Mt. Kili Madness

August 20, 2014

Next month, September, will mark my 2-year anniversary of having reached the summit of Kilimanjaro.

It will also be the 2-year anniversary of handing over the reins of Alexandra Baseball to my wonderful successors, the Irwin family, after I found out my own family was relocating to the United States.

Just like climbing Kili, being involved with a sports team in one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa is incredibly difficult and rewarding at the same time. In both cases progress is very slow. You take one step at a time. Often the route is not direct and you find yourself circling the summit instead. I'm thinking here of the time we wanted to start having league teams playing on our home field in Alexandra, so as to cut down on travel costs as well as building a better community in the league, but running into trouble when the grass was too long. While the township had a lawnmower, there was no petrol. If we wanted the grass mowed and a playable field, we had to go find our own petrol, as well as some spare parts and a driver. What should have been an easy path became obstructed and circuitous, but pole pole, slowly and one step at a time, we got there in the end. And seeing the joy and pride on the kids' faces for showing off their skill on their own home turf was reward enough.

Kind of like watching the sunrise at Stella Point.

Both Kilimanjaro and Alexandra have played a large role in my life. Wouldn't it be great to bring those two passions of mine together in one exciting cause?

Enter Mt. Kili Madness *. It involves a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, and it involves township kids playing a sport. In fact, the sport will be played ON Mount Kilimanjaro, which is totally awesome. Though in this case it won't be baseball that's being played, but rather cricket, its close cousin.

If you're now pulling a face and telling me that you hate cricket (as those who don't actually know it are often wont to do), let me remind you that I used to be one of those cricket doubters but have since come around, mainly by watching my own son play it while in South Africa and learning to understand the game.

So next month, on September 20th, a very special expedition will set forth, along the Machame Route which I took, to conquer the summit of Kili, like so many others have done. But they will also set forth to accomplish something no other has done before: two teams will play the highest cricket match ever right up there in the crater. The previous world record for a cricket match at high altitude was set in 2009 at Everest Base Camp, and this one will be 600 meters higher.

I can't imagine a more glorious sight. It is bound to be a spectacular undertaking, but I also know how hard it will be.

Part of this group, which includes South African cricket legend Makhaya Ntini as well as some high-profile England players, will be two boys from the Alexandra Township Chiefs Cricket Club. As you can imagine, they'll need some support to help with equipment, travel expenses, vaccines, visas, and more. It is their dream to scale the heights of Kili and enter their name in the record books, but they are also striving for something bigger - being ambassadors for their community, campaigning against violence, and finding their place in the world.

You can become a sponsor of this dream for as little as $1, or maybe you have a company which you'd like to involve in a community outreach opportunity.

I have taken many pictures of exactly the same scene, except with baseball players in
the foreground. That's because the Chiefs and Alexandra Baseball share the same field.

Alexandra Township Chiefs vs Ambassadors from India, June 3, 2014.
(the Chiefs won the match by 10 runs)

Mural of Nelson Mandela House in Alexandra Township. Johannesburg is a
wonderful showcase of murals and graffiti, and Nelson Mandela features in many!

Raymond Lebokana, Captain of Alexandra Township Chiefs,
with Vikram Dayal, Captain of Ambassadors of Cricket

I know how scaling a mountain can help you fulfill your dreams. I always wanted to write a book but never quite got around to "just doing it," until I climbed Kilimanjaro. Going about it one step at a time until I stood on the top and accomplished the seemingly impossible spurred me on to do exactly the same as a writer. It helped in my case that the climb itself provided the story for Kilimanjaro Diaries, but it can help in many other ways too.

I'm so excited for those two boys and the entire expedition of Mt. Kili Madness. Check out their website here, and please help spread the word in your social network, so that this dream can get a boost. Every little bit helps, one step at a time.

Pole pole.

Skeen Primary School, winners of the Alexandra Township Junior LMS League.
It's pictures like this that make me want to write about Alexandra again and again -
so full of hope and  joy, so much potential, and yet so much to overcome.

