Jetlagged beyond belief, I woke up at 4:30am the next morning, like it wasn’t a thing. It doesn’t matter when I went to bed, I was bright-eyed and ready to move. Outside the window, a train rolled by. I didn’t notice the tracks before. The caravan that passed was short and I couldn’t even really see it due to the trees beyond the yard.
On the trees hung ball-shaped plant structures. I’d never seen anything like that before. I took some pictures, but had no real way of figuring out what they were. Underneath the trees was a very well kept yard with dark brown fencing, lawn chairs, flower beds along the perimeter, and a relatively large body of water in the distance past the train tracks. Off to the side was a small pool and a red-blocked patio. It seemed very nice, all of the plants in bloom on that summer morning.
At some point later in the wee morning, after spending my time flipping between listening to music, podcasts, and trying to nap, I finally got ready for the day. Proceeding downstairs to the lobby area, I found a continental breakfast in the area behind. I snagged a piece of toast (yeah toast!), a bowl of corn flakes, and a croissant along with a glass of orange juice. The corn flakes were pretty standard, the toast was okay, but the croissant was delicious. Buttery and flaky, almost melt-in-your-mouth good. I’d have more than one, every day for the remainder of the stay.
After breakfast, and after reconvening with my colleagues, we drove to site. The route we took was the same as we’d taken in reverse the day before, but having more daylight and not being a tired mess, I could finally observe the surroundings. The main roads were wide, with industrial businesses and small houses on each side. Again, not unlike the East Bay near Oakland. The houses were close together, low, and each was surrounded by a wall.
There were always walls. Most were cinderblock or metal, usually at least six feet high; the wealthier looking houses strangely had the shorter, nicer looking fences, but they also had fancy high gates and camera systems. Security was evident — most of these walls, or the houses behind them, had a posted “Armed Response” sign. I’m not sure how effective these companies are, nor do I know how solid of a detriment these postings are; I could infer that they sure seemed to work, given their ubiquity.
Around the residential neighborhoods, things became quieter. Behind their slightly more open walls, their yards were patches of grass, tall palm trees among other varieties, and flows of red dirt. It was very similar to my experience in Hawaii. Certainly, the summer haze of the morning helped further that comparison, which is a bit odd as the weather was also a doppelgänger of a summer day back in New York once again.
The day at the site went off much the same as the day before. Team meetings in the work trailer, introductions to more members of the Johannesburg office who’d arrived that morning, and data collection. Halfway through the day, we’d gone to eat lunch at the same place as the day before in Boshof. This time I got a plate of fish and chips that was quite good. At lunch I observed a funny quirk of the land: one of my colleagues was drinking a Coke Zero. On the side of the can, it read: “Low Kilojoule Soft Drink.” I love the metric system. If I knew the conversion factor offhand, I might never use the word “Calorie” again.
On the way back, I noticed that, unlike the crowded skies of the United States, there were no planes above. No contrails, no shining machines crossing the blue. Just emptiness and brilliant clouds.
Back on site, the team headed to the inverter skid adjacent to the one that wasn’t working. Inside, we opened up the AC cabinet and gunned it with a thermal sensor and camera. It was pretty cool seeing the hotspots and vast temperature gradients; it was pretty hot in that it was… pretty hot. Inside, the inverters hummed, chugging away doing their thing anyway. Electronics are a miracle.
A beautifully sunny afternoon, I decided to walk the short stroll back to the work trailer among the solar panels. There I sat down at the desk and lost myself in my laptop. Perhaps two hours later I got up to use the bathroom trailer next door. To my shock, it was cloudy and dark, wind ripping across the plain from the east. My face was peppered with sand and dust. In the distance in all directions, low red and brown clouds rolled across the land.
The grit was everywhere. Dusty, dusty wind. I donned my sunglasses and walked around outside to take pictures. The wind was quite strong. In the north and west, the dark clouds appeared to spawn rain. Dark gray and blue ribbons falling downward below the setting sun. I asked one of the operations crew if these type of storms were normal — they were quite common. They said the lightning here has been spectacular, but unfortunately we didn’t see a real thunderstorm approach that evening.
The colleague we’d met in Johannesburg had headed back earlier in the day, and as such, we were now with a new host as we drove the roads back to Kimberley. This time we got lost in downtown, heading in the general direction of the host’s hotel rather than ours. I’d joked that it was Apple Maps’ fault. It doesn’t even work in the Bay Area where it was developed, much less central South Africa.
Up on the TV above the bar, they were showing cricket. This intrigued me. I know absolutely nothing about cricket, so I asked them to explain the rules to me. It’s like baseball, except the scores sometimes reach over 400 and games can go almost for a week. If this is incorrect, it’s because I still know almost nothing about cricket. My colleagues remarked that it’s quite a simple game once you understand it. I disagree.
