Coyote Sightings, Ungainly Outhouses, and Other First World Problems

April 23, 2014

America, 2014

We now live in a posh upscale suburban neighborhood. A gated one. Though the gate mainly serves to keep adoring fans away from Carrie Underwood and her brethren on the Nashville celebrity circuit, not so much to keep out criminals. (Turns out those already live inside our gates, see here.)

Lately our posh upscale suburban neighborhood has erupted in collective outrage, expressed in long-winded, if not always grammatically correct, discourse on our neighborly social network called Nextdoor.

It all started with reported sightings of a coyote (or perhaps several coyotes, all looking the same, no one really knows). It began as a slow trickle but quickly developed into a stream: Coyote spotted on the corner of X and Y streets, keep your pets inside, was the typical message.

We took note. We kept our small pets inside.

But then someone felt we were not duly impressed with the repeated warnings. Do you know that where I used to live, a small child was mauled by a coyote? one woman wrote. A little dog was snatched RIGHT out of someone's arms by a coyote! another chimed in. More and more coyote sightings were posted, until it seemed like we must have hordes of them running wild on the golf course at night. Curiously, neither myself nor any of my friends have ever spotted one. But no matter, meetings must be held, so we were told, we must get rid of these beasts in our midst, something must be done, for God's sake!


Coyote in our neighborhood. This was taken several years ago in another place we lived, Overland Park, Kansas. But I hate to disappoint. The coyote is not real. After I frantically took like ten pictures of it before it moved away, I  stopped to wonder why it didn't, in fact, move away. It turned out it was a fake cutout coyote, placed there to scare off the  Canadian geese on the golf course, which of course are another whole First World Problem.

What followed then was very amusing to some, and highly offensive to others. A second faction emerged on Nextdoor, which seemed, oddly, to plead for the coyotes. Or, rather, make fun of those on the warpath against them. I say, instead of scrawny coyotes, we need to be scared of mountain lions, the real threat here. They've been known to be moving westward into our state lately, was the gist of one such post, at first glance sounding innocent enough, although the "westward" should have been a giveaway. I just saw a panther in my backyard! responded someone. I'm moving to Florida, said one guy (since debunked as a fake account), to leave you to fight the valiant fight against coyotes and communism. Moves were made to ban THAT member from our network.

All this, of course, infuriated the first faction, which was busy chatting about the merits of a new attack dog one woman was training to ward off the nightly intruders. While the second faction was worrying whether the vicious attack dog might not in fact pose a bigger risk to our children than the coyotes. I won't go into more detail, but it got outright ugly there with some name calling and airing of WAY too much personal information.

It came as a welcome reprieve when someone changed the topic with We need to talk about that ungainly outhouse someone put right by the side of a busy road in our prestigious community.

Africa, 2010

In Africa, a few years ago, we also lived in a posh upscale suburban neighborhood. Not just a gated one, but one with armed guards patrolling at night, and high voltage wires running atop the high walls encircling it. I don't remember any ungainly outhouses, though they must have existed, considering the fact that the gardeners who maintained the pristine landscaping were ferried in by the truckload each morning and taken back to their townships only late in the evening

We didn't have coyotes, but we had snakes. Occasionally, while waiting at the gate to apply your fingerprint, you'd see a picture, helpfully posted on the bulletin board, of a guard hauling away a python from someone's property. I never saw any snakes either, but a picture is better than hearsay, I suppose.

Manicured lawns, outhouses, dangerous wildlife - a scene quite similar to that above. But there was one big difference: The outrage. Or, rather, the lack thereof. The one thing you will not find often in Africa is outrage. The newly arrived Westerner may carry it in his baggage, but will soon learn to get rid of it, or go crazy. Or, as an expat just arrived in Johannesburg once confided to me: I am very Type A. I will leave this country as one cool lady or very medicated. I described this phenomenon in my earlier blog post Welcome to Type A Remedial School.