* All photos courtesy of Aliya Bauer and/or the Alexandra Township Chiefs
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Your Child Will Need to Bring 48 Pencils

August 15, 2014

I can't tell you how happy I am that the kids are finally back in school. So far, they actually seem to be happy too. It's perfect bliss all around.

However, it didn't come without a price to pay, and that was back-to-school shopping.

Now I know that some mothers LOVE to go back to school shopping with their daughters, but I am not one of them. Maybe because I grew up in a place where the term back to school shopping isn't even part of the language. Or maybe I'm just a mean mom (more likely). In any case, I hate it.

By the way, this isn't about clothes. I could actually be talked into going clothes shopping. No, this is about school supplies. Which we already have overflowing drawers full of, but each year we seem to need more. We need, of course, exactly what the school supply list says we do. We also need matching binders and color-coded folders to go with those binders. And last year's binders absolutely won't do, because they are an inch and a half wide instead of an inch. Or vice versa.

You would think that I'd just order the supply pack from the PTO that comes in a tidy cardboard box, delivered to your classroom, and be done with it. No shopping necessary, you get everything in it that you need. But while I hate supply shopping, I'm also kind of cheap. Those supply packs always have way too much of everything in them. And things you don't have to buy new every year, like scissors. Although our family has a history of having them confiscated at airport security, so scissors we might in fact be in the market for again. What we do have lots and lots of is loose leaf paper - the boys are too lazy to take notes and can make do with about 25 sheets per year, it seems - and hundreds of pencils.

It is the pencils that send me over the edge this year. 48 Pencils, says Sunshine's list. Excuse me, 48? Per child? How in the world could one person possibly write so much as to need 48 pencils in 180 days? You could outfit a whole township school in South Africa with 48 pencils. What could you possibly need so many for? And then the girls enlighten me. The boys sit there and break them in half by bending them across their foreheads, they tell me. And they'll compete with each other how many they can break at a time. There you go, that makes perfect sense. One can see how you get through 48 pretty quickly that way.

So as to avoid overpaying for a box with 48 pencils in it, the plan is to buy our own supplies sometime this summer. Of course "sometime this summer" to me means something else entirely than to the girls. In my mind it means the first week of August right before the start of school. To the girls it means the first week of June, right at the start of summer, which is when the nagging starts. When are we going to go back to school shopping? And, We absolutely have to go back to school shopping this week, Mom!!! 

We finally go supply shopping, just so the nagging stops. (This makes me reflect on the fact that nagging, in fact, DOES work, and I keep a mental note of it.) We go to Target. Target has o.k. binders and they are cheap, and Target has a whole lot of other stuff, but the locker shelves they have are all wrong. Too narrow and not high enough and Mom, the books aren't going to fit under it, no way. I am not surprised. Scoring all the supplies in one single shopping trip would have been a miracle akin to Jesus Walking On Water, and so I voluntarily head over to Office Max with them. I hand them $20 and drop them off at the door, and I go get a grande latte at Starbucks in the meantime, congratulating myself on the way I handled that. The locker shelf from Office Max is indeed perfect, and all is well.

Except then school starts. And Teacher X hands a supply list to the 8th grade kids that is nothing like what was on the pre-summer-break supply list. And Impatience comes home after the first day of school greeting me with We have to go get more school supplies NOW. I know from experience that it is better to go NOW NOW NOW than to argue. I'm not going to bore you with the details of our second shopping trip, because no sane person will understand how I possibly put up with all of that, but let me tell you we went to three (3!) stores to come up with the perfect 10-tab dividers for Impatience, who that day ensured that she'll be stuck with that blog name for another year at least. Not 8-tab dividers, not a combination of 2 5-tab dividers either, the (so I thought) smart suggestion by her brother earning withering looks, not the one single set of 10-tab dividers we finally dug out from under a pile of a disorderly strewn about pile left by the masses of previous shoppers, because They don't look nice, Mom. What we did find in those three stores is plenty more binders that were so much nicer and sturdier than the cheap Target ones that I let myself be talked into getting those instead.

