Category Archives: Travel

The final word (for now) on dating in Buenos Aires

GAY&LESBIAN Jeremy-page-001My four-and-half-year stint in Buenos Aires has finally come full circle more than four years later…I think.

Maybe it’s half circle, for I’m back where I started a few years after my arrival in BA…but not quite. For a time while I was living there I wrote the Gay & Lesbian section in Time Out Buenos Aires’s quarterly magazine, which was called Visitors at the time. Now, some six years later, I’m its main feature, the front page story…of the Gay & Lesbian section, not the Time Out Buenos Aires magazine.

Fun fact: Some of my editorial touches, remain, like this one, under “INFORMATION AND SAFETY“:

“A word from the wise to the horny: male prostitutes (taxi boys, as they’re known in BA) continue to be an unavoidable – and illegal – fact of the city’s nightlife. So if you’re not leaving alone, choose your post-club escort carefully. Now get out and have fun!”

Mine, all mine.

The Q&A to the left represents a major accomplishment for me. It’s more than a very nice plug for my book Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World. It’s also a sort of coming home. Now if only I could get Time Out Melbourne and Time Out Bangkok on board, it would be the perfect threesome!

Click here to check out the full interview.

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Why I Think I’d Rather Climb Ev’ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I’ve been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn’t sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me — not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.
We’d met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we’d immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described “academic” (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he’s been based in Cape Town for one year, but he’s been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.
I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as “1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz.” Bingo!
I told him about the book that I’m working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn’t happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He’d lived it, too.
When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven’t been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.
I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven’t come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I’ve seen plenty of attractive men, and I’ve even been pursued by a few of them, but I’d rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I’m saying. Been there, done that. I’m better off alone.
But I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights — I gave up on his existence ages ago — but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I’m in South Africa, after all, a country in which I’m no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn’t be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I’ve visited these last few years.
I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they’d never had anything like me before. And South Africa’s history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I’m just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.
I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I’ve been receiving. (I’ve pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me.
For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I’m not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I’ve spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.
I’m bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. “So want a black cock!!” one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren’t plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of “black” here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: “Is it true what they say about black men?”
They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I’ve been in for the peaceful easy feeling I’ve enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple “Howsit?” followed by his own shirtless pose.
The second sentence of the guy’s three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t cross racial lines in dating.”
I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn’t interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I’d encountered plenty of those, though I’d never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason.
“I guess that’s the kind of reaction I’d get if I were online dating in the U.S.,” I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn’t do black wouldn’t have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could “I don’t cross racial lines” be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in “black” and “white,” sort of like subbing “fun” for “sex”?
My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn’t get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn’t just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn’t said, “I’m not attracted to black guys,” or “I don’t date black guys.” His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn’t just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn’t changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.
Wow. I hadn’t even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He’d seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion’s Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand.
I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don’t need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town’s breathtaking views.

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Can Spotless Minds Really Bring Eternal Sunshine?

Yesterday I had a Channing Tatum night. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I spent it with someone who looked like Tatum, or as good as Tatum, or — better yet! — the real thing. Instead, I passed a portion of my Sunday evening marveling at Tatum’s specimen of physical perfection on display in two of his three 2012 hits, The Vow and Magic Mike, which were playing simultaneously on two different South African DStv channels, while being underwhelmed by his acting range, or rather, lack thereof.

