When I was 21, I quit my job, cashed in my savings, and went to South Africa alone for a month to watch the USA Men’s National Soccer team.
When I arrived at Gatwick, I was nervous my plane ticket wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had gone online and purchased a $215 one-way ticket to Johannesburg on the day the 2010 World Cup started in South Africa. This particular ticket was supposed to get me on an Air Zimbabwe flight that would stop in Harare, Zimbabwe for 15 hours and then continue to Johannesburg where I had an airport hotel booked.
I found the ticketing station and the employee took a double take at my American passport. With a sort of, “whatever you say, boss,” attitude, he handed me my tickets to Harare and Johannesburg.
I found my gate and there were only Zimbabwean nationals. There were children running everywhere, a strange foreign smell, beautiful colors, unique dresses, phenomenal hair, and of course loud communication. If I learned anything on that trip, it was that Africans love to communicate. Two white men and their puppy approached me and asked for a word. Let me rephrase that, two English security guards, armed with assault rifles, body armor, and a german shepherd approached me and asked for a word.
“What is a twenty-one year old American with a one way ticket out of Scotland to London and then a one-way ticket out of Gatwick to Zimbabwe doing alone in London on this fine day?”
It didn’t take long for me to realize what was going on here. I was being racially profiled! I was losing at my own game here! By my own fellow honkies!
I furnished the authorities with my receipts for my world cup tickets and the tone of the conversation flipped from “who is this guy” to “we better kill this guy.” Why? England’s opening match was to be against the Stars and Stripes. We started playfully going off on each other,
“Clint Dempsey makes Rooney look like shite!”
“All you have in Landon Donovan and he is barely an excuse for a super star”
“Did Rooney make his hair appointment?”
The headlines in London read “EASY: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks.” Everyone in England was certain that the Stars and Stripes would certainly fall at the mercy of the great Lions. But this was only the first of many times I would change someone’s perspective on Americans and their soccer.
“What is a twenty-one year old American loving soccer doing?” quickly went from a question of national security to a question of national progress in American soccer.
The plane literally had Toucan Sam painted on the side. There were no TVs, not even the screen that says where your plane is over the planet. Only painted pictures of waterfalls. You could still toggle the ash trays and there was basically free reign on children running around the plane. Many of the Zimbabweans stood during take off.
I had purchased Age of Empire II before leaving for the world cup. I knew I was going to be coming into a very large amount of downtime since there are only three world cup games a day and only one USA game per week. I figured I would post up in a Starbucks and sip Chai Tea Lattes while crushing ancient civilizations on my laptop during the 15 hour layover.
Harare International isn’t exactly Toronto. It was very open concept, almost a warehouse feel. There were two lines, Zimbabweans and not Zimbabweans. I was the only one who went to the line on the right. Two young men looked at me and took my passport and played with it for about three minutes. They put a huge sticker in it and then asked me for $20 American. I’m not sure if I got hustled for a layover in Zimbabwe, but I just payed and walked in.
I walked outside and it felt, looked, and smelled like Africa. My heart started racing. I felt very free. Very wild. I had arrived in Africa. To my right was a covered area where there were about ten people playing music. They said they were just trying to make sure the planes took off and landed safely by praying.
It only took about an hour before I realized I had 14 more hours here. There were two Zimbabweans standing in the middle of the corridor holding a white poster board with the word “Safari” written on it. I said, “why not.” I approached the two guys and said,
“alright guys, I have 14 hours here. What will it cost me for you to get me to the safari, take me on the safari, feed me lunch, and take me back here two hours before my flight.”
They conversed in another language before coming to a pause and then peering deep into my eyes. They said, “$17 American.” I obliged.
We walked outside to the parking lot and approached an old white minivan. It probably could have read “free candy” or “follow me to ice cream” in a past life. The man sitting shotgun pulled out a sort of “ten-four rubber ducky” walkie talkie and started attempting to communicate with someone. Just out of a movie, he was attempting to find the right frequency and there were lots of “kkkrrrr” and “ccchhhhhkkkkk” noises happening.
As we drove down the poorly paved road, there were huge open fields to my left and jungle to my right. There were children running outside along the car naked and women walking with huge pots of water on their head. This felt like Africa. Finally I heard a voice from the walkie talkie. It sounded English and authoritative. I heard someone say, “just hand him the….” and the man handed me to radio.
I said “hello?”
“Are you American!? Holy mackerel! I can’t wait to meet you, you are going to have a wonderful time!”
We took a hard right into the jungle. There was a hut with a pole going across the entrance, just like at a train crossing. It was manned by about six men all holding assault rifles. They raised the bar and allowed us to enter. As we drove through the jungle, I noticed a ton of work commencing. There were people working on farms and growing fruits and vegetables. There were people exclusively raising all the children, working the chickens, maintaining the landscape, cooking food, raising livestock, and gathering drinking water. I realized that this was a huge sustainable community of Zimbabweans. I started wondering, was this a community or were they…slaves?
We pulled up to a less fortified hut. The inside was decorated very touristy and there was a sweet, young Zimbabwean lady working the desk. She said she knew I was coming and that she hadn’t met an American before. She told me that she would give anything on the planet for a pair of Levi jeans. I remember vividly the impact that statement had on me. I could give her everything she wants with a flick of a card. I gave her $20 American and she handed me $2 and a $1, remember it cost $17. I was going to tip her, but I just had to keep the perfectly crisp American $2 I found in Zimbabwe. I still have it to this day.
I heard footsteps like you would in an old country western movie. Picture this: the scene is in a tavern in west Texas in the 1800’s. There is a player piano playing and cowboys playing cards. All of a sudden the wooden double doors fly open to reveal a shadow of a man. He then starts taking steps towards the bar and with each step you hear a loud cowboy boot crash and sort of a "rattle,” maybe from his spurs.
He had a large cowboy hat on with a huge exotic looking feather in it. He also had a full body length leather trench coat on. And the cherry on top? He had a leather glove on and on that glove perched a hawk. Lastly, he was white as Hilary Clinton and spoke with an english accent. The young lady told me he tells people he is from Portugal, but no one there actually knows.
He put the hawk in a cage and explained to me that he ran this establishment and he offered quite a bit of touristy options. He said, as we negotiated evidently, I would be taken on a safari, fed lunch, offered a few other additional services, and then taken back to the airport. A skinny young African man approached me and the white man said “this is our best guide, he doesn’t speak much, but he is wonderful with the animals.”
I followed the man and we arrived at a wooden gate. Even though we were literally in the jungle, surrounded by animals and flora, I could tell that this wooden gate led into the wild.
It was the gate into the safari.
As I waited for the guide to pull up the jeep, I wondered how close we were going to get to the animals. I had heard of giraffes licking the windows and elephants standing in the road. It was then when the man pulled up with two horses. He put a stump next to one and said,
“From Texas, right?”
To be continued...