Last Sunday, I nearly ran over a man from the bible. He wasn’t watching where he was going, and stepped into the road just as I rounded a corner. Luckily, he was quite easy to spot in his long, blue, flowing robes, so I managed to avoid him. It was a close run thing, but as they say; no harm, no foul. He seemed to think it was my fault, and waved his shepherds staff at me angrily. And that was it. Apart from the little spike of adrenaline, there was nothing unusual about the scene, so I forgot all about it. Until today.
Every large city or country has a character all of its own. A character that is instantly recognisable to outsiders. New Yorkers might as well go around wearing huge “I’m from New York” hats (or rather “I’m from New York, so bite me, asshole” hats), and Australians seem to have some sort of innate “Australianness” that would stand out even if they didn’t talk funny.
The odd thing is is that when you are actually from a place it’s a lot harder to define that character, or even recognise it. What stands out for outsiders is just normal for insiders. I was quite surprised to learn the other day that South Africans working overseas are considered rude and crass. I thought we were quite nice! We are, however considered generally hard-working, so there is that. Foreigners are willing to tolerate our unspeakable personalities because we help them make their budgets. Yay.
I’m not going to even try to define the character of my home. Especially not if you’re all just going to be mean about us. Crass!?!? But the whole idea of it did start me thinking about things that I see every day. Things so commonplace that I hardly even notice them anymore, but that people who are not from here might find a little odd. Like men from the bible.
Men from the bible.
Johannesburg, like most cities, has the odd untended open space. I’m not talking about parks here, but rather about odd little patches of virgin bush shoe-horned between skyscrapers and housing developments. If you happen to pass one of these, slow down and take a closer look. You will, nine times out of ten, spot the occasional circle of flattened, cleared ground. Occasionally, it might be surrounded by a ring of standing stones, like a miniature Stonehenge. The rocks might even be painted white. What you are looking at is a church.
Every Sunday, the streets will fill up with men and women dressed up in clothes that look like they come straight from a nativity play. They make their way to one of these cleared circles, where they gather together to worship, men on one side and women on the other, sitting in the dirt at the feet of their preachers. Sometimes they will leap to their feet and dance and sing, swaying from side to side or walking around in rapid, rhythmic circles.
This, I would imagine, is what the birth of Christianity must have looked like. Small groups of people gathering together to worship out in the open air. No fancy cathedrals or gospel radio channels. No choirs or microphones or church bands or televised heal-a-thons. Just a faithful few believers who find a humble little circle in the dirt more than big and fancy enough to hold their god. I am not a believer myself, but if I was, these guy would make me feel like a bit of a fraud.
The bible guys are not the only church-related traffic hazards one finds in Jo’burg. Far less often, you have to be careful not to drive over a choir. A very particular sort of choir. In odd spots along the backroads, you might come across a gathering of men in light khaki suits. Most of them will be wearing large black pilot/South-American-dictator hats, and all will be wearing small badges attached to strips of green felt.
They will have formed up in an almost military formation, either a line or a square, with a leader out in front. I say almost military, because they are not particularly well drilled. Every now and then, a couple will break ranks with an odd little foot shuffling crouch, or a shrill whistle. And they will, of course, sing. After a fashion.
I have attached a clip of them for you to look at to get the idea. It’s quite long. Don’t watch all of it. This music is not for everyone, and I am not going to be held responsible should you need to be institutionalised.
These guys are not from the same church as those patch of dirt guys. They are members of the ZCC, and they do things on a rather grander scale. If you weren’t impressed by the dirt guys, maybe the ZCC is more up your street. They have a little get-together once a year over Easter, at a tiny little place called Moria. Well over 3 000 000 of them.
Just as an aside, you might have noticed something oddly familiar about that clip that you can’t put your finger on. Let me help. Those guys are the great great granddaddy of these guys.
Who are a little better.
Jo’burg is a city like any other. We do not have teeming herds of game thundering down the highways. We don’t have many wild mammals at all. What we do have is birds. Lots of them. Over 300 species. This is because we have some trees.
But birds are common all over the world. I would imagine, though, that Hadedas would strike foreign visitors as being a little unusual. They’re a kind of Ibis, cousins of the Sacred Ibises the Egyptians used to worship and mummify.
