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Around the World in 14 days.

By Brad Templeton

The world is round. I know this from actual experience.

[HK Super Net View]
The author at Hong Kong Supernet, in Hong Kong's new territories.

Read a tale of Lions and Leopards and Gnu, oh my! Terrorists and lost luggage, Chinese food, apartheid and the death of Karl Marx. Transit, termites and tent camps. Rain and racism, humidity and humility, safaris and Soweto. 7 photos. Planes, trains and yes, automobiles.

Over the Pacific

The flight to Hong Kong leaves at around noon, and gets in at 4pm -- the next calendar day. However, the 13 hour flight is all within one "day" -- it remains light outside the whole time, but you lose a calendar day going over the date line. Most people get it back on the way back (often arriving before they left, clock-wise) but going around the world to the west I've lost it forever (or until I go around to the east, something that seems a bit insane.) Of course I didn't lose it, it's all an illusion, and I got it back with many hours of extra sleep with each westward time-zone shift.

Lines took longer since the Unabomber had threatened to blow up a plane out of LAX and this meant they wanted to double-check SFO.

This all started when I was invited to keynote South Africa's first Internet conference in Johannesburg (Jo'burg) in July. The free trip sounded appealing, not that I had the time. But I looked at saw that about 1000 miles east of South Africa, out in the middle of the Indian ocean, was the spot on the planet opposite where I live. So it made sense to go around one way and come back the other. The scheduled airfare to SA is around $2500, and I had heard that there were "round-the-world" tickets for that price (and only $4K in business class) which let you go around, stopping where you want to on a loose schedule. I set out to find one.

Hah. None of the agents knew much about them, and after weeks of delays I was pointed to one who did. She said they have been curtailed a lot, and now they can't include Africa, the one "must" on my tour. But there is still ticket wholesaling, where travelers can build combined multi-airline itineraries outside North America at decent prices.

Everything got really delayed and other factors impinged to shorten my trip, but I eventually decided to see Hong Kong on the way around (before 1997, when the lease expires and the landlord comes calling) and then do a week in South Africa. I had planned to put in another far east destination but in the end kept it to just these two.

Around the world in 14 days: Three continents, 24 hours of time zone shift (really 21 since I keep such a late schedule) and 3 hemispheres. People I met on the road said I was nuts.

Anyway, since the flight over the Pacific is all daylight, and gets you in late afternoon, I didn't sleep, the way most passengers did. I can't sleep easily on the plane (for one, i sleep in the nude :-) though I got some drugs from the doctor to help with that. But for the Pacific flight, a full 8 hour nap would be difficult and really throw off your schedule. So while when I got to Hong Kong I was ready to drop into bed by 7pm or 8pm their time, I adapted well to their schedule.

Rule 1: Don't go to Hong Kong in July. It's hot, the rainy season is starting and it's humid. Living in California's desert climate for 3 years has really changed me, I just can't handle humidity well at all for short terms. I don't know how much stuck pigs sweat, but if it's a lot, I sweated like one.

Hong Kong certainly is an experience though, as those who have been will know. Is it China's implementation of western business oriented culture, or far beyond that? I could tell you that HK is like the craziest Chinatown you've seen in SF, Toronto or New York multiplied a hundredfold, but it's far more than that.

A lot of HK is ugly, sometimes due to poverty and sometimes due to the way humid climates make buildings ugly. No doubt you've seen them in Mexico erecting new buildings that look 20 years old. Same in HK. There are some buildings without that stained-look of a high-humidity climate (and from the drippings of the ubiquitous air conditioners) but they are rare and expensive.

Of course it all becomes beautiful at night, with the hills and the mountains and the lights of the tall buildings. A building as short as five stories is rare in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's other "new" territories are actually quite scenic, and it makes me wonder why more people don't live out in places like Clearwater Bay, where I went to visit ClariNet's largest HK customer.

