My GreenAcres Moment
World Cup Sid, Rediff.com's man in South Africa shares his experiences in the Rainbow Nation...
Perhaps a delay in writing this has tempered down the incredulousness with which I lived the experiences that I am about to narrate. But the possible advantage is that I can do so now with a rational mind; sometimes too much emotion while writing isn't a good thing.
I will write simply, and tell you what happened.
On Friday, June 25, the day Brazil was to take on Portugal in Durban, I found myself scratching my head in puzzlement at the corner of a lonely road in Port Elizabeth, not far from its main arterial Cape Road. I had with me all my possessions, a few too many to be honest, hurriedly packed, what with all the equipment I was carrying to cover the world cup and our Indian way of packing. It was late morning and I was very hungry. I had suddenly no accommodation, and no idea where to find some, with an ever-growing sense of worry.
I collected my thoughts, my large suitcase, my backpack and my camera bag, and headed first to Standard Bank, a leading bank here in South Africa. The purpose was to change some dollars, as visions of an expensive few days ahead in a Bed and Breakfast were becoming very clear.
As I went up to the counter after a long wait, I noticed it was the same smiling face of the girl behind the counter that I had first met when I reached PE. We started chatting again, and perhaps she sensed the worry in me.
"Do you know of any good B&Bs close by?" I asked.
'Oh , I have absolutely no idea, sorry!'
"Ah, no problem."
She continued to scan my passport and take down my details before changing the money.
'How come you suddenly need a B&B?'
"Oh, don't ask but do you have any idea how much they cost?"
'Really, honey, you're asking the wrong person, but hold on I'll try and ask around.'
When I hear that statement back home, I usually expect them to come back with a JustDial number or with a 'People are saying you could go to Colaba and find something easily.'
They care, they want to show they care, but really is that kind of information of any help? To quickly clarify, when I say 'they', I definitely include myself in that category of people who genuinely care, but have a certain inability to actually help. Which is why this experience is all that more of an education and a wake-up call.
She disappeared for a full five minutes while the line behind me grew longer and more frustrated.
'Here you go!' She had in her hands a stack of photocopied sheets with various B&B directory entries and their contact numbers. That was rather sweet, I thought to myself.
Not only that, these sheets had pen markings with the B&Bs she'd called up and spoken to brightly circled.
'This one's for 900 rand a night and this one's for 750 and I highly recommend that one there '
As my eyes grew wider with each price mentioned, she stared right into them.
'Too much for you eh? Hold on ' as she picked up her phone once again.
Once she finished her conversation, she turned to me sweetly, almost apologetically, 'If you don't mind ' yes this is how she put it, 'If you don't mind, my mother is a really nice woman, and she has a spare room if you're interested. She works in this very bank and since she's just finished a meeting she could come down and meet you in two minutes.'
Image: The Standard Bank in Port Elizabeth, where little angels sit.
Photographs: Siddhanta Pinto
Ever so grateful Nelsons
Meghan Nelson Jenneker from sleepy Port Elizabeth had just offered her mother's home to Siddhanta Pinto from Mumbai after getting to know him for 10 minutes while changing his dollars into rand.
Wait a minute, I thought to myself, I can just stay with you guys? Why not with you, why with your mother? Will there be any cost involved? There wasn't anything mentioned so I decided to stay quiet for now.
Cheryl Nelson appeared within two minutes, very clearly a senior person in the bank, and instantly reminded me of my mother with her no nonsense demeanour and polished way of speaking. She looked at me very intensely as I answered her questions and struggled to find ways to convey my gratitude.
As I mentioned at the start, it was mostly this incredulousness with which I spoke to her.Now the situation we were in meant I had to leave my heavy bags in her car and wait for her to finish work at around five that evening, which suddenly required a huge amount of trust on my part. My people at home were angry with me, how could you be so na ve, how could you trust strangers, ESPECIALLY in a place like South Africa.
Image: Eugene Nelson, Mervin, Cheryl Nelson, Janet, Me, Ashleigh, Ashleigh's friend
Cup of friendship
Today, exactly a week later I have travelled all over South Africa, and RETURNED to these strangers. As I sit in their living room and wait to leave for the huge Brazil vs Holland quarter-final at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, alone, as they are all at work, I'm thrilled that I went with my instinct, with my natural desire to trust people.
