Heat on the Street (Trying to Find the 4th of July in Africa), Parts I and II

July 5th, 2007


I was on my way to Madagascar after Zambia to collect some Lemurs for Mr. Banyan (he promised big bucks if I could get a pair of them back to him in Houston), but South Africa got pummeled by what looked to me like a typhoon, and my flight to Hellville was cancelled. You've got to wonder why anyone would fly into a town with that name in the first place, but I felt like I owed Banyan at least the effort. At any rate, there was SNOW in Jo-burg and the airport was a disaster, with all the Africans trying to operate snow-blowers that still had the tags on them. I decided to head the other direction, but Cape Town was socked in for the first few days as well, and I ended up in the hotel bar with a barkeep named "Sticks," looking longingly at the hotel pool fill up with debris blown in by the storm.

The weather cleared a couple days ago and I was able to get a lay of the land. The city is wrapped around the base of Table Mountain and with all its colonial buildings and second-story bar patios, it reminded me a lot of New Orleans. It was pretty dead, though, with all the local college kids on holiday and the tourists not due for another couple months. I met an American in the hotel bar named Stella, a 6-foot 2-inch former basketball player in country for a safari she won in a free-throw shooting contest against former Seattle Sonic legend Detlef Schrempf. Stella was in a holding pattern waiting for her friend to finish up a business conference before the start of the safari, so I filled her in on the nature of the biz and tried my best to scare the hell out of her with hunting stories. She was not impressed, but came out to dinner with me anyway. We both agreed that the food in South Africa sucks -- surprisingly bland all around -- and were bitching about missing all the 4th of July BBQs back home.

"BBQ?" the bartender asked.

I explained the concept of pit barbecue to the man.

"We call it Braai here," he explained, introducing himself as Mbali.

"Whatever you call it," Stella said, "it sucks."

"Is it?" Mbali asked. "I know where there is good BBQ. There is a place in my township. I can take you there tomorrow. It's my day off."

Stella and I exchanged a glance. This sounded like a pretty classic hustle, but we said that if he was really willing to take us out there, we'd meet him the following day, the 4th of July. Stella explained the significance of the holiday to Mbali.

"Then you must come," he said.

We bid Mbali goodnight, agreeing rendezvous in front of the restaurant with my rental car the next day. Stella and I went down the block to Bob's Bistro for a couple more beers. When I told the bartender that I was a pro hack, she pointed down the bar at a fiftyish man who she said was an editor at the Cape Town Times. He looked like he was editing some copy, so I left him alone until he set down his pen. When I went up and introduced myself as a professional courtesy, I saw that he'd been doing soduku puzzles. The editor's name was Mike and we soon got into a tremendous argument about whether it would be better to be attacked by a shark or a lion. Stella and I were for lion, Mike and the bartender were for shark. Must be a South African thing.

Mike the editor and I got pretty blasted talking shop after we decided that we'd better drop the shark/lion thing. Mike looked like he'd seen a lot of news and booze over the years, as had his gray blazer, the side pocket of which was ripped halfway off. I told him about the plan to go out for BBQ the next day with Mbali and asked him if it was safe. Mike said that if the guy had a job, it was probably not a big deal.

"Americans looking for the 4th of July in South Africa," Mike mused. "That sounds like a good story. I should send along one of my interns."

Interns? I love interns. How many did he have?

"We've got ten at the moment. College students from America. Half from Emory and half from Stanford."

I told him I absolutely had to have a Stanford intern. It was vital to the story. Mike switched from beer to red wine as he pondered the idea.

"Meet me at the newspaper in the morning," he said finally. "We'll see about an intern."

"Why the hell do you want an intern?" Stella asked as we dodged panhandlers on the way back to the hotel.

I didn't dignify that question with an answer.

I was at the Times office at 10:30 the next morning, but the receptionist said Mike hadn't made it in yet. I sat in the waiting room and admired the fact that they had a ten-stool bar outside the editorial offices. A very nice touch. Mike finally showed half an hour later, wearing the blazer with the ripped pocket and a hangover. He looked shocked to see me there, and I explained I was there for my intern. Mike closed his eyes for a moment and then said he'd see who he could round up. Through the glass door to the newsroom, I saw him talking to a young Korean kid. The kid was wearing a correspondent's safari jacket with about a hundred pockets and when he looked at me through the glass, I saw him shake his head. Mike leaned in and said something that finally got the kid gathering up his backpack and coming out to the reception area. Mike introduced the kid as Harvey.