I skip the latte that day when we get home and go straight for the wine, over which I contemplate that I'm now left with a trunk full of binders to be returned to various stores, as well as a new list of supplies for the boys who are Very sorry we didn't tell you this yesterday.

Over dinner, I fill in Noisette about my shopping odyssey (he always loves to hear where all his money is going, I'm sure). I talk about how shopping early backfires, as evidenced by the wrong supply list, but how shopping late is also bad, because you compete with a bazillion other last-minute shoppers over an ever-dwindling stash of supplies. I talk about the good old days in South Africa and how they didn't give us such bothersome lists there, and instead let the kids bring whatever they felt they needed, so that you didn't end up buying a pack with way too much in it. But it turns out I'm totally deluded.

That's not true mom, chimes in Jabulani. They had those supply packs there as well.

Oh, but those were only for the disadvantaged children, weren't they, says Noisette.

No, they were for everybody, says Jabulani. Mom just never bought those for us because she didn't want to spend the money. WE were the disadvantaged children!
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Cold Winters, Gas Heaters, and Americans Freezing in the Dark

August 8, 2014

We're well into August and American kids are about to return to the classroom while it's still 95 degrees outside (that's hot, even for Fahrenheit), while my friends in Johannesburg are breathing a collective sigh of relief because the mercury is finally inching up again. The coldest months of June and July are finally over. Spring is almost in the air in South Africa.

Winters on the Highveld are cold. Not as cold as our Tennessee winters, to be sure. In fact, most people in other parts of the world would kill for a summer that was like a Joburg winter. Cold nights yes, but lovely dry and sunny days, warm but not hot. 

The problem, however, are those cold nights. And the fact that no South African house has any central heating. Nor does it have any double-paned windows or other insulation to speak of. There are gaps around your window frames and slits under your doors so wide that a small warthog could squeeze through. From the minute the sun goes down in the late afternoon until about 7:30 in the morning when it has reliably climbed over the horizon again without so much as a cloud in the sky to obscure it, you'll try everything to stay warm. You'll fire up the gas heater and nudge it ever so gently in your direction and away from your spouse, hoping he won't notice that the heat is now going elsewhere. While you're making a mental note that it's high time to order a new gas bottle, unless you've left it until too late and they are sold out everywhere. You'll make yourself the third cup of hot Rooibos tea in an effort to warm up from the inside. You'll busy yourself longer in the kitchen than strictly necessary and perhaps even get out the Christmas cookie recipes, just for an excuse to turn on the oven. But despite of all this you'll be shivering so badly by 8:30 pm that you'll give up and go to bed, where you'll huddle so close to your spouse that you're reminded of the days you were newly-weds. Or perhaps you've invested in an electric blanket and are happy as can be, watching TV shows that ran in the U.S. two seasons ago, except your only problem is that your fingers are freezing while channel flipping with the remote control. Though most likely you won't suffer long because the electricity will go off any minute, due to the strain on the power grid caused by all those electric blankets, and of course Medupi and Kusile (the two new power plants having been under construction for, oh, the last twenty years) still not having come online. All you can do is go to sleep really early, which is just as well because the infamous Hadedas will wake you up with their blood-curdling screech at 4:30, summer and winter alike. By the time the sun finally rises again, you'll be ready to worship it by sacrificing a small goat.

In short, you might very well be freezing in the dark during a typical Johannesburg winter.

The most welcome sight on a freezing Johannesburg winter morning

Which is the fate that apparently awaits us Americans here as well, if you are to believe the gloomy forecasts made by some people who reacted with outrage to President Obama's new emissions reduction goals for the year 2030. Climate change isn't really real, they say, and besides, even if it were, it's not worth doing anything about it if it means we'll be freezing in the dark.

