South Africa! Thank You!by Telford Vice / 25.02.2011
The airplane sinks without trace into the cloying depths of what could easily be a vast bowl of lentil dahl. Somewhere beneath this foreboding surface, our captain tells us, Delhi lurks. We are not sure if we believe him. But gently does it, and Indira Ghandi Airport duly oozes out of the frozen fog. Disappointingly, it looks pretty much like airports everywhere.
As we taxi towards the nondescript slab of rectangular windows and their aluminium frames, a woman across the aisle – her forearms and hands covered in small, crosshatch tattoos – deftly swats aside a swathe of her sari and spits into a sickbag. A man on the other side of the aisle has a meaty hand wrapped around a newspaper. Its name is beautiful, ballsy, and breathtaking: “tabloid!” Now that’s telling it like it is. The screaming baby, the one that is on every flight anywhere every day no matter what (it must own a shitload of airmiles), finally shuts up.
Passport control comes and goes in unsmiling mechanical fashion. My, “Good morning!” is answered with “Passport.” Page… page… page… Stamp!
At the luggage carousel, a flabby Scot whose hair matches the sky outside latches onto a bony nun who slithers inside skin the shade of a teabag left to dry in a saucer on the windowsill. He wears a smile that fades closer towards anxiety at each passing trundle of the conveyor belt that does not deliver his suitcase. She hides her withered self behind a scowl so ancient and indelible she has forgotten it is there.
“And where are you coming from,” he asks her, relieved at having found a promise of the sacred in this profane wasteland.
“Uganda,” she growls, dirty gravel in her throat, and hoists a bag onto a trolley with arms that resemble nothing so much as a pair of dirty pipe cleaners. The Scot doesn’t know what to think about that, which means he also doesn’t know what to say. He is suddenly awkward and silent. A large green case rumbles towards us. The nun looks at the Scot, then at me, then at the bag, then back at me.
I do the decent thing and yank the green monster off the belt. At least, I try to. The impossibly heavy lump yanks back, and I survive a moment of wobbling weightlessness to wrestle my opponent upright onto the slick marble floor. What the hell is in this thing? The severed heads of unwed mothers?
“Thank you, my son,” she hisses, and the scowl is ever so slightly airbrushed at the edges. “God bless you.”
And she does. My bag arrives red and battered and forlorn but unscathed after running the gauntlet of OR Tambo International’s thieving baggage handlers. A trip or two previously, I was not so lucky. Three pairs of Levis and an Argentina football jersey – a replica of the very shirt Diego Maradona himself was wearing when he kicked and punched those glorious goals at the 1986 World Cup – were gone when I unzipped in Dubai.
To the foreign exchange counter, where a squat man with shiny eyes and the blackest moustache I have yet seen studies the four US$100 bills I have handed him with all the suspicion of a husband letting his wife back into the house at 4am. Eventually, and with no small reluctance, he gives me many, many rupees.
Onward to the cell phone people to establish coms. My first SMS with my Indian SIM is to The Editor: “The ostrich has landed.” But there’s a hitch. Can’t get the SIM to talk to my laptop to get online. Pretty soon the two blokes at Aircel and one of the airport wifi tiffies are poring over my problem. Note: this is not their problem. If I had downloaded the right software it wouldn’t be a problem at all. But there they are, waggling their heads and huffing and hmmmming in Hindi, and trying this and that. And everything they try is preceded by, “Please, Sir, may I…” Their gentleness is a balm for the soul, especially one that’s been awake for 30 hours.
Can you imagine the attitude you would get from the average Joburger if you had to approach them in a similar spot of bother? The sneer would knock you on your arse from 10 metres. After much scratching of heads and sincere apologies, they give up. But not before telling me where I can acquire a 2G card – “you might struggle in some parts of India with 3G” – for less than what I would have paid if they had managed to connect me.
Like the white man I undoubtedly am, I ask them about the weather. “We had snow in Kashmir two days ago, that’s why it looks like this,” one says with a nod to the dahl day sky outside. Two days on, the fog has indeed cleared to reveal the pollution soup that hangs over the Indian capital. An old man armed with a fiercely bristled chin kisses me on the cheek and says: “South Africa! Thank you!”
For what? Coming? Pleasure. We are both part of the heaving mass of humanity making its way
towards the Kotla, where Graeme Smith leads the Proteas onto the field to play the West Indies in their World Cup opener.
The national anthem cuts out halfway, but at least they played the honourable half and not that ode to fascism that’s been tacked onto the end of Nkosi Sikelel ’iAfrika. South Africa pick three spinners for the first time since… when? One of them, Imran Tahir, was born in Pakistan and grew up on cricket grounds around the world. These days he calls Durban home, and accordingly he looks like a surfer, shaggy blond hair and all.
Tahir is as edgy as Bambi on too many espressos. But he holds it together well enough to take 4/41, while AB de Villiers scores the fastest World Cup century by a South African to wrap up a seven-wicket win. The Windies are unable to produce the rogue brilliance that, despite having dwindled to mediocrity, they tend to pull out of the bag against South Africa. Darren Bravo – the new Brian Lara if you listen to those who don’t have enough imagination to describe new players properly – hits the most attractive shots of the night in his pugnacious 73. But it will take more than that to stop the Proteas this time. They regroup tidily after the game threatens to get away from them during the middle overs of the West Indian innings, and they are never in danger of losing after that.