Sunday, 20 June 2010

going to the no-go

Day begins with a good breakfast at Service Station, Melville, which is good propeller for a long walk along Rustenberg Road, Empire Road and Jan Smuts Avenue - walking across the big highways of Joburg, with the midday sun warming me up notwithstanding the chilly wind, is surprisingly regenerating, especially now that - it is Saturday - the big highways are almost empty, a sight which transmits peace, in a weird way.

As adviced by the waiter at the cafè, I stop at a gallery in Juta street, which holds some nice paintings and very cool design tables, chairs and lamps, very Dutch, pretty expensive.

100 metres and I'm at Kitcheners Carver, one of the oldest pub in Joburg, I'm told, and as I enter I'm drawn back in old, smokey, stinky England, oh, the old carpeted pubs with that lovely stink of tobacco and beer, 6-7 people around the bar, drinking wine, beer or cuba libre, watching Australia-England, rugby, England is leading 21-20 into the last quarter, a red-faced man with white hair and bottled beer in the right hand shouting "dirty English Bastards" repeatedly, while what seems like the pub manager standing and mocking the "enga-land enga-land enga-land" chant. How could I possibly miss it? I stop an half an hour, watching the customers watching England keeping the tiny lead until the end, more 'dirty English bastards' on the way, whilst old-ish ladies are drinking white wine and playing with their grey, greasy hair.

I go out in the sun and end up in Constitution Hill, the big complex, part museum, part memorial, part constitutional court, built on the site of the notorious Old Ford, where different human beings spent hours and days of anguish and agony, sometimes death, Mandela and Gandhi included. The place is pretty empty and has a vaguely spooky atmosphere, with great 360° views over Joburg. I check out some paintings in the main building, two or three really impressive, then I step into the constitutional court, wandering around the chairs and carpets emanating - at least that's what I pretend them to do - the spirit of the guardians of the most progressive constitution in the world.

Time to get real. I step out, walk into klein street and after 100 metres I'm abruptly transported from the ghostly peacefulness of constitutional hill to the no-go area par excellence, never-go-there Hillbrow. With all the negative advises as regards going there, I'm feeling a bit like a stupid explorer who'll soon going to find what his indifference deserve. I have a solid imaginary of Hillbrow as a place of crime and violence, degrade and fear, as well as a place in which the stranger - that is, me - immediately becomes the target. In this I'm not very different from the majority of Joburgers I met, whose threatening stories of Hillbrow never matched empirical evidence - Hillbrow only existed in their imaginary, a patchwork of anecdotes, stories, news and personal fears. I don't know whether they are right or wrong, surely, however, they never saw what they are talking about - so I decided to see.

The impact of Hillbrow is quite direct. The sleepy Saturday morning Jozi of some metres above now turns into something completely different. Two days ago I asked one girl leaving in Hillbrow about the place. Yesterday I asked another guy. Always the same answer "it's busy". Yes, it is. I never saw so many people on the pathways doing, literally, nothing. From the emptiness of Juta street I find myself negotiating my way through a crowd, or rather, scattered crowds of people, inevitably looking at me - no whites around, and I won't see whites for the next hours.

I'm a bit nervous. The fearful immaginary of Hillbrow is overlapping with the reality, and every time I have to pass through groups of 10-15 men looking at me - of course, not having anything better to do - I can feel some tension building up. I remember pretty well the words of the policeman though "never look disorientated, always look confident, rhythmise yourself", so I do, going with the flow in Hillbrow, playing distractedly with a matchbox, looking straight, walking fast, exchanging quick, confident glances, greeting the people I bump into. They should know I know the place, I know the street, I'm not an idiot ended up here by chance, therefore if I know the place, I'd be a complete moron to bring cash, fancy mobiles or cameras with me, no? Hopefully, this would be the logic of the would-be mugger. Hopefully, this is just paranoia, I'm only in one of the poorest place in the city, where 60% of the people have no job, mostly immigrants from Nigeria, Congo and so on, so it's normal that the streets are packed with people looking for the sun, away from the cold of the overcrowded buildings they mostly squat. Of course, this is generalisation, and I'm into a generalising mood during my 'confident' walk. In the end I end up in Joubert Park, another no-no no-go. To my surprise, a screen has been set up here as well. A mini Public Viewing Area providing around 30 people sitting in the sun a low-quality coverage of Netherlands-Japan. The Dutch are not playing very well, but they are winning, which suggests me their time could finally have come.