There is lots of English in HK, particularly among the educated, but outside the tourist areas be ready to not find much at all.

Going to Hong Kong on your own is a little foolish. Chinese food, as we all know, is meant to be eaten in groups. It was a good thing I had customers to visit, so I could invite them to lunch or dinner, and have them select a good restaurant and order for me. Some of my smaller customers were puzzled that I was calling them up.

In spite of HK's reputation as the best Chinese food in the world, you might not find it so in a casual visit. If you live in the next best towns (San Francisco and Toronto, the two towns I have lived in) you will over time find your own favourite restaurants. And the best in San Francisco is better than the average in HK, which is all you will find in a short trip unless you want to spend the big bucks.

Still, it's very good, particularly if you get your HK friends to order for you.

Hong Kong is about shopping of course, and I tried to avoid it, since I don't have the shopping gene. Stereotypically the shopping gene is found on the X chromosome, which men have one of while women have two. But even I shopped enough, needing a new suit. Custom tailored suits and shirts are an HK specialty. Cheaper than here, but not necessarily that much. Some things in HK can be found cheaper in NY, even silk they say, though I bought some of that. I didn't bother with electronics or other such items.

Hong Kong and China

After touristing a bit in HK, I did a day trip to the People's Republic, which is actually very easy to visit right now. This was the highlight.

I can't say too many HK residents agree yet, but I don't think China is going to take over Hong Kong in 1997. I think Hong Kong is going to take over China. HK will become the capital of China the way New York is the capital of the USA even though Washington is where the political power is.

Marx is dead in much of China, and the "special economic zones" of southern China are trying desperately to become like Hong Kong, and everybody wants to go live in them. Particularly when Deng and the last of the old guard die, the government may remain in Beijing, but the money will be in Hong Kong. They even take American Express cards in China, at the tourist areas, anyway.

In fact, the tour of China (to Guangzhou -- which we used to call "Canton") shows mostly an industrial China. You only see the rural China on the train trip back.

Oddly enough, it's in the People's Republic that I meet the first South Africans I will talk to on this trip. On our tour is a couple. One's white, the other "coloured" and they're obviously gay, though they don't say that. Since white South Africa is, I will learn, a very religiously conservative country, I think these guys must take the definition of social courage to a new level.

Cantonese is one of the hardest languages to learn in the world and of course I find this very frustrating. Normally I can at least read the symbols readily and after a week in a place I will have a small vocabulary. Not so for us westerners going to Hong Kong. Indeed, the main phrase I remember is the Cantonese for "Please stand clear of the doors" (Approximately: Tseng tsuin som tchai mon) since I heard that about 600 times on the subway. Even then I couldn't get the phonemes just right.

Public transit is very plentiful and very cheap in HK. The subway is great (with a farecard system like BART or Washington DC) and the trains are very frequent. The tram in HK is only $1.20 HK (16 cents USA) and it seems one comes every 3 minutes. Busses are more frequent and even the small busses with air conditioning which are about $4 HK (7.8 $HK to the US dollar) are cheap and plentiful. I took the subway a lot because it was air conditioned (even when waiting for it!), frequent and fast. Of course I also took the tram, ferry and bus lines to try them. Cabs are also cheap, with any ride under 2KM costing $13 HK.

The subway cars are an interesting experience because the cars are joined at almost full width (so you can stuff in people) and you can see down the full length of the car. At the rare times that the car is almost empty, you can see the train snake around corners all the way down. They also have, because the way their lines intersect, a clever way of doing junction stations. They do two stations, and instead of putting the two trains on the same line on the same platform, they put the line people are getting off on one side and the line people are getting onto on the other side, so transfer is just a walk across. No bottleneck going up the stairs or escalator to the next level.

As such, everybody takes the transit and likes it. Few own private cars. Of course it takes a dense city like this to make it work. There's even an 800m long escalator that hill residents use to commute to work.

