The Post Racial Wasteland

The current state of race relations in America has been boiled down to the recent outrage over police brutality in minority neighborhoods. While many barrels of ink and pixels of screen space have been used to decry the deplorable state of policing in at-risk minority neighborhoods, very little has been used to look at the root of the problem.

Self-selecting communities have been a little mentioned effect of the post civil rights era. As strict institutional barriers regarding mobility among races fell by the wayside, the less rigid barriers erected by the free market took their place. What we now face, is a prototypical South Africa drawn up on the lines of wealth as opposed to institutional racism.

I had the opportunity to see Johannesburg, South Africa through a variety of lenses typically unavailable to an American tourist. After 5 months of traveling through Australia and Southeast Asia, I landed in Johannesburg to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders showcase. Alongside the literally towering figures of Dikembe Mutumbo, Andrei Kirilenko and the first African born GM in NBA history, Masai Ujiri, I saw 50 of the most talented young athletes on the continent, while taking in sites from “the other half” or more accurately the other 90% in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our days were spent at the gleaming American school on the outskirts of Jo-Burg proper. A facility that would’ve made many prestigious American schools blush with inadequacy, the school was a shining beacon. It was also surrounded by the ubiquitous razorwire fences that had become as much a part of the South African landscape as the baobao and marula trees. Post-apartheid South Africa dealt with the institutional policies that made racism a part of the land, but in an economic climate that sees white South Africans bring home an annual income nearly on par with Americans, the black population sees on average 1/7th of that.

The first thing that I was told in Johannesburg was to exercise extreme caution. Expensive jewelry, phones and computers were to be kept in a bag, if not locked up away from your person. To be mugged in Jo-Burg is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

That crime was considered such a fact of life was a concept completely foreign to me. Besides a few minor dustups in Vietnam and Thailand, I had encountered no such crime in my travels up to this point in areas far poorer by per capita GDP measures.

As I wandered, Christopher Columbus style for the lack whites that I saw, through the Central Business district, I realized that the crime seen in South Africa was not a case of absolute poverty so much as the corrosive nature of relative poverty, a condition much more likely to yield violent and volatile results. White South Africans (and a growing black plutocrat class) live behind their razorwire fences in compounds more reminiscent a Westchester hamlet than the shantytowns of nearby Soweto, where I visited a primary school where an astounding 39% of students are HIV positive. This problem was defined far more by economics than race.

The America I inhabit looks more and more like that South African scene every day. While the rich suburb of Carmel, Indiana dickers over a new 27 million dollar youth sports facility, the potholes just 6 miles south are large enough to eat a VW Rabbit.

Indianapolis found itself budgetarily unable to plow side streets this winter, but the Monon Running/Biking Trail used primarily from the wealthy “Yuppie” class found itself plowed nearly on the hour. Our self selecting society and parochial local tax structure has combined to essentially create a tale of two cities in nearly all of our major metropolitan areas.

The ties that bind Americans together are more fragile than ever before. Whereas the post-war generation saw managers and laborers living in the same neighborhoods, sending their children to the same schools, and taking in the same entertainment, the Jim Crow of today has replaced the “Coloreds Not Served” sign with one that looks like $. Racism has been replaced by economic elitism; the color of money washing away the color of skin in the new segregation of the haves and have nots.

There’s no need for a sign on the door telling who isn’t welcome when the cocktail is $14.

A quick look around the rural portions of my state will reveal a growing ghetto, made up not of blacks but of a largely white economically disenfranchised population. The HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana caused by intravenous drug use has shown that social issues are also color blind. Their problems are a mirror onto those of the Great Society Generation that saw the lower class inner-city family unit fall victim to drugs, broken homes and a lack of economic opportunity.

Discretionary handouts do not replace economic opportunity on either a moral or results basis. The problems of drug use, teen pregnancy and violence have gotten progressively worse as opportunity has become more distant. These policies served only to excuse the thriving upper classes from economically disenfranchising their lower class brethren.

As multiple generations saw economic disenfranchisement become the only reality that they’d ever known, an economic evolution took place which threatens to separate the socioeconomic classes into entirely different species.

“Us vs. Them” rhetoric of has been used to great effect in politics and it has become a self-fulfilling policy. Simply glancing at a chart of obesity and birth rate by income will show that those making under $25,000 a year are more than twice as likely to be obese, and have a birth rate 80% higher than those making more than $75,000 a year. These differences are magnitudes larger in reproduction, habitat and size than those separating the distinct African and Asian elephants.