They are odd, awkward looking birds; more comical than majestic. And they are quite large. Big enough not to be bothered by cats. But that’s not what I suspect would surprise visitors. That would be their numbers.
There are large birds in most cities. I would imagine that most cities have a few wild ducks, or geese, or storks. But that’s the thing. There are not a few Hadedas here. There are millions of the bloody things. Almost every suburban garden has a family of them. They spend the nights perching oddly on our roofs, and shuffle awkwardly along pavements and through parks. Which would all be very cool if they didn’t sound like this.
The strange thing is that they never used to be there. When I was small, you would occasionally see them (and hear them) flying overhead, but over the last few decades they’ve moved in and taken over.
I know I should be calling them pointspeople, but it just doesn’t roll off the mind’s tongue properly. Here’s one now, directing traffic, like dedicated pointspersons all over the world.
There is something a little different about him, though. He is not a policeman. He works for an insurance company. Of course.
There’s a good reason for this. The robots (that’s what us normal people call traffic lights) in Johannesburg don’t work very well. In fact they work very badly indeed. On any given day, on a journey that should take less than 20 minutes, you can expect to encounter at least three broken traffic lights. If you think I am exaggerating, ask the nearest Jo’burg resident. Pull up a chair though. You’ll be listening to a 45 minute diatribe. There will be weeping.
This state of affairs would be ok, except that the traffic police in Johannesburg don’t work very well either. Directing traffic is beneath them. They see their role as having more to do with revenue collection, on both an official and unofficial basis. Before the insurance-pointspeople miraculously appeared, you could tune into the drive-time talk radio shows and listen to enraged drivers phoning in to complain about the traffic police fining gridlocked drivers for talking on their cellphones a few hundred metres from a broken traffic light at a four lane intersection.
And then some bright soul at an insurance company called Outsurance came up with a brilliant idea. They recruited, and paid for, a small army of roaming pointspersons on bright green scooters, who now appear miraculously at broken traffic lights to keep things moving.
I wish the story ended there. It didn’t. The powers that be decided this situation was monstrously unfair. Outsurance was getting an awful lot of good will for their trouble. Money was involved, and the powers that be had not had a chance to get their hands on any of it. They pulled the Outsurance pointsmen (sorry. I tried. I can’t anymore.) off the streets and tried to put the private pointsmen deal up for tender. But all’s well that ends well. Such was the outpouring of rage that the Outsurance pointsmen were back on the streets within weeks.
Things didn’t go quite so well for the insurance pothole fixers. Yes, that was a thing as well. Another insurance company saw how happy we all were that insurance companies were taking over the duties of the state, and started filling in our potholes for free. They, too, were pulled off the streets. Never to return. Unlike the potholes.
Things on taxis.
If you are new to this blog, when South Africans talk about taxis, they are talking about these.
And South Africans talk about taxis a lot. I have never written a full blog explaining them, because it would take a book. Their history is intimately tied to the history of apartheid, and they are a law unto themselves. They have their own warlords, and their own wars. And they drive very, very badly. And they are everywhere.
Down in Durban, some of them are painted in garish, shiny colours, but up here most of them are surprisingly unadorned. They are mostly covered in dents and scratches as a result of their rather idiosyncratic driving style.
A few of them have been covered in advertising, because apparently nothing increases your good will towards a company more than having its slogans cut you off in heavy traffic and then stop in front of you to let passengers out.
A few of them have personalised slogans in the back window, saying things like “A black man is always a suspect”, or “When times are dark, friends are few”, but that’s about it. Except for a curious trend that has picked up over the last few years. Things. On the taxis. Strange things.
It started with shoes. Or rather stickers of shoes. Takkies. For the uninitiated, takkies are what are referred to by the less refined nations of the world as sneakers or trainers. And suddenly, a good few years ago, every taxi in Johannesburg sprouted a sticker of a single takkie on the back. There is nothing particularly sinister about this. It’s just odd. A single takkie on every taxi.
At first I thought it might be some sort of underground signal. A glyph. A sign to initiates telling them something about that particular taxi, like that eighties thing about gay men having a single earring on the left. Or was it right?
But that didn’t make any sense. They all had one, and the fact that they were taxis was not exactly a secret. I asked around, but nobody could tell me what it meant. It was just a takkie. A single takkie. On every taxi. In hindsight, this was a lot less odd than the monkeys.
