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Monday, June 14, 2010

Feel it, it is here!

This is the slogan for the 2010 World Cup; it is truly a triumphant moment for Africa. With most of the continent still developing, the influx of thousands of visitors to South Africa will surely have a positive impact on the economy that many hope will have far reaching effects.

So I separated from the girls in Durban to make my way down to Bloemfontein. With very little research, okay let’s be real, with no research, I purchased a ticket to Match #10 Japan vs. Cameroon. Bloemfontein located southwest of Johannesburg and to the west of Durban is bloody cold! Bloem as it is referred to by the locals actually means Fountain of Flowers in Dutch, Bloem = Flowers, Fontein = Fountain. Supposedly they are known for their flowers and especially roses. I didn’t know a thing about Bloem but almost everyone that I came into contact with had made a comment about it being cold. No wonder there were still tickets! When I first went online to look for tickets in early May, most games were already sold out. The US had sold out on all their games and mostly only tickets to Eastern European countries were left. There were still Category 1 tickets for the Japan game so I went ahead and bought it. I ended up paying two times the price for the ticket than the cheapest one. I also thought I purchased another ticket (can’t remember which now) but somehow the transaction didn’t go through so it would be Japan vs. Cameroon in Bloem for me.

But I was also strategizing. Traveling alone, I thought that it would be a good idea to come to a Japan game with the expectation that there would be a good number of Japanese that would travel for the game. The Japanese are far more supportive of their soccer team then Americans are, I think. And, for the most part, the Japanese as a whole are honest and respectful people. I knew that I would be able to quickly befriend a Japanese and would be able to easily get along with them, split costs with my guards down, never suspecting that they would try to cheat me.

The bus departed Durban at 10:30AM and was scheduled to arrive in Bloemfontein at 8:50PM. Seated on the upper portion of the double-decker bus, it was much more comfortable than I would have expected. The seats even reclined 150°. The ride seemed to be going smoothly until about two hours prior to arrival; one of the bus attendants questioned a passenger on whether or not he had been smoking marijuana. Due to her suspicions, we made a stop at the police station with officials coming on board and escorting the passenger off. We waited in front of the police station and about 15 minutes later, the passenger re-boarded. I tried not to make eye contact with the passenger for fear that he would retaliate because he felt that he was wrongly accused. But I guess he was high because he seemed rather cool about it. My guess is that the police couldn’t find him in possession of the drug so he was let back on.

At 9:00PM when the bus continued to drive with no signs of stopping, I was getting nervous. 9:30, still driving. 10:00, still driving. I was really starting to get nervous. Luckily, I met another passenger on one of our breaks who said that he was going home to Bloem so I looked for him and confirmed that he was still on the bus so knew I was okay. We didn’t arrive until about 10:20PM! 12 hours of driving! Getting off the bus, it seems that I was given a true Bloem welcome when I felt something icy under my feet. Looking down, it looked like snow but then I realized that it was hail. I hope I was ready for this cold!

The place that I ended up staying at, De Kat Guesthouse, I was told was +/- 1.5 k from the stadium. The guesthouse keeper, Elna, had kindly offered to come fetch me from the station so that was nice. Since I wasn’t familiar with the area I was really concerned about coming in so late. The guesthouse was simple yet very modern looking. There was a flat screen tv with instant coffee, tea and rusks (similar to biscotti but in smaller bite size pieces and less hard) left out. The bedding also looked like it could have easily come out of a Sheraton hotel. I was quite pleased especially because they had agreed to my asking price of $25/night. It was actually quite awesome how I found this place. Because of the World Cup, I knew that I needed to book my place well in advance. While I was trying to find places to stay, I stumbled across the email address for the Tourist Office welcoming any inquiries for the area. I went ahead and emailed them and within 24 hours, my inbox was flooded with people offering to house me. Apparently the tourism office had forwarded my email to their network of accommodations. I was actually going to stay with another place at first but it was 8km away and I thought that I would not only waste time but almost money trying to go back and forth. I almost missed the email from De Kat at first. After looking at the photos and their agreement to let me stay for $25 a night, I knew this is where I wanted to stay.

The following morning I ended up signing up for the breakfast, SAR50 ($6.50). I thought it was a little pricey for breakfast but it was actually well worth the money! We had cereal, yogurt, toast, eggs, sausage, bacon and mushrooms. I made sure I ate all my food because I needed to be on a budget. The breakfast turned out to be so filling that I didn’t eat lunch or dinner! I shared breakfast that morning with Karen and her mother Anne who are South Africans.  We had great laughs and conversations over breakfast and we exchanged contact information; hopefully we'll be meeting up again later when I get back to Joburg.

Since I had not been connected to the internet since getting into Durban, Elna offered to take me to their sister location where I would be able to use the computer for as long as I wanted for just SAR30 ($3.90). At first I thought I would only go on for an hour or so but then realized I should really get my money’s worth and spend the time catching up on all the emails and facebook that I had been missing. I ended up staying on the computer for 4 hours!

