Top Ten (Small) Joys of Expat Life

May 18, 2015

As frustrating as it can be to move households across continents, to navigate the incomprehensible currents of the Department of Home Affairs to obtain your visa, or to find out that "just now" means "perhaps in three weeks" at best, there are also many happy sides to expat life, if you only choose to open your eyes to them.

And I don't mean the obvious biggies. As a typical expat of the corporate world, you might have negotiated a generous package of expat perks - a gas guzzling car you neither had to pay for nor have to fill up with gas on your own dollar, a beautiful house your company is paying the rent for, domestic help if you're lucky enough to live in a part of the world where it's affordable, a tax accountant, an elite school for your kids.

What I mean are the small and often overlooked things any expat can enjoy, no matter which circumstance might have landed him abroad. Over the course of writing this blog, I came to think of them as my "Expat Joys" and started tagging certain blog posts with that label. But in hindsight I feel that they weren't particularly unique to South Africa. Each expat, I think, should have a similar list.

This picture and accompanying blogpost about starting my day in South Africa prompted the creation
of the Expat Joys series. It may strike you as bizarre, but few things make me pine for South Africa
 as much as this picture does.

So here, for the first time, I've put my Expat Joys all together in one list to read at your leisure. Maybe in bits and pieces to savor occasionally with your morning tea, or to pull out on the darkest days when needed most. Or to binge-read them all at once for one giant expat love fest!

  1. The Awesome People
    No doubt it's the people in a country who make or break your expat success story, and South Africans, as I've written in many places on this blog, are a pretty awesome bunch. But I'd wager that no matter where you go, the people of that country are what give it its special charm. You might have to define charm in very different ways to make it be true, but I promise you that finding delight in your hosts is the best ticket to a joyful expat life.

  2. The Head Massage
    In which I prove that enjoying expat life is a matter of perspective. That instead of bemoaning all you've lost, you're much better off looking at all you've gained. And the head massage is a HUGE gain, trust me. Except what's a head massage to me in South Africa might be shopping at Amazon.com to you in the USA. The trick is finding as many "head massages" as possible.

  3. The Beautiful Artwork
    An ode to the beautiful pieces of art you get to amass during most any expat assignment. They will always have special meaning to you ("remember when we haggled over that statue from the street vendor while our car was being towed?"), and they will move on with you to the next assignment no matter where, serving as reminders of the stations of your life even as they reside in new zip codes every few years.

  4. The Gas Station Attendant
    Forgive me, I realize that title sounds a bit, well, saucy. No, I'm not suggesting an inappropriate affair with your gas station attendant (although, who knows, maybe that has actually been someone's expat joy before). I'm talking about the rather mundane joy - instead of getting out of your car and manhandling that unwieldy hose - of just sitting there and smiling and having the whole nasty business of filling the tank done for you. Granted, this might not be true in every country. I personally know that in Germany, for instance, you get the opposite effect, the one at the supermarket checkout where you break out in cold sweats because you can't pack your own bags fast enough to escape the cashier's (and other customers') withering stares... The lesson there is: When in Germany, don't look for any expat joys at the hands of checkout clerks, or any clerks for that matter. They do have good sausage though... and the bread will make up for any perceived and real expat slights, I promise you!

  5. The Netball Perspective
    The title of the original post is the much more mundane "Variety and Life Skills" but I changed it here to go with a certain pattern for titles stolen from Robert Ludlum. What I mean with it is the fact that you may be forced to learn a new skill as an expat (here, I give you netball as exhibit 1), and that you may be annoyed at first that you can't pursue your OLD skill you were much more skillful at, but that in time you will come to appreciate the wisdom of learning new stuff and adapting quickly. Turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective, which kind of takes us right back to the head massage.

  6. The Corner Shop
    When I was a child, my mother would sometimes send me to the corner shop about 10 minutes from our house to buy a last-minute ingredient for her. All I had to do was cross the street, make my way through a nursery full of adventures (like litters of newborn kittens I could spend hours with), skip down a few stairs, and voila, there was the shop of Herr and Frau Schaal. I always came home with the cola-flavored gummies from the clear plastic bin at the cash register, purchased at 5 Pfennig a piece with the change my mom let me keep. (Actually, it was mostly my dad who sent me and the change was from purchasing his cigarettes for him.) In Germany, this kind of shop was called a "Tante-Emma-Laden" or "Aunt Emma's Shop." Of course I never really appreciated the existence of that shop, in fact looked down my nose a little bit as it was incredibly old-fashioned, including the proprietress with her wizened old face. But now that I've lived in the United States half my life where we have megastores it takes a week to push your cart through and that possess absolutely zero charm, I've come to pine for the Aunt Emma's Shops of my youth. And wouldn't you know it, a lot of foreign countries have them. 15 minutes in and out, tops, and you can always go back because they're right next to your house. Heaven!