We broke into a long discussion about America and South Africa in comparison. Several things shocked me about this talk. Firstly, most of the Johannesburg team had never been to the United States. I feel like everyone has been to the United States. Clearly not.
Secondly, I noticed that while we were talking, the music coming out of the speakers above was nothing but American pop music. At that moment, it was “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. It was normal to me, until I realized that I was 10,000 miles from home. Shouldn’t they be playing their own pop music, I thought, with oblique ignorance.
Thirdly, one of the team noted that they enjoyed watching a travel/food show, something like Drive-Ins, Diners… I asked: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with Guy Fieri? Yes, that’s the one! He responded. That’s… odd. Who knew Guy Fieri had international reach? I’m so sorry, rest of the world. Please don’t judge us.
Sports was a big topic at dinner and not just cricket. Obviously the World Cup came up again, but this time I also learned about the Rugby World Cup between the twenty (!) nations that actually play the game (granted, only five or so ever seem to win anything). We also somehow covered American football and the Super Bowl still several weeks off, baseball and my hometown champion team the San Francisco Giants, and finally, hockey, to which any conversation about sports in which I’m involved inevitably segues. Surprisingly, the South Africans knew at least a little bit about it, which to someone who believes the sport to be unpopular and no more than a niche interest thanks to a NFL/MLB/NBA driven inferiority complex, was a pleasant revelation.
For dinner I ate fried calamari with lemon. It was tasty. Different in that the pieces were quite long and tubular instead of ring-like, making them more chewy and harder to swallow, but quite good nonetheless. After another almost two hour-long dinner, I went back to my room and passed out. Again, I awoke at 4:30am. Jetlag sucks.
That morning was more of the same. The sun rose around 5:30am and by then I was up permanently. After an identical breakfast downstairs by which another train passed, the crew from the last night’s dinner arrived and shuttled us to the site.
Except, first we encountered a slight problem caused by the heavy rainstorms that surrounded, but didn’t enter, our area during the night. One of the roads around the outside of Kimberley was completely flooded underneath a railroad overpass. The slopes down under the bridge created a funnel for the water and evidently there was no drainage. We stopped a few meters before it, perhaps considering whether or not to brave the flow. I advised against it; they agreed and we found another route.
As we looked for the new road to R64, the front passenger flipped on the radio. It was January 8th, Elvis’ birthday and a pop music station in Kimberley/Bloemfontein was celebrating the King’s would-be 80th. As the station broke into commercials, we switched to another. It too was talking about Elvis. How odd.
One of my favorite moments from the trip happened as we approached the solar farm that morning. Still talking about Elvis, one of the stations began to play “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. A classic American song about you know who. It mentions Elvis, Graceland, Beale Street, and of course, Memphis. I queried the car: do you guys understand any of the references in this song? Do you have any idea what it’s about? Anything? … Absolutely nothing. They probably couldn’t have even found Memphis on a map. I thought that was fascinating. I wonder how often I’m exposed to those kinds of heavy foreign influences in my life in the United States?
Back on the job, we had several more intense meetings. Things got a bit lively when discussing action plans, making for a stark awakening against the ever-lingering grip of jetlag. And then more work, work, work.
In the early afternoon we went to lunch at, guess where, the same restaurant in Boshof. The team really isn’t very creative when it comes to food. Three days, eight meals, two restaurants and a hotel. We also figured that day to be our last day on site, since our team were all heading back to Johannesburg on Friday morning and they were our escort.
As it were, we left there somewhat early, long before the sun began to set. On the way out of town, I remarked at piles of dirt along the side of the road. They were somewhat regularly placed, but too large and too purposeless it seemed to be man-made. Our host enlightened us: they were anthills. Giant freakin’ anthills. Covering the fields alongside the road. I don’t dislike ants as much as I do other insects, but I’m sorry, that’s too many ants.
In Boshof, we stopped to get gas. It cost R11,28/L. Did I mention that in South Africa, they reverse ‘,’ and ‘.’ like most of Europe? Yes they do! That’s also pretty close to American gas prices, much less than the Liter referencing numbers I saw in Canada in 2013.
Clouds flanked us on our ride back to Kimberely. We split between two African rainstorms, observing curtains of water and flashes of lightning sparking from dark clouds to the north. There would be no rain for us, however, as the clouds above produced no precipitation. It was really beautiful to watch the storms cross the land. I would have stopped there to watch for longer, had I the ability.
The discussion within the car was primarily about mining history of area. Our host worked in the industry for years before joining the solar (read: light) side and seemed to know everything about what we could see along the road — the flat-topped hills, the shaft structures, even the power transmission system built chiefly for the diamond industry. The man is a bottomless fountain of South African knowledge and my ears were hooked to his stories.