I’m no expert on his oeuvre, having now seen exactly four films starring or costarring Tatum — She’s the Man,Magic MikeSide Effectsand, as of last night, The Vow— but judging from my personal viewing evidence, he seems to excel at playing hunky nice guys in bad-boy packaging because muscles and taut washboard abs scream bad to the bone. (Well, I suppose his white-collar criminal in this year’sSide Effects was no pillar of society, but we caught up with him after he’d done his crime and his time, which, unfortunately for him, wasn’t his final price to pay. Ouch!)
Although I missed the first 15 minutes or so of The Vow last night, having read the reviews last year when it was out in theaters (and on the way to becoming the sixth highest-grossing romantic drama in history, according to Wikipedia), I knew the back story. So I understood why there was so much quiet tension in the first scene I saw, the one in which Tatum’s character, Leo, was about to take home his amnesiac wife (Paige, played by Rachel McAdams, who is a far more effective and exciting actress in brittle, bitch mode — see Mean Girls and Midnight in Paris). If I remembered what I had read in those negative reviews correctly, the couple had been in a terrible car accident that left Paige without several years worth of memories after she regained consciousness. (Hey, what was Jessica Lange doing in this picture?! She’s always welcome on my TV or big screen.)
Watching Paige stare blankly at Leo, I asked myself, “Where’s the drama?” Was I supposed to feel sorry for a sleeping beauty who awakens from her slumber with no memory of a guy who looks like Channing Tatum standing over her, love and concern gushing forth from his eyes? There should be only one thing left to say: “Take me… home!” That lucky girl.
Of course, for the sake of drama, the movie pretended that Leo wasn’t being played by one of the sexiest men alive, so Paige was torn. She didn’t remember her beautiful, devoted husband, and her memory was being extremely selective when it came to her family (and how thrilled her parents, played by Lange and Sam Neill, appeared to be about that little twist), from whom she apparently had been estranged before the accident.
Was she better off without all of the bitter memories of her terrible falling out with her folks and all of the pain it had caused, even if it meant that she didn’t remember her own hot husband? At least she had her other selectively positive memories, the ones of her former love Jeremy (played by Scott Speedman), who was ready to pounce again despite now being spoken for. Channing Tatum or Scott Speedman? That lucky girl. Again, where was the drama?
I suppose the drama would be in losing huge chunks of your life and having people you don’t remember telling you how important you are too each other. It must be like those mornings when you wake up momentarily not knowing who you are or where you are. Imagine if that confusion lasted all day, every day, indefinitely. Or waking up from a blackout night out, and having your friends tell you about all of the embarrassing things you did the night before, none of which you can recall. That must have been how Paige felt.
The Vow played as torture what had been the main goal for Jim Carrey’s and Kate Winslet’s characters, ex-lovers reunited in reverse, in the 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the later movie, we were meant to identify with the trials and tribulations of waking up with a blank slate, and in the earlier one, we were sold the benefits. Both had a similar effect on me. After watching them, I found myself dwelling on the pros of pressing delete on some of the sordid, but unforgettable aspects of my past. If I happened to have Channing Tatum hovering over me, vowing to get me through, all the better.
But now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, I realize the folly of my desire to edit my own history. As much as I’d like to file away some of those low points in a place where I can no longer access them, I couldn’t imagine the person I would be without them. Would I be as bland and cranky as Paige in The Vow? What would I talk about? What would I write about? What would I think about? It’s as much my pursuit of happiness as my memories of sadness that drives me every day, makes me the person I am. Without one, would the other have any meaning?
I’d rather go on spending way too much time focusing on lost loves and hard times, if it means that I’ll appreciate the good times ahead even more, if it guarantees that despite the occasional bout of writer’s block, I’ll always eventually have something to write about. Without your memories what is there to talk about, to laugh about, to cry about, to think about?
The way I react to so many things in the present — like my recent trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — depends on the personal history that I bring to my experiences. It might not always be pleasant, but as I learned yesterday, after a rainy, blustery Friday and Saturday gave way to a sunny Sunday, stormy weather makes clear skies appear even more blue.
I wouldn’t want to forget the dreariness of the first half of the weekend because I’ll need it for future reference, when the storm clouds roll in again. Then I’ll remember that with weather, as with life, every time the rain starts to fall, a rainbow is right behind it. Sunshine always eventually follows.

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Here’s Looking at You!: 10 of My Favorite Views of Cape Town So Far

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Coming to Terms with the Skin I’m In: How South Africa Is Already Changing My Life

It’s now been four and a half days since my arrival in South Africa, and already, I can feel the stirring of a profound evolution deep inside my soul. It’s percolating, bubbling under, almost certain to eventually erupt in a big bang of mental and emotional transformation.

It began with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on Friday afternoon, around the time that I was fully engrossed in the exhibit dedicated to Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage, transfixed by images I’d never seen before but looked strangely familiar. As I stood there with tears welling up in my eyes, I felt this unsettling sense of deja vu. I’d seen those images before, not the exact same pictures, but ones just like them. (Not all of them black-themed either, for I couldn’t stop thinking of the white Dust Bowl family in Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” when I saw Cole’s depiction of a black Apartheid mother and child in House of Bondage.)