  7. The Prevailing Common Sense
    There is a place common sense prevails?, you will ask. Yes, there is. Particularly often in the countries we consider "less developed."  Where you actually get to use your head to make decisions, where you don't have to ask for permission for every little step you might take, but where you might be eaten by a lion if you do something stupid.

  8. The Sun God
    Year-round sunshine was my Number One expat joy in South Africa, bar none. I suppose not every country has that going for itself, but the weather definitely plays a huge role in your well-being as an expat. It also helps mitigate other expat factors that might not exactly make the "joy" list. Trust me, when your internet has been down for a week, and each time you call the provider you get disconnected after listening to horrible on-hold music for an hour after punching in your 10-digit phone number 15 times, it's so much easier NOT to pull out your hair when you can just go outside and work on your tan while dangling your feet in the pool. If your expat assignment is in Norway - or, you guessed it, Germany! - then strike this entire bullet.

  9. The Juicy Mango
    I came to love not just mangoes but also papaya, cape gooseberries, and avocados while in South Africa. There is something about their fruit. I think it has to do with everything pretty much being home grown, meaning it's always incredibly fresh when in season and then not available at all other times of the year. This makes the experience so much more intense. It's like getting out certain toys for your kids only once a year, and they devour them like they've never seen them before. Getting to know and savoring the fresh fruit and other delicacies of a certain country certainly ranks right up there in the expat joy department. Although I wouldn't go as far as calling the Durian we got acquainted with in Singapore a joy, expat or otherwise. If you've been to Singapore, you'll know what I mean. If you haven't, just imagine the stinkiest cheese ever and cross that with a little bit of a rotten egg smell, and bingo, you've got your Durian.

  10. The Unannounced Playdate
    This one has to do with people popping by your house unannounced, bringing a brood of children with them to raid your fridge and run around the yard screeching, and yet somehow I've managed to construct this into an expat joy, and one of my favorite ones at that - read and see for yourself.

I'd love to hear from you! What are your biggest joys of expat life?
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The Embarrassing Expat Mother

May 10, 2015

I am a mother. And an expat.

I'm also a wife, and a writer, I like to dabble in art, I'm a bookworm, and lately I've obsessively worked on my forehand in tennis, but those two - mother and expat - seem to define me more than anything else.

However, I'm not just an expat and a mother. I'm an Expat Mother. Combining the two doesn't just add up like one plus one, it creates a whole new dimension of motherhood. Motherhood on steroids, motherhood cubed, the nth degree of motherhood.

Why?

Well, here's my theory:

You call yourself an expat if you go live abroad, temporarily or, in some cases, your entire life. You chose to go there, were sent there, or fled from some horror in your homeland. In almost all cases, you made some conscious decision to go.

If you're a kid, you're not an expat. You didn't choose to go there, because there was no choice. Most likely your parents took you along, or you emerged into the world while already there. What you are most commonly called in today's language is a Third Culture Kid or TCK.

You and your child inhibit two different worlds: the World of Expat-dom, and TCK World. And they are not really the same. As an expat mother, you have to mother a child of a slightly different species. There is an identity gap between the two of you. As can be expected, this has its challenges.

One such challenge is embarrassment.

I was inspired to sit down and write this column on Mother's Day, of all days, because - as I was sitting in bed eating from the glorious breakfast tray my daughters, bless their hearts, had planted on my lap, discreetly leaving the room again knowing that I would love being left alone with my tea and the Sunday New York Times - I came across the always-inspiring Pamela Druckerman and her Mother's Day message: "On Mother's Day, Embrace Embarrassment." In it, she wrote about the myriad ways immigrant parents embarrass their kids. This really spoke to me. Of course I tend to think of myself as a totally cool mother, as opposed to MY mother who really WAS embarrassing. I speak English with almost no accent, I "get" things like The Daily Show, I understand the sports scene. But I know that I'm deluding myself.

Take that sports scene, for instance. I was at my first netball game in South Africa. Impatience was playing, actually playing pretty well, considering she'd never played netball before in her life. But I was going crazy because no one was going for the rebound after shooting at the basket. "Get the rebound!!!," naturally, was what I yelled from the bleachers for an entire half. Well - it turns out it's not called a rebound. It's also apparently not something you can "get," willy-nilly, because there is some kind of zone around the basket, or perhaps the goal-shooter, into which you can't extend your arms, as Impatience informed me later in hushed tones so that I would abstain from any further "encouragement" from the sidelines. South African mothers do not seem to provide such encouragement at all, I came to learn.

Jabulani, Zax, Impatience, and Sunshine, often the victims of extreme embarrassment at the hands of their mother, simply by virtue of occasionally (and totally involuntarily) starring on this very blog.

On the whole, however, our girls haven't been nearly as damaged by parental embarrassment as the boys. I was  tempted to walk right into the teacher's lounge at Dainfern College one day, brimming with indignation, to tell Jabulani's geography teacher that no, contrary to her firm belief, the U.S. did NOT have 52 states, never had, and probably never would. And, while we were at it, that Zero Degrees North was just as good an answer on the exam as Zero Degrees South, if she really insisted on splitting that particular hair. Jabulani blanched at the prospect. He begged me to abstain. It would be SO embarrassing if I talked to the teacher like that, which is apparently something South African mothers don't do.

