Downtown

Things will be great when you’re
Downtown
No finer place for sure

The Playground, a market only open on Saturdays, is listed among a number of sights to visit in Johannesburg. My South African colleagues were not aware of the place, asking me to be more precise about the location. When I showed the map, they classified the immediate area as orange: safe to visit, just remember to be careful, typical precautions of a big city. You might also consider visiting an area call Maboneng, a fledgling new hotspot. I am sure they assumed Uber would be my form of transportation because there was no mention of the space in between.

The Uber driver let me off at the requested address, a twenty minute ride from the hotel. I recognized the building from the website and eventually found the entrance. Greeted there by a jovial black man and a young white woman providing guidance, I inquired about food, asking for their recommendation. Both immediately pointed to the Argentinian stall serving the most delicious steak sandwiches. I sat with my order at a nearby table and engaged in a conversation with a couple originating from China who have lived in Johannesburg for 17 years. The crowd at the Playground consisted of white tourists and South Africans, checking out the wares, marveling at the variety of food, enjoying a drink, bouncing to the beat of the DJ, absorbing the warmth of the sun on the wrap around balcony. It is a hub of diversity and activity.

Rather than hang around, however, I decided to venture to Maboneng as suggested. I entered the address of a district store into Google Maps, which estimated a 45 minute walk. The sun was shining, the temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius so I eschewed another car ride for a self directed sightseeing city stroll.

As I marshalled along the prescribed route, smartphone in hand, the conditions began to worsen. Garbage was heaped in every corner, brown water pooling in all the crevices, bodies hidden under mounds of material. The streets were in upheaval, blistering walls, boarded windows, hangers on at each corner, evidence of poverty abound. The tourist guide book didn’t mention these parts, except as a place to avoid, especially at night.

I was the oddity, the interloper, the only white person in the maze from The Playground to the Maboneng Precinct, wearing a Cubs pullover jacket, a brown felt Indiana Jones style hat atop my head. Stalls of fruits, and vegetables, open cooking fires, cheap wares and material for the inner city residents lined the streets. I garnered some curious looks, eyes observing as I walked, assessing the surroundings, stopping only to check the GPS on my phone. The occasional vendor sought my attention, the rest sat slumped on the ground awaiting any semblance of interest. I was not accosted at any time, although a couple of idle taxi drivers offered a ride, one who explained I was not safe and he could drive me out of the area. I would rather put faith in the street than in his vehicle.

Sporadic cell coverage silenced the familiar computer generated voice, constantly recalculating my position, consistently lagging my progress. I walked through intersections where I was supposed to turn, headed west instead of east, turned circles around searching for unmarked streets. Forty minutes in and I was still forty minutes away. There were moments when I was becoming apprehensive. Where am I? Which way do I turn?

Finally, I found Joubert Park which immediately became my respite from the streets, an opportunity to settle and regroup in the sun. Worn from usage and neglect, the oldest park in Johannesburg appears to be a refuge for the locals, with people lounging on the grass, mothers and children strolling the grounds, pairs of men playing chess.

Somewhat rested, determined, I continued, exiting onto the street, moving parallel to the park, the stench of urine soaking the outside walls. I became a one man gauntlet through several blocks of people amassing in a Saturday market, a turn into the half empty street of shuttered buildings, down to the underpass, dodging traffic crossing to the other side when the scenery noticeably changed. Metal sculptures spelled out the name of the Maboneng district, buildings were refurbished, the people better dressed. Two blocks later I am at it’s heart. The main intersection flooded with young, hip people, music pumping out of vehicles, exuding the vibrancy of this gentrifying section of the city’s core. I had arrived.

Tired, thirsty, I settled into Mama Mexicana restaurant for a Marguerita before ordering a plate of Nachos. It was now approaching five o’clock. In a half hour, darkness would descend upon Johannesburg; time to beckon an Uber back to the hotel. The owner and the staff recognized me as a foreigner and helped confirm the location for me on the app. One waitress suggested waiting inside because phone snatchers will take advantage. Compared from whence I just came, this section of downtown was a safe zone. I had no concern although I was touched by hers. With the car nearing I stepped outside; she accompanied me, watching the progress on my app, escorting me to the corner where the car awaited, ensuring it was the correct vehicle. The ride back to the hotel was quick. Today’s adventure was over.

I have found myself in similar situations during my travels in the past. I recall a walk, totally unbeknownst, from the hotel in Atlanta, Georgia to the Martin Luther King Memorial through one of the poorest and most dubious sections of the city. I have witnessed places and people normally left off the map. Downtown Johannesburg reflects that of most every major city. Although unplanned, I am richer for the experience.

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you
Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand

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