It not only helped me meet an incredible family and learn their story, but has also given my World Cup trip a whole new dimension -- of friendship, of trust and of really travelling to a new place and experiencing it.
If along the way I can quell a few misconceptions about this place, and tell you about a country with friendly, warm and genuine people with real problems, perhaps I will have paid them back. Because I did not and do not have the money to repay them adequately, and even if I did, it's not what they would be looking for.
So I left my bags in Cheryl Nelson's car, and walked off into Port Elizabeth with five hours to kill and my head spinning. As things were turning out, and this trip was all about a new experience every step of the way, I wouldn't be able to watch the Brazil-Portugal game at the Port Elizabeth fan park as I had earlier planned, but strangely I didn't seem to mind, there were other more interesting things happening in my world.
After a brief 10-minute encounter with these two women, I had only my computer with me, and all of my other possessions with them, which I would possibly never see again.
These were my THOUGHTS -- thoughts we are engineered to think, having grown up with mistrust and, sadly, rightfully so. But here in a new place without any safety net, where I knew nobody, my FEELINGS were that the football Gods were smiling down on me, and that I was being taken care of. It is this balance of thought and instinct and listening to these two contradictory voices that had gotten my head spinning.
I often find myself in this predicament, sometimes on a daily basis, as I live the life of a struggling entrepreneur. It is a life of absolute and complete uncertainty, a scramble for every rupee, a life of combining the prudence of mistrust, and the wonderful positivity of trust.
Image: The sand dunes along the coast of Nelson Mandela Bay...on a day like this, they blow across the road, rendering it unusable
World Cup wouldn't have been the same without people like him
At 4 pm sharp, Cheryl Nelson called. 'Hi Sid, I'm just about finishing my work for the day. I think you should start walking back to the bank and meet me downstairs.'
"Of course!" I said, overeagerly, before I let out a huge sigh of relief.
We drove from the bank in Cheryl's car, who by now I had started calling Ma'am. She seemed delighted that I had travelled on my own from Bombay just for the World Cup, and that I was taking the trip as it happened, without much planning.
'I wish my son would do something similar, something adventurous. He needs to get out more.'
Her son Cameron, I would soon learn, was a FIFA volunteer at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium. There was a huge recruitment drive many months ago for the event, where all those who were interested could apply.
There wasn't any indication that they'd get paid for their work, so it was only the very interested that did apply. After many rounds of interviews, some were selected, and only then informed that they'd actually get paid for their volunteer work.
Silently, I thanked Cameron. The World Cup wouldn't have been the same without people like him; you could find them at every turn, always smiling and ready to help, and clearly doing the back breaking and thankless tasks.
As we pulled up to the Nelson home, I noticed immediately just how homely it was. Eugene Nelson was a friendly Afrikaans man, with a work shed and a mighty fierce Boer Bull dog behind the house.
Their youngest child, the very pretty 15-year-old Ashleigh was asked to vacate her room for me, and I moved into my little warm room, with Ashley Simpson posters smiling down on me and a lot of make up everywhere. Cameron lazed around in the living room with his girlfriend, and later that night was out.
Cheryl herself travels most of the week outside Port Elizabeth on work for Standard Bank, and I was very lucky indeed that she happened to be in town that day.
So there I was, brought into a bustling, regular middle class hard working household in the quiet neighbourhood of Westering, just because I had come to change some money from their daughter at the bank and I needed a roof over my head.
When they heard that I'd travelled for the football, they thought going to the Fan Park would be a great idea -- they'd never been themselves and this was a great excuse to go check it out. Spain was to play that night, in around three hours.
They scrambled to make some phone calls and round up their friends and make a small picnic out of the entire evening. Ashleigh called up two of her girlfriends who said yes. Cheryl and Eugene called up Janet and Mervin who said yes too, and we had ourselves quite a little night ahead.
Image: Eugene with the famous canon from the wreck of the Portuguese Galleo Sacramento
Watching a live band was fun
After scrambling to give me some dinner -- they ordered in some fish, we left for the fan park. We picked up Ashleigh's friends and then Janet and Mervyn followed us in their car. And what a fun evening it turned out to be at the St. George's cricket ground in Port Elizabeth.
