Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dealing and Scheming

I think a lot of people I know think I may be a "good person" to spend this time in South Africa. To supposedly give up winebars and sophistication in favor of barren Africa in pursuit of the great HIV insight. As if all of Africa is one big peace corps for Americans instead of a daily traffic battle against BMW SUVs for a parking spot for a cappucino break in Sandton. Definitely, Jo'burg is enraging and suburban-urban but intrigue is lurking, vast sums of money are being made, and dealers and schemers reign supreme.

Case in point-- I'm working with my laptop at the library bar of the Melrose Arch Hotel- all wood panneling and brass lights and scotch and old books. It's one of the few wireless zones in Jo'burg that I can stand, and I believe the staff thinks I live there due to the frequency of my time there in February for the UA project. I can nurse a Coke Light for five hours, eat bar snacks, and do some serious banging on the IBook.

I sit very close to two distinguished-looking middle-aged guys so I can use the electrical outlet under their table. They speak in hushed tones, sipping whiskey at 2:00 pm. "You know, we made about 250 million in the mines in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) but you have to get out alive." I pieced together that one gentleman was some sort of private gem-financier, while the other was a Director from Barclays (UK) which has now merged with a South African bank Absa. They were definitely pissed I was sitting so close, and I can't repeat all I heard here. The walls have ears, and as an old, very odd family friend once said, "those who speak, pay."

I walk by the most beautiful jewellery shop I have ever seen (not the shop but the gems) and notice the fresh bullet holes in the windows (Andrew, I will show you this!). Supposedly, a Nigerian gang shot out the store after-hours to steal gems for a German ganglord directing from Berlin.

I could go on but let's talk more about the enraging. I receive a South African fellowship award that contains a small stipend. In total, it has taken about a million hours to sort out this small stipend--- and the hours of paid work I have given up far outweigh the total amount of money the stipend entails. Mr. X assures me the documents will be ready to sign on Monday. I wait until Tuesday since I know how this works-- it will never be ready the day the rubber stamps say it will. I drive an hour and Mr. X gives me a blank stare. "You can't be serious. We spoke last week and you said this would be ready on Monday." Mr. X shifts and combs his hair with spit-laden fingers. "Madam, I have been so busy I haven't even had time for my personal chores." "Listen, sir, I AM SO BUSY I DON'T EVEN HAVE TIME TO SHOWER BUT I STILL DO. I'm not leaving without signing those papers." "Madam, there's no need to yell." "Yes, there is. There really is." Three hours later... the papers are not signed until the next day and that office thinks I am a hysterical American freak.

Back to dealing and scheming. I try to withdraw about R1500 from a Bureau de Change since my ATM card situation won't be sorted until I'm in the States. There are tons of men near me- American, British, Nigerian. Most are holding absolutely enormous sums of cash- like 20,000 Euros each. What sorts of people carry around so much cash? Who are these Americans? Why is this man, in bermuda shorts and a Mickey Mouse polo shirt and loafers with no socks, carrying close to 50,000 pounds sterling? What does he want to do with the converted 500,000 Rand? Isn't he scared to walk to his car with all that cash?

Back to enraging. A woman in front of me is catching a flight to China that evening. She needs to exchange Rand for the Chinese currency whose name escapes me (I mean I never knew it). They've already sent her home for a copy of an utility bill for proof of residency. The electricity bill she brings only has a PO Box number on it (since it is unlikely you will actually receive any mail at a physical address rather than at a PO Box) and the clerks insist she needs proof of a physical address. This defies the recommendations set by the South African postal service and is in general really ridiculous (nor did they specify this when they sent her away the first time). She totally goes ballistic- "YOU FUCKING CUNT. YOU FUCKING BITCH. HOW AM I GOING TO EAT IN CHINA? THEY DON'T TAKE CREDIT CARDS. YOU ARE SUCH AN INCOMPETENT WHORE." She slams the bullet-proof double doors. The Nigerian carrying 20,000 in Euros looks really scared. Just another day.

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