It was also Jabulani who found it embarrassing when, upon receiving the supply list before cricket season, I was the only mother who had no idea what a ballbox was. Who then loudly inquired at the sporting goods store as to where she might find one, and who then proceeded to tell everyone for months afterwards, hooting with laughter, how funny it was that it turned out to be an athletic cup - which yes, if you think about it, is indeed a box containing balls (and if she should read anything into the fact that South African "ballboxes" were about twice the size of their American cousins). Hahaha!

But it is our oldest son, Zax, who is now 18, who has suffered the most from parental embarrassment. Or, as I like to say, whose embarrassment radar was so sensitive from, oh, age 11 until about 17, that I didn't even have to DO anything to cause embarrassment. I merely had to exist. I will never forget the quandary he was in when he was invited to his first bar-mitzvah, back when we lived in Kansas. He wanted to go and asked me for a ride. I took him, of course. When we arrived at the parking lot, he stared at the large, forbidding building in horror and sat in the car, unmoving. He'd never been to a synagogue (and not often in a church either, come to think of it), and didn't know the protocol. Did I know where he was supposed to go, he asked. I did not, but offered to come inside with him. That caused even higher degrees of horror. To be seen with his mother by his side, walking into a group of teenagers, was too much to bear. It caused beads of cold sweat to appear on his brow. Potentially opening the wrong door and having a congregation of strangers turn their heads in unison to stare at him might be a risk he'd have to take if he didn't want to be seen with me, as well as the risk of handing over his present that I, his German mother (and not an expert on bar-mitzvahs by any means) had picked out and then realizing, from the recipient's expression, that it was totally inappropriate. After long agonizing minutes in that parking lot he chose to leave me behind. Clearly, whatever dangers lurked in that building it was I, his mother, who was the biggest embarrassment. To this day I don't know if he ever attended the bar-mitzvah or just ended up circling the building waiting for my return.

Perhaps it doesn't matter whether you're an expat or not. Perhaps all mothers are embarrassing to their children at some point in time, even if they don't jump up and down and yell "Jaaa, tahdshdown" when their son slides across home plate to score a run. Might as well go all out and do what you want to do as a mother, damn the consequences.

Embrace the embarrassment!

And Happy Mother's Day to you all!

Which embarrassing mom moments have you lived through? Which faux pas have you commited?
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Load-Shitting, Excuse me, Shedding

May 4, 2015

Load-shedding.

It's the word on every South African's lips these days.

(For my non-South African readers: no, this has nothing to do with going to the toilet and getting rid of THAT load, as you might be inclined to deduce from the title of this post or the word itself or even from the fact that I've been known to cultivate an obsession with potty topics. Rather, load-shedding describes the event when Eskom, the beloved (and on this very blog much written-about) public utility turns off the power for a few (and often a lot of) hours every day because there simply isn't enough for everyone.)

Load-shedding isn't really anything new. It's a problem that has haunted South Africa for years but has recently returned with full fervor. The two big coal plants that have been under construction for eons, Medupi and Kusile, are something like 3 years behind schedule, bedeviled by a scarcity in skilled labor, bad project management, a raging legal battle between the various contractors, and of course a scourge of endless and often violent strikes - the one skill South Africa's labor force has honed to perfection. I have a husband who could tell you a thing or two about all that. For a more in-depth explanation about load-shedding you might like to read this article with the apt headline "shedding a light on load shedding", published by a rather unlikely expert on load-shedding and, incidentally, my favorite wine label Vrede en Lust.

But fortunately, no one can joke about such a kak situation as well as the South African people, so here I give you the - ahem - lighter side of load-shedding (I stole this phrase from the site Traveller24).

What did South Africa use before candles?
Electricity.

New work of South African historical fiction: Fifty Sheds of Dark
Eskom has added stage 4 load shedding. For those of you who are unsure, it means start collecting firewood. #eishkom

By the way, the #eishkom tag is a great way to find and share good load-shedding jokes on Twitter. Incidentally, if you Google load-shedding, quite a few jokes about Pakistan surface. Well done South Africa, to find yourself in such good company!


In a drive to save on electricity consumption, the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off till further notice. Kindly postpone all hopes and dreams. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Sincerely,
Eskom
Load shedding stage 5: Eskom switching off the sun and the moon. #eishkom

Eskom has good news and bad news, bad news is the shit is going to hit the fan!…Good news is the fan is off due to #loadshedding.

From the site www.eskomsucks.wordpress.com, I gleaned this one:

Baby Bear : Who ate my porridge?
Daddy Bear: Who ate my porridge?
Mommy Bear: I HAVEN’T MADE THE F**KING PORRIDGE! THE F**KING POWER HAS BEEN CUT!!

Do you have more? Please share!