When we arrived in Kimberley, we drove directly through downtown to the fancy hotel. Unlike the previous night, the sun was still up and the cityscape was plainly visible. The downtown area is dotted with a few hi-rise buildings, mostly apartment complexes and offices. Kimberley is the capital of the Northern Cape and as such housed several ominous, fortified government offices. Curious sights in downtown include numerous car dealerships and garages (especially those that service “tyres”), among the usual ilk of international chains: McDonald’s and KFC. (by the way, what the hell is “Kentucky?”)
Directly in the center of the city was the Protea Hotel. Directly behind the hotel? The Big Hole! It’s a giant hand-dug diamond mine, now filled with water. The edges from the hotel looked like the rim of the Grand Canyon from a distance. The patio area behind the hotel offered a limited view, and from there I couldn’t see the bottom, or even a few meters below the opposite cliff edge. The hotel did, however, have a pretty cool pool which was overflowing with water pumped by a windmill looming over it. The interior of the hotel was very upscale colonial, featuring large chandeliers, neat white walls, dark wood trim, and photos of the town’s mining history around bookshelves. Sounds a lot like the casino restaurant, actually, but it was much nicer.
Next door to the Protea is a model mining town museum thing. There are buildings, stores both replicated and active, built to mimic the appearance of a 19th century diamond mining town. The focal point of the town was a new-looking museum all about The Big Hole.
It was closed. Dang it. Behind the museum is a red suspended walkway which inches out over the edge of the pit like Luke Skywalker and the Sarlacc. I would have loved to check that out. It wasn’t a total loss, however, as it turns out I saw the Big Hole with my own eyes from the plane as we landed in Kimberley. It certainly seemed much smaller from a few hundred feet up, though.
The rest of the area was an eclectic mix of nostalgia and new frontiers. Some of the buildings reminded me a lot of western US, Arizona especially. The plant life and bright sunset punctuated by clusters of dark rainclouds brought me back to Hawaii. The streetcars, wagons, engines, trolleys, and other steam-age machinery put me into the realm of Myst. Not a real place, but real enough in my mind.
Unlike Arizona, there was no gold panning here, unfortunately, though there was a shack where you could supposedly collect your own diamonds. Among the town stood buildings of corrugated metal and wood, saloons (which were open and serving), an oddly placed German church (which had its signage written in easily understandable Deutsch), as well as an operating general store on the corner of a cobblestone road lined with brick sidewalks. There was even a barbershop inside which a chair bared a placard reading “Have your hair cut in the same chair as the late Mr Rhodes.” Wow! What an honour! I don’t even know if Cecil Rhodes is a figure to be revered or scorned in the region, given its somewhat turbulent history (and present, for that matter), to put it lightly. Someone from back then evidently thought highly of him.
In any case, after perusing the historic area thoroughly, we drove to a new restaurant in a quiet residential part of town on the eastern outskirts. Behind a tree lined, dirt sidewalk and white security wall, there stood a converted old mansion in a manicured grass lot. It had a terracotta porch, gardens, a table and chairs on the lawn — general fanciness. Inside it smelled of old wood and classiness. The ceilings were high, a fireplace adorned the far wall, sconces flanking the chimney. It was very colonial, almost British-like. I don’t have a reference for that comparison, really. Maybe, suburban New England?
High on the walls were speakers. They were, in my opinion obtrusively, playing American pop music. I would have preferred something a bit more classical, or nothing for that matter. It didn’t fit into the ambiance of the place one bit. What a strange country.
Our table was covered in fancy tablecloths and place settings, with a lit candle in the center of it all. The food menu was limited and expensive, relatively speaking. In my experience, that’s the sign of a good restaurant. We ordered a South African red wine to start. I don’t remember the varietal, but I do remember how it tasted: quite savory, actually a little salty. I drank a bit. Not enough to empty my glass, unfortunately. I think I’ve lost my taste for wine — long story.
My meal was duck, cooked two ways. Seriously, that’s what it was called. The plate consisted of a sliced duck breast that had been roasted, and a leg that was grilled, I believe. It was very delicious, very juicy and tender.
In the entire dining room of the restaurant was one other group of folks. They were of the sort that I imagined would have lived in a mansion such as this: very old, English looking white people. Meanwhile, the serving staff was all black, and pretty young at that. Shades of the past, alive and well in South Africa.
I don’t remember a thing we talked about there. I’m sure I prodded incessantly about South African trivia, trying to avoid work topics. It was a very pleasant evening, warm and comforting; sort of a send-off from the team as we wouldn’t be seeing them again before we left.
After dinner wrapped, we returned to the hotel to once again pass out. I keep using the term “pass out” because there’s no better way to describe it. My brain was so out of sync with its normal operations that as soon as my head hit the pillow, pent up tiredness flooded in and the lights turned off in my eyes.