Though the casual walker won't discover it, all HK streets are several stories deep. The good shops are often one or two flights up or down by elevator or other mode of transport. When my HK friends too me to a restaurant, it was usually quite nice but without a serious storefront. Alas, how is a tourist to find all this?

Two things you will find on the street are Chinese adaptations of western things. The people of Hong Kong love western food, and while this shouldn't be too much of a surprise, they like to "go out" for western food about as much as we like to choose Asian foods when we go out in the west. In my own less-touristy hotel location, it seemed the fancy restaurants all served steaks and chops. In addition, since they are among the best chefs in the world, the Chinese have done numerous variations of western dishes, and I wish I had time to try them. For my short stay in HK, I decided to hunt the best Cantonese I could find. American fast food places are everywhere. Indeed, even in the People's Republic the tour guide gave us McCheeseburgers on the train home. Also quite common are French style bakeries, though they have lovely Asian things like BBQ pork buns made up fresh.

Also lovely is a french-originated "pancake" which I dubbed "Moo shu ice cream." They take a strong, thin pancake like you get with moo shu pork, though sweeter, and wrap it up in an instant cone around all sorts of stuff, notably sundae ingredients. Yum.

The British influence in HK makes them drive on the left and escalators are on the left, but the people all walk mostly on the right, or randomly at best, when meeting you on the street or going up stairs or walking down walkways. Chinese drive on the right, so when HK becomes part of China, who knows who will win.

Over the Indian

From Hong Kong it's a hop to Kuala Lampur with a stop in Penang. Malaysia airlines (pronounced Malay-seeah, not Malaise-ee-ah) is quite nice. Then I take the westward red-eye over the equator from Kuala Lampur to Jo'burg, where I arrive at 5:30 AM. Even before I get there I'm doing one of my main goals in this trip, which is talking to South Africans and getting their perceptive on their country. That's my idea of tourism really, though I'll do some of the basic sight-seeing stuff.

Of course I don't see anything of Kuala Lampur, just their airport, which has a Dunkin Donuts as its restaurant. Sigh.

There is a web site of tourist info on South Africa if you are interested.

Jo'burg and politics

When I get to Jo'burg my hotel has forgotten to meet me, but a helpful driver (whose rate does not turn out to be as inflated as the usual helpful drivers at airports) takes me over. The conference centre is in the 'burbs, and when I get there I get one of the first senses that I'm in Africa due to the herd of Impala grazing on their grounds. Later I learn this is fake, they are "imported." But my real first sense of South Africa is the black people doing their morning commute, and the view of the walled white suburbs and black townships from the road. The next day I will go visit Soweto (one of the townships) to see the other "half" of South Africa first hand.

What follows is a fairly long account of my perceptions of the political situation in South Africa, which is to most people the thing that makes the country fascinating. However in spite of this, the most memorable thing about my trip to South Africa was my game Safari, so if you want to skip all the politics, go ahead...

I learn quickly that in talking to ten South Africans, of any skin pigment, I get ten opinions on the state and future of the country. But universally there is great optimism, relief and love for Nelson Mandela. And in particular everybody was excited about the previous week's Rugby World Cup, which SA hosted, and won. If you've been in a town that wins a sports championship like the World Series you know how the town goes nuts, and people from all walks of life temporarily treat one another like family. SA got its first taste of this from the Rugby World Cup. The Rugby team, though it was 99% white Afrikaner, united the country in part due to Mandela, who made the passionate statement that they were "our boys." Indeed, a whole stadium of Afrikaners (the group in SA considered most pro-apartheid in the days of apartheid) was seen to chant "Nelson, Nelson" in frenzy, pouring out love for the man they jailed and feared would destroy them when he came to power.

It's a running joke now that you can't find a racist South African. Nobody will admit to being a member of the old Nationalist party, or supporting apartheid, or being a member of the Bruderbund, the semi-secret brotherhood (conspiracy theorists would love this) that ruled S.A. for many years.