Many thanks to Lara McGinty Kinfoil, Sue Harwood, and the SA People Facebook page for their input.



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Promo: FREE Shipping from U.S. With Stackry

April 29, 2015

You've just moved to South Africa on an expat assignment. You love your new life, the weather, going on safari. Everything would be absolutely perfect except for one small wrinkle: you miss shopping at your favorite USA stores, at USA prices!

You can't make sense of South African dress sizes and miss buying your clothes at Macy's and Nordstrom, no pants but GAP jeans with elastic waistband fit your kids, and you can't even begin to express just HOW MUCH you miss Amazon.com.

So what if I told you that you can have your cake and eat it too? That you get to live in this beautiful country AND shop at all the places you're used to?

Enter Stackry, the international parcel forwarding experts with the nifty slogan "USA shopping, global shipping – great value!" Full disclosure: This post is sponsored by Stackry. And not only that, they are so confident that you'll love their service that they are giving three readers of Joburg Expat this special offer:
Stackry special offer - $80 in FREE shipping for the first 3 people who sign up and ship with Stackry international package forwarding service. In return, those people will be asked for a written report on the entire experience from ease of use registering with Stackry all the way through delivery of their package.*
There is no cost to register with Stackry, no monthly fees. You get to shop at the regular U.S. dollar prices you are used to. Also, because their warehouse is located in New Hampshire, you will pay no sales tax on any of the items ordered  from U.S. stores. There are many different shipping options - Global Mail Priority, USPS Priority Mail, FedEx Economy & Fedex International Priority, DHL Worldwide Express and USPS Express - so customers have a variety of timeframes and costs to choose from. A really cool feature is Stackry's consolidation service, so that if you order items from multiple online stores, they can be consolidated into one box at their warehouse saving you up to 80% on shipping costs.


This is how it works:
  1. Sign up for your Stackry Account. You will receive your own personalized U.S. address at the Stackry warehouse in sales tax-free New Hampshire.
  2. Start Shopping – go to your favorite online stores, pick the items you want to buy, and at check out, use your Stackry address for shipping your items. If you still have a U.S. credit card, you won't need to pay any foreign exchange fees. If you don't, and the retailer will not take an international credit card, Stackry can buy your item (s) for you with their personal shopping service.
  3. When your package(s) arrive at Stackry’s warehouse, you will receive an email verification that they have arrived.  You have 45 days to notify Stackry how you want them shipped to your home address.
  4. Manage your packages in the Stackry app:
    • View your packages on your personal dashboard
    • Ship your package(s) immediately or store them in your locker for up to 45 days free of charge
    • Request repackaging to save on dimensional weight 
    • Request to have your package consolidated with other packages in your locker to get the best value on shipping
  5. Choose your shipping method and receive your package (s) at your international address.

Sign up fast so you don't miss this great offer! Leave a comment below - we will be selecting the first 3 readers to respond and sign up with Stackry for the $80 free shipping promo.

Amazon, Macy's, Nordstrom, eBay, Gap, Levi's, Nike... they're now right at your fingertips, even one continent removed.

Shop as if you were in the USA, live life in South Africa!


* These written reports will be used to produce another blog post here on Joburg Expat. Stackry will also have rights to use these comments on their website or a blog post of their own. If you have a positive experience, Stackry may ask you to do a review on it as well. Basically, in return for getting $80 in free shipping, you agree to give detailed feedback on your entire experience which Stackry will use to improve and promoste their services.
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Save the Rhino... By Shopping?

April 27, 2015

Before I say anything, will you just take a minute and look at these beautiful creatures* roaming this Earth since time immemorial:















What a privilege for me and my family to have been allowed such close-up views of these magnificent beasts! But how much longer, do you think, will they roam the Earth, if rhino poaching in South Africa alone continues at a clip of one rhino killed every eight hours?

reprinted from www.savetherhino.org, a website you should bookmark. 

It is such a shame. And perhaps only shame, or rather shaming, of the people doing the buying of rhino horn which in turn promotes the senseless killing of rhinos can turn back the dial. Which means we have to share this message with as wide an audience as possible. Please share!

There are some other things we can do as well. Many thanks to Alex Lowe for providing the following list.

If you'd like to help, you can donate to:
the African Wildlife Foundation (based in the US),
the International Rhino Foundation (also based in the US),
Save the Rhino (based in the UK),

You can also buy rhino stationery, part of the funds from which go to Save the Rhino.

If you have lots of time and little money, you can volunteer at a rhino organization. Even if you're not in an area with rhinos, there are plenty of things you can do (just email one or more of the above organizations and ask if they have anything you can help with, being up front about how much time you'd like to spend).

If you're as big a user of Amazon as I am, you can switch to using Amazon Smile and add a rhino charity as your charity of choice. This will donate a small portion of your Amazon purchases to the charity of your choice as long as you shop through Amazon Smile. That's right, you can go shopping and save the rhinos! (There are even extensions for several browsers to redirect all of your Amazon visits to Smile.)

