“Chicken or beef please” seems to be the refrain these days on many an airline – at least for those of us who see business class as en route to economizing. And so it was on my flight to South Africa. I settled for chicken. When I asked for a ginger ale, there was a quizzical look from a member of the predominantly Bulgarian crew. After repeating ginger ale and getting a blank stare that urged me to pick something less fancy, I obliged and said coke. That is universal enough. I know we are one and all but a Bulgarian crew on a Southern African airline’s flight from Accra to Johannesburg is something I still cannot not get my mind around. Add some Mexican fans passing through Accra and I guess on the way to the only truly global sporting event, it was appropriate. But when my next request produced a pineapple juice I was not so enthused. This time I insisted. Apple juice please. Getting two drinks for the price of one is great I guess so sure, one love.
That gratuity was extended right after passing through the customs checkpoint at OR Tambo airport when a generous man handed me a phone chip. I thought, great, this is going to be one hell of a trip. To guardians of the South African economy, I am proud to inform you that the freebies have ceased. I had heard before I arrived that South Africa was expensive but these days cheap living is as rare as American victories over England I guess. So I took it for granted and it went through one ear and out the other.
But you cannot help but make quick judgments as to how much one is spending as soon as you land. You ask for a breakfast sandwich and divide whatever price is mentioned by 7 and realize that she effectively said nine US dollars for a meal . You see, over here, the magic number is 7. I always like to get a sense of how prices of goods are relatively. Economists have a term for it and I think it is purchasing power parity.
My first impression of South Africa was of the airport though. Wow. Oliver Tambo must be proud of the improvements made in his honor/name to the airport but would probably be happier if he was alive to own the real estate. But my eyes really popped when a sales lady said “140 rand” for a vuvuzela. Granted that it was branded with rainbow nation colors but as my darling mother would suggest, that is three square meals a day for some. Only to make the sound of bees? I assured myself that there would be better vuvuzelas- ones that make the sound of elephants perhaps. By that I meant free promotional ones.
But you ain’t seen nothing yet. Ladies and gentlemen, Sandton. Someone said Sandton is the Accra Mall of South Africa. I think he meant to say Accra Mall wants to be the Sandton of Ghana. Or that Sandton and Tysons Corner mall in Virginia, USA are cousins.
Upon leaving the airport, when I saw a sign that pointed to Croydon, I forgot for a moment that I was in South Africa. The prices in Sandton suggested I may actually be in a shop on London’s high street. There is something about the temperatures being below 15 degrees that screams, GET A HAT!!! But when I went to one shop and saw that I could keep it warm for 500 rand, I said no chance. But there are bargains and I eventually found one for 148.
Nonetheless, I am here and would not trade it for the world. The tournament starts tomorrow and the excitement continues to build. On Tuesday, some passengers were fortunate to use the only high speed train service in Africa, the Gautrain. Flags are everywhere especially on vehicles. Some side mirrors even have flags as sleeves. Fans and members of the media from all over the world continue to troop in. As one local resident said in response to all the foot and increased vehicular traffic, ‘THEY ARE HERE!”