It seems to me, with the United States using 25% of the world's energy (and having only something like 5% of its population) there is a long way to go before we ever freeze in the dark. We use so much energy it's ridiculous. We are energy hogs. That's because our energy, by and large, is very cheap. Yes, cheap. We still fill up our cars for less than half the price the rest of the world pays at the pump. We - and by that I mean mainly my oldest son - take half-hour hot showers because it doesn't cost that much at all. We not only expect access to electricity anywhere we go, we get upset if free Wifi doesn't come right with it, served straight up on a silver platter, password included, thank you very much.

I don't think anyone here is at risk of freezing in the dark anytime soon. You know where you're much more likely to freeze in the U.S.? In a typical shopping mall in the summer, where the air conditioning never fails to be set in arctic regions. 

When I am done with my shopping here in America, I so worship the lovely sunshine afterwards that I could sacrifice an entire bull.
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We Will No Longer Accept Money Out of Undergarments

July 31, 2014

I recently posted the following picture on my Facebook page, because I thought it was funny:

But then the post took on a life of its own. A South African living abroad took issue, thinking it might not even be from South Africa (which I admit may very well be true!) and made South Africa look bad. In response, many of my readers chimed in with their own views on such humor and whether it is demeaning or not. Most agreed that it helps, rather than hurts, to share humorous facts about a country, whether they are all that accurate or not. I for one like to draw in people with funny pictures on my Facebook page, in hopes that they then are encouraged to read the more serious stuff I've written about South Africa over the years.

More importantly, many readers chimed in with their own anecdotes, some of them involving undergarments, and some not.

One reader, an American currently living in South Africa, reported buying a newspaper just a few days before and her change being pulled out of a "Joburg bra," as she phrased it.

Another reader had spent long expat years in Mali and confessed to always keeping money in her bra. It was part of the cultural training, of sorts. She still finds it a very practical storage location when short of another place to put her cash.

Now I'm sure the sign above was probably not taking aim at bras, primarily, but OTHER undergarments. And I can see how somebody finally decided to put it up, if this was indeed a recurring issue at that store. But before we condemn people carrying stuff in their underwear, let's remember that some of these places are not sanitized Main Street USA but rather dangerous and ridden with pickpockets. Actually, those can be anywhere. When I was touring the Louvre last summer with my kids - apparently a haven for pickpockets - I confess I temporarily shoved my iPhone into an undergarment of mine while being pushed around in the throng of people wanting a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. And it was not my bra.

But lest you now accuse me of too much potty humor (guilty as charged!), here is a story that doesn't involve any undergarments at all.

One reader told me they had a handyman that worked for her family a few years back. One day, his car was stolen. Eventually after much drama he retrieved the stolen car but the tires were gone. Good employers that they were, they helped him replace the tires, after which he came up with an inventive new security system. It involved drilling a hole through his bedroom wall to the outside, and his plan was that each night he would tie one end of a string to the car parked outside, feed the string through the hole in the wall and tie the other end to his big toe. She says they worked hard to eventually talk him out of his plan and potentially losing a toe while he lay sleeping, and that thankfully to this day he still has his car AND his big toe.

With that I'll now leave you to contemplate your own stories of life in Africa or beyond. Do you have any to share? We'd love to hear them!
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You Know You've Been Away from Germany for Too Long When...