You can purchase high-resolution images of any of the above pictures from me and I will donate the proceeds to Save the Rhinos. Leave a comment or use the "contact" tab above to get in touch.

Lastly, you can LIKE these Facebook pages, which costs you absolutely nothing: Rangers for RhinosPhotographers for Rhinos, and Save the Rhino International.

William, the first (and best) guide we've ever had, at Yellow Wood Game Lodge in the Waterberg,
sharing his passion for (and lack of fear of?) rhinos with us during our first ever game drive.
Our girls may consider themselves very privileged to have this picture of them together with
a rhino in the wild. Who knows how many people will get that opportunity in the years to come?


* As already mentioned, you may purchase high-resolution versions of any of the displayed rhino images from me, and I will donate the proceeds to Save the Rhinos. For further reading on rhinos as well as great white sharks, another endangered species found in Africa, see Shark Fin Soup and Rhino Horn.


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Should I Bribe South African Cops?

April 20, 2015

Not much can be so anxiety-inducing as being stopped by the police in a foreign country. Especially in a country such as South Africa, where there is no shortage of horror stories about crime and corruption. I know I may have fueled that fire with my many blog posts about traffic stops, though I tend to think that most of mine are humorous rather than frightening.

The question I get often is this: Should I bribe the cops when they stop me? If not, what SHOULD I do?

If you've read my previous posts on the topic, you will know that I NEVER PAID A BRIBE while in South Africa, and this worked out just fine for me. Granted, I was harboring the secret hope that I might get arrested and see the inside of a South African jail cell so that I could blog about it - this never happened - and perhaps for this reason I acted more boldly than I might have otherwise. But even if the last thing any sane person wishes for is to be arrested, it is still a good idea not to pay bribes. At the least, I saved a bunch of money by not bribing, I lived to tell the tale, and I like to think that I did my small part to combat corruption.

So what should you do when stopped by the police? Here is my advice*:

  1. Know your rights. You are required to show your driver's license (your foreign one is just fine, more on that here), but not much else. Here are some great resources listing your rights: What Are My Rights When Stopped By A Traffic Officer by the AA, and Justice Project South Africa (scroll down a bit for a list of your rights during roadblocks). Both of these websites are good resources for motorists.
  2. To show that you know your rights, it helps to wave around a copy of the South African Road Traffic Act. Most foreigners who get stopped in road blocks are accused of not having the proper license or traffic register number or of even more outlandish things, like not carrying a letter of permission from their spouse (yes, I am not kidding you!), and the best way to show you're not intimidated by any of this is to come prepared. Click here to see which document you should print and carry in your car with you.
  3. Ask for the officer's appointment card. When stopped by a police officer in South Africa, you can ask to see the officer's appointment card (certificate of appointment). This is basically the police officer's ID. They are required by law to produce it on demand in terms of Section 334(2)(a) of the Criminal Procedure Act. If a police officer fails to show you his appointment card, you do not have to show him your license. Furthermore, you can ask to speak to his supervisor or his commander.
  4. Don't get into an argument.  If the officer does not show you the appointment card, take note of it but don't make a fuss. Without making it obvious, try to take a picture or note the license plate of the police officer's vehicle.
  5. Stay cheerful and pretend you have all the time in the world. The worst thing you can do is show that you're in a rush. That's like an invitation to demand a bribe. Instead, just wait things out, and I promise you that sooner or later you will be released, either after having been handed a ticket or without any further consequence. Very rarely do you actually receive a ticket.

Please, whatever you do, don't be tempted to pay a bribe. This will only perpetuate the problem. Some police officers will, quite pathetically, ask for a bribe in circumspect ways, by asking you what you've brought them or if you have any coffee or something to eat. I find this quite comical and don't think it would be wrong to offer them some candy or gum, should you have some in the car.

But do not part with your money.

And now, for the fun part, you can rewind the clock and follow my traffic stop odyssey here:

More on Traffic: When You Get Pulled Over
This is ALSO Africa
Harassment by South African cops
Plan B for When the Cops Stop me Again
My Shining Moment
Narrowly Escaping Jail
I Don't Even Have to Be in Joburg for Another Traffic Cop Story
Welcome Home. And Can I See Your Driver's License?

*Many thanks to Peter Elsmore for kindly sending me extensive information about the Justice Project South Africa and lending his advice regarding traffic stops and the rights of motorists.
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Top Five Adventures in Southern Africa

April 13, 2015

Frankly, I feel like our 3-year stint in South Africa was one giant nonstop adventure. I mean, you could already get a nice jolt of adrenaline by simply driving from Joburg to Hartebeespoort Dam and passing the first "hijacking hotspot" warning sign. Just leaving your house felt adventurous, because you ran the risk of being dragged off to jail by yet another overeager traffic cop on any given day. On some days, just looking out the window could make your hair stand on end if you happened to witness one of those Highveldt electrical storms Johannesburg is so famous for.