I remember the early days of settling into our new life in South Africa. I was dropping Sunshine off at school, and chatting to another mother. Our water was cut off last night, I complained, perhaps hoping she would have a remedy for this. Oh yes, she said, ours too. What's more, my kids left their faucets open, and this morning we woke up to our house being flooded. I guess the water must have come back on during the night. Our electricity got shorted and now we have no power either. It could be days before it gets fixed. And then, to my amazement, she shrugged. Welcome to Africa, she said with a smile.

This, of course, became our standard saying as well. It's as powerful as Hakuna Matata, which of course is a problem-free philosophy, if you'll remember. What perhaps helps you become so relaxed is that in Africa you are surrounded, just outside the gates of your posh suburban community, by hardship and poverty, by what seems like unbearable human suffering. Even the most self-centered person cannot gripe about a lost internet connection for too long when she's just driven through the nearby township for what was meant to be a shortcut but turned out to be a two-hour mission to ferry firewood to a woman's house, after she couldn't leave her by the side of the road under a staggering load of half a tree, with her small child strapped to her back.

First World Problems

I suppose you've deduced that I've sided with faction number two re the coyote debate. Not that I spend much time on the neighborhood social network, but we've shared some good glasses of wine with our friends making fun of the coyote scare. Particularly the tongue-in-cheek reference to "coyotes and communism" made me laugh. I love our pet as much as the next person loves theirs, but honestly, I'd also love to spot the occasional coyote after being spoiled by amazing wild animal sightings throughout our life in South Africa.

In our South African neighborhood, the coyotes would have been accepted with a shrug. Much like some of the petty theft going on was accepted with a shrug. They are hungry, after all, and they need to eat. Perhaps someone would have come up with a photo competition for best coyote picture, but I doubt we'd have had a meeting convened. For a leopard perhaps, but even then my bet is on the photo competition.

To me, the coyotes are a typical First World Problem, or at least the excessive outrage over them. Before the coyote outrage, our neighborhood had been overcome with theft outrage in a series of messages complaining about the spate of break-ins and stolen laptops. Now theft is an actual problem, I don't deny it. But it turned out in our case they were not technically "break-ins," as the police informed us in response to the outrage, because in all cases the car doors were left unlocked. I remember thinking at the time, who in their right mind leaves a laptop in an unlocked car overnight? Tell that to someone in Africa and they'll laugh their head off. Incidentally, the reason we park our cars in front of our houses is that we cannot maneuver our big SUVs into our garages, which by covenant have to be tucked on the side of the house so as to avoid the ungainly garage doors facing the road.

Not being able to park in your garage because when building your house you were so greedy for 5000+ square feet that you didn't leave enough room in front of the garage to reverse your car = a real First World Problem.

I'm not the only one making fun of people with FWP, as it is also called. Watch the video below, and you'll laugh. Watch the one after that, and maybe you'll feel ashamed.

Got any First World Problems?





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Peequality

April 15, 2014

One of the chapters I had the most fun writing for Kilimanjaro Diaries was the one I named Peequality: The Last Frontier of Women's Equality. In it you'll learn of a series of contraptions, each one niftier than the last, which are supposed to help women on the go who, how shall I put it... have to go. And who for whatever reason don't have the time or patience or privacy to squat the old-fashioned way. A perfect tool to take with you when you go mountain-climbing.

Never having tested a Female Urination Device, I had to fill in with some other toilet imagery.
Isn't this the most beautiful toilet in the world? As seen (and, full disclosure: used) in Namibia
along the Orange River in August 2012. Which is another story that might be made into a book.


Except I never field-tested any of them. Although I'm a prolific reader, I never really spend much time reading about any upcoming travel destinations. I just pack and go and watch, and then, once my interest is awakened, I do the research afterwards. So it was with the Shewee and its brethren (or should I say sisters), all equally clever-named.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is that I was reminded of the many uses of a Female Urination Device (yep, that's what they're called) when at the doctor's office last week, locked in a bathroom and armed with a cup in which to deposit a urine sample, and once again pissed off - no pun intended, honestly - about the unfairness of the limitations of the female anatomy when it comes to peeing with good aim.