The rest of the park is packed with people, lying on the ground, eating, sleeping, chatting, a normal park under the winter sun, and I stand there for a bit, trying to imagine what makes a place a no-go area, to what extent the no-go label capture the essence of a space, infusing its atmosphere. Joburg is a crazy place. In the middle of one of the no-go areas of the city, a park where all people I met, black and white, policeman and guidebooks, strongly advised me not to go, well, sits the Johannesburg Art Gallery. A bit like having the MOMA in the middle of the dodgiest side of the Bronxs, the 'galleria d'arte moderna' at the centre of Scampia.

The gallery is great, I enjoy a Cuban exhibition with wonderful pictures and nice paintings and installation, then I end up in a room transmitting the Italy-France 2006 Final, in 12 different screen, each one from a different perspective, either focusing on only one player, showing a computer image with dots as player and lines drawn by the ball, the camera director directing the filming of the match between different angles and slow-motion, a Pro Evo-like image the same game etc. When I arrive the extra-time is starting, and I cannot miss the headbutt. Predictably, the whole second extra-time has a camera following only Zidane, which allows me to follow the building up of momentum, the way the head is slowly ignited then to mutate into a weapon, then the infinite minute in which Zidane stands, waiting for the inevitable sentence, whilst the majority of the world don't understand yet what's going on. Zidane is still, his mind spinning around, or just blank, he's breathing and sweating, looking anywhere, already beginning to unfasten the captain's band. They are interminable seconds. At some point Buffon arrives, you can read some bits of his labial, he's telling Zizou that he understands the moment but that he cannot behave in that way, that's a bit too much. Zidane nods, as hypnotised, looking-past Buffon. Then the referee arrives with the red card. Zidane seems to be accepting his fate, he tries to shake the referee's hand, but the latter he's a bit too tense for any theatrical gesture - whatever its sincerity: he just kicked out the world's best player from the world cup's final half-way through the second extra time, with a straight red card. The rest is history.

I get out and chat with the cops, who assure me that nobody would do nothing here in Joubert Park, as metro police as well as south african police is there "there is so much police than nobody would dare doing anything wrong", assures me the policeman. Fine.

I head back, finding myself in the busiest streets I ever been, cars everywhere, the air is saturated with smog, and all the pathways are full of people and street markets, food and locks, vuvuzelas and beanies, I keep walking until ending up in Park Station, the main railway station in Joburg, whose surrounding is, again, strongly advised against walking into. Whatever. I walk a bit more and I end up in the bus station, or rather, the mini-taxi station, where I got stuck in the middle of hundreds of mini-bus seeking to go out of the big hangar, whilst people everywhere are shouting, jumping on and over the buses, fighting (verbally) with the drivers and going about their everyday lives. At some point I'm not able to go out from the hangar. There is not space for walking, buses are everywhere, interweaving together, filling up promptly any crack opened between the vehicles. It's almost impossible to breath, it is like standing inside a gallery with hundreds of vehicles simultaneously accelerating and braking, blasting the horn... I decide to contravene one of Joburg central district's golden rules: never ask for direction. I ask for direction, anyway I'm stuck behind a barrier of vans and smog, nobody could see my moment of défaillance. I was just one street north than the one I'm looking for, Bree Street - the words of a South African guy I met the first day I arrived resonates "whatever you do, never go to Bree Street". In the end Bree Street is one of the main arteries of the CBD, a street in which you cannot avoid ending up into if you want to walk around the CBD - then again, that guy didn't have any intention to do that.