But I suppose you are reading this because you're looking for another type of adventure. They kind of adventure you can sign up for or book a trip to. And indeed, inspired by the Top Five series of posts by 2Summers as well as Johnny Africa's Top Moments Traveling through Africa, I have decided to put together my own Top Five collection. "Adventure" will be my first installment.

  1. Cage Diving with great white sharks: The best adventures are those you can tell a lot of stories about afterwards, not necessarily the ones that are the most fun while you're immersed in them. Quite literally immersed, in this case. Letting ourselves be submerged in a puny cage off the side of a boat bobbing in the close-to-freezing Atlantic in Gansbaai not far from Cape Town, the stink of lures made from dead fish heads wafting in and out of our nostrils every time we came up for a gasp of air, can't really be labeled "fun" by any stretch of the imagination. Leading up to the event, I couldn't make up my mind whether I was more scared of the gigantic sharks that would be swimming at me head-on and crash full force into the bars of the cage I was trapped in, or rather of the arctic temperature of the ocean. The verdict very clearly came down on the side of the ocean, but perhaps that's just me. Nothing scares me more than being cold. And yet I'd do it again and can highly recommend it. Anyone can do it, no scuba certification necessary. And while you're there, you might also book a diving session among sharks in Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town (this one is only for certified scuba divers). My husband and son loved that part of our trip the most. Read more about cage diving here, and about the aquarium dive here.

    Going shark diving in Gansbaai

  2. Bungy jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge: This adventure became even more adventurous in hindsight when I happened to watch the video of the Australian woman whose bungy cord ripped when she jumped off the bridge spanning the Zambesi at Victoria Falls and fell into the crocodile-infested waters below, feet tied together and trailing a dangling rope. It was bad enough watching my son hurl himself into the void from a distance. I still can't watch the video that was made from his experience without my knees buckling, it looks so scary. Okay, so add "heights" to cold temperatures in the "stuff she's afraid of" column. Perhaps I picked my Top Five purely on what I'm most afraid of. Overcoming your fears definitely makes for an adventure. By the way, should you live in Joburg without an opportunity to travel to the Bloukrans Bridge (which is labeled the world's highest official bridge bungy jump), you can probably get almost as much of a thrill by jumping off the cooling towers in Soweto. But please forget I mentioned the latter. We're strictly sticking to five things here. Read more about the Bloukrans jump (and watch the video!) here.

    Blourkrans Bridge on SA's Garden Route

  3. Dune buggy riding in Swakopmund, Namibia: If you want adventure, you'll simply have to add all of Namibia to your travel list. It brims with adventure and the rugged landscapes to go with it. Riding around the dunes near Swakopmund scores at the very top of our Africa adventure list, if you ask the boys in our family. They had to be dragged off those fourwheelers when our time was up, they loved it so much, roaring up impossibly steep slopes, only to take the crest so fast they flew through the air and then plunged down the next slope. It's a great outing for the whole family. As far as I could tell there was no minimum age, and even our 9-year old quite happily cranked the engine on her smaller-sized vehicle. While you're there, you should also go sledding off the dunes, using thin greased wooden boards and an individual lift service provided by your guides. Again, I hear you can sled or perhaps even ski down the mine dumps in Soweto as well, should your budget not allow for a trip to Namibia.



  4. Hot air ballooning in the Magaliesberg: See how I keep adding great heights to my adventure itinerary? It might not be so adventurous for you if, unlike me, you can remain totally calm looking down on the world below. It's utterly quiet up there, the views are spectacular, both onto the mountains and the other balloons around you, and you will spot plenty of antelopes and perhaps even some rhinos from above. Read more about hot air ballooning near Joburg here.
    See the itty bitty antelopes below?

  5. Canoeing down the Orange River: This is another adventure that takes you all the way to Namibia. Or, to be precise, right up to the border. The Orange River separates the two countries along a long stretch, and paddling through its winding serpentines (and a few rapids) was absolutely our number one family adventure while living in South Africa. Impatience maintains that it was the worst adventure ever, seeing as she fell into the river in one of the rapids (due to, she claims, her brother's inexpert steering), but that just proves my point. We did our trip with Felix Unite, and you can pick anything from just one day to an entire week, paddling during the day and camping on the banks at night, with your guide cooking for you and setting up the toilet behind a crest at every camp.

    Canoeing on the Orange River

There we go, your Top Five adventures in Southern Africa as recommended by Joburg Expat in a neat (though not-so-short) list. Except... If I were to look at all of Africa, the number one adventure, without doubt, would have to be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It was enough of an adventure for me that I wrote an entire book about it.
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Stupid Questions You've Been Asked About Your Home Country

April 9, 2015

If you've ever been an exchange student or an expat, this will be familiar turf for you. We've all gotten them, the wide-eyed questions from those who've vaguely heard about our country but don't really know much about it. 

You kind of want to give them credit for asking, but you also kind of want to punch them in the face for knowing so very little. But most often you're so baffled with the kind of question you get, you just patiently explain. That makes you a good citizen and a great ambassador for your country, but years later you sort of wish you could have thought of a cleverer answer.