A popular local band called Just Jinger was performing while the crowd went crazy. Ashleigh and her friends turned up their noses at the rock music. Hip Hop was more their thing. I played some football with fans from all over the world on the grassy lawns, left my camera carelessly on the grass, only to have Cheryl come storming towards me out of nowhere with her finger wagging.
'You cannot leave your things unattended here son!'
She scooped up all my belongings and went away again into the stands where she was keenly watching from. The irony of it all was quite striking. Here I was spoilt by trust in this town by HER, being told not to trust other strangers in that same town.
Janet and Mervyn were wonderful as well. They bought me gifts -- little World Cup mementos, and spoke proudly of Port Elizabeth as we went over for coffee to their place after the fan park. We went home late that night, and I slept in my girly room like a baby till late the next morning.
Image: St. George's cricket ground, the venue of Port Elizabeth's fan park. A concert stage erected, with Just Jinger playing.
South Africa is all about Braai, Beer and Biltong
As soon as I woke up that Saturday, I was greeted by a sumptuous breakfast, freshly made by Cheryl. As soon as I went through that she hounded me, 'C'mon Mr Pinto, talk to me. What would you like to do now? You cannot sit at home, you have to see more of Port Elizabeth.'
I had to go to the stadium later that afternoon for the Uruguay - South Korea knock-out game, and so had a good four hours to kill. So, again, Eugene, Cheryl, Meghan -- who we picked up early from work, Ashleigh and I got into the car and went for the most beautiful drive along the stunning coast of the Nelson Mandela Bay area.
I couldn't get over the warmth of this family -- they not only actually helped solve the problem of a stranger, but also went out of their way to show him a good time.I received a guided tour of the many sights, we stopped for photographs and a lot of past experiences they'd had at these various spots. South Africa is all about Braai, Beer and Biltong, they'd proudly say. 'You've NEVER experienced a Braai????' they'd ask incredulously. 'We will sort you out soon.
Image: There is something about the fire of the braai that relaxes you, and calms you down
After all trust is everything
On the way back they drove me past the boardwalk and the fancy hotels along that expensive stretch of PE. That is where I jumped out of the car for pictures of the Uruguayan team in their bus. They dropped me right to the stadium then, as it was fast approaching kick off, and pointed to the exact spot where they would pick me up!
I was driven home from the stadium as well, by the very friendly Eugene, treated to an excellent freshly cooked curry that night, and packed off to bed. Very early the following morning, at an unearthly hour, Eugene dropped me to the airport as well. As I struggled to show my gratitude, he stopped me.
'We're not too educated but we can tell from instinct that you're a nice family trustworthy guy. We don't know you at all man, but we can tell.'
There wasn't much to say after that, and I walked away with all my belongings, the exact same ones I'd walked to Standard Bank with two days ago, to another city -- Johannesburg.
Image: Meghan, me, Cheryl, Ashleigh and Eugene and a stunning day in Port Elizabeth
My worries turned to happiness
This story isn't complete without what happened when I needed to return to Port Elizabeth a week later for the quarter-final between Brazil and Holland.
After a long and very tiring bus ride from Cape Town, I was greeted with the smiling face of Raees, Meghan's husband. I'd asked how I could make it back to their house, and they said they'd pick me up right from the bus.
That night, a regular Thursday night when they'd usually be tired after a hard day's work, and hoping to get to bed early, Meghan and Raees got a Braai started just for me -- so that I could experience the real South Africa.
With a lot of chicken, and lamb and beef simmering away on the Braai, we laughed and spoke about life well into the night. They'd never had the chance to travel outside of South Africa, and now were considering India as their first stop.
I'm a little worried though. They have set the hospitality bar really high up there. A level I haven't ever reached. However I will ATTEMPT to repay them when they visit. With the same confidence with which I strode towards GreenAcres, as my worry turned to happiness, I'm gonna make one mighty high jump of trust.
The next time you find someone who needs your help, who needs you to go a little out of your way, I urge you to jump for that bar too. The experiences you will have while in mid flight will stay with you a lifetime.
Image: With Meghan and Raees about to dig in