older gentlman sitting next to me downed a miniature bottle of red wine, and I struck up a conversation. It turned out he was originally from Uruguay, but had been living in D.C. for 20 years.
We talked off-and-on for a while, and he told me he was visiting a friend outside of Johannesburg. His friend had been running a construction business for some time in South Africa.
"It's a rich country, South Africa,” he said. “You know? They have a lot of gold and diamonds."
Because there was a language problem--and of course the problem was, this fellow didn't speak my language as well as I wanted--I held back.
I would have liked to say, "Ricardo, I believe your friend has misled you. A few people, like your friend, have done very well. Many more are struggling."
Instead I smiled and, like an idiot, said, "Yeah."
It's probably best I pick my battles.
. . .
So, back on solid ground, what then?
Being greatly concerned by race relations, I was immediately alarmed when I saw a thickly-accented white South African berating a black airport employee in Johannesburg. He was jabbing his finger in the guy’s face.
"Don't you fucking smile at me!"
I was relieved when later I saw the guy giving the same business to a white employee. Apparently someone had lost his bags, and no race, color or creed would be spared his wrath.
A black gentleman was standing right in my way after I passed through customs.
"May I take your bag for you?" he asked.
I wasn't quite sure how to get to the domestic flights, and I could've used the conversation, so I accepted.
He explained to me that we had to walk outside because they were rebuilding most of the airport. I had seen this. When I looked outside my window upon landing to discover three different cranes in operation. I'm not sure the typical crane-to-person ratio, but I assumed they were doing a massive overhaul, and he confirmed this.
"They are building the underground train, too," he said. "It's all for the World Cup."
Ah, there it was. The thing that I had come here for, the thing about which I have a thousand questions, had in fact found me.
Because to me, this is the story of the 2010 World Cup. Will South Africa be ready for it? What will that look like? And most importantly, what will this country look like when the games have come and gone?
After all, if South Africa builds subways and fix roads and expand airports and do all kinds of infrastructure work that had heretofore been beyond its government's reach or desire. . . well, after the World Cup is over, all of those things will still be here.
But I’m no dope. I’ve seen my country explain the side effects of big projects, and I’m trying to get better at taking the spin off of what I hear.
I know that one part of construction means deconstruction. I know that one part of revealing South Africa's developing culture is hiding its hideous past. I know that very near to the stadium in Port Elizabeth is the city's township, where steady work is rare and crime is common, and for some people the two are one and the same. I know that these people will watch tens and hundreds of thousands of foreigners pour into their country to go watch games they could not afford to see themselves.
I know you can't erase hundreds of years of poverty and prejudice in a couple of years. It's much easier to sweep those things under the rug when company comes over.
. . .
I lay in bed for some time, trying to organize my thoughts. But they were too far apart, and I couldn't get a hold of one of them for long enough to shape it into the written word.
After some time I saw it.
Usually when I'm trying to sleep, all I can see is the inside of my eyelids. When it's dark, they're black. When the light is creeping in it's those splotchy little spots and lines that I assume are blood vessels. But occasionally, a clear image sneaks out of my consciousness and into my mind's eye.
So here, in the middle of the night: a pair of dark brown eyes.
Even without a face to put them on, I knew they were the eyes of a child. I have no explanation for what they hell they were doing there. But I know where I can find them.
Somewhere in Port Elizabeth's township, or somewhere in the afterschool volunteer program, or on some street--perhaps as in this occurrence, when I'm not looking for them--I'll see those eyes again. Maybe I'll see them everywhere.
And that is where my story begins. Anyone who saw those eyes and didn't understand what they had to do with the 2010 World Cup is either a sports-obsessed creep or an insensitive jackass.
The question is not what those eyes, what this child means to the World Cup. The question is what might this World Cup mean to the child.