Well, I've had years - decades - to think about some of these answers, so I thought I'd put together a list for you.

Stupid Questions You've Been Asked About Your Home Country...and the answers you should have given

  1. Q: Did you ride here on the bus? – from Sweden, in Mississippi, 1983. 
    A: No, I actually didn't ride the bus. Where I live, there are no buses, and no cars either. I had to ride here on a reindeer.

  2. Q: Are you from East or West Germany? – from Germany, in Mississippi, 1983. 
    A: East, of course! I went to a construction site and stole this crane and strung a long rope from it made from my own hair I had cut off and saved every birthday from the age of 5, and in the darkest of night swung back and forth from it a couple of times until I had enough height to catapult myself over that pesky wall. Oh, and I had to kill a border guard while I was at it. And you? Virginia or West Virginia?

  3. Q: You are from Switzerland? So you speak Swedish?  - from Switzerland, in the United States.
    A: Jawohl! And, contrary to common knowledge, we also all go by the name of Ingrid, not Heidi.

  4. Q: You’re from America? Do you know Dolly Parton? – from the U.S.A., in South Africa, early 1990s 
    A: No, but back home Michael Jackson usually does my laundry. (Incidentally, this is not such a stupid question; I wish someone would ask me now, because I could honestly say, “She lives right across the street from me!”)

  5. Q: You speak English in Germany, right? Like in the movies, just with an accent? 
    A: Yes, as soon as we learn how to talk, we speak English with a German accent. This is due to the fact that after World War II, the only movies they would show in Germany were American movies with Nazis in them, so our parents acquired that accent. No one really knows where that strange accent originally came from. There must have been an ancient tribe called “Germans” or something.

  6. Q: Is a vegemite sandwich, uhmm, a blow job? – from Australia, in Canada, 1980s
    A: No, a vegemite sandwich is a vegemite sandwich. It is much better than a blow job. Only Australians, of course, have the right taste buds for vegemite sandwiches. Most other people think they taste like, uhm... blow jobs.

  7. Q: You are from Germany? I love German Nazis! – from Germany, in South Africa, circa 1980. 
    A: [no words]

  8. Q: In your country, do y'all, like, go out on dates? – in Mississippi 1984. 
    A: No, we don't go out on dates. That only happens in American high school movies. We also don't have sex. We are a species that doesn't procreate at all. For entertainment, girls and boys in our country quiz each other about the capitals of the 50 U.S. states and the Founding Fathers. That is why we know so much more about your country than you do.

  9. Q: Why aren't you black? – from South Africa, Nashville, current times 
    A: What? I’m not black anymore?? Nooooo! I HATE this melting pot of yours…

  10. Q: You’re from South Africa? Which COUNTRY in South Africa? 
    A: Brazil.

  11. Q: What time does the Black Forest close? - from Germany, Boston, 1980s.
    A: The Black Forest closes precisely at 6:00 pm. There are Cuckoo Clocks mounted on poles every 100 meters throughout the entire forest, and at 15 minutes before closing, they all begin to chime so that you can make your exit. If you don’t exit before 6:00 pm, you have to appear the next day at precisely 12:00 pm to receive your punishment, which consists of having to write down 3 pages of “Punctuality is the biggest virtue.”

  12. Q: Can you drink tap water in Germany? – from Germany, in Mexico.
  13. A: No, you really shouldn’t drink the tap water in Germany. If you do, you can catch a thing called Montezuma’s Revenge, which is a really nasty stomach bug that was brought to Europe by the early explorers circumnavigating the globe. Bottled water is safe, though. We source all our bottled water from Latin America and India.


  14. Q: You don’t like crab cakes? Are you sure? ALL Americans like crab cakes! 
  15. A:No, I really don’t like crab cakes. I only eat at McDonald’s. Every single day. Like all Americans.

Got any more? Please do share! 
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Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Kilimanjaro Diaries has been Translated!

April 6, 2015

It was long in coming - one year, to the day - but now it is done: Kilimanjaro Diaries has been translated into German and is now available in the Kindle store.


Click on image to order from Amazon.de

If you're one of my many German blog readers (Germany just got edged out by Ukraine and is now in the #5 spot for all-time pageviews with South Africa, the United States, and the UK occupying the top three spots), you can now download Kilimandscharo-Tagebuch: Chlorwasser, kein WC, eiskalte Nächte - kurzum, ein Traumurlaub! directly to your Kindle or Kindle app from Amazon.de. Or, for that matter, from Amazon.com or any of the other Amazon stores, should you not actually reside in Germany.

Whew! I'm glad that's done and dusted. Time will tell if it was worth all the effort. I did learn a lot about the German language in the process. That, for instance, just because a comma might be in a certain place in an English sentence, it has no bearing on whether or when it will appear in a German one. Although it is extremely likely it will appear often. Just as likely as it is for your book to be one and a half times longer than the original, once you add all those super long words Germans insist on throwing about. Then again I'm very pleased to have actually shortened that lengthy subtitle of mine in the German edition.