I'm walking fast now, slightly relieved as I'm into relatively known territory, and the Mary Fitgzerald Square's fan park is about 500 metres away. Suddenly, people gathered at a street corner. 4 police cars are parked and a policeman is fencing the tiny corner with a 4x4 'crime scene' tape. A curious crowd is gathering, unable to understand what's going on. The policeman now swap the white gloves with another policeman. the latter begins folding a red towel which was on the ground, and puts it into a plastic bag. In the back of the police car a guy seems to be talking excitedly. At some point one man leaves the crowd and glances inside the trash can inside the 4x4 crime scene zone. He retreats his look horrified and goes away, insensitive to the questions - mine as well - about the content of the trash can. More people glance, more people run away horrified. I don't want to look, so I keep on asking the people who already gazed into. All of them are just shocked and unwilling to talk, walking away swiftly. Finally a woman eager to talk tells me the secret "a baby, a small baby, there's a small baby". Right. That guy just dumped a dead baby into the dustbin. Or the baby was alive? don't know, that's enough for my day. I keep walking towards Mary Fitzgerald square, relieved of having been able to hold my curiosity, avoiding to fix into my mind an image my brain will be content without.

At the fan park the game is ending, Ghana has played all the second half 11 against 10, without managing to score. 1-1 is the final result, Australia has still hopes, and if they keep on playing in this way I predict a stunning win against Serbia. I talk to the policeman at the square, they tell me that all they look at is whether people have knives or guns, or whether they start fighting. "no problem so far". Control are so low, though, that I can enter with a bag unsearched and another one only quickly glanced into. Whatever.

Temperature is quickly decreasing now that the sun is gone, it's going to be close to zero soon. I find another mini-taxi station and jump on the one to melville. The driver puts me at the front seat, which means me and another Italian guy sitting besides me, will have to do the maths, as the ten people sitting behind start to give us different amounts of money with different fees - 3 for 8.50, 2 for 7.50, 1 for 8. We keep all the money and then pass them to the driver who, of course, contemporaneously drive, count the money and shout at the passengers in some local language intermingled with a well recognisable "you're short man!"

Monday, 14 June 2010

Walking and the City

Tampa è una città costruita per macchine. Camminare è tabù. Mentre vado investigando la possibilità di andare in spiaggia a piedi, il portiere dell'albergo mi guarda sorpreso, prima di sconsigliarmi vivamente ogni azione 'pedonale' di tal fatta: 'we'll call the shuttle bus'. E con lo shuttle bus - nome geograficamente più che adatto - mi dirigo diligentemente verso la playa, per scoprire che la distanza dall'albergo ammonta a non più di 800 metri. No country for walkers. Una città per macchine non si limita ad atrofizzare le gambe, agisce anche su come il cervello valuta le distanze, sulla pigrizia e lo stupore che si attaccano ad azioni per cui dovremmo esser fatti - se è vero che l'uomo emerge dalla scimmia proprio in quanto bipede, camminatore in postura eretta. Poi scopro che, in effetti, raggiungere la spiaggia a piedi è esperienza vagamente disturbante. Prima di tutto si deve attraversare una super autostrada, due sensi per una decina di corsie. Tuttavia c'è un semaforo e delle strisce pedonali, ed un pulsante da premere per esibirsi in un raro tentativo di traversata dell'asfalto. Dopo circa 5 minuti il semaforo diventa verde, poi mi annuncia che avrò trenta secondi per passare dall'altra parte senza essere tranciato dagli avidi SUV che mi fissano impazienti a destra e manca. Corro rapido come se stesso camminando su un tronco sospeso sulle rapide. Dopo questo stunt, avrò solo da percorrere 800 metri nel pratino sul bordo dell'autostrada. Mai sottostimare i consigli dei portieri.

Downtown Tampa è un reticolo di stradoni, grattacieli, palazzoni, marciapiedi scarsi e precari, svincoli e sopraelevate. Non vedo umani, solo macchine in movimento, cammino per decine di minuti da una avenue ad un drive, percorrendo strisce pedonali i cui semafori scandiscono tempi d'attraversamento olimpici, 12 secondi, così che arrivo a malapena in tempo, in leggera corsetta, immaginando con un ghigno la sorte della proverbiale vecchietta che si accingesse all'impresa. D'altronde nessuno cammina. Non incontro nessuno. Poi mi dicono che i miei colleghi di conferenza avevano intenzione di passare la serata al centro commerciale, la shopping mall, la versione di Tampa della piazza italiana, dove la gente esce a prendere il fresco (condizionato) e consumare in una delle varie catene. Preferisco camminare ancora, nel buio, tra macchine sfreccianti, aggrappato a minuscoli marciapiedi e semafori severi, fino a trovare un bus che mi riporti da dove vengo. Non c'è posto per pedoni a Tampa.

