Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Stay in Johannesburg, South Africa: Experiences and thoughts

I spent a month in Johannesburg recently and even though it was not a very touristic stay, I still felt like putting my thoughts on paper about this experience: about the city, the people and the country. I saw and felt so much during the stay, absolutely fell in love with the country...

I was initially very excited about being in a different country and a different continent but before I had reached Joburg, my excitement had died down after everyone who I talked to, told me how unsafe the city was! It had scared me a lot. My first impression of the city turned out very different though, it seemed like a very open and green 'normal' western city. Quite well spaced out with lots of greenery everywhere, wide well planned roads, decent traffic and huge palacious houses. Maybe it was just because of the areas I was driving in and I would soon see a different side to the city.. But I did wonder what was so unsafe about it?

To be frank, after staying there for a month, I have improved my view about the city. If people say its unsafe, then maybe it is. But if you just stay careful, you should be fine. All you need to do is avoid walking alone at night on the streets in the 'not-so-good' parts of town, locking your cars when you are driving and you should be fine.

Anyways, I spent two weekends in the city. The first was quite average though, because I still thought it was unsafe to go out anywhere! I spent the first weekend in and around Sandton, the hep-cool-rich-safe(-white) suburb of Joburg. It felt like I was caged up and not being able to get out at all, not able to walk around in the open either. It was a very weird feeling, but thankfully it went away when I realised you CAN go around in Joburg, just need to be more careful and know your way around.

Nelson Mandela square
During the first weekend, I walked around Sandton City, supposedly the biggest mall in South Africa. It is huge and you can walk for hours within. But since I am not a fan of malls, that did not excite me much. I also spent some time at Nelson Mandela square which was just an open European type square with multiple eating options. We tried Ghiraldi's there which offered good Italian and steak at the same place. There is also a nice Indian restaurant called Taj which I would recommend. And elsewhere in Sandton, the Grill House is a must-go too, for tasty non-vegetarian food. Actually, I must say, South Africa had amazing food. Everywhere I ate, it was very well made food. And it was so cheap. Even the fries everywhere were worth licking your fingers for!

Otherwise in Sandton, there is not much to do. Just a couple of malls, huge car showrooms, eating options, hotels, spas and thats about it I think. There is a park there too, called the Sky Park. I think thats the only option for walking around in the open:). They have security cameras installed everywhere in the park, for safety when people come and exercise there!

Other than Sandton, I visited Melrose Arch, again a supposedly European-feel place with open spaces to walk and eat. We tried JBs and Moyo. Both had very tasty food. Moyo has a very African feel to it, with local music and a local decor. There is also a person there who does face painting for all who visit, just in case you want to try:).

I also visited the CBD a couple of times, the 'Central Business District'. It is supposed to be the worst area of Joburg, the central area where all whites used to stay but after the dismantling of Apartheid, all local Africans moved in and that was the start of its downfall. When you drive around this area, you can see what it would have been earlier, a good looking place with beautiful buildings but now its all in disarray. And its supposedly unsafe here now, you can see guards standing on building corners all day for safety. Most of the companies have moved away from this area now, mostly to Sandton but some still remain.

Other than these couple of areas, I did not see much of Joburg otherwise. There is a 'Neighbourgoods' market on the weekends which is supposedly good. Its an open area where young people hang out partying all day, eating good food and listening to music. Other than that, the city tour is also supposedly good. For those of you looking for Hindi movies, the Killarney mall plays Hindi movies. It was a relief though I did not get a chance to see it!

The rest of my impressions of the city are mostly from driving from Sandton to work and back. I used to take the highway which cuts right in the middle of the city, North to South. Driving on this highway, for a long time I did not realise it was right through the middle of the city! It was so open and green on both sides, with a hilly landscape, it felt like being in suburbs! What beautiful views there were from the highway. And it was much later on that I figured out, that I was driving THROUGH Joburg city!! The traffic was great, people drive by the rules and the roads are good. I loved driving there...

The names of the areas we drove by were very English - Hyde Park, Kensington etc. Even the houses in the 'good' parts of Joburg looked huge and English. They were built in similar style: huge bungalows (with even huger fences:)). It was evident that the people who had money in SA, had lots of it.

The people of Joburg (and South Africa) were very very friendly. It felt very different and nice, everyone eager to help and felt so much more genuine than the Western World. But I must say, I found it one of the most inefficient places I have visited. All processes take so long, people just dont work fast and efficiently. At the hotel, in restaurants, cafeterias.. everywhere people just take their own sweet time to do anything. Maybe it is a good thing to take time, but I had a tough time getting used to it! We would be at dinner with 5-6 waiters, 3-4 guests and still it would take them 30 minutes to take an order. I just could not get over this one thing at all!

Also you can see people of all types everywhere, whites, Africans and Indians. The city and the country did sometime feel like two worlds though and apparently it is. I will write about it more in the next article on my Apartheid day - visit to Soweto and Apartheid museum. But you could still see poverty and economic differences everywhere. Another thing I noticed was that the African middle class is trying to rise and improve their state but you can also see, there is so much farther to go. Now, it is more of the economic divide rather than race divide which affects the country. But given its history, both these divides are quite inseparable still, and the divide will remain for some time to come.

I visited a couple of touristy places, like Lion Park, Cradle of Humankind etc about which I will write later. But the impression I left with when I left was that lifestyle in Joburg (and South Africa) seemed very good: live in a huge house, drive on low traffic roads and enjoy a good weather throughout the year. Summers are about 20-30 degrees and winters are 10-20 degrees, with sun all through the year. People in Joburg complain about the cold but I think they are just pampered:). Their winters are like London summers! Loved my stay there and would love to return for more...

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