July 14, 2014

  1. You are alarmed when your car turns itself off at every red light.
  2. You wonder what to do with the gigantic hotel room key. It's an actual key! With a huge weight on it!
  3. You can't manage to squeeze your car into the tiny parking space.
  4. You are annoyed when it takes your waiter 15 minutes to acknowledge that you're there even though he can perfectly well see you sitting there craning your neck.
  5. You find yourself stopping at every bakery display and salivating over the bread rolls.
  6. You have to hunt for change before you can load up your grocery cart because you don't have a Euro coin for unlocking the cart.
  7. You are startled by the demarcation line, sometimes an outright chasm, down the middle of German hotel beds and wonder if Germany's low birth rate might have something to do with that.
  8. Even though you are for energy conservation, you feel like personally taking up Sarah Palin's battle cry  (or was it Michele Bachmann?) and replacing every light bulb in the bathroom with something that actually brightens up the room immediately after you flip the switch, not five minutes later.
  9. You've gotten spoiled by softer tissue fibers (aka toilet paper) on your bare cheeks than what the Germans are prepared to offer you.
  10. You watch a movie and are appalled when Brad Pitt talks to you in a strange and not nearly sexy enough voice.
  11. It's a warm summer day and you are happy for those poor folks to finally have some nice weather but then you are startled when everyone around you complains about the heat wave and "the terrible humidity."
  12. You politely stand in line waiting at the breakfast buffet but eventually realize that you'll have to whack somebody over the head  and muscle your way to the food if you want to eat. 
  13. You get post-traumatic stress disorder after grocery shopping and running the gauntlet of the checkout line where you have to bag your own groceries at lightning speed or be ostracized by the community of German grocery shoppers and checkout clerks.
  14. You have no clue whether it's called Der, Die, or Das iPad.
  15. You see a picture of Boris Becker and wonder how you could ever have had a crush on him.

The Divide of Infertility
Ginormous room key

Mouth watering bakery display
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From World Cup to World Cup: Soccer, Poverty, and Determination

July 6, 2014

Yesterday's New York Times featured an article that caught my attention. It was about villagers in the Amazon and how they struggle to play soccer during the rainy season. The fields are often flooded and some games have to be played wearing life preservers, because retrieving the ball may involve jumping into the water. Undeterred by the slippery surfaces of makeshift fields or dangerous wildlife lurking in the Amazonian waters, o jogo bonito, The Beautiful Game, goes on, especially during this exciting year when the Soccer World Cup has come to their own home country.

I expect you could easily take a very similar picture in one of Sao Paolo's favelas, but this
one was taken in the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg in 2010.

Nothing, it seems, can keep a determined kid from kicking the ball around.

This reminds me very much of South Africa in 2010. In fact, there are many parallels between the two countries and the two consecutive World Cups:

Both Brazil and South Africa are saddled with extreme divisions between the poor and the rich.

Both countries have a large population of young people, a certain vibe, a passion for football, as it is called everywhere but the United States, a flair for music and dancing.

Both have faced a lot of skepticism about their ability to pull off the miracle of getting everything ready for the World Cup, of providing the infrastructure and security necessary for such a large-scale event. In fact, Brazil's recent struggles made South Africa look positively professional in hindsight.

Both teams wear yellow jerseys that can easily be mistaken for one another.

And in both countries you see, again and again, people rising to the top of their game against all odds. Kids from the slums who have everything stacked against them - no facilities, no access to professional coaches, no transportation, often not enough food - manage to somehow excel in their sport, armed with pure determination and grit and perhaps a nothing-to-lose attitude.

South Africa never made it out of the group stage four years ago, so there is one glaring difference to Brazil, whose team is in the semi-finals with a good chance to take the trophy. (Although this writer here is hoping for them to lose their very next game.) But those kids near Manaus sliding around an old barge converted into a soccer field very much reminded me of my Alexandra Baseball team a few years back. One time I arrived in Alexandra (always a bit nervous on account of the high crime rate and the multiple warnings to never set foot there as a white person) with a trunkful of baseball equipment imported from the United States. We dumped it all out onto the red clay near the house - some would call it a shack - of one of the coaches. A few kids were there, hovering excitedly, eyes eagerly on the bonanza in front of them but patiently waiting their turn to touch a glove, try on a jersey. Before I knew it, a pickup game had started and balls were flying through the streets of Alexandra, right then and there, no field necessary.

I suppose broken windows aren't a concern where many are already broken.

But more than that it was the pure joy of the game that fueled these kids.

The excitement of new (or rather sort of old, to be honest) equipment arriving in Alexandra;
I love how everyone ambled over to check it out, even the dog.