While wealthy urban elites wring their hands at the outbreaks of violence in NYC, Baltimore, and St. Louis, it is not of some deep seeded concern but instead because they are afraid that the invisible but present boundaries of privilege will not be sufficient when the feces and fan intermingle.

The only long term solution to the problems cleaving the American dream from an ever increasing portion of the populace is the economic revitalization of these depressed areas. The economists I studied in college maintained that overall economic growth was the only outcome that mattered, but if “on paper” GDP growth only goes to fund further militarization of the police force and additional social handout programs, what did we actually gain?

Urban or rural, the root of the myriad social problems seen today is not drawn along the oft-cited lines of race. To quote our famous Cajun sage:

“It’s the economy stupid.”

Emotional Attachment

Good morning from hot, sticky Thies.

While the Western world might not have a cohesive strategy for ISIS, Noah and I had a detailed strategy session last night to develop a plan for dealing with the hardened West African terrorists known as mosquitoes. Having been eaten alive nightly for the last 10 days, we had to change something in our tactics.

A 3 step plan, bug bombing the room an hour before going to sleep, drenching ourselves in repellent, and changing our potentially infested mats and I woke up with…considerably fewer bites. The cost of freedom from mosquitoes is high, and requires constant vigilance.

No one will sleep while these terrorists are at large.

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Having had a week in Thies to interact with the kids, I’m starting to become unfortunately attached. We’ve already had some setbacks, with the Embassy denying a visa to one of our Academy students, Ibrahima, who had been given a 50k/year scholarship to the elite Hyde School in CT. The fact that a mid-level bureaucrat, who probably got his job by virtue of the US political patronage system, would stand in the way of a deserving kid’s immense opportunity is both heartbreaking and intensely infuriating.  

The loss to Ibrahima is huge, but the loss to the kids at the Hyde School is really no less. Typically, 50k/year East Coast prep schools are not bastions of socioeconomic diversity. The benefit to those kids through both the cultural interaction, and the fact that they will have a face to associate with West Africa would be huge.

Ibrahima, to his credit, took the bad news stoically. I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I would’ve punted a basketball clear to Mali. He stood there, as Noah told him, and then walked over to his friends with a body language that hadn’t changed. We’ll keep looking for other options for him, and he’ll keep working hard in the gym, perhaps with no greater end in mind than being better than he was yesterday.

All this because a stuffed shirt bureaucrat was told to reject more student visas.

We keep trucking though, working with other students in the hope that this was a one-off problem. One of the captains of the Academy, Abdou Gaye, is applying to a prep school in upstate NY to further his English and gain exposure for college programs. A quiet leader whose English is good until he psyches himself into a stutter, Abdou is exactly the kind of kid that we try to develop at SEED. He’s been in the program 3 years, passed his Baccalaureate exam (only 31% of the few who take the test pass), and has been selected for both the Basketball Without Borders and the U20 National Team. He met Noah and I for lunch to work on his application, and then sent us a heartfelt message for the help after we left.

We met him at the gym to play some half court last night. I should mention that we only have one functioning light at the gym, so half court is more of a forced activity after 8PM. The other side of the court was still filled with kids dribbling in the darkness.

I grew up with some gym rats, especially some of the kids at the Boys Club. Let me assure you, I’ve never seen anyone with enough desire to go dribble in the dark until someone boots them out of the gym.

I drew the unenviable task of guarding Abdou, which was comical for anyone watching. I shouldn’t be allowed on a basketball court with well coached 12 year olds, let alone a bunch of freak athletes, the shortest being a mere 6’6’’. Abdou threw down a couple of 1 handed slams in the 3 games, including one where he almost ran his nose into the bottom of the rim.

I just tried to shuffle my slow, white and old feet in front of him as much as possible.

Noah and I tried to exploit some teachable moments, especially with respect to the physicality of the American game. These kids are all stringbeans, as Mactar found out when he challenged the “toubab” to wrestle.

Listen kid, you might have a full foot on me, but your 160 lbs is NOT going to be putting me on my back. Try again in 40 lbs.  