You know the ones. Those long armed, dangly monkeys that parents stick on the inside windows of their cars with see-through suction caps to fill the hearts of their offspring with joy.
Taxis do not specialise in transporting babies. And yet, a few years after the takkie thing, half the taxis in Johannesburg went out and got dangly monkeys. Which seems a little unusual.
Stranger still was the fact that the monkeys were hung on the outside of the taxis. They dangled off towbars or clung desperately to the tops of back windows. Just to be clear, these were plush toys. Furry ones. Hanging outside in the sun and the rain. Nobody could tell me why. To be honest, I didn’t ask any taxi drivers, because they scare me, but I asked several taxi users, and they couldn’t tell me a thing.
Things went quiet for a few years, while the monkeys slowly rotted off their precarious perches. And then some of the taxis started attaching brackets to their roofs. I don’t really know what else to call them. They weren’t roof racks. Just single, black plastic brackets that attached to those funny little gutters that cars have on their roofs. The sort of thing that I would imagine Canadians use when they drive around with skis.
This may seem rather sensible, but it isn’t. These are short distance, urban taxis, which drive people to work every day. I never saw a single one with anything on the roof. Ever. But a significant number of taxis got roof brackets. Maybe they were on special.
Apparently roof brackets are a little dull, because fairly soon after the roof brackets started appearing, they managed to up the “strange” ante. They started attaching single beers to them. Not all of them, but certainly enough of them to qualify as a trend. One beer. Stuck on a roof bracket. Maybe it was a display of power. If you can keep a full beer stuck on the outside of your vehicle in a city full of thirsty poor people, you qualify as a badass.
And then things got a little odder. Fishing lures. Deep sea fishing lures, designed to catch marlin and swordfish. I am pretty sure that I am not being prejudiced when I say that I don’t think many urban taxi drivers in a city six hours away from the nearest sea pop out for a bit of deep sea fishing on the weekend, but almost overnight, every second taxi was sporting a large, glittery rubber squid dangling from its rear view mirror.
I would, at the time, have been willing to write it all off as a passing fad. Glittery rubber squids are cool, and they must shimmer very fetchingly as you suddenly veer through two lanes of traffic and screech to a halt in the middle of a busy intersection. But something has happened over the last few months that gives me pause for thought. Fishing rods. Taxi drivers have started attaching fishing rods to the sides of their taxis. With rather natty looking black rubber suction caps.
Again, I hope that I am not falling prey to some weird subgenre of prejudice, along the lines of “white men can’t jump” or “black people can’t swim”, but I simply refuse to believe that Johannesburg’s taxi drivers are taking time out of their busy days to wet a line. There is hardly any open water here, for a start, and what little there is nasty enough to lay you down with any number of diseases should you so much as look at it. It certainly isn’t home to any swordfish.
Nope. A large number of landbound men caught up in a dangerous and high-pressure industry have all decided to nip out and buy themselves angling equipment for purely decorative purposes. I want to understand. I want to abduct a taxi driver and strap him to a chair in a darkened room with a single light shining into his eyes and interrogate him, preferably with a psychologist present. Why? Why this? Why fishing? Why monkeys? Why takkies? Why didn’t you just drink your damn beer and move on with your life? And what, pray tell, is next? Catering equipment? Fencing helmets? And what does it all mean? What message are you sending out that I have proved so incapable of deciphering?
The truth is that I don’t think there is an answer. All of these things exist purely to add a bit of colour to our lives. Everyone I’ve met who has been there raves about New York. Hah. It’s just a bunch of angry people wandering around in “I’m from New York, so bite me, asshole!” hats. Can you drive over a man from the bible in New York? Do soft shoe shuffling choirs in South American Dictator hats haunt the back streets of Sydney? Is London plagued by raucous cut-rate ancient Egyptian mummy birds? Are Tokyo taxi drivers equipped for an impromptu round of deep-sea angling?
I suspect that these places all have their own little brands of weirdness. Especially Tokyo. Thanks to the internet, we know what you’re up to, Japan! But for me it would always be an alien weirdness. The truth is that to me these things don’t seem weird at all. They are just the odd little things that make home home, and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
Except, maybe, for the taxi drivers and their fishing rods. Seriously guys, WTF?