I’ve been bombarded with them all my life — in stories I’ve been told, in chapters of history books I’ve read, on pages that I’ve pored over in encyclopedias, in movies that I’ve sat through uncomfortably (most recently, The Butler), all of which revolved around Civil Rights in the United States. Interestingly, the travesties of the Civil Rights era on one side of the world were being committed concurrently with the travesties of Apartheid on the other side of the world, as depicted in Cole’s photos.

I suddenly felt connected to South Africa, to Africa, in a way I was always told I was supposed to, because I’m black, because this is where my ancestors came from. Well, if history is to be believed, this is where all of our ancestors originated, whether we’re white or black. From what I’ve been hearing from various local sources, including Solly, the driver who took me to the Apartheid Museum, the cradle of mankind is within driving distance of Johannesburg, roughly one hour away.

As I stood looking at the black-and-white photo of the little boy, melting in the sweltering heat of the classroom, struggling to concentrate, I saw myself. I never had to study under those conditions, but I felt as if I knew exactly how he felt — awkward, uncomfortable, stifled, eager to learn. I wondered where he is now. If he is now. An old but new thought crept into my mind: We are the world. We are one world. For the first time in my life, Africa truly felt like the mother land. It had nothing to do with black pride and everything to do with what I saw in the eyes of that little boy: myself.

If nothing else, I expect my time in South Africa (which will be at least one more month, but likely longer) to be a time of intense healing and self-acceptance. The latter because I’m already beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It’s partly because for the first time in years, when a non-black person looks at me for too long, I actually will have to wonder why. It won’t be because they so seldom see people with my coloring. It won’t be out of curiosity (Is it true what they say about black men?). It will likely be for something that’s uniquely me and belongs to me only.

That’s the self-acceptance part, which is already beginning to be be overshadowed by the healing. That part actually has nothing to do with white people and everything to do with black people, with whom I’ve had a life-long complicated relationship. It began when I was 4 years old, and my family moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland, in Kissimmee, Florida. We eventually settled in an all-black neighborhood, and despite the physical similarities I shared with our neighbors, I probably wouldn’t have felt more like an outsider had we ended up in the whitest community in town.

The racism I felt coming from a certain segment of Kissimmee’s white population while I was growing up couldn’t compare to the racism and xenophobia I often encountered from portions of the American black community that resented me and my entire family because we were black and foreign — “noisy Jamaicans,” they called us, pejoratively (more for the second word than the first), apparently because to them, the Caribbean equaled the land of reggae and Rastafarianism. (Some day I’ll have to explore the relationship between American blacks and Jamaica, which has always struck me as being somewhat uneasy, considering that in the U.S., reggae has always seemed to be more embraced by whites than by blacks.)

We spoke with strange accents, and we kept to ourselves. Who did we think we were? What did we think we were: better than them?

When I was in first grade and people asked me where I was from because of the funny way I spoke (coming from me, the number three sounded like “tree,” and at the hardly ripe young age of 6, I still couldn’t tell the difference), I sometimes lied and said the Virginia Islands, hoping they wouldn’t realize that no such thing exists. I was too ashamed to say the Virgin Islands. I wanted to fit in, and if the way I talked was going to lead to my being singled out in a negative way by some of my black classmates (interestingly, I can’t recall a single white kid ever ridiculing me for that), at least I could come from a place that wasn’t so exotic, one that was associated with a U.S. state.

The white racism directed toward me while I was growing up was contained to strictly verbal cut-downs. It never touched me physically. “I smell nigger” coming from rednecks on the playground messed with my 11-year-old psyche in dangerous ways, but the black-on-black racism left physical as well as emotional scars. It scared me so much more. When they weren’t sure that their words were getting to me, the black kids who picked on me started picking up sticks and stones.

The physical bruises healed, but the emotional ones never did completely. It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville that I finally escaped the emotional and physical cruelty. For the first time in my life, the majority of black Americans I met accepted me and didn’t make fun of me. If I eventually overcame the fear and resentment of black people that was borne from the way some of them treated me in my youth, I never forgot it completely. It continued to haunt me, contributing to the racism that I harbored toward my my fellow (black) man. (Yes, I choose to own it because, as James Baldwin suggested in in Notes on a Native Son, it’s immoral not to.)