The joy of the game, wherever you happen to be.

Another time we were walking through a township near Cape Town. A hike gone a little awry due to my poor planning. I was trailed by my four grumbling kids and two visiting boys from Germany, slightly less grumbling out of politeness but nonetheless not very happy to be walking when one could have driven instead, or better yet, been treated to another exciting bungy jumping adventure or some such thing. All around us were the local kids kicking a soccer ball, or what passed for one: A wadded-up clump of newspaper taped together into something resembling a ball. They'd probably never heard of a bungy jump or known anyone who owned a car, and yet they seemed so happy trailing along behind us, almost mocking us with their playfulness. And of course they were very good.

If you love what you do you can do great things. How many of our own privileged kids with every toy at their disposal can summon that same kind of love for simply throwing or kicking the ball? I do wonder if my own kids will ever develop that same kind of passion for anything in life. For their sake I hope that they do.

I hope that Africa has taught them that.

I'm now going to veer away from soccer even though that's what I started out with. But if you love the spirit of the World Cup, if you love the game of baseball, or if you'd simply like to be involved in something very special, check out what we've done with Alexandra Baseball in South Africa. You can also Like their Facebook page here.

And if you feel like it, make a small donation below towards much-needed equipment and transport expenses. 98% of all donations (can't get around the PayPal fee) go directly into a fund managed by Natalie and Andy Irwin, who so graciously and competently took over the Alexandra Baseball project after my departure.

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Joburg Expat, The Book, and Why I'm Dragging You Up a Mountain Instead

July 1, 2014

"I love reading your blog, when will you write 'Joburg Expat The Book'?" is a questions I've gotten more than once over the years.

Now I have written and published my first book, and it has nothing to do with being an expat or living in Johannesburg, seeing as its main action takes you to almost 4,000 kilometers from there. And somehow this makes me feel like I've betrayed my readers in some way.


...versus Kilimanjaro

So why choose Kilimanjaro over Joburg?

I think it's a combination of things:

  1. Write what you know. Every author will tell you this, and it's true. You're at your best when you write about the things you know. This doesn't mean all your work has to be non-fiction. The world would be a sad place if every author did that. But it means you have to write about the things that are true for you, that engage you emotionally, that you feel passionate about. And the best time to write about them is when you feel most deeply about them and can give the most feeling to your words. Kilimanjaro just happened onto my life when it did and left a deep emotional impact, and I felt like I had to seize the chance to write about it or it would slip away.

  2. Perhaps I'm a bit lazy. Honestly, if you have a choice between writing a book about 7 days and one about 3 years, which one do you pick? Although Kilimanjaro Diaries ended up spanning about 7 months rather than days, that is still a lot more manageable than 3 entire years jam-packed with tales about traffic cops, African time, and ballboxes. I chose what seemed to be the easier route. Though in the end, all books are a lot of work, regardless, I can promise you that much.

  3. I'm also a bit of a perfectionist. Getting 'Joburg Expat The Book' just right - starting with finding a better title than 'Joburg Expat The Book' (I wage epic battles with titles, see Title-Gate) - seems like a monumental task, and not just because of the time it would span. In fact, I might even limit the story to a year, since books with titles like 'A Year in the City of Crime' seem to be in fashion. There you go, there is a title that would capture readers. Anyway, the reason that book sounds really daunting to me is that the topic is so dear to my heart. Don't get me wrong, Mount Kilimanjaro is also important to me, but I spent a week of my life there, not three years. And Joburg Expat, the blog, has been at the center of my life for so long, I'm a bit scared of screwing it up by not doing it justice in a book. You might consider Kilimanjaro Diaries a trial run of sorts, a rehearsal for the big stage.

  4. Maybe it's none of these things. Maybe it was pure chance, and the fact that I was sitting in a hotel room on Grand Cayman last summer with an itch to write, a bad Internet connection keeping me away from my blog and Facebook, and just happening upon a backup of my Kili blog posts. Sometimes the best projects get started at the spur of the moment.