Some of this is people hiding views they now know they can't say in public. (Indeed, you can get sued for calling somebody "Kaffir") But some is a genuine relief among many of the white S. Africans, who say they feel liberated by the end of apartheid. Most of the people I met claimed they fought it, but said that the "silent majority" simply acted in sheep mode, not really in favour of it, but not ready to tear it down, both because it kept them comfortable and because they feared the ANC would nationalize all their property.

Now they love Mandela who has instead tried to unify the country, work with deKlerk and the heavily moderated Nationalist party, and create a joint government, not simply a black one. Everybody fears what will happen when the rather old Mr. Mandela keels over. Whites respect deKlerk for peacefully handing over the reigns, most non-whites seem to think he simply did what he was forced to do by their protests.

Still, it is foolish to think the unity a Rugby victory creates is a lasting one, and there are many problems left in this country. As the Chinese would say, they are in for interesting times.

Some S. Africans are incredibly optimistic, and don't see S.A. having to repeat the 30 years of struggle not yet finished in the USA since Martin Luther King Jr. or even the 130 years since the U.S. civil war. With a non-white majority, they expect it to be very different. But even if they were to solve all racial prejudice issues overnight, S.A. would quickly become (and it pains me as a capitalist to say this) one of the most heavily class oriented societies in the world. The blacks as a group are very, very poor, very uneducated and they occupy the bottom rung. Having classes isn't inherently wrong, but the origin of these classes -- apartheid -- will be a trouble source.

Wherever I went in S.A., the people who served me and cleaned my rooms were black. The people in the malls and good houses and nice clothes, and the people who came to hear me speak on the Internet were (almost all) white. (There were some exceptions such as the high priced game reserves, which had two tiers -- what they called "background staff" who were black and had poor English, and the white foreground staff (hotel managers, game rangers etc.) who in many cases dined with the guests.) The 'native' "trackers" were black, and halfway between.

We've always been very interested in the black South African experience, with our sympathies for the underdog and the oppressed. There turns out to be an interesting story in the white experience too, though it's much harder to feel sympathy for it. But it is true the whites lived in an oppressed society which would probably have caught our attention if not placed in the context of the staggering oppression of the non-whites.

One of my hosts, for example, told me that while he was anti-apartheid, when he went abroad he would face regular bigotry against him from us because he was a white South African. That's hard to compare with having police come into your house to take your son away because he organized a protest march, never to be seen again, or dumping people off land because whites might like to use it. But it's interesting because backlash bigotry is going to be one of S.A.'s biggest problems. Even if racism were eliminated the whites hold the vast bulk of S.A.'s skills, education and wealth, and backlash hatred for the crimes of apartheid will only hurt the country.

The black population believes some horrible things about the whites. How many are true, I didn't have time to learn. Most whites think these things are exaggerated horror stories, but some don't. Most blacks seem to believe them. The midnight arrests and summary executions. Killings where the police wouldn't bother to investigate, or at most would fine the white killer. Nationalist party members giving guns to Inkatha Zulus and paying them 20 rand ($6) for each ANC member they killed, and vice versa. Difficult, perhaps impossible things to forgive, though many on both sides know that forgetting, if not forgiveness, is the only answer.

Both populations are not one mass, and there are many factions. Within the white population, the Dutch-descended Afrikaners are considered the wellspring of apartheid. The British population tended to be more liberal, though there are all types in each population. (It's generally accepted though, that S.A.'s stratified society originated with the oppression of the Afrikaners by the British after the Boer war, when they were put in concentration camps and treated as 2nd class citizens. S. Africans point to the backlash against this -- combined with more ordinary early 20th century racism -- as the origin of apartheid.)