The games ended when Thies suffered one of its many blackouts. We shuffled to the exit, trying to locate phones and wallets before calling it a night. I think there were still 25 kids in the gym when we left. 17 of them working in lighting categorized as “semi-darkness” at best.

Noah and I headed down the dirt roads back to the apartment, crossing the railroad tracks/dump, and asking “Ca va?” to the many families huddled around radios in the darkness in the “streets.”

It is fun to see the talent and it is amazing to see the drive. It is also heartbreaking to know that all the work these kids put in, both on the court and in the classroom, can be derailed by a bureaucrat after an interview that lasts less than 3 minutes.

The ability to have hard work rewarded is a fundamental component of the American Dream.

It is not however, a universal truth.

Water for Elephants

“We’ve got too many elephants in Kruger.”

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Good morning. I’m fresh from a 4 day safari in the South African bush in Kruger National Game Preserve. I’ve spent a fair amount of time outdoors in this life, but nothing could have prepared me for the unbelievable wildlife diversity that I have witnessed over the past 4 days.

I was picked up from my hostel in Johannesburg, slightly confused as I had planned to leave a day later. Instead, I ambled onto the bus after a half of a cup of coffee, trying to email Noah and Romola so that they didn’t think I’d been mugged and left for dead after I left them on Friday night.

The email didn’t send, and sure enough, I had an email in my inbox questioning my continued membership among the ranks of the living. I was fine though, and we’d arrived at the base camp on the western edge of Kruger in one piece.

On the drive out, I was treated to a decent sampling of South Africa’s agricultural industry. Mile after mile of irrigated corn, citrus and grape fields flew by my window. Some had massive nuclear reactors in the distance, which made for a startling contrast of wide open space to the 5 open coned reactor chimneys in the background.

As we drove, we started to see various species of wildlife near the road. Ostriches, buffalo and various antelope species were seen browsing through the fallow winter cornfields. I have seen many things in cornfields during my Indiana youth, but until yesterday, I have never seen a pack of 150-180 pound baboons having their run of the place. It was quite a surreal sight.

Upon arriving at base camp, we threw our stuff into our Spartan but clean rooms, making sure to lock our doors, not from the threat of theft, but to ensure that the monkeys didn’t help us unpack as we went on our sunset drive.

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Adam, our 24 year old guide from Fairfax, Virginia, was an excellent host as he piled us into the open air 4×4 to start the drive. Within 500 meters, we saw a small group of bachelor Cape Buffalo browsing near the road.

I laughed as I thought of PJ O’Rourke’s line in Parlaiment of Whores about Tipper Gore. Something to the extent of her uncanny resemblance to a Cape Buffalo and the need to shoot for the kill, as there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Cape Buffalo.

We also saw several giraffes, antelope and impala species on our drive, before coming upon two “tusker” elephants, the size of which made my Asian elephant ride look like I was on the kiddie carousel outside of K-Mart.

These beasts were absolutely massive, and were pushing down trees as big around as my waist like they were bowling pins. I could’ve sat there and watched these big boys browse around in the fading sunlight for hours, but there was more to see.

Further down the path, we came upon some wildebeest, and the voice of Sir David Attenborough started to play in my mind as he narrated the “Great Migration” wherein several million wildebeest migrate thousands of miles across the plain. Adam got to take part in the “Great Migration” a few years ago, and said that it was an absolutely breathtaking experience to see that many animals, each almost as big as a Clydsedale moving with instinctual abandon.

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We finally made camp out in the bush, having a prepared dinner in a ring of pointy rocks (these supposedly dissuade charging elephants, thankfully I didn’t have to find out if it actually works.) As we sat and ate, we heard a larger herd of female and young elephants in the distance. To hear them cracking trees and stumbling across the plain as the mighty white carnivore gnaws on his chicken bone, well that was an ambiance that would be tough to replicate in a Manhattan restaurant.

The next day, we woke early and were taken out by Adam and Mombobo, a local guide for a 4 hour bush walk. While we weren’t coming face to face with many animals, (some hippos and an incredibly rare river otter notwithstanding) we were able to take some time to learn about actual life in the bush. From reading tracks, to discerning both species and freshness of dung piles, to learning which trees to burn and which to leave alone in a pinch, my savannah education is much further along than it was a week ago. The amount of information left in every square meter of the bush is astounding if you know how to process it.IMG_0338

 

The next day we travelled within the bounds of Kruger for nearly 10 hours. During this time we had not one, but two great leopard sightings. Words can’t describe seeing a cat like that in its natural habitat. It is both exhiliarting and terrifying, knowing that a predator of that size, speed and grace is within 30 meters of you. We watched this male for probably an hour, as he lazily stretched over a tree branch before finally becoming bored and stalking off across the plain. I was nearly shaking from the excitement of the whole thing. A leopard in a zoo will never compare.