But in South Africa, being around such a large and diverse black population, I sense something shifting inside my soul. I feel a certain camaraderie with my fellow blacks here, a comfort around them that I’ve never felt around blacks anywhere else. I don’t know if they are able to look at me and tell that I’m from somewhere else, but when I open my mouth to speak, I can’t imagine they would ever ridicule the accent that I never quite lost. They speak English with an exotic accent, too!

That’s not to say that they don’t acknowledge our cultural differences — when Solly was explaining to me the housing situation in Johannesburg and he used the word “ghetto,” he started to explain what a “ghetto” is and seemed surprised that I already knew — but so far, it’s been done with the utmost respect and acceptance. I don’t know how far that respect and acceptance will extend into other aspects of who I am, but the fact that I’ve seen several gay couples walking down 7th Street, holding hands, without onlookers so much as flinching, is encouraging.

Of course, being that I’m a creature of contradiction (beginning with the dueling introvert and extrovert sides of my personality), no profound evolution would be complete without a little bit of contradiction sprinkled on top. With my burgeoning newfound appreciation and acceptance of my skin color has come a different kind of awareness of it. It creeps up on me every time I sit down in a restaurant here. Most of the waiters who have served me in Johannesburg have been black, and on 7th Street in Melville when I go from restaurant to restaurant and I see the mostly black staff, it’s hard for me not to feel pangs of guilt.

Are the owners, like the ones at Lucky Bean beside Saffron Guest House, white? Do the black employees commute to and from the townships to earn minimal wages? Who are the invisible occupants of all the beautiful homes in Melville? In my new black fantasy (the first one I’ve enjoyed since Django Unchained), the black employees work for black bosses who go home at night to the houses here.

I hate that I’m even thinking along these lines, which is something I never did in the United States because the division of labor in the restaurants I went to there didn’t appear to be determined along white-black color lines. Most of the people who served me were white, and I never wondered where they lived.

It doesn’t matter that the clientele in most of the places in Melville is largely black as well, though it matters more when the clientele is mostly white. Sadly, I’ll leave Johannesburg tomorrow, before I can understand why the white people in Melville flock to certain places on 7th Street and not to others, which is one more reason to hate this looming color awareness. Why does it even matter to me?

I’m still trying to process this aspect of my current evolutionary process and what I can only describe as my personal version of white liberal guilt, the seeds of which may have been planted on the way back from the Apartheid Museum when Solly explained the difficulties that blacks continue to face when applying for white-collar work. I never thought liberal guilt looked particularly good on white people, and it’s not doing me any favors.

I’m owning it, though, which might the first step in conquering it. I hope that my ongoing evolution in South Africa will lead not only to complete comfort in my own skin but perhaps, at last, it won’t matter to me what color anyone else’s is either.

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Destination: Anywhere (But How Did I End Up in Soweto?)

My second day in Johannesburg underscored my still-developing theory that you get what you’re not looking for. After breakfast and a brief exploration of Melville that included stumbling onto the perfect view of the downtown Joburg skyline, I boarded Rea Vaga, the rapid-transit bus system connecting Johannesburg’s central business district with what was then still the great unknown to the south.

“Which side do I take to Boomtown?” I asked, after buying my Rea Vaga card and immediately topping it up with 50 ZAR ($4.87). None of the other stops listed on the route map had meant anything to me. Neither did Boomtown, but it reminded me of The Boomtown Rats and David + David’s 1986 Top 40 hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Bob Geldof’s former band was Irish, and David + David were referring to Los Angeles in their song, but who knew what I’d find in Johannesburg’s version of Boomtown?

I boarded the next bus headed in the direction away from the CBD. It was nearly full, and I took one of the last remaining empty seats beside a woman who kept nodding off. I looked around me. Everyone on the bus was black. I wondered about all of the political allusions I’d been temporarily brushing aside until I was rested enough to process them? Johannesburg’s story — its tortured, tortuous history — was beginning to unfold before me. I know evidence of continued segregation when I see it.

