Sunday, June 27, 2010

Postings from Pretoria #35

27 June 2010

Hello there... Rodger French here.

World Cup Report #2

Speaking as a formerly casual but currently dedicated-if-not-obsessed follower of the 2010 World Cup, the last 15 days or so have been pretty darned interesting.

USA! USA! USA! - A.J. and I scored tickets to the USA-Algeria Group C match at Loftus Versfeld here in Pretoria, and it was thrilling. This was the first (and possibly last) futbol match of any kind I’ve ever attended and we surely got our money’s worth. Both teams played well, the refs were pretty consistent, and our seats (lower level, smack on the goal line) provided us with a splendid view of Landon Donovan’s winning stoppage time goal.

[Sidebar: The vuvuzelas weren’t as overwhelming as we anticipated, although we took earplugs with us to mitigate the buzz. I wore them but, strangely, Anne, whose ears are much more sensitive than mine, didn’t.]

USA! USA! US… oh –The Americans, unfortunately, had a less than stellar effort against Ghana, the lone African nation still in contention, in the Round of 16 (“Win or go home.”). I confess to conflicting loyalties here, since I really do like Team USA, but also have a great fondness for Ghana, our home for two years. Bottom line: The Yanks were outplayed by the Black Stars, who now carry the futbol hopes of an entire continent as they advance to meet Uruguay in the quarter finals. Viva Ghana!

Speaking of Big-Ass Continents – My dream of an all-Korea final is in tatters. Only Japan still stands.

Viva América! – At this writing, the following teams from the Americas (Norte y Sur) are still in contention: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Viva Mexico!

And What of Europe? – England, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain remain. Italy and France, both former World Cup champs, are outta here, eliminated, let it be noted, in highly entertaining and dramatic fashion.

Celebrity Sightings – Vice President Biden and former President Clinton have been sighted at matches, and Biden actually popped by the Embassy. The impact of these visits on our lives, however, has been pretty minimal. And since Team USA is no longer a contender, the rumored visit of President Obama will not take place, much to the enormous relief of all US and ZA security officials.

Host Country - The South African team, Bafana Bafana (“The Boys The Boys”), failed to advance past the group stage, although they acquitted themselves with honour by bouncing France out of the tournament. In other news: Several hundred World Cup-related criminal incidents have been reported - none of them too serious, thankfully; the threatened strike by workers at Eskom (the electric company) has not materialized… yet; and fewer cars on the road has made driving in Pretoria almost enjoyable, not unlike Atlanta in 1996.

So… so far, so good. We’re hoping that the rest of the World Cup goes splendidly and that any major drama remains confined to the pitch. (Good luck with that.) Speaking as a newly minted-if-not-rabid futbol fan, I am still pulling for Ghana or some team other than the usual suspects to win the damn thing. Viva futbol!



Sunday, June 13, 2010

Postings from Pretoria #34

13 June 2010

Hello there... Rodger French here.

World Cup Report #1

Finally… the 2010 FIFA World Cup is underway. This is the first time “The World’s Largest Sporting Event” (by its own admission) has been held on African soil, so this is a VERY BIG DEAL. We have been living with the preparation, the construction, and the hype since we arrived in South Africa some 21 months ago, so it’s a palpable relief to have this clambake actually begin. Finally.

I did not grow up with soccer (as it is known in the USA), so my knowledge of and appreciation for the intricacies of the game are unavoidably lacking. I am nonetheless a big fan of any sporting activity played well and have developed great respect for football (as it is known everywhere but in the USA). And so, in the spirit of international comity, here are a few potentially illuminating, if underinformed, observations to perchance help you through.

Futbol – American football is not football. Australian football is not football. (It’s not even comprehensible.) Only soccer is football, although I prefer “futbol”. Helps avoid confusion.

FIFA – The Fédération Internationale de Football Association is the international governing body of association football, with headquarters in Zürich. FIFA is responsible for the organization and governance of major international tournaments, including the FIFA World Cup, first held in 1930. FIFA is also a soulless sports behemoth that rakes in billions of dollars in profits at the expense of local taxpayers, adversely impacts thousands of local businesses, and gives relatively little back to local communities. Not unlike the IOC, only more evil. And on steroids.

Root for North Korea – Only seven nations have ever won the World Cup - excuse me, the FIFA World Cup - and all of them are either European or South American. Enough. An all-Korean final is theoretically possible and would be wicked cool (official odds: not bloody likely), although, in the interest of requisite patriotic fervor, please note that Team USA is quite good and should go deep into the tourney. That said, I’m pulling for Ghana.

Drama on the Pitch – Since actual scoring occurs infrequently, if at all, any goal is necessarily fraught with emotion and high drama. I, however, am truly enthralled by the Wagnerian tendencies of many players to treat routine rough-and-tumble fouls as opportunities to reenact the death scene from “What’s Opera, Doc?”. Drama queens, indeed; and highly entertaining.