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By the end of my journey, we’d identified nearly 50 different species of mammal and lizard, and countless birds. The guides all know to play to a Western audience by putting things in terms of Lion King characters whenever possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a lion during our time at Kruger, only the day before a group we’d met had seen a pride of female lions take down and devour a giraffe, which must’ve been incredible.

Talking more with the guides about the state of affairs in the park, I was saddened by the news. Nearly 3 black rhinos are being poached every day. With the Eastern market (re:Chinese) paying nearly $150,000 US per kilogram of black rhino horn as an aphrodisiac (the average adult horn being between 4-6 kg) the incentives are massive. Kruger is a park the size of Wales, and patrolling that much is an impossible task. This year alone, nearly 600 rhinos have been killed for their horns, out of a population estimated to be 2500. In China, Dao elders have now made excommunication the ban for using such endangered species. Buddhists have always been against the senseless killing of animals, but the consumption at all costs culture of the Chinese elite continues to pay top dollar for these incredibly rare and beautiful creatures.

With respect to the quote at the beginning, the Kruger park has a carrying capacity of 10,000 elephants, and is currently running near 18,000. Most people would say more elephants are great, but the 400-600 kg a day that an adult African elephant eats, puts the ecosystem at risk if there are more elephants than the land can support. An adult will push over as mnay as 3 trees a day during the dry season to get ahold of the mosture and nutrients found at the root ball. The land simply can’t support that much destruction, even if it occurs naturally.

Therefore, hunting has to be allowed in Kruger. Many animal rights activists decry this, but it is for the good of the whole ecosystem. Adam thought that one could get an elephant permit for around $100,000, the money going directly back to conservation and anti-poaching efforts. I know my former boss will not eat at Jimmy John’s because of some pictures of Jimmy shooting large game in Africa, but in the case of the elephant, it is a necessary culling of a herd without natural predators. And if more land is bought to abut the preserve, that shooting will save more elephants than the one that was shot.

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Habitat destruction is a major issue. Adam kept bringing up the fact that there are 7 billion people on this earth and less that 2500 black rhinos. He has spent time going out to tag black rhinos, of the 20 he tagged in January, 3 have already been poached.

The effect this has on his psyche is marked, but he knows that there is really no way to combat the forces of a faceless market offering nearly one million dollars to people who scrape out a subsistence living.

Also, the farms that I saw on the way to Kruger have destroyed millions of acres of natural habitat. While it is funny to see a pack of baboons in a corn field, the fact remains that that cornfield is the one that is out of place.

Any farmer reading this, please don’t take a drink for a few minutes. We are destroying the natural habitat of lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos for land that yields approximately 45 bushels per acre when planted in corn.

I put that statistic together last night and checked it 3 times because I was sure that I had made a mistake.

45 measly bushels per acre.

Even the worst farmland in Indiana will yield nearly 4 times that much in an average year, and we didn’t tear down any natural habitat for elephants to get it.

I sat and laughed at the absurdity of a world that allows this to happen. We’ve had more than enough food to feed the global population since the green revolution of the 1970s. Yet we are still scraping the most marginal of land, tearing down savannah, rainforest and jungle to do so.

Every action has an effect on this world. Even loading up that 3rd plate at Golden Corral.

 

An Enduring Legacy

A few days ago, I put a picture up with reference to our trip to the Diodi Primary School in Soweto. The focus of my post was headed elsewhere, and I really didn’t feel that I did justice to a picture and a place that were incredibly powerful.

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The Soweto area of Johannesburg is one of the poorest in the city. As we drove to the schools, the Western-style shopping malls and retail centers rapidly gave way to handpainted signs and low slung brick housing which in turn gave way to shantytowns of steel shacks on the dust covered plain.

39% of the students at the Diodi School are HIV positive.

39%.

When Caryl Stern, the chairwoman of the UNICEF US Fund, offered that stat on the bus ride over, I assumed she’d misread the fact sheet.

