Greetings from South Africa, where the 2010 World Cup is in full swing, and where I've spent the past two weeks following the action and adjusting to life in a new land.
The tournament itself has had its ups and downs, with stingy defending, shoddy refereeing and recently some goal-scoring outbursts.
You've ready about plenty of that stuff over the past two weeks. Now I'm going to tell you about my own experiences through the first two weeks.
It certainly hasn't been boring.
There were some adjustments to be made when I arrived here. The first being driving on the opposite side of the ride. If you had told me before this trip that I would do that, I would have laughed. Necessity has a way of forcing you to adjust, and that's what I did. It took a few days to get the hang of it, but after a while I was cruising around the roads and highways of the greater Johannesburg area with relative ease.
Now, driving isn't without its hazards. As you might have heard, crime is an issue in South Africa, and hijackings are so commonplace that there are actually hijacking warning signs on some roads. It has to be seen to be believed (not hojacking signs, you're on your own to avoid the hojacking):
I haven't let these signs deter me. After all, I've grown up in some tough neighborhoods so I don't scare easy.
Even that upbringing didn't make it any fun when I wound up in the awful position of catching a flat tire on a ride home from a match one night. As if blowing a tire isn't bad enough, doing so on a desolate road in a hijack zone at night can make it downright nerve-wracking.
I kept my cool and did what my instincts told me to do. I kept on driving. Yep, I drove and drove and rattled off what had to be about 30 or more kilometers on a flat tire, and eventually the rim. I left a nice streak on the road near the home I've rented, and the streak remains as a reminder of that crazy night.
If you're wondering just how bad it was, here is a priceless picture of the rim (and what was left of the tire):
For those wondering, I was able to get the car replaced (and managed a free upgrade out of it as well). Long story short, if you come here, pay the extra for the insurance. As you can see, it's worth it.
It isn't all scary stories here. The mood has been festive and match days have been great, both in the stadiums and in the streets. South Africans are really enjoying the tournament, though there has certainly been a drop in enthusiasm after South Africa's loss to Uruguay.
The USA matchdays have been extra special, with the scene at the USA-England match an electric one. The Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenberg was rocking on that night and the electricity I felt before that match was one I hadn't felt since 2002 and USA-South Korea, as well as USA-Mexico.
Here's a shot of the Rustenberg Stadium that night:
I haven't taken a ton of pictures, but when there have been things to shoot, and things that look newsworthy, I've pulled the camera out. I will try to do that more as the trip goes on.
I was able to catch this newsworthy image from the Netherlands-Denmark match:
In case you hadn't heard, these ladies in orange got into a bunch of trouble for what FIFA deemed to be "Ambush Marketing". As you can tell in this picture, security at Soccer City didn't seem too concerned with their outfits, which were later deemed illegal for advertising a beer company that wasn't an official World Cup sponsor (See, I had a feeling something was fishy about their outfits, which is why I took the picture. No, really.).
As for away from the stadiums, there is some beautiful countryside, though the practice of burning the tall grass that lines the highways rather than cutting it can give the whole place a Mad Max-like feel. At times I almost feel like I'm back at home in New Jersey between the American music on the radio, the tons of KFCs and McDonald's, and even the toll booths:
As for the people, they are really nice and I've had no real problems since I've been here.
One of the most fun aspects of covering a World Cup (this is my third) is getting to meet and see reporters from all over the world. Whether it's catching up with writers I've made friends with long ago (like Oliver Kay to Guillem Ballague), to making new friends (like the Slovenian and Norwegian reporters I got to meet and befriend), and meeting writers I admire (such as Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail). There's a real brotherhood feel to covering an event like this. That's even more the case among the American media, where I'm getting to spend time with familiar faces like Yahoo's Martin Rogers, Reuters' Simon Evans, SI's Grant Wahl and Steve Davis and ESPN's Jeff Carlisle and Luke Cyphers, to name a few.
Here are some other random thoughts about the trip thus far:
There was a lot of talk about price gouging and how expensive things would be here. I've found most things to be downright cheap. Now renting a car or finding a place to stay will cost you a bunch during the World Cup, but for things like meals and souvenirs, the dollar still goes a long way. One thing to note though is that South Africans DO NOT take American money. They can't move it so they don't take it. This is the first country I can remember that doesn't take it, so keep that in mind if you plan on coming here. Be sure to take out South African money once you arrive.
South Africans love their music, including old school R&B. It's impressive how much R&B I hear on the radio here. I've also been thoroughly impressed with the house music here. If you like house music, you might want to do some digging and check out some South African house. It's quality stuff.
USA fans may hate the Mexican national team and Mexican fans, but the hatred doesn't really go both ways. I've met so many Mexico fans who say they are rooting for the United States as their second team. Many of them live in the United States, but even some Mexicans from Mexico go out of their way to root for the USA. Whether it's because more USA success makes the losses by Mexico to the USA more easy to explain, or whether it's respect, I've been impressed. I won't tell USA fans to return the favor because I know the emotions run deep, but it's something to think about.
I get asked about what animals I've seen since being here and the truth is I haven't seen many out of the ordinary animals. I did have a pack of monkeys race across the road once as I was driving by, but I haven't seen any of the big boys (Lions, elephants, giraffes). I do plan on hitting a game reserve to see some of them, but that can wait for later in the tournament.
Internet connectivity is a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition. I've got some wireless access, but you learn to adjust to slower connections (as well as some almost unbearable Skype calls).
That's all for now. I will try to offer shorter diaries throughout my trip, but for now, this is a sampling of what things have been like for me during my first two weeks here. Stay tuned for more in the coming days and weeks.