"Wouldn't it be nice," I thought while staring the inevitable in the face, "if I now had that Sheewee to help me perform this task without getting urine all over my fingers?"

But the reason I don't carry one with me in my purse - together with the other 83 items typically found in there - is that I could never have made up my mind as to which one to get.

Go ahead, read for yourself from the following excerpt from my book, 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, and you might agree.

Peequality: The Last Frontier of Women’s Equality

May 2012, three and a half months to go

I’ve just gotten an email from my friend Sharon, who will also be one of the climbers in our group, giving us tips from a female friend of hers who just came back from Kili. Getting such tips from someone who just returned is always the most welcome information, because you figure, the fresher the better.

As soon as the kids are off to school, I pour myself a cup of tea and read through everything with rapt attention. The friend’s advice is mainly about making sure our sleeping bags are warm enough and how to best pack our clothes, which is nothing much new to me. But then she writes this: “For the ladies she recommends getting the travel rest stop urination bags as a better option to the ‘Shewee’.”

I’ve never heard of a Shewee but it doesn’t require all that much imagination to guess what she together with wee does. I am immediately intrigued. It must be a device similar to the “Urinelle” that I stumbled across online a few weeks ago. I’ve been watching and re-watching the Brazilian promotional video ever since then, and I’ve shared it with all my friends. I’ve practically become addicted to it. It’s a fascinating concept and the advertisement is hilarious, featuring a woman contorting herself in all sorts of ways to avoid touching a succession of dirty toilet seats, dramatic music building in the background with each new attempt, until the Urinelle practically comes riding to the rescue in shining armor to save the day, allowing the (very hot) woman to stand right next to some guy at the urinal and pee through a long hose, the front end discreetly tucked under her skirt. I think it ends with the guy fainting. Go on, watch it on YouTube, I know you want to!

I thought this was just an off-the-wall joke product when I got the link in an email from a Brazilian relative, but apparently the Urinelle has got competition. Perhaps these things do have merit. I recall more than one occasion when my dear husband has found it amusing to snap pictures of my bare bottom, the few times I’ve found myself out in the woods with my pants around my ankles. Intrigued by this whole new market of products I’m not sure what to call, I drop everything I’ve been doing and set out to conduct more research. I can’t find the “travel rest stop urination bags” (don’t ask what I do find for that search term – there is an entire world out there revolving around “travel rest stop” and “urination” that I’m not sure I want to learn more about), so I go on to the Shewee, “the original female urine device since 1999,” even if that’s the one not recommended by Sharon’s friend. It looks like a stunted funnel and can be had, for only $15.97, with an “extension pipe” that is “great for extra reach when aiming into a Peebol.”

Of course, only a woman could be enticed to spend money on a device to improve her aim into the bowl because her original device leaves something to be desired. If only men could be made to carry extension pipes around with them, then toilets the world over would be a happier place.

The Shewee website is full of other intriguing nuggets of wisdom. “Stand up and take control” is the company slogan. Pretty good marketing, if you ask me. The device itself comes in three different colors: one for “the outdoor girl who just likes to get on with the guys on whatever adventure or challenge is set” (green); one for “the ladies who just love to shout about Shewee and are proud to be who they are” (pink); and one for “the more discreet lady who simply wants to stay clean and hydrated in her day to day life whether she’s driving for work or a shopping trip only offers dirty public toilets” (white).