That can’t be right…can it?

I should’ve known better, people as driven and successful as Caryl do not make mistakes with statistics like that. The stats were spot on, and my view on the world quickly began crashing down around my ears.

Suddenly Africa became real. It was no longer a place simply transmitting tragic but ignorable news. Suddenly it was a real humanitarian crisis complete with faces and names.

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As we entered the school, it was an amazing scene. I would guess that there were roughly 300-350 kids waiting for us in the center of the grounds, screaming and shouting to beat the band. Our group included the GM of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, players Greg Monroe, Andre Kirilenko, and various executives from the NBA and NBA Cares Foundation.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

And me. I was there too.

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After a brief introduction, we broke up with about 75 of the kids in 3 classrooms, leading a small group discussion on “dreams.”

I’ve talked about dreams worth having on this blog. Living to the age of 30 is likely to be an unfulfilled dream for many of these kids.

And you thought that Lexus was important.

I was picked to be a group leader. The kids should’ve been rightfully disappointed that they got me instead of an international sports star, but I was still treated like some sort of combination of Elvis/The Beatles/Shaq.

We got down to business, talking about these kids aspirations for the future and the importance of education in achieving those dreams. Several wanted to be basketball players, an obvious choice given the group, but one little girl wanted to be a fashion designer.

We drew out our dreams (nothing like being embarrassed artistically by a group of South African 9 year olds) and then went around the table to discuss them. At that point, I had to choose one child from our table to present on our behalf, and Judith, with her unique dream of fashion designer was the ticket.

She and I walked up to the front of the class, as the NBA players presented with their kids. I felt 3 feet tall and invisible as I presented my dream of being an author, and talked about the role of education in my dream. Judith got up, shy as anything, and looked down at the ground as she whispered to the large group.

About 10 seconds into this, I stopped her, stooped down to look her in the eye and said, “Judith, you have a dream to be proud of. Look up and tell these people about it.”

Suddenly it was like a different little girl emerged from the one standing before me. Her voice became magically magnified, and she looked directly at the audience. When she walked back over to take her place in front of me, I whispered good job, and she beamed like she’d just been drafted by the Pacers.

We walked outside and the kids showed us some of the games that they play. Basketball wasn’t among them as the court was a rusted mass of 4 broken down hoops, but they taught us their form of dodgeball/cricket/Jenga and some chalk games that can be played with whatever rocks are around.

As Noah and I were playing, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. Judith had been searching for me since we’d left the classroom. She very shyly said, “I want you to have this.”

It was the picture she’d drawn of her dream as a fashion designer.

I’ll attribute it on the dust kicked up by the game, but my eyes got awfully watery.

Judith walked away as I tucked the picture into my pocket. I scanned the grounds and came upon this little boy, very literally on the outside looking in. I walked over to him, unsure of what exactly I was going to say, but just wanting to reach through that tangled mass of barbed wire to let him know that someone saw him.

The resulting picture is as haunting as I’ve ever taken.

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In the West, much is made of racism. In America, it is truly the one thing that a public figure can never come back from. Ray Lewis was implicated in a murder, and retired a secular saint. Michael Jackson was a pedophile in all but criminal record, and at the time of his death was mourned publicly as if he were Mandela. Ted Kennedy left a girl to drown due to his own drunken recklessness, and died a respected senator.

However, if the charge of racism is leveled at you, look out. Paula Deen went from beloved TV personality to absolute pariah in roughly 20 minutes. The mere mention of racism is enough to make most politicians detach a hand from the constant wringing while they wet themselves. Donald Sterling, the NBA’s longest tenured owner, saw his team taken away for racial slurs stated in a “private” phone call with his decades younger mistress.

I think that much of this has lost the point of what racism is. Racism isn’t about a derogatory term, a slur or a joke. Racism is about the dehumanization of a group. Seeing people not as brothers and sisters in humanity, but instead as a lesser creature, the same as you’d look at a squirrel or monkey.

It is that dehumanization that allows conflicts like the one in Gaza to go on decade after decade. It is the legacy of that dehumanization that still haunts the African continent today.

That is racism, the true corrosive kind that adversely affects human lives.

Donald Sterling shouldn’t have had his team taken away for stupid remarks to his 20 something mistress. He should’ve had his team taken away for the systemically racist policies that he was found guilty of using as a Los Angeles landlord.