And again, I woke up early. Since we were not going to site that day, I took a long breakfast out by the pool. It was a quiet Friday morning in the yard. No trains this time. Instead, I sat around in the morning sun, shooting photos of wildlife. Birds hopped around the patio by the pool. A slender fox-like weasel-like creature slyly crept up to drink from it. (Edit: I later discovered that it was a mongoose. Wow!) I watched the summer haze enter over the big shallow reservoir beyond the train tracks. It was beautiful sunny. And that’s when the geographic confusion I mentioned before struck suddenly and hard.
If, I thought, beyond the yard, beyond the fence and the flower beds, was an endless body of water, this patch of land could easily have passed for the Lake Erie shore. Its perfectly tended-to grass and flower beds, the steps placed in grass made of rectangularly cut logs, the gentle breeze nudging the flowers side-to-side. All it needed was a cliff and a beach.
After an hour outside, I retreated to my room to grapple with the WiFi. It allowed me on for about ten minute intervals spaced what felt like hours apart. With one of them, I was able to check-in for my flight from Kimberley to Johannesburg the next morning. Still, I fought with the internet. AlwaysOn — the irony only grew stronger as the connection grew weaker. Soon, I could gain connectivity for barely two minutes at a time. I was at the desk in my room, frustrated and desperately trying to get work emails to coordinate with my team. I couldn’t. That’s when I, albeit reluctantly, enabled mobile data on my work phone. I had to. Sorry about the charges. 😦
Once I got my email downloaded and having progressed sufficiently with a relay data spreadsheet, I began to stare out the window, watching yellow birds eat from (or at least peck at) those tree balls I mentioned before. Are they natural? Do the birds make those? I still don’t know.
Around mid-day I went for lunch at the casino. Again, I went through the security checkpoint. This resulted in an event, the one that freaked me out the most on this trip: the guard, after I passed through, handed me my phone, but asked if he could keep my camera. I didn’t know if he was joking or not. I said, no, I need that, and assertively took it from him. He smiled, and I smiled back nervously. I don’t think he was serious, but I’m not sure at all. If I reacted differently, perhaps he would have.
Just inside and around the corner, there were two ATMs. I plugged in my bank card and withdrew a couple hundred Rand. I wanted to have a few notes to keep. After all, the R50 note taped to the currency wall in the office is barely worth $4. (Aside, we have a currency wall — it’s the glass wall to a conference room, to which we’ve pasted numerous foreign bills and a single $1. At present there are ten countries represented; somehow I’ve contributed three of them. (South Africa, Canada, and the European Union — the rest being Singapore, Israel, India, Malaysia, the UAE, Hong Kong, and the United States.) Everyone has prettier, more interesting currency than US.)
For the last time at the casino restaurant, I ate. Fish and chips. Classic. It was good, if a bit overcooked. Service was much quicker at mid-day, seeing as I was only one of two people in the whole place. I paid for my meal in cash, using one of my fresh 100 Rand bills. It was a deal less than that, however I was feeling generous. I still don’t know if tipping is a thing in South Africa either; I assume so.
Outside, the day was beautiful and warm, again. Brightly lit at noontime, the sun’s heat felt so good on my skin. I regrouped with my American coworker in the hotel lobby to get some cooperative work done. It went poorly. The internet would not connect. I couldn’t receive his data. I couldn’t do anything. To top it off, there were loud people only a few feet away being a nuisance, and shortly after their arrival, I developed a bad headache. As my effort and motivation declined, I pardoned myself to leave for my room again.
The internet there had failed too. I gave up, took a couple ibuprofen, and took a nap whilst podcasts played to nobody. I woke up after dark, put on music and went to bed for real. I didn’t even eat dinner. I had no options other than the casino, and I really didn’t want to go back for a second time that night. It was fine, I was trying to set myself on a new time zone using regularly scheduled meals.
In the middle of the night, around 1 or 2am, I awoke and groggily checked in for the flight from Johannesburg to Frankfurt. The internet connected long enough for me to breeze through Lufthansa’s online check-in system. And again, somehow, I awoke early. In the hotel lobby I ate a fourth and last identical breakfast, and checked out at the front desk. It was cloudy outside for the first time all trip. Not puffy, friendly clouds like we’d seen the whole time, mind you, but gray, overcast, San Francisco-in-June-style gloom.
As our team had flown back to Johannesburg already, one of the local site operations personnel picked us up and drove us to Kimberely airport. I was still groggy and hoping the ride would be of a decent length that I could achieve a relaxed state whilst watching the city go by out my window. The trip across Kimberley took ten minutes. D’oh! It’s really not that big of a city.
We turned back onto the connector to the airport, returning to place from which we’d arrived. It felt like we’d just gotten there. It felt like an eternity ago. It had been four days. Four of the shortest, long days of my life.