And where were all of these people — a mix of working-class men and women and fresh-faced kids wearing school uniforms, speaking English and various languages I didn’t understand — all going? As the chatter grew louder, the scenery outside was changing dramatically. Previously relatively flat, well-manicured and distinctly suburban, it was becoming more rugged, more mountainous, more green, more beautiful (in that tattered way I’ve grown to love ever since my first trip to Buenos Aires). Rows of colorful modest-looking houses peppered the landscape. We passed by a number of stops whose names meant nothing to me before arriving at one called Orlando — as in Orlando, Florida, the big city next to my hometown (Kissimmee). Could it be?

Boomtown, too, came and went. By then it was raining, and the place looked like nothing special. I figured I’d stay dry inside the bus until it reached the end of the line. Maybe by then it would have stopped raining, and I’d be able to explore a little before returning to my starting point. Several stops and a few twists and turns later, we arrived at Thokoza Park. Everyone departed the bus. This must be the place.

I looked at the beautiful greenery on both sides of the platform (see the photos above). It was quietly breathtaking — so peaceful, so rich, so wet. The only thing stopping me from descending the platform and running to greet it was the torrential downpour that was raining down with varying levels of intensity. It looked like I would be heading back earlier than expected. But how?

As I looked at the numerous bus routes listed above the platform, I searched for one that might be the one where I had started. Though I’d forgotten the full name, I remembered it was “Sophia”-something, as in Hagia Sophia (in Istanbul) or Sophia Petrillo (on The Golden Girls). But where was Sophia?

That’s when I was stopped by the woman whom I’d been sitting next to on the bus. She hadn’t said a word to me the entire trip, but now she couldn’t stop talking. She explained in minute detail how I should get back. Her accented English was perfect, but she was giving me so much information that all I was able to process was “C3.” That was the bus I needed to take to find my way back to Sophia.

I thanked her for her kindness and proceeded to walk about 300 meters or so to the other end of the platform. There was a C1 bus already waiting. I stood there staring at it, wondering when it would pull out of the station and make way for the C3 that hopefully was right behind it. I was disappointed by my truncated journey. Boomtown had been a bust, the sky was pouring, and I had no idea how to get to Soweto.

Nobody came to Johannesburg without going to Soweto. Along with the Apartheid Museum and my Argentine friend Dolores, it was the only thing I had on my must-see-in-Joburg list. (In another one of those coincidental twists that has been a regular occurrence in my life since Berlin, Dolores, whom I met years ago in Buenos Aires, and who left BA for Cape Town around the time that I left it for Melbourne, happens to be in Johannesburg renewing her Argentine passport on the exact same days that I’m here.)

I didn’t know very much about Soweto other than what I’d heard about it in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s when Apartheid had replaced feeding the world as pop music’s cause du jour. I knew that during the Apartheid era it had been more or less South Africa’s version of the U.S. Indian reservations of the 19th century, a place where the country’s natives had been forced into after being displaced from their own land by the white ruling class.

Just as I was wondering how difficult it would be to get there from where I was, I looked over and saw the woman who’d helped me before. She was approaching me, as if she had something urgent to share. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t get on the C1. “You have to take the C3,” she said, smiling. “This is the C1. It goes somewhere else. The C3 is right behind it.” I thanked her again and watched as she walked away, wondering what I’d done to deserve her kindness and concern.

A few minutes later, I was back on the bus, heading in the direction from whence I’d come. This time, instead of studying the scenery, I focused on the signs. I should at least know roughly where I was. I saw one that said “Soweto” with an arrow pointing to the left. Could it be? Several “Soweto” signs later, I knew exactly where I was. I’d boarded a bus headed to Boomtown and ended up in Thokoza Park, in Soweto.

I was kind of crushed that I wouldn’t get a chance to see more of Soweto until another less-rainy day, but now I knew exactly how to get there. And I didn’t even have to look for it.

“Soweto” Jeffrey Osborne

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My First Impressions of Johannesburg

I’ve got to start being nicer — or at the very least, just a tad more cheerful. Like Australians, Thais, and Jordanians before them, South Africans make me feel so mean in comparison to themselves.