One instance was words spoken in private, betraying an absurd ignorance of life and technology but not actually impacting anyone’s life. The other kept actual people from receiving housing based on the color of their skin.

The difference is, one can be made into a soundbyte and played in 15 seconds. The other… requires a more nuanced analysis than Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless baying at each other like a pair of hungry hounds.

As I look at the legacy of European dehumanization on this continent, I am shocked at the level of racism that still exists in this world. Everywhere in Johannesburg has a wall topped with barbed or electrically charged wire. Sometimes both.

Riding home from dinner last night, I was talking to my driver about this. He was 10 years old when apartheid fell, and he told me that there was hardly any walls and barbed wire before that. This was largely because if you were black walking into a neighborhood of whites, you’d better have a work permit or you could be sent to jail or even shot.

As the institutionalized political walls of apartheid fell, real physical walls appeared.

Just like an alcoholic who puts the cork in the bottle without dealing with his addiction, the underlying problem remains. The legacy of dehumanization merely took on a brick and mortar face, as opposed to the hateful ones of politicians.

Unfortunately, that makes the next step in the struggle for equality that much harder. It is easy to rally international political support against a regime which systematically disenfranchises large portions of a population. It is much harder to whip up the same intensity in the face of endless, unnamed walls.

As I saw that little boy on the wrong side of the fence, the problem hasn’t been solved, it has merely evolved.

I’ve seen a lot of the world in this trip, but the most important part of my personal evolution has been the elements of the human condition that I’ve been exposed to. To stand in the middle of abject poverty, next to millionaire basketball players is a surreal experience.

The differences could not be more stark, nor the need for action greater.

For all the gutwrenching emotions that such a scene can bring, I couldn’t be more happy that I’m here, in the land of Gandhi and Mandela, seeing this with my own two eyes.

The world is not set into neat teams, us vs. them. We are all brothers in this shared condition we call humanity. Occasionally we need to remind ourselves of that. These kids depend on it.

Good Morning Johannesburg!

New continent new thoughts. I arrived in Johannesburg about 1:30 yesterday afternoon, after a hellacious 31 hour/2 layover journey from Singapore. The incredibly unhelpful women at the Ethiopian airlines counter in Singapore had me all nervous that I was going to get tossed back to the winds of international travel at immigration due to my lack of an onward plane ticket, but this ended up being a load of bollocks. The immigration agent I dealt with, an African named Jeremiah, was as polite and helpful as anyone I’ve dealt with on this trip, and I even ended up spending a few extra minutes shooting the breeze with him after my stamps had been graciously applied.

So I was off to a good start all things considered, and I was supposed to be getting picked up by a driver from the NBA at the Jo-burg airport, so this was going to continue to be a walk in the park.

Just like the commentators curse on a perfect game, as soon as the thought left my mind, things went catawampus.

My driver was no where to be seen, and the internet wouldn’t let me make phone calls, only shoot emails, so after a half hour I decided to take my chances and jump on the train.

I say take my chances not because I was overly concerned about getting lost, (although I only had a neighborhood and hotel name to go on) but because crime in Johannesburg isn’t so much an unexpected incident as the cost of doing business. I figured in broad day light, surely I’d be alright, although with 50 lbs of gear draped both over my back and front, I surely wasn’t going to be in much of a position to try to defend myself if I wasn’t.

So onto the train I went. It was pretty straightforward (other than the pricing, which I’m pretty sure I got hosed on, even though it was all computerized.) Soon I was jumping off at the Roseland stop, climbing into the early spring sun and looking around for the Hyatt.

I couldn’t find one, so I started looking for a restaurant or something with WiFi. I found a McDonald’s down the road, which of course, didn’t have WiFi, but I took a load off my feet to regroup and figured I’d ask around and maybe get lucky.

As soon as I sat down, a boy who I thought looked awfully Chinese/Malaysian sat down next to me. He was a school kid, as school must’ve just let out because there were all kinds of white kids in private school uniforms. He started to make conversation (something about a massive backpack just screams “talk to me”) and I asked him if he knew where I was going. He laughed and said he didn’t, but he asked if I knew where he was going.

Next year, he is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study biomedical engineering. He’s yet to find Oklahoma on a map, so he was ecstatic to find an American who would vouch for the place. I told him I’d never been there personally, but I did briefly date a girl whose dad was a dean out there and she’d spoken highly of the place. He seemed relieved by my milquetoast review.