I asked Harvey if he was really from Stanford. He offered to produce his student i.d., but I told him that wouldn't be necessary. I asked Mike when I had to have the kid back. Mike shrugged.

"What exactly is this story we're working on?" Harvey asked as we headed out of the office. "You are a reporter, aren't you?"

I ignored the last question about my bona fides, and explained the 4th of July angle.

"But it's not the 4th of July in America yet," he said.

Smart kid. I made him get into the back of my rental VW Rabbit with Stella. We drove down the street to Mbali's restaurant and the bartender was leaning in the doorway in a red Kangol and a matching striped shirt.

"How do you know this man?" Harvey asked, scribbling in his notebook.

"He opened our beers for us last night," Stella said.

"You mean he's not a guide?" Harvey asked, looking up.

I explained that reporting rule #1 was to never trust guides. I looked in the rearview mirror at Harvey until he got the picture and wrote it down. Rule #2 is that bartenders, hookers and cab drivers are the only reliable sources of information in foreign countries. The kid looked dubious.

Mbali jumped in the passenger seat and gave directions to the township where he grew up. He asked if we wanted to look around or head straight for the restaurant. We were outside of the established tourist part of Cape Town by this point, and the mass of shanties had started appearing along the highway, thousands of tiny shacks thrown together in a mass of tin and flapping laundry. Little kids darted across the roadway. I caught Stella's eye in the mirror and she shrugged. I told Mbali that we'd like to look around if it worked for him. He said he'd give us a little tour and then asked if we could pull into a gas station to make a phone call.

"Are you sure this is safe?" Harvey asked when Mbali got out of the car.

At this point I figured there was a 10 percent chance that the bartender was calling his buddies to arrange where and when to jump us. The bigger danger in my mind was that this was just a soft hustle and at the end of the day Mbali would demand a "fee" for taking us around. Trying to push the first option out of my mind, I told Harvey that he was as safe as a kitten in a burlap sack on a bridge.

"That doesn't sound very safe," the kid said after thinking about it.

I asked him if he was a journalist or a p.r. flack.

"What's a p.r. flack?" he asked. I don't know what the hell they're teaching out there in Palo Alto.

Mbali directed us through the center of the township. There were an astounding number of people out on the street for a Wednesday afternoon. The only real commercial buildings were the gas stations, every other business -- hairdressers, Internet cafes, cell phone stores -- were run out of railcar size shipping containers. Even though I'd been in Africa for a month by that point, I was amazed at all the black faces. Stella and the intern were silent in the backseat.

We arrived at a community center where there was only one other vehicle in the glass-strewn parking lot. Mbali explained that we were in Khaya Licha, which translated to "New Home." The community building looked like it was only a couple years old, but the wooden porches were missing boards, making walking across a careful enterprise. Mbali said people pried the boards up to use on their shanties. We checked in with a security guard in an office watching soap operas and proceeded through a gate to a long open stairway leading up to an observation platform. I quietly asked Mbali if my car was okay in the lot. He assured me it was fine.

There were six boys running laps around the top deck of the observation deck. They were barefooted and had to keep their eyes down to prevent themselves from falling through the deck where the planks were missing. The township lay all around us under a low yellowish haze. There was one small strip of land that still had trees on it and it looked like tents had been pitched among them. Mbali explained that this was the traditional "bush," where young men went out to live for a week as their right of manhood. He explained that in his day, their area was much more isolated. With the proximity of the shanties now, it looked to me like going down to the local park in the States and saying you'd been camping. Mbali told us about how for the week of the rite, the boys had limited food and water and no female visitors. He said no boy could claim to be a man until they'd finished the ceremony. Stella asked if there was anything similar for women. Mbali shrugged and said no.

When Stella moved off to take some pictures from the other side of the platform, Mbali explained that there was more to the initiation ceremony than just a couple weeks in a tent. The boys, most between the ages of 18 and 21, are circumcised the night of their arrival as dictated by the traditions of the Xhoasa tribe. The wound is tended to by a tribal doctor, who bandages the appendage with goatskins, changing the dressing on an hourly basis. There have been a spate of recent articles in the local papers about this sort of thing going bad in a township east of Cape Town, with around twenty youngsters dying of infection. Mbali chalked this up to the fact that kids are going out when they're too young and not strong enough to survive the ordeal. The bush is also getting so crowded that people are attempting the rite of passage in the winter, when the conditions are much more harsh. I commented to Mbali that I'm surprised any kids go out there at all considering what's waiting for them. Mbali shook his head. If you don't go to the bush, you can never be accepted as a man by the Xhoasas, he said.

