The large signs started showing up right outside of Ellis Park as we drove to the USA vs. Slovenia soccer match: "Johannesburg is ready." Sure, these signs were meant to tell foreigners that South Africa had everything in order for the 2010 World Cup. But they also seemed to be a pep-me-up for South Africans, as if the signs were saying, "Johannesburg is ready. Right, guys? Right?"
Before I left on my trip to South Africa to enjoy the World Cup, plenty of people tried to discourage me. My mom said it was too dangerous, and my friends wondered why I'd want to fly that far just for a soccer game.
But I'd never been to South Africa and I like watching soccer, so I thought I'd jump at the chance for a quick trip to the continent.
We arrived in Cape Town to visit a friend for a week before watching any matches. Having a friend drive us around (on the "wrong" side of the road) and show us the sites was amazing. We hiked up the huge Table Mountain, took a picture at the most southwestern point at the Cape of Good Hope, toured wineries and tasted South African's best delicacies.
The only time we came face-to-face with South Africa's violent and racist past was when we toured Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other anti-Apartheid leaders were imprisoned. And even then, we sensed a sort of rebuilding. As we chatted with a tour guide who had been an actual prisoner on the island, he told us that both he and other ex-prisoners now live on the island side-by-side with the ex-prison guards. In fact, they were all going together to watch the South African soccer match later that night.
Then we flew to Johannesburg.
We arrived at night and had to drive ourselves (again, on the "wrong" side of the road) to our hotel. We got lost in a bad section of town where people lined one sidewalk in their sleeping bags and grocery carts of belongings. We stopped at a gas station and got three different directions from three different people.
At the hotel, we were told our room had been given away and we'd have to go to another hotel location. We got back in the car and drove there, checking in with the security guard who stood watch at the hotel's barbed-wire topped gate. Oh yeah, our hotel had no heat and it was winter in South Africa.
Suffice it to say, our first night in Johannesburg wasn't what we expected. But the people of Jo-burg, as it's commonly abbreviated, were much different.
Everyone we met was eager to talk to us "foreigners." They loved trying to teach us their native language (there are 11 national languages recognized by the South African government) and enjoyed it when we knew how to say "Thank you" or "Hello" in return. They were enthralled by our accents and often asked us about expressions they'd heard on TV or how we normally do things back home.
They offered to drive us, teach us, show us things about their country. At one point, we were invited over for barbecue by a group of college-age boys, one of whom called his mother to have her assure us he and his friends were safe to hang out with.
But the common thread among the college-aged boys, the middle-aged male taxi cab driver, our young Botswana canopy tour guide and the elderly Apartheid museum guide was that they all wanted to know how we were enjoying ourselves. "How are you enjoying South Africa" and "What's your favorite part" and, most importantly, "Would you come back to visit?"
It was clear that South Africans everywhere were aware that the World Cup was a opportunity for them to show the world they were more than what the media had portrayed them as in the past, more than the stories of poverty and crime and despair. And each person we came in contact with tried their best to make our experience enjoyable.
Sure, there's crime there. Tourists wander to the wrong parts of town, meet the wrong types of people and lose their wallets or worse. There's intense poverty, as seen by the tent cities and families spilling out of their one-room houses onto the street.
But there's also have incredible beauty, like the African sunset over the Indian Ocean, a family of giraffes wandering the open plain and the jagged mountain range spewing red dust everywhere. Add to that the U.S. soccer team's advancement out of group play and the joyful sounds of the vuvuzela, and I'd tell anyone who asked, "Yes, I'd come back to South Africa to visit."
Landon Donovan hammers home a goal against Slovenia on June 18. All photos by Tana Weingartner.
In fact, the only time I did fear for my life was during the U.S.-Slovenia game on June 18. After two goals scored by Slovenia in the game's first half, the U.S. team came roaring back with a goal from Landon Donovan in the 48th minute and a nail-biting, end-of-play goal by Michael Bradley at the 82nd minute.
Shortly thereafter, U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu scored a third goal and the American fans went berserk. Sitting only 15 rows from the field, however, we saw the referee call back the goal. And then the fans turned ugly, shoving and spraying beer all around instead of crowd surfing and clinking beer bottles together as they'd been doing all game.
Fortunately, things calmed down enough to finish out the game, which stayed at a 2-2 draw.
I’ll just have to wait until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to see if the Yanks can provide more thrills.