Alle sei di mattina albeggia a Nairobi, e mentre il tassista mi accompagna all'aeroporto sfrecciando preoccupantemente veloce per Mombasa Road, vedo ovunque gente camminare. Non ci sono marciapiedi, solo terra ai lati della strada, una lunga strada che porta fuori città, e centinaia di persone la percorrono, a passo spedito, a volte attraversando la strada a centimetri da camion carichi di cassoni, lunghe falcate di tute Adidas, jeans e completi beige e grigi, andature serrate, di chi è abituato a camminare, a pazienza e determinazione. Anche qui la città è ostile ai pedoni, per lo meno dove mi trovo lo denotano la mancanza di marciapiedi e le distanze che la gente si trova a percorre dall'alba. Però i pedoni si riappropriano della città, la sfidano con passi lunghi e costanti, diventano essi stessi macchine, lente ma affidabili macchine che dividono la strada con taxi e tir, nella polvere dell'alba keniana. Ogni tanto gruppetti di corridori sfrecciano a non più di un palmo dal traffico a cento all'ora della superstrada, tute scure e corsa veloce, sembrano scooter mentre zigzagano tra la processione dei camminatori tentennando pericolosamente verso la strada, tremila siepi, e forse più.

Johannesburg è cosi grande che il solo menzionare il camminare fa sorridere l'interlocutore come si sorride al bambino che propone sulla spiaggia di raggiungere a nuoto l'isola di Ponza. Decine di chilometri separano i quartieri, sviluppati indipendentemente come un patchwork urbano, ognuno con la sua logica toponomastica, topografica e geografica, tagliati da autostrade sopraelevate che lasciano poco spazio all'immaginazione del flaneur Baudeleriano. C'è di più. Non solo improbabile fisicamente, il camminare è anche un gesto infuso di paura. Interi quartieri sono 'better not to go', di notte, ovvio, ma anche di giorno, se possibile. Non si tratta però di disperatamente lontane banlieu parigine o 'projects' americani. Qui zone residenziale e commerciali stanno spalla a spalla con agglomerati derelitti di palazzi occupati e spazzatura in attesa di netturbini che arrivano quasi mai. Hillbrow e Berea, ad esempio, sfumano impercettibilmente per lasciare spazio a Newtown, al centro del notorio CBD, il centre business district, downtown Joburg, ovvero, il centro della città. Nella piazza di Newtown, Mary Fitzgerald Square, c'è un Fan Park durante i mondiali, maxischermo e food stalls, una massa di gente a veder le partite rinchiusa dentro un recinto e controllata da varie decine di guardie di vario tipo, nazionali, cittadine, private, volontari. L'atmosfera festosa della piazza, letteralmente sorvolata dai piloni dell'autostrada M1, è una bolla in cui si beve birra e si fanno foto in tranquillità. Uscendo i cancelli si percorrono non più di dieci metri e ci si trova in Bree Street, dove un solerte joburghese - abitante di una delle tante gated communities chirurgicamente asportate dalla città per mezzo di muri, telecamere, porte magnetiche e guardie - mi suggeriva di 'not to go there, never ever'. Altri 5 minuti a piedi e si è ad Hillbrow, la 'no-go area' per eccellenza secondo le varie persone che incontro, bianchi e neri, sconsigliandomi vivamente di andare, giorno e notte. Il poliziotto mi espone un'interessante ma dilemmatica strategia. 'never look disorientated, always look confident, walk quickly, do not pick up your phone, your camera, your map, never your map, and please, if you can, never walk alone'. Lo squisito dilemma dello straniero a Joburg: camminare spedito e sicuro di sè, non consultare mappe ne persone circa il tragitto che ovviamente si ignora: meno indizi della propria estraneità al luogo traspaiono, meno rischi di incorrere 'into troubles'. Magari perdersi, ma sempre con confidenza e sicurezza. Il camminatore di Joburg è un camminatore di quartiere che si sposta sono dentro la propria bolla, sia che sia una gated community dall'aria sterilmente inquietante, un quartiere middle class con graziose villette invisibili dietro gli enormi muri di cinta, una ex-township dove i prefabbricati si fondono con le shanty towns - un camminatore di quartiere, oppure un irresponsabile, che cammina a passo rapido e confidente, senza sapere dove stia andando...