Later that night, I tried to find the fan zone so that I could catch the US vs. England game. I had heard that there were free shuttle buses but no one knew where the stops were and what the schedule was. I somehow managed to ask some volunteers who recommended that I check with the volunteer center. Somehow I was able to convince them to take me to Hoffman Square where I had heard there was a big screen. The park ended up being very dark and no one seemed to be concerned about the game. Just when I thought about what I should, some of the volunteers who were also in the van with me asked if I was okay and suggested I check out CUT, Central University of Technology (I think?) where they said I would surely find people to watch the game with. I took their advice and had called a guy who I was told would be able to drive me there for SAR40 ($5.15).

Wally came to pick me up and it turned out to be a really short drive probably only about a mile or two away. I thought it was such a rip off but there aren’t really any taxis in the area and because the streets are poorly lit, it really is not a place for a single female to be walking…it’s not like the Philippines!

I got to CUT at about 6:30PM and yes there was a big screen but there were only a handful of people there. I soon realized that the game wouldn’t start for another 2 hours so I quickly introduced myself to some locals and became friends with them. I enjoyed watching US hold its own against England. There was actually a pretty good turn out that night with at least a hundred people. While there, I also met two girls who are apparent movie stars! They told me that they act in a nightly series so I’m hoping to watch them soon. They were so down to earth that I would have never guessed they were famous!

I got home that night again for SAR40 although when I got dropped off Wally told me that I should pay SAR50. When I told him I was told the price was SAR40, he allowed me to pay that price but told me next time I would have to pay the actual price. I knew that from tomorrow forward, I would have to walk into the town while it’s still lighted because I can’t afford to spend $10 a day on transportation especially if it is within walking distance.

The following day, I did in fact walk to the town center and it took me only about 40 minutes; I would guess it is only about a mile or two away. Walking into town, I found the Visitor’s Center and was able to get onto the internet again. I also got help from a girl who was in charge of Tourism and Events. I asked her where the free shuttle bus was and what the route was. Finding this free shuttle seems to be a mystery to everyone! She didn’t know but she took me out to the main street and managed to ask some guys about the free shuttle. Turns out, I walked right straight into a gold mine! Samz and his crew would be able to drive me around anywhere at any time (until midnight) all for FREE! I couldn’t believe it and this wasn’t the FIFA shuttle that I had been searching for. I later found out that the South African Government had dispatched employees from their Department of Transportation to help with the transportation of tourists. REALLY?! I love you South Africa!

I went to check out the Fan Fest which was the larger fan zone located 12km away from the town center. It was nice with a lot of different soccer activities and a large screen but since it was outdoors, it was really cold! I stayed for a good two hours but I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to leave but I had already bought a beer so I had to make sure I finished it before I left. I ended up walking over to the souvenir tent and became friends with the two that were working there, Clayton and Tshego. I had mentioned to them that I had wanted to go out to Kimberley located about 1.5 hours away from Bloem that has a large hole left by the diamond mining industry. Apparently this hole is massive and the largest hole ever to be dug up by human hands. I had checked around and everyone was quoting me at a minimum SAR 3000 ($386) per car. I couldn’t afford that even if I found others to join me, it would cost me about $120. Clayton however offered to take me there so long as I cover his gas SAR400 ($51). I told him if he was serious, I’d pay him SAR500 ($64) since that was my budget to begin with. We’ll see…I would really like to go!

After finally finishing my beer, I left the Fan Fest, this time on the official free FIFA shuttle. Finally! The shuttle runs between the Fan Fest and Hoffman Square. After getting to the square, called Samz and had him pick me up and take me back to CUT. I went to CUT to watch the Germany vs. Australia game. Man, Germany killed it. I cheered for Australia but obviously my cheering didn’t help. Final score 4-0. The crowd here tonight was really small and there must have only been about 30 or so, if that. After the game was done, I called Samz and he picked me up and brought me back to my guesthouse. I still can’t believe I found him! I’ve saved myself $10 a day! I want to give him money or a gift from Hawaii but I’m wondering if that’s bad since he’s a government employee…

So tomorrow is the day! The reason that I traveled all this way to subject myself to the cold! I really hope it won’t be too cold! I will proudly hold my Hawaiian flag (thanks Leilani!). Hopefully you’ll catch a glimpse of me on tv. But I’m sure everyone will wonder what flag it is and why the hell I’m holding it at the Japan vs. Cameroon game. Ha ha. Whatever. This is a once in a lifetime thing! Well, at this rate maybe I’ll be at the next World Cup…

So far trip is going smoothly and I have met a lot of friendly and helpful people along the way! If you can catch me, game is playing at 4AM HST, 7AM PST, 9AM CST, 10AM EST, 3PM GMT, 4PM German time, and what other time zones do I need to cover? 11PM Japan time. I think I covered all the major areas. Hopefully it will be a good game! Now I need to get to bed since it will be a long day for me tomorrow. Feel it! It is here!

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