When people want to blame some whites rather than all of them, it's Afrikaners that they name. The circles I moved in were mostly British people, so I didn't get a good chance to judge the Afrikaners. They make up much of the rural population, and due to a law requiring civil servants to be bilingual (English and Afrikaans) they are most of the civil service. Canadians will all get a chuckle out of that law. It was claimed to me that through gerrymandering, the white rural population had control of the government, and through both the legislature and civil service, a pro-apartheid, mostly Afrikaans minority ruled the country.

South Africa now has 11 official languages, which will no doubt make Canadians cringe. Watching their TV is amusing; the political correctness of multilingualism is such that I saw a quiz show where all the participants randomly switched from English to Afrikaans on each question. They only got TV in 1975, and then the one channel alternated languages each day.

I didn't know what to think of the story that whites faced a problem in the past because they weren't allowed to be lower class. The lower class rung of S.A. society was firmly locked in the black population. The whites were pushed hard in school because it was simply not an option, if you were white, to become a farmhand, or janitor, or unskilled labourer. I'm sure the blacks had great sympathy for this "problem," but the stratification is an interesting subject of study.

Their country has been isolated for decades now, both by distance and politics, and few of them realize that with apartheid over, they now will face the onslaught of world culture. Indeed, at their internet conference, I told them that the great thing about the net was that while it brought world culture to S.A. it could also bring S.A. to the world. Instead of being 6,000 miles from the developed world, they will be 500 milliseconds, just like everybody else.

As you can see, in spite of the population levels, I spent most of my time encountering whites. To try to see more of the other side of South Africa, I had a driver recommended by an ex-S.A. friend drive me through Soweto, one of the black townships of Jo'burg. Soweto (South-West Township) is of course probably the most famous, but it's actually considered one of the more "affluent" of the townships.

The most visually striking thing about the townships is the fact that they use coal. As such, they look like western towns must have looked 100 years ago, shrouded morning, evening and night with thick coal smoke, which the residents say they don't even perceive any more. I doubt it is good for their lungs. From the air, it's striking -- clean, affluent white suburbs in the light of day next to black townships full of black smoke. To complete the 100 year old picture, the coal man does deliveries in a horse-drawn cart.

[Soweto in coal smoke] I've seen poorer conditions than Soweto in other lands. South Africa is Africa's richest country, remember, and S.A.'s urban blacks are wealthier than many in the rest of Africa. The contrast between them and their white countrymen is what is most stark. There are also areas of Soweto that are at the bottom of the scale, tin-roof shantytowns, and I was told some of the other townships are mostly that. There are also the dorms, where single black men and women used to be forced to live, and in many areas the number of people living in a small house is very large. (Once again I am reminded of early industrial England.)

The surprise was actually that there are also affluent areas of the townships, due to the old laws that forced blacks to live there. A wealthy black was not permitted, by law, to live outside the townships, so in the middle of a poor, slum-condition street, one finds the odd rich-man's house. Appearances can be deceiving. One man who talked my ear off was, I was told later by my driver, one of the richest men in Soweto.

The state owns most of the houses, but people still improve them. Sadly the bottom has fallen out of the nicer houses, because now that rich and middle class blacks can legally live in any neighbourhood, they have little desire to live in the poor townships. Unless there's a political reason -- I went past Winnie Mandela's heavily fortified luxury Soweto home and waved at her security cameras.

Jo'burg, by the way, is the city most hated by its residents I have ever seen. The Cape Towners hate it, of course, but even the people who lived there couldn't think of anything nice to say about it, other than the fact that it has nicer winter weather than Cape Town. People come only because it is the business capital, all seem to wish they could live somewhere else. The whites are afraid of the blacks and even today are building what Neal Stephenson would call 'burbclaves. The stories they tell are that blacks are regularly venturing in to hijack cars and rob homes and kill people. The blacks dispute that story. With political violence all but gone, some of the population have moved to more traditional crime, and the black population is, by and large, very, very poor. (So poor that when they try to bring phone service into some townships, the cables are stolen for their copper value.)