I promise you that 'Joburg Expat The Book' is a project postponed, not canceled, and still very much on my mind. It may have to compete with "Safari in Botswana and What it Taught me about Sex Education" and "Double-Buckled in the Middle of Nowhere: Tales from a Road Trip Through Namibia" for the Book #2 slot, but I will get around to it.

Just as soon as I've sold a few more copies of Kilimanjaro Diaries. After all, I am a (sometimes starving) writer.
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How Much is Enough: Expat Tips on Tipping

June 26, 2014

One of the first things you always have to learn in a new country is how much to tip.

This is especially true in South Africa. You'll be setting out on your very first errand to buy milk and butter at the Woolworth's around the corner, you'll return to your car with your bags, and as you pull out of your parking space, a guy will materialize at your window with an outstretched hand. What on Earth does he expect?

I've written about the economic calculations for someone working this job in Johannesburg in The Parking Gods, so I won't get into the details again here. But I would like to say this:

No matter how much you give, it's never enough.

I was reminded of this in a book I just started reading. It's called Absolution by Patrick Flanery and I won't review it here, although just 20 pages in I can tell you that I am keenly looking forward to the rest of it as an intriguing peek into South Africa's apartheid past.

In the first chapter, a South African recently returned from a long stint abroad asks his friend how much he should be tipping the car guard.

"It can never be too much because they need it more than you," says his friend. "And if you're a tourist," he goes on to say, "you owe them a little more."

This gave me pause to think. Are expats tourists or not? Of course we like to think that we aren't. That we are so adventurous and culturally sensitive that we quickly adapt to local customs, that we actually live there versus just visiting, that we know so much more about the country.

But in many ways, we are just tourists. Granted, ones that stay about three years versus three weeks, but always with an option to go back where we came from (and also often with a salary paid from abroad).

The character in Absolution then asks his friend, the local, how much he gives. This is where it really gets you thinking. "I give less than I expect you to give because I give every day and haven been giving for years." He then goes on to list all the ways he contributes - to the nanny, to the gardener, to the cleaning lady, not just in terms of wages but by helping put their kids through school, buying school uniforms, paying for medical aid... The list is long. Because of all this giving, so the argument, he gives less to the car guards than a tourist should.

So if you find yourself an expat in South Africa, do give this some thought.

You probably won't be there when your domestic eventually retires and needs someone to help her build a house, as most of my South African friends have done or will do at some point in their lives.

You won't be there long enough to pass on your old car to your domestic's husband, greatly increasing his fortunes because now he doesn't have to give up 40% of his earnings for transport.

You may not be there when your gardener's son is killed in a stabbing and there is no money for the funeral, a big affair in an African township.

You won't be there for a lot of things, so while you are there, give often and give generously.

Whatever we paid and gave our domestic, I'm sure it was
never enough. Sadly I've lost touch with her.

P.S.: I'm sorry if you expected more in terms of actual tips on tipping, as promised in the title of this post. I sort of hijacked the topic for an excursion into social justice, especially since the parking guards became dear to me during our South African years. And frankly, in all other areas of tipping the custom is very much similar to the U.S. - 15-20% in restaurants, and tips for hairdressers (especially the "tea ladies" who will also give you a heavenly head and/or hand massage!) and bellboys and valet parking and such. 

Plus of course you could always find yourself with a flat tire when invariably someone will materialize and change it for you

You should generously tip that person too.
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Win One of Five FREE Copies of Kilimanjaro Diaries Paperback!

June 21, 2014

I know you're just dying to find out which might be the most important item to pack in your Kilimanjaro bag - the wet wipes or the hiking poles (hint: It's a close one!).

Or how many Tanzanian shillings you should bring to cover all the alcohol you need to get senselessly drunk at your hotel bar afterwards.

And weather zip-off pants are really such a fashion faux-pas after all.