How to pick the right one? Those are entirely too many choices for me right there. I can’t even choose between two scents of dishwashing liquid on a grocery shelf in under ten minutes. But I don’t think I could go for white. I mean, that woman who can’t manage to use the toilet before driving to work so that she won’t have to go while driving to work – where the hell does she work, Antarctica? Or else she has an extremely small bladder. I know I don’t want to be that kind of woman. But do I want to shout out proudly about Shewee by going pink? More importantly, who would I shout it out proudly to? I wouldn’t want to be fumbling around my crotch and somehow attaching some plastic device in plain view of anybody else. Nothing left but going with army green and “getting on with the guys,” especially since we are indeed going on an adventure. I make a mental note to check with Mike and the three other men in our group if purchasing a green Shewee and joining them for a communal pee would fall into the “getting on with them” category. I don’t think I should mention it to the younger set of guys, namely the three teenage boys, or I’ll run the risk that Max will never talk to me again.

Come to think of it, I would suggest the Shewee people add a glow-in-the-dark version to the selection. For when you step out of your tent at night and want to pee against the tent while standing up, without having to don a headlamp to make sure you don’t accidentally have the spout feeding into your pant leg.

Now I’m on a roll. What else is out there, I wonder?

What’s out there is a surprisingly large variety, catering to every buyer group and subgroup imaginable. There seems to be something on offer for everyone. Everyone that is, as long as she’s a woman. The basic flaw with this entire product line, you see, is that it services only half the population. A good marketer would expand their target audience.

This is where the “pStyle” comes in. “The pStyle is a device that allows women and trans men to pee standing up without undressing” proclaims the pStyle website. Without taking any stand here – no pun intended – you do wonder how many transgender customers that gets them. If you used to have a perfectly fine and easy-to-operate device attached to your body to pee standing up, and then you have that device surgically removed, and then you go out looking for products that might allow you to pee standing up, are you out of your fucking mind?

Enough for today. I hope you've enjoyed this little preview. If you'd like to read the rest of the Peequality chapter, or the entire book for that matter, download Kilimanjaro Diaries from the Kindle store.
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All Roads Lead to Alexandra: The Story of a Globetrotting Baseball Bag, Part Two

April 10, 2014

In my previous post, I told you some stories about the circuitous travels of baseball equipment from American outfields into the heart of one of the poorest African townships. The longest and most circuitous route yet was traveled by the last batch I sent, the one that arrived in Johannesburg just a few weeks ago.

I'll tell you that story in a minute, but I'd like to make another point first: Yes, we've gotten quite a bit of used equipment over the years, but we need a lot MORE! When I write these baseball updates, I do it to galvanize you (yes, YOU!) to become involved, to help us in our efforts to equip these kids. I also do it with an eye on making our existing donors feel good, to let them see the smiling faces as a thank you for their wonderful efforts. But when you see pictures of piles of equipment on the Alexandra baseball field, it might be tempting to think that we must now have more than enough.

Well, we don't.


We have to outfit 75 players, and due to recent successes that number is growing. Cleats and pants are the hardest to keep enough of. Some of them they grow out of in the course of one season. Some of them are the wrong sizes to begin with (we have to take what we get, and it always amazes me how well the coaches manage the process of matching everyone up with a decent pair). And some of the pants, already worn thin when we get them, simply get torn to pieces from sliding (due to some of the most aggressive base running I have seen in youth baseball!).

I mentioned recent successes. Just two years ago, we had 6 players qualifying for the IRT (now called NBC), South Africa's big annual baseball tournament. This year, we have 20, and they all need to be outfitted with a new kit. We are very proud of everyone for working so hard, but it means that our equipment and clothing needs have never been greater. Particularly, we need white baseball pants, cleats, gloves, bats, socks, belts and balls.

