Last Monday, after 30+ hours of travel, I arrived in the US for the first time since October 2009. My return so far has been packed with seeing family and friends, attending my brother’s graduation, recovering from jetlag, running various errands, etc. In all the chaos, I simply haven’t had time to post on my final 48 hours in South Africa, which are certainly worthy of a story.

And so now I must backtrack.

My final weekend in South Africa started off in a hurry. I woke up on a Friday morning and had 30 minutes to pack my bag and catch a last minute ride from Eshowe, where I was staying with some friends, to Durban. I spent the day visiting a friend in Durban, and ended up at the fan park to watch the opening game of the World Cup with a friend of a friend and an Aussie guy I road tripped with in Namibia. Everyone was excited, and the parties started on the waterfront immediately after the game, before it even got dark.

That evening, I ducked out early and caught the night bus to Johannesburg, my least favorite city in the world. I spent a fitful night attempting to sleep and an early morning attempting to find the taxi stand at the bus station. When I arrived at my hostel, the guy working the desk asked me if I was going to the USA v England game that day. I said I would like to go, but I didn’t have tickets. Not a problem, he said. Apparently an American guy he knew named John had plenty and was selling them. He gave me John’s number and I called him up. John said he had a ticket for me and I could reserve it. But I had to pick it up from him in Rustenburg, where the game was, which is about 2 hours away from Jo’burg. We arranged to meet later that afternoon, before the game.

My plan was to kill some time and head to Rustenburg after lunch. I knew a couple American guys coming down from Zambia to watch the game, and was hoping I’d be able to meet up with them since I knew no one else going. At about 10:30am, I got a call from an old friend, Elena. We studied abroad together in Cairo in 2006. She and a friend were passing through Jo’burg in the early afternoon, and we had planned to have lunch together. But when she found out that there were still USA v England tickets available, we quickly changed our plans.

I called up John and reserved 4 tickets instead of 1. Elena and her friend than came to Jo’burg to pick me up, and we all drove to Pretoria to pick up another friend. Then we set off for Rustenburg to meet John.

But we hit traffic. Lots and lots of it. And John was waiting for us (and hopefully not selling our tickets to someone else). Oh, and John’s phone battery was dying. Just before his battery gave out, he told me to meet him at Gate B and that he would take down my number and call me from another phone if necessary.

I was beginning to get anxious. The game started at 8:30pm, and we didn’t reaching the parking area after 7:30. We caught a shuttle and ran to the stadium. We arrived at Gate 5; the lettered gates were inside the numbered gates, and you needed to show your ticket to get inside. So we asked where the closest gate was to Gate B, and it turns out we were on the wrong side of the stadium. So we ran (literally, ran) around all the parking lots to the other side. It was not close. When we arrived, it was 8:20pm.

And John was nowhere to be found. His phone was not working because his battery died. I had no idea what he looked like, but he described what he was wearing to me on the phone and I didn’t see anyone who matched that description. Panic set in. We were so close, we had run most of the way, and yet we had no tickets and no way to contact our (hopefully legit) salesman. The stadium staff were telling everyone that they were closing the gates soon. My friends and I had no plan, and were trying our best to not seem devastated.

Then, at 8:30, I got a call from an unknown number. It was John’s friend, Tony, who said he had our tickets. But he was at Gate 5, on the opposite side of the stadium and where we had just left. He said he would run through the stadium to us to get us our tickets. And so we begged the stadium staff to keep the gates open and we waited.

At 8:40, Tony arrived with our tickets. I could tell it was him because he was running like a madman through the gates, and I felt an immediate sigh of relief. We were so excited that he arrived in time and that he was a real person with real tickets that we all hugged him several times. We entered the stadium.

Then the full force of the game atmosphere hit. Not only did we make it in time, but our tickets were category 1 tickets, 16 rows from midfield. Well worth all the stress we felt during the 3 hours leading up to the game.

The game itself wasn’t nearly as exciting as the recent USA v Slovenia game (during which USA was robbed of a win…), but the atmosphere was awesome. Every other American at the game was an immediate friend. I felt more national pride than I have in a long time.

Possibly my favorite part of the game was the aftermath, and the community that had been created. On the way out, we stopped at the porta potties and made friends with some other Americans waiting in line. One of the guys was clapping a beat and dancing a bit. I joined in the dancing briefly, and before we knew it we were having a 20-minute long impromptu dance party with several South African security guards who were stationed at the toilet.

In the past, seeing so many Americans in one place would have caused me to run and hide. But I left that game excited to get on my return flight home the following day.