Can you spot the Kilimanjaro beers?
There you go: hiking poles AND zip-off pants
all at once!

If you've read Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, of course you'll already know all the answers.

If you haven't yet bought your copy, why don't you enter the Goodreads giveaway ending TOMORROW, June 22. Maybe you'll be the lucky recipient of one of the 5 signed copies I'm giving away for FREE (US and Canada only).

Good luck, and happy reading!
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An American Rite of Passage: The College Campus Tour

June 16, 2014

We have a 17-year old in the house.

Who, by the grace of God, will be OUT the house around this time next year. 

A few weeks ago, in order to lay the groundwork for this event, I spent an entire morning looking at university websites, trawling through an ocean of information about admissions guidelines, college majors, deadlines, and financial aid. While I was gathering all this data, I thought it wise to start collecting it in a nifty spreadsheet, and so a new project was born. 

Then I was thinking: Isn't that something my 17-year old should be doing? The one who'll actually get to GO to university? Maybe herein lies the fatal flaw. Maybe it should be ME who gets to go there instead, considering I'm putting in all the work, and considering that I'm way more excited about it than he is. Maybe all this education is wasted on the young, who really have no clue what it is they should be studying, and who can't be bothered to take a long enough break from their all-important games on their iPhones to invest in their own college search.

So I did what all mothers with a Facebook account do: I posted this very question - who should do the university application work - for all the world to see, and waited for some advice.

In came in plentiful abundance. 

Some maintained that the kids should do the work ("
Made my boys fill out their own applications"), but those were a minority. The large majority expressed what I mostly feel as well, that you have to do the work you want done, or it simply won't be done. ("Filled in all the applications and sent the necessary certified paperwork! I even chose the degrees that they are doing!" was one such piece of advice.) 

If I were an economist or Malcolm Gladwell, I'd now do a study and monitor these families over the next ten years, to see which kids fared better - those whose mothers left it to them to do the work versus those whose mothers spent late nights pouring over online applications and endless pages of class descriptions. Oh, the luxury of hindsight!

In the meantime, I'm choosing the path of least resistance, which is me doing the work and my son tagging along.

That's how you could recently find me on a campus tour (organized by me!), glued to the side of our guide and peppering her with the questions I knew my son wouldn't ask. 

It was a pretty day and a beautiful campus. Leafy trees, gorgeous brick buildings, winding paths, a bell tower, a library to die for (with a Starbucks inside it; a STARBUCKS, people!), the whole place oozing tradition and privilege.

If I had to pick a place I would have to live out the rest of my
days, I'd pick an American college campus. You can't go wrong.

Chairs awaiting the graduation ceremony - black gowns, pomp
and circumstance, hats in the air, the works!

This one's easy, but can you correctly place the other ones?

All the while, I was taking mental notes (and also furtive real ones on my phone) of the tour group around us. I am a writer, after all, and observing people is my main vocation. 

There was Pretty Girl in tight and very short shorts with super-long eyelashes and bright lipstick, chewing gum and acting bored. I nicknamed her Veruca Salt (as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). There was a boy in an Alabama football shirt with unkempt hair who looked like he came directly from football practice, and all his questions were about sports. My guess is he'll end up going to the University of Alabama and not this fine institution we were visiting. Then there was the obligatory mother every such group from the beginning of mankind has featured, asking about the size of the bathrooms in the dorms. That was her only question. And then there was Hippie Girl with her arms crossed, awkwardly stepping from one foot to the other, accompanied by what looked like her great-grandfather. All in all, I felt, had they picked students based on presentability and interest alone right then and there, my son would have had a pretty good chance of getting in.

The College Campus Tour may be an American rite of passage, but the way I see it it's one giant boondoggle. A boondoggle for the parents, mind you, considering that at least this family's teenage boy can't be bothered to get excited about going on one. 

Which is fine by me. He can stay home for all I care, while I go off touring American cities with suitable restaurants and nightlife - excuse me, universities. 

Who wants to come along?
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