The performing dogs in action.
The best way to describe Durban would be a stew. Not just because of the weather – 15-odd degrees warmer than most other World Cup venues – but because of its mix. It reputedly has the highest Indian population of any city outside India and they, along with the Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu peoples, make this a boisterous, brassy city. A hearty stew, then.
Nowhere was it more boisterous than on Florida Road on Friday night, hours after Brazil and Portugal had played out a drab, goalless draw at the futuristic Moses Mabhida Stadium. Cape Town can be loud – enough vuvuzelas can make any place loud – but even Long Street or Green Point lack the sheer numbers at hand on Florida Road. As Spain and Chile played out a very different sort of game, the city's most happening street was jammed end to end with cabs, cars and people.
Getting a place in a bar or at a restaurant was impossible – you made your way to the bar, grabbed your drink, came back onto the pavement and watched above a hundred heads on the big screen. Many in the crowd were Brazilians – or Brazil fans, if not the real McKoy – and so the support was squarely behind Spain.
Many of those fans had flown in to the city on matchday, wave after wave of yellow and green complementing the blue of the Durban sky and the rainbow of its people. There was singing everywhere – on the plane, too, though it didn't detract from some of the stunning views of the landscape below – and that singing continued late into the night. The weather helped; Durban was, I noted, warmer than Bangalore, where I work. The food, too, is hotter than in the Cape – the overwhelming Indian influence.
It's the same influence which perhaps also makes the city a little more chaotic – or shall we say a little less organized. One of the morning's papers carried a page on Durban trivia which included the gem about a hospital ICU where every Sunday around noon the patient in the bed would die. Convinced it was beyond human intervention, officials called in specialists, more spiritual than temporal. That Sunday, as they watched, they saw the weekly cleaner come in as usual at 11 a.m., switch off the ICU machine and plug in her vacuum cleaner.
Ah, chaos. Indians – and I am one - are genetically comfortable with chaos; it brings out the best in us and, in turn, gives us an edge in any sort of competition. How else do you think we've cornered the cricket market? And so the city coped admirably with the invasion, though some journalists had their noses put out of joint – the press box was full so the overflow had to slum it with the ordinary fans. I was one of them, sitting in a sea of Portugal and Brazil jerseys, many worn by African and Asian faces. It's all in the cause of the beautiful game.
In tribute to the influx, Saturday morning's Independent carried a four-page special entirely in Portuguese; the headline "More than beautiful" was a bit of an overstatement – unless it was referring to the fans - but it's an increasingly hard world for newspapers so cut them some slack. Through the day those fans added to the Durban stew, their Latin lilt adding to the existing babble of voices, which increased later in the evening when a few Dutch fans trooped in ahead of their team's game on Monday.
The destination of choice was the marine theme park adjoining the beach; under a brilliantly blue sky there was simply no contest. Theme parks aren't usually top of my to-do list but this was clean, it had lots of things to see and do and, most importantly in Durban, it was safe. Families, couples, singles, one man and his two performing dogs, everyone let their guard down just a bit, shelved for the moment the warnings about how to carry your wallets and bags and whom not to talk to. The two performing dogs, whose accessory was a football, probably got more applause at the end of their turn than the Brazil and Portugal teams when they walked off the previous night. As bubbles go, it could have been worse.
And here's the problem – Durban isn't a walking city in the manner that Cape Town has been and even large parts of Port Elizabeth. The standard warning about South Africa goes up manifold when it comes to Durban (though Jo'burg holds the record) and since I usually move on my own it does cause certain operational issues. Seeing a city from the inside of a taxi is not an ideal solution but I've seen the warning signs – sidewalks largely devoid of people – so I will have to devise a Plan B. Watch this space.