“How It’s Done: New Years, South Africa, June 2004”

Originally published in The Big Stupid Review

copyright (c) 2010 by Anjoli Roy

The party was in an airport hangar, not far from where I’d arrived that same day, and there were no planes in sight. “So this is a launch party,” I wondered. “A party at an airport. This is how South Africa gets down?”

I thought of the handy green safety pamphlet that I’d clutched like a rosary during the plane ride from California. Along with a few brochures with bright, full-color pictures of the smiling faces of South Africa’s new democracy, the pamphlet was supposed to prepare me for the seven weeks I’d be spending in Cape Town, where I’d be living with a host family. The pamphlet hadn’t mentioned anything about a nightlife. In fact, somewhere on the list between “Don’t wear sweatshirts with American universities written on them” and “Keep your voice down in public; American accents attract thieves,” I thought I read something that cautioned against going outside at night, ever.

My host sister, Jo, had been so earnest when she’d invited me out just an hour before. She’d said, “What? Don’t you Americans know how it’s done?” I’d smiled, told myself that those guides were probably just like the orientation packet I’d received as an undergraduate when I moved to NYC: for rookies with no city sense. I wasn’t a rookie; I’d traveled places on my own before. Yeah! Still, nervousness lodged in the back of my throat.

My eyes flit across the crowd. The music was electronica, which wasn’t really my thing, but drummers and fire dancers enlivened the ensemble, and the combination was a sound and spectacle so contagious, bodies thronged to the dance floor by the dozen. I too felt myself being drawn to the excitement.

I felt Jo’s hand on my elbow. “What’s your drink?”

“Anything,” I said, feeling a bit more at ease. “What’s yours?”

“Jack and Ginger!” She smiled, evidently having knocked back at least one already. She handed me a glass with contents that smelled like a scratch-and-sniff sticker, and we headed to the dance floor. The drink loosened the knot in my throat.

At midnight, the party went to the next level, literally. The ceiling slid open like eyelids revealing the dark eye of the night sky, and a helicopter made a quick descent. At the behest of the DJ, a New Year’s Eve–style countdown began, which was particularly strange, I thought, since the month was June. I shrugged, thinking I might be about to witness some special, uniquely South African party tradition. I felt the whirr of the air around me; the crowd of dancers parted to make room for the sharp, quickly spinning blades of the metal bird. This is it, I thought. This is why I’ve come. To see the South Africa that no one talks about—the South Africa that doesn’t fit neatly enough into the perfect image of the new democracy! I felt the story I’d tell my family and friends back home start to steam off the sweaty hips and shoulders around me.

At the very least, I figured I was finding out why South Africans got down in hangars.

As the helicopter touched ground, everyone exploded in “Happy New Years!” and two scantily clad women popped out of the helicopter on either side of a business-suited man, who smiled toothily over a microphone. I heard my reedy voice cheering too.

“Yes, happy New Year!” the man exclaimed. His spare hand reached up to the sky, and then came down, hushing the crowd that was now whipped into a near hysterical frenzy. “It’s a new year, South Africa. Because Miller is back in town!”

The crowd roared, and the women, between struggling to keep their outfits in place, produced box after box of Miller, the cheapo American-brand beer that my friends and I only drank when there was nothing—absolutely nothing—else to drink at a party.

He may as well have socked me in the chest.

I’d later learn that Miller, like many other overseas companies, had pulled out of South Africa in protest against apartheid. The night I got to South Africa, the crude American beer was making its comeback.

“Tastes a bit like piss, doesn’t it?” Jo laughed as she yoked me back into the crowd. “Come on, girl! I knew you Americans didn’t know how to party. Let South Africa show you how it’s done!”

She handed me another scratch-and-sniff drink, which I promptly tossed back, before following her, with my head hanging, onto the dance floor.

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