Joburg Expat: Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day

September 23, 2012

Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day

Someone recently commented that it felt like I was their tour guide through Expat Life in South Africa.

Well, I don't know about that, but today I definitely felt like a tour guide. An Off the Beaten Track kind of tour guide, taking my flock right into the heart of Alexandra, one of South Africa's most notorious neighborhoods, giving them a rare glimpse of this oft-maligned township, with plenty of This is Africa moments sprinkled in. And, to top it off, another traffic cop story.

Dilapidated sports field in Alexandra

What could be better than another traffic cop story? Joburg Expat just wouldn't be the same without them.

It all started out with three ginormous duffel bags. Filled with baseball equipment that had traveled a rather circuitous route to end up in  my garage. If you've hung around this blog for a while, you might be aware of my efforts over the past two years to help the Alexandra Baseball league. One of my friends back in Wisconsin had gone out of her way knocking on the doors of high schools to beg for their used equipment and collected a mountain of gear for her garage, from where it was dispatched here to South Africa little by little on whichever path available, the latest of which included an American family moving here from literally two towns over and generously offering some of their container space for it.

Today was the day I was going to deliver this equipment to its storage in Alexandra, from where the coaches move it to various schools as needed when they are running baseball clinics and such, all on their own time and with practically no money.

And while I was there, I was also going to use our Paypal donations to help buy fencing materials so that finally, finally, we could put together that elusive back stop. No team will come play league games on your sports field if you don't have a backstop. And travelling to other fields the entire season has always been prohibitively expensive for a team where none of the parents or coaches own a car. Not a single one.

Now, I've come to learn from past experience that driving into Alexandra is never a quick errand. I always get recruited into delivering things from here to there or ferrying people from there to here, or tagging along to potential donors to help beg for money or food. But I still wasn't quite ready for the extra bout of patience that was required of me today. And not only of me, but of my tour group as well. A tour group of one, admittedly, and a non-paying one, but still I felt quite honored to be giving our German visitor a tour through fabled Alexandra.

The first challenge, as always, is hooking up with my friends Tedius and Cedric. I'm hopeless at navigating through Alex, so we usually agree on a meeting point somewhere along London Road, which more often than not changes at least twice after I've left the house. All is well today, however, and we soon have two more passengers sitting in the car, giving us directions of where to go.

A glimpse into Alexandra's back yards

Basketball court at Atrec Stadium - I have serious fence envy!

Except we're not going to the little hideaway basement where we usually unload stuff. Before that can happen, I am informed, we must deliver some posters to Cedric's office. Which we first  have to pick up at the sports ground. An opportunity to exhibit our work at a local charity info day has "just come up this morning" and so the priority right now is to glue pictures to a poster-board and copy some flyers to distribute at the exhibition. It occurs to me that we have a beautiful poster-board I once made for another exhibition, but unfortunately that one is at "someone's house who is not in at the moment."

So we dig right in and fold and tear pieces of paper to manufacture the flyers. There is a lull when more flyers must be copied somewhere next door, and my German guest becomes curious about the roadside stall across the street selling cheese balls. Or whatever those puffy things are called. I have never gone shopping in Alexandra, so this is a first for me too. We settle on some chili flavored ones and pay the princely sum of R1 (12 cents) for a bag. They are very yummy and the photocopies are not forthcoming, so we end up buying half their supply over the course of the next thirty minutes, stuffing ourselves so full of cheese balls that we are almost sick.

Shopping for cheese puffs in Alexandra

Finally it is time to make our way over potholed streets and through labyrinthine alleys to our "store room," the location of which I cannot remember for the life of me. Cedric and Tedius chuckle at me because I always ask for directions, even though I have driven this way before. But I'm still as hopelessly lost in Alexandra as I was on the first day.

We unload all the donations, do a thorough count, and stow everything safely. It feels weird to be holding the baseball uniforms of the team my boys would be playing for now, had we only stayed in one place long enough. But that was two moves and two lifetimes ago.

Unloading baseball equipement





After that, it's time for a quick visit with one of the guys' relatives. Benedicte has an immaculate little house in the heart of Alexandra, and it is always a joy to chat with her. This time she is intrigued by my visitor, having come all the way from Germany to her house, so to speak, and she quizzes her on what she has done and seen in South Africa so far. As we've just yesterday made a visit to Diepsloot - a poor township just to the North of where we live, and due to its proximity to one of Joburg's richest suburbs the target of numerous outreach enterprises for flocks of volunteers - we tell her about that.

Her jaw drops. "You've been in Diepsloot?" she says, a look of horror on her face.

We assure her that yes, that's where we were, and she almost shudders. "That is such a dangerous place," she pronounces. "I would never dare to go there. People are killed in Diepsloot all the time. It's not like Alexandra, where we have order and everyone is safe."



Stop and ponder this for a moment, and the irony will not escape you. We are in the heart of Alexandra, the one place I was warned on my first day in South Africa to never ever go to because it's so dangerous - as you can see, telling me what I can't do is not very effective, but most of my friends haven't been eager to accompany me - and here is someone just as afraid of the place many expats visit several times a week, without the slightest hesitation.

Which just goes to show that we most fear the things we don't know. And that fear has no color. Getting to know a place and its people takes away your fear. It is the key to bridge the tremendous gap that still exists in this country between the haves and have-nots, between black and white.

Maybe I should consider giving regular tours of Alexandra.

Except my tour group's patience may be running thin. Because we are now off on our next errand, buying the materials for the fence, but of course not on any kind of direct path. First, I am informed, we must go get a quote from another hardware place, because word has it that it might be cheaper. The one quote we have looked good enough to me, but when you live in the township, you have learned to be thrifty.

Shopping for fencing materials

It turns out the second quote is higher, so we are off again to the place the first quote originated from. My visitor literally mentions that she is disappointed we haven't experienced one of my fabled traffic stops yet - we have already passed three road blocks this morning and I know I'm pushing my luck - when we drive over a bridge and right into the fangs of a traffic cop waving me over.

It's a woman cop, and she eyes my license suspiciously, as well as the oddity, from her point of view, of Tedius and Cedric in the back seat, waving at her cheerfully saying "Sharp, Sharp!" I am mildly curious which line of attack she will employ, and it is the Traffic Register Number one. I'm too tired to go through the motions and swiftly hand her my copy of the South African Road Traffic Act, which she pretends to study with furrowed brow. Her shoulders slump and I can tell she is not going to fight this. Do I have any sweets for her, is what she wants to know when handing everything back through the window. A chastise her for asking and drive off, too late remembering the box of TicTacs in the middle console. Surely I could have shared a TicTac with her.

I know you're eager to be done so I'll quickly wrap up the rest of my day, even though in reality it took another hour and a half before we could make our way home. We arrived at the building store ready to buy our stuff as per the first quote, except the quote wasn't with us but rather back in the office where our day had started. The clerks were friendly enough to help us search and search through a myriad of quote sheets, but to no avail, and in the end we had to drive back once again to the office to get our hands on a copy of the quote, because it seemed impossible to reconstruct from memory. This is where my visitor almost lost it. "This would never happen in Germany," she kept muttering. "People would come prepared."

And indeed it's true. This kind of a day only happens in Africa. Welcome to Type A Remedial School.

We did, however, get to buy some more delicious cheese balls!