What I'm also pleased about is the fact that this project made the English version better as well. How so, you might ask? Well - one of my German proofreaders, being a good German, was very nitpicky. Why did I say in one place that it was cold, and then two paragraphs later it was warm? (Answer: the sun had warmed up the day, duh!) Why did I have to list so many advantages and disadvantages of each Kili climbing route so as to leave the reader totally befuddled as to which one to take, instead of taking a clear stand? Why did I always have to come back with "...on the other hand one could say that..." type phrasings?

Those were all good questions. Using a precise language, I learned, makes you realize when you haven't been very precise. Often times I could get away with it in English when it seemed glaringly inconsistent in German. Of course, being a perfectionist, this meant I just had to go back and fix the English version as well. At the time, I thoroughly cursed this process. Having both a Kindle and a Paperback file for my originals (in very different formats), I had to not just rewrite it into one file but also copy it into the other one for every single change. And there were many.

Keeping track of my dear friend Hans Meyer - he of "first-to-summit" fame - also proved to be a chore. He wrote his account of the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in both German and English (or had it translated, I'm not sure which, but I suspect, with all the talents he possessed, and being a fluent English speaker due to all his travels, that he himself wrote both versions), and getting the appropriate quotes in the correct language meant I had to go back and find them instead of translating them myself. The problem: His German original looks like this:




Yeah, right? Makes the search box a tad hard to use. As a result, I was forever searching through that document so helpfully scanned by some caring soul at the University of California. It was a royal pain, but also resulted in some unexpected strokes of luck. I came across a few anecdotes I had overlooked in the English version (the very easy to read version on my very own Kindle, no less!) and simply had to include, like what happened to the rocks Hans Meyer brought back from the summit, or what nickname his porters had bestowed on him.

The hardest part: I had to come to terms with taking out an entire chapter - the epilogue. The one where I share all my hard-earned words of wisdom in 20 life lessons from climbing a mountain. They came across as annoying and preachy in German, which made me realize they're probably annoying and preachy in English too. Let the book tell its tale and let the reader come to his or her own conclusions, was the advice, and so I took it, even though it kills you to delete something you've already written.

To the Germans among you: I hope you get to read my new (old) book, and I hope you might be a tad more forgiving than my proofreading team! Nevertheless, I would love to hear from you, even if it's just about a spare comma.
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Meet Our Woman in Johannesburg

March 30, 2015

"Meet Our Man in Tehran."

I was intrigued by the article behind this headline in the New York Times. It sounds a little "John le Carré" to me, suggesting intrigue, spies, and perhaps some exotic food.

It occurred to me right then that "Meet Our Woman in Johannesburg" doesn't sound all that different, and that this might be a headline I could use to introduce myself. (Well, except for the small part of not actually living in Johannesburg anymore, the alert readers among you will point out.)

Indeed, I saw a lot of parallels between the article in question and my own expat story (except, again, for the part that I am not actually employed by an internationally renowned news organization). For instance, take this passage:

"How, they ask, can one live in a country where angry mobs roam the streets denouncing Westerners, burning flags and shouting “Death to America”? Are you not afraid?

No. I am not.

Iran is more modern, livable and friendly than some portrayals would have you believe."

Except for the "Death to America" part, the same is true for Johannesburg. Haven't you been asked similar questions about your life there, or in South Africa in general (in fact, asked them yourself before moving there)? And have you not also struggled to describe why in fact it is not a crime-ridden cesspit of sin and doom at all, or that if it is, there are enough modern, livable, and friendly aspects to your life that they more than make up for it? That you are, in fact, not afraid at all?

When I first stood in Alexandra in late 2010 and took this picture, I was very afraid, I won't deny it.
But then I got to know some wonderful people and Alexandra never looked the same to me afterwards.

After having made your home in South Africa for just a few months, you probably find yourself bristling with outrage at the suggestion by outsiders that it is a place best avoided due to its problems, corruption and crime chief among them. And you are sure that everyone will see it your way, once they have seen for themselves. And yet you yourself, not having lived in Tehran, probably have the exact same fears about that place described above. And just hearing someone tell of how great a place Tehran is may not be enough to sway you to move there, should the opportunity arise. Most likely you've formed and are holding on to the same prejudices about life in Iran that most people have about South Africa.

You will, then, probably agree with this:
It's always that which we don't know that we're most afraid of. And, by extension, it's often that which we're most afraid of that we allow ourselves to hate. 
Which is why we have to strive to get to know "the other" - our neighbors, our political opponents, other countries, other places within our countries, and their people. It makes us less afraid, less prejudiced, and less hateful.

Start today. Get to know the people and places you don't know. Subscribing to someone's expat blog is a good first step, and it's absolutely free. Scroll down and look for "blogroll" in the right sidebar, and you'll find a sample of some blogs to get started!
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