And now for the promised story:

It was again the tireless Heidi Rozman doggedly pursuing Kettle Moraine High School's baseball coaches throughout the summer of 2013 for yet another round of equipment, and it was also she who came up with the brilliant plan of how to get it to me in Nashville, where we now live, so that my son (you've come to know him on this blog as Jabulani) could take some of it with him on his Christmas trip to Johannesburg. She had learned that Mary Anne Zupan, the former music teacher of our kids at Wales Elementary School, was heading to a music conference at Opryland in October of last year, and recruited her for the task of delivering to me what had once again accumulated in her garage. When I drove up to meet Mary Anne at her hotel to receive it, I was humbled - her car was tiny, and other than a small personal bag with her own stuff, it was crammed to the roof with bags bursting with catcher's gear, helmets, jerseys, and pants.

It was lovely to meet up with Mary Anne again. She is one of my favorite music teachers (I actually worship almost all music teachers!) and I credit her with being instrumental - no pun intended - in getting my kids to to dedicate part of their busy days to playing instruments and singing, and bringing the joy of music into their lives. We had a great deal to talk about, and we wouldn't have had the opportunity to catch up if it hadn't been for Alexandra Baseball far far away in Africa.

I proceeded to stuff some of what she brought into a gigantic duffel bag, right up to Delta Airlines' weight limit of 50 lbs, and some more into another bag next to Jabulani's few t-shirts and shorts, and sent it on with him in early December, nervous that he'd be stopped at customs (there is a stiff import duty on bringing used clothing into South Africa). But all went well. The amazing Natalie Irwin handled it on the Johannesburg end, and they all had a great day bringing it out to Alexandra, all amidst the funeral proceedings for Nelson Mandela that were going on in Johannesburg precisely at that time. The highlight for Jabulani? He was asked to autograph a baseball for Michael Lebepe, a young man I hope will have a bright future signing his own autographs very soon, having been selected to represent the South African national team as the first player from Alexandra.

All  of this came out of that 50 lbs bag. The t-shirts were remnants of old stock of spirit shirts
at our local elementary school, and the pair of gold cleats on the left were outgrown by
Jabulani, complete with an autograph from Matthew Booth of the South African national
soccer team. I hope they went to a soccer fan who appreciates them! Photo: Natalie Irwin


It's definitely the first autograph my son has ever been asked to give. Photo: Natalie Irwin

The story isn't quite done yet. Jabulani's 50 lbs of gear hardly scratched the surface of what had been in Mary Anne's car, and I will be forever grateful to Lotte Sorenson, who reached out to me just in the nick of time before her container left Connecticut for Johannesburg, where she and her husband had decided to set down roots after a long career on the expat circuit. Or I should say Noisette, my husband, is eternally grateful, as he was starting to wonder how long his garage space would be encroached upon by all that gear. I bought the two biggest boxes I could find at Office Depot, managed to squeeze everything into them, and shipped it off to Lotte's hotel, miraculously and with the help of the steadfast US Postal Service getting it to her just after New Year's and the day before the container was set to be sealed. It arrived in Joburg about a month ago in March 2014, and as always Natalie Irwin made sure it made its way to Alexandra Baseball.

From Wisconsin to Nashville to Connecticut to Johannesburg - not the most direct path, but an interesting one.

What came out of the Sorensen's container and temporarily
into the Irwin's house before being taken to Alexandra.

These are the stories that make me miss Africa. Don't you want to be part of the next one?

Which brings me to one last point: Yes, we do need more equipment. But we also have other expenses. It may not be your thing to hound high school coaches for pants and bats, but you can still help. I mentioned the IRT/NBC tournament, which this year is held in Durban starting April 30th. We have 18 players and 3 coaches who have to come up with ZAR3,892 (about $400) each to participate, a next to impossible sum for any family living in Alexandra. Thanks to the incredible generosity of our donors, with one family paying for the entire trip for one child, we've been able to cover part of that, but more is needed. Please consider donating to our tournament fund here (or contact me if you prefer a payment by check):


To conclude this two-post series, Natalie and I would like to recognize all the people and organizations who've supported Alexandra Baseball in one way or another. If I've left anyone out, I apologize. Special thanks, in no particular order, go to:

Heidi Rozman
Julie Graf
Ian and Pam Graham
The Doty Family
Chet Chetwynd
Tim Bruggemann
The Fairchild Family
The Hofheinz Family
Eddie Orizzi
The Perrin Family
Louis Bolling
Karen Lim
Mary Anne Zupan
Lotte Sorensen
Kettle Moraine High School
Dilworth Little League Baseball
The American Society of South Africa
Sportsworx
Pitch in for Baseball
Rosann and David Whitten
Lawson Ricketts and Nick Geimer 
Peggy and Chuck Ricketts 
Dennis and Barbara Geimer
Gary and Dorene Wilson
Fleet and Dennis Roberts 
Razor and Leann Shines 
Trent Beck and Laurie Kimball
Joe and Cindy Erwin
Standard Bank
Rich and Tracey Campbell
Mike Samuelson
The Day Family
Brooke Boone and friends
John and Dianne Lucht
Bryant and Elizabeth Jones
Kristy Thomson and Daniel Lucht
The Andry Family
Sean Taylor
Rusty Jones
Cathy DeLange and Tourvest Duty Free, a division of Tourvest Holdings
MTN
Wayne Vincent
Trey Wimmer
Matt Hodgood
Mickey Weston
All the 65-plus donors who donated funds for the first Pitch In For Baseball shipment and subsequent fundraisers

And, most of all, the Irwin Family - Andy, Natalie, Peter, and John - for their tireless and continued efforts to keep the dream of Alexandra Baseball alive.
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I Published My First Travel Memoir!

March 28, 2014

I've been accused of being too chatty, so I will suppress my natural urge to go on gushing about how nice it feels to have published my first book. Here it is, and below you can start reading right away:



Prologue


September 2009

It’s a cold and windy day in Overland Park, Kansas. I’m sitting at my computer, not sure what to think.

Do we stay where we are, or do we move our family of six to Johannesburg, South Africa? It would be yet another continent to add to our list of places to call home. It would be exciting. And it would give the kids an opportunity to go to school in a new country, something they haven’t experienced yet.

In addition, it would allow me to upgrade my job description to “expat wife” – an idea that seems vastly more alluring than my daily housewife drudgery of cooking, overseeing homework, and splitting up sibling squabbles.

But we’ve only been in Kansas for three years, after a period of frequent moves all over the country, and aren’t particularly stir-crazy. The kids are happy in their various schools, I’ve got the sports scene figured out, we have an orthodontist and a hairdresser we like – in short, our life is one big, comfortable routine.

What’s more, I’ve just shut the lid of my laptop in disgust. I was looking at some web pages in an effort to find out more about life in South Africa, and I’m utterly discouraged by what I’ve seen. If I am to believe what is posted in one expat forum after another, South Africa – and the city of Johannesburg in particular – is a cesspit of crime. If we are so foolish as to move there, I have read, we’ll be carjacked and possibly murdered before we even make it from the airport to our house. We’ll have fingers chopped off to get to our jewelry, we’ll be accosted by gun-wielding thugs when we retrieve money from an ATM, and we’ll have rocks thrown into our windshields when waiting at a red light while criminals make off with our cell-phones. If we survive all of this, we’ll probably die in a car wreck because everyone is advised to “never stop at a red light.”

Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to move to such a dangerous place? It sure seems like it. All of our friends and relatives apparently agree. “Johannesburg? You must be out of your mind,” is one of the milder reactions we’ve gotten when cautiously floating the idea in recent weeks. Just going there by ourselves, is the consensus, would be foolish enough. But taking our children to the world’s murder capital, a label that the city of Johannesburg – unfairly or not – has been stuck with since the downfall of the apartheid regime, is tantamount to gross negligence, if not worse. “Don’t go,” we’re hearing from all sides.

Perhaps it’s because I hate being told what I can’t do. Or perhaps a life of moves, first without children and then with them, has programmed my inner clock to once again become impatient for a change of scenery, routines be damned. What if there