The Cape Towners tell me that every white house in Jo'burg has a gun, loaded and ready, either in plain sight or somewhere it can be grabbed very fast. Frankly Jo'burg didn't seem that dangerous to me, and unless my guide put on a show (we got out of his car to visit people and didn't lock it) even Soweto isn't that dangerous, but fear is very high.

Cape Town and "coloureds"

From Jo'burg I flew to my game safari, and then back from there to Cape Town. Cape Town is a beautiful city, just like the guidebooks say, and is indeed very reminiscent of towns like San Francisco or Vancouver, with nice climate, superb mountain/coast scenery, a redeveloped waterfront, surrounding wine-lands and charming hillside homes. Certainly if you are to live in S.A. this is the place. (Plus you can get a mansion for about $400,000 USD) But I didn't see the townships here, except from a distance at night, where it was easy to identify the black township as the big dark square without electricity for the homes, just widely spaced floodlamps on high poles.

The one thing that Cape Town adds to the political spectrum of South Africa is the "coloureds." South Africa had lots of race classification, and aside from blacks there were Indians and many other races along with the mixed white-black people known as coloureds. The races were kept apart from one another, as well as from the whites, so that, for example, a coloured could not visit or marry a black (or of course, a white). Those laws are gone but their heritage remains. The coloureds had their own townships, for example.

In fact, the coloureds' status was part of the insidious cleverness of apartheid. The coloureds were 2nd class citizens, but the blacks were 3rd class, and as such the coloureds (fewer in number than even the whites) formed a buffer zone between the whites and the black majority. Because the coloureds were given privileges under apartheid, they supported it, even though it also oppressed them. Even today, because of the economic strata, as blacks move up in S.A. society, they are taking jobs not from the whites, but from the coloureds, which fuels black-coloured disharmony. (Before apartheid, coloureds could vote, blacks could not.) Of course in the west we find this sort of fine racial tuning rather odd, but it used to be far worse. If you weren't careful and your skin was the wrong shade, you could get reclassified. A few random events in your meiosis resulting in slightly darker skinned children could get them classified coloured while you were white, resulting in all sorts of legal problems -- such as them not being able to come into your neighbourhood.

The coloureds are given as the reason that Cape Town, considered the bastion of white liberal (anti-apartheid) thought, was one of the few regions to vote Nationalist (pro-apartheid) in the election. It's true that the coloureds I spoke to had positive things to say about the old regime, namely that it kept order. Though one made this point in a more bitter way, asking why the police were able to efficiently keep coloureds out of white neighbourhoods but can't manage to stop the current rash of crime. Two other reasons were given to me for the Cape Town vote -- a poor ANC local candidate, and one that boggles the mind -- the Jewish vote.

I'm Jewish enough (in ancestry, not in religion) to be incredulous that Jews could support apartheid. On the plus side, I was told that the most vocal opponents of apartheid were Jews, and this I would expect. But it was also believed by some I spoke to that a significant portion of the Jewish population gave it their support. There were two reasons for this; one, as one of the wealthiest components of white S.A. society, they stood to lose the most in the event of the worst white nightmare -- ANC nationalization of white property; and two, some black factions had been overtly anti-semitic, and had threatened that Jews would be a particular target of black retribution. Jews, of course, have a justified fear of being a particular target, but it's hard to think any Jew who was taught the "never again" lesson the way my mother repeatedly taught it to me would support apartheid. But some (non-Jews) seemed to think they had.

South Africans, by the way, were quite bemused to hear that in some places, Jews are considered "non-whites" for miniority classification purposes.

All of this is anecdotal of course, from talking to small numbers of people, and I'm not sure if any of the people I spoke seriously to identified as an Afrikaner -- the group everybody else seemed to blame for apartheid. I also talked to several white women -- who report that South Africa remains a sexist society at the USA 1950s level, much as Australia is also reported to be.

On to part 2 -- On Safari (5 Photos).