Finally I found an old man who knew where the Hyatt was. I trudged down the road until I came to the place. Now at this point I was an oily, stanking mess. I’d been on a plane for nearly a day and a half, and hadn’t seen a real bed or shower in 48 hours. I waltzed right into the Hyatt like I owned the place however, and within 5 minutes, I’d talked one of the front desk girls into letting me up to use the spa while I waited for my friends.

God bless her. I felt like a new man after 30 minutes in the steam room, plunge pool and the spa.

I headed back down to the lobby to wait on Noah and Romola and was promptly joined by about 30 flight attendants from Luftansa, an airline that still knows how to hire lovely flight attendants. After chatting with a few from Colonge and Dresden, I saw Dikembe Mutumbo walk into the lobby, big as all outdoors.

For those of you who don’t know who Dikembe Mutumbo is, I’m sorry. He was one of the first true African players in the NBA, and also one of the funniest. I’m currently typing this without the help of internet, but I’d imagine that he is every bit of 7 feet tall, and I know that he has size 22 shoes because I put my own meager size 12 foot next to one and almost fainted that a man can be that big. I didn’t have the cajones to ask him to give his famous line after a big block (a finger wag complete with, “No, No, NO!”) but he was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.

Behind him came the smaller, but still incredibly large Noah. It was a watershed moment as this was the first time I’d seen somebody I’d known before the trip since Benny left on June 5. 2 months of making friends on the go has been a blast, but occasionally it is a nice warm feeling to see someone you’ve known for a while.

I gave him a hug, the best that a 5’10’’ guy can give a 6’8’’ guy a hug and he laughed and pointed at Romola 15 feet away in a corner of the restaurant, who had been there all day.

Myopic vision runs in the family.

We caught up and talked about what’s going on, both in the US, the world and at this Basketball Without Borders showcase. He started pointing out the various NBA personalities around the room, from players to scouts to the coach of the Raptors who was kind enough to later sketch out a few base offensive plays for Noah and me.

The whole thing was just a little surreal, especially for someone who has been backpacking through the jungle for most of the last 4 months.

I hung around for a few hours, attending a talk about apartheid by the first South African Olympic chair after Mandela’s election. Finally I headed off to my hostel, as my budget wasn’t going to allow me to stay in the $150 a night Holiday Inn next door to the Hyatt where Noah and Romola were staying.

I initially thought about taking the train and then walking. That idea was blasted out of the sky like a Minnesotan duck on opening day. Everyone kept trying to impress upon me, “it isn’t IF you’ll get robbed out there by yourself tonight, it is a when.” I saw the wisdom of their words and jumped into a car arranged by the hotel.

It was quite a cab ride. I spoke with the driver on the way, and we drove past beautiful home after beautiful home, all surrounded by 8-10 foot walls and razor wire. I’m not talking a few; I’m talking every single one. The streets were beautiful, clean and tree lined, but there is obviously a vein of crime running unseen that is not to be messed with.

Whatever progress has been made since the fall of apartheid, there is infinitely more work to be done.

When I finally arrived at my guesthouse, it too was surrounded by a razorwire wall and had not one but two gates that had to be opened before I could enter. It is unlike any hostel I’ve stayed at yet though.

Once a single-family mansion, it was converted at some point into a hostel with one 20 bed dorm and several 4 bunk bedrooms. The place is beautifully designed, and for some reason reminded me strongly of my great-grandmother. Heinz, the proprietor was working when I rolled up. He let me in, started a tab in case I wanted to have a few drinks, and showed me the grounds. I could tell that the grounds were fantastic because no one was allowed out after dark. Even as I sit here writing this post at 7AM, a girl is trying to go run, but can’t get out of the compound to do so.

Danger really does abound in this beautiful land.

Today it is back to the BwB showcase, with some scrimmages and maybe another round of village visits this afternoon. I’m excited to see more of the area, as I’ll only be in Jo-Burg for about another 2 days before heading over to the Kruger National Park on the Mozambique border. I can’t wait to see some of the most naturally beautiful land on earth, as well as take part in a few game drives with rhinos, lions, cheetahs and the like in their natural habitat.

The world is always offering a new adventure, just make sure you don’t get mugged along the way.