We went from the community center to the restaurant and parked the Rabbit on the sidewalk. The place was packed. After a twenty-minute wait, we came to a long butcher's case from which we selected our slabs of raw meat -- steak, pork or lamb -- and then handed the platter to a guy who took it back to the kitchen. Mbali pulled out some bills to pay for the meal, but Stella and I told him we'd pick up the tab. Harvey fumbled in his pockets for some notes, but I told him I'd put it on my expense account.

"You have an expense account?"

I told him that it a vast fund and that he should talk about getting his own with Mike the editor posthaste. You couldn't be a legit reporter without an expense account.

"You mean they're paying you to travel around the world and eat BBQ?" the kid asked.

I explained how I'd take all my receipts to the home office when I got back and this guy Andy Van de Voorde would cut me a check on the spot. The paper was covering everything from cigarettes to hotels and bribes. Harvey was practically drooling at this prospect of such a fund. Stella laughed.

The platter of cooked meat arrived at our table along with one serrated knife and half a loaf of bread. No napkins, no forks, no potato salad. The three of us Americans watched Mbali to see how to proceed and then took turns passing the knife to slice off meat and then using the bread as napkins. Despite the lack of finery, it was, as Mbali promised, some damn good BBQ. Chased down with cold Castle beer, it was almost like being back home. I urged Harvey to drink his beer.

"I'm working," he said.

That made me laugh out loud. I told the kid what you told me way back in the day: that in the newspaper business, drinking was not only accepted, but encouraged. I asked him if he'd noticed the bar outside the editors' office?

The kid thought about it for a moment before starting in on his brew.

On the way back to Cape Town, Mbali suggested we stop in the casino. I asked him if they had craps. He didn't think so, so I pulled off the highway knowing that without dice, I might make it out of there with some cash. I asked the kid if he gambled. He said he'd seen it on TV.

The casino was straight out of Vegas; fountains, landscaping and cheesy architecture. Stella commented that it was absurd that we could go from the middle of the township to such a setting in half an hour.

"From abject poverty to complete gluttony," she said. The place was packed. All the gamblers were white or Asian.

Mbali had never gambled before, and admitted that he had suggested the casino because he wanted to scope it out for a big date he had coming up later that week. He said the casino was considered very high class by the local ladies. Stella and I helped him lose his 700 Rand (about ten bucks) over the next twenty minutes on the slot machines. When we'd busted flat, Stella noticed that Harvey was gone. We found him standing next to a crowded roulette table looking stupefied.

"How much did you lose?" Stella asked in a very mother-like tone.

"All of it," the kid said, still eyeing the spinning wheel.

"What's all of it?" she asked.

"What's 5000 Rand?" he asked.

Christ, the kid had lost almost 75 bucks. I told him he needed to get on that expense account pronto. He asked me for a loan so he could play a few more spins. Stella took him by the arm and we made out exit.

Back in Cape Town, we went to an Irish bar for dinner. It was karaoke night and a group of Lebanese were crowded around the PA system, taking turns belting out songs I'd never heard. Harvey looked over the menu and then excused himself, saying he had to get back to his dorm. Stella said she'd buy him dinner and the kid cracked his first smile of the day. There was a catch. He had to sing a song. Harvey said there was no way in hell, so Stella fed him a few hard ciders to get his bravery up. Meanwhile, Mbali had gotten through the Lebanese to sing a Celine Dion song. He wasn't bad. After three ciders, Harvey finally got up and did the most god-awful rendition of "Desperado" that I'd ever heard. For a Stanford kid, he wasn't a complete moron and I told him later that the first thing he had to do was lose the correspondent's vest. He scrawled that down in his notebook.

"So what do you think?" Stella asked, after we'd put a wobbly Harvey in a cab. "Did we find it?"

We looked at Mbali. To my great relief, he hadn't spoiled the day by trying to hit us for any guide fee. Even though he didn't drink, he'd insisted on buying two rounds of drinks.

"It was my first 4th of July," he said after a moment. "So I will say it was the best." -- Tony Perez-Giese

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