Make Some Noise – Futbol fanz are a noisy lot; some sing, some chant, some play drums. In South Africa, that sound you hear - the sound like a large hive of buzzing bees on steroids? – comes from tens of thousands of vuvuzelas. The vuvuzela is an inexpensive plastic trumpet, allegedly descended from the kudu horn*. Ubiquitous and unavoidable, they are loud enough to cause serious hearing damage. Anne and I will be attending exactly one match (USA vs Algeria) and we have already procured earplugs.

[Sidebar: *I say allegedly because I distinctly remember having one of these things, called a “blaster” if memory serves, when I was in high school.]

The Long View – 32 teams playing 64 matches at 9 stadia in 8 cities over 31 daze… We’re off to a good start and sincerely hope that South Africa can pull this off with as little off-field drama as possible. Keep a good thought sports enthusiasts, and I’ll keep you posted.



Sunday, June 6, 2010

Postings from Pretoria #33

06 June 2010

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:


When we came to South Africa in September 2008, one of the first things we did was make “The List”; that being the places we wanted to visit during our all too brief tour in country. The first two were obvious: Cape Town and Kruger National Park. We’ve been to Cape Town several times, but simply hadn’t worked in Kruger until now. A.J. had, however, scheduled one last official visit to Swaziland (Postings From Pretoria #9), so we decided to extend that trip and drive to Kruger for a three-night stay.

We opted for a package deal, which included lodging, meals, and game drives, at Jock Safari Lodge, a small, very comfortable place located in the Park some 40km from the Malelane Gate, one of nine entrances. Kruger National Park (open to the public in 1927) is a very big place, encompassing some 18,989 sq km (7,332 sq mi), about the size of Israel. We wanted to see as much of it as possible in the course of five game drives.

[Sidebar: Jock Safari Lodge is named for a dog - that would be “Jock” – the subject of “Jock of the Bushveld”, written by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, an Englishman who spent considerable time in the South African bush. I actually read the book while in Kruger, and recommend it to anyone interested in what life was like – albeit from a White man’s perspective - in the Transvaal of the 1880s.]

Climatologically, we couldn’t have picked a better time to visit. It was a bit chilly for the morning (05h30) game drives, but we layered up. And since it’s the “off season”, the roads were not jammed with hoards of tourists (like us) equipped with cameras and binoculars, stopping whenever they spotted some animals doing what they do mostly: eat, sleep, and shit. And lots of it.

Our guide was James, a very capable young man who not only excelled at spotting game, but also at disseminating really interesting scientific factoids. I won’t try you with a blow-by-blow account of our explorations, but I have posted some photoz taken with my modest snapshot camera (someday… a proper zoom lens) and offer the following highlights.

Big Game – Saw The Big 5: Lion (a couple of young males considering taking on a buffalo), buffalo (giving the lions considerable pause), leopard (very shy and hard to find), rhino (white and the much rarer black), and elephant (several breeding herds); also giraffe, zebra, wild dog, hyena, kudu, wildebeest, bushbok, and the ubiquitous impala (or as the guides refer to them, “fast food.”)

“Ferrari Safari” – Some guides tend to zoom around the park looking for the big cats. James was, thankfully, not so inclined, except on one occasion, when we received reports of a young male leopard nearby. One very wild ride later, Anne and I spotted our first, and possibly last, leopard in the wild. We followed him as he descended from his perch in a marula tree to stalk a small herd of impala, until we lost him in the bush. Magnificent.

Deep Bushveld at Night – One of our evening drives found us deep in the bush after sunset. It was cold, dark, and damp… perfect. The bushveld can be a spooky place and one tends to hallucinate all sorts of possibilities in the headlights and searchlight waving back and forth. We spotted owls, nightjars, rabbits, and a porcupine, which was tremendously exciting. Seriously.

Colourful Birding – Grey-headed Parrots, Lilac-breasted Rollers, Brown-hooded Kingfishers, and Yellow-beaked Hornbills (my favourite bird in all the world). Stunning.

Jock-like Creatures – Specifically hyenas and wild dogs. These dogs are endangered; so finding a small pack was a bit special. They were very curious and mostly ran around doing dog-like things. The hyenas were equally curious, but kept trying to find something on the bushmobile to sink their teeth into; not a frivolous concern, since a hyena can bite through even very substantial tyres.

I would be remiss not to mention that we appreciated the efforts of the lodge staff (and tipped heavily) and thoroughly enjoyed the fine company of our fellow tourists, both on game drives and at mealtimes. All in all, I’d say that we took our best shot at Kruger and everything went swimmingly. Now we’re back in Pretoria and waiting for the 2010 World Cup to begin. Hang on.