Everyone here has been incredibly friendly and welcoming so far — even the taxi driver who took me from O.R. Tambo International Airport to my hotel in Johannesburg’s Melville district yesterday. Despite my exhaustion and the lack of breathtaking scenery en route (only a few hills and the city’s skyline in the distance as we approached it), he made the 35-minute, 400 South African rand (ZAR), or $39, trip pleasant and informative, and if I immediately liked Johannesburg, it was largely because of his good nature and pine-scented car.

I’m not sure how long my initial good impression will stick, for when it comes to the city they live in and love, the South Africans in Johannesburg are a tough crowd. They aren’t afraid to build it up and tear it down — sometimes in the space of one sentence. The political angle has been alluded to, and it likely will be prominent in my experience here, but after the Israeli-Palestinian politics in the Holy Land, I’d like to focus on something shallower for a while. I’ll get to the heavy stuff later, maybe after a few more nights of my usual restless, interrupted sleep.

At least three people I’ve spoken to have praised Melville as being one of the coolest neighborhoods in Johannesburg, mostly for its easygoing and non-touristy vibe, while commenting on its reputation for being “unsafe.” “You need to be mildly aware of mugging on Melville’s 2 high street late at night but it isn’t too bad,” the friend of a friend in Cape Town warned me by email before my arrival.

Several Melville bar recommendations by locals and non-locals have come with negative reviews of the food being served in them. It’s a good thing I didn’t heed the gentle warning of the one who told me to go to Six on 7th Street, if only for the “super friendly” vibe, not for the “questionable” cuisine, because the chicken pasta that I had there last night made me forget the surprisingly delicious ostrich burger I had for lunch at Lucky Bean, the eatery/hotel beside Saffron Guest House, where I’m staying.

Despite my reservations about consuming a bird that’s always kind of freaked me out on a visual level, I put my food fear away when Conway, Lucky Bean’s co-proprietor, offered me a deal: If you don’t love it — not like it, love it — you won’t have to pay for it. I happily handed over my 90 ZAR ($8.77).

I hope the Lucky Bean Guesthouse is as good as that ostrich because I might have to spend Friday night there, since I was only able to book Saffron Guest House for four of my five days in Johannesburg. I knew I’d chosen the right place when the first thing I saw upon entering the Saffron check-in area was a flyer promoting the South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. It didn’t leave me as hopeful as the sight that greeted me upon my arrival in Tel Aviv (a gay couple holding hands while crossing Mapu and Ben Yehuda), but it was a positive sign of good things to (probably) come.

My suite didn’t disappoint either. After the secondhand smoke-infested hotels in Jordan and the overpriced ones in Israel, it’s nice to land in the lap of luxury at a nightly rate of only 650 ZAR ($63). The five-star trappings include a terrace, a living room, a bedroom, a walk-in closet, high ceilings, a hardwood floor, a tasteful white and brown-dominated interior design and a bathroom that doesn’t make me want to pee and run.

Diversity rules right outside of the Saffron on 7th Street, which a variety of ethnicities and accents visible and audible while window browsing. The feel is remarkably different from the downtown area on the way to Melville. The population over there appeared to be mostly black (I don’t believe I saw a single white person as we drove through), which was completely unexpected after my predominantly white flight.

For the previous 24 hours before my 8.30am arrival in Johannesburg, I’d been venturing into the great unknown with knots in my stomach, which tend to upset my digestive system whenever I’m about to enter a previously personally uncharted country. But as I looked at the human scenery on the streets of the city center, a wave of ease swept over me. It wasn’t that I felt comfortable being around “my people” (I reject such categorizations based along color lines), but I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to not being the black guy, el negroel morochoel moreno, for the first time in years.

For at least the next few days (I’m not automatically assuming that Cape Town will fit the same demographic profile), I won’t be the exotic anomaly. Even if I’m the only American in any given room, people won’t be able to tell just by looking at me. I can blend into the crowd, and if anyone singles me out, it will probably be for something other than my skin color, or in addition to my skin color.

I doubt that there’ll be any white people here patronizing me by pointing out that I’m “blessed to be black,” as an Israeli guy was telling me just last week in Jordan. I’m blessed to be me, and hopefully, in South Africa, I can feel that way without horny, ignorant white guys who’ve rarely, if ever, been exposed to black people, much less bothered to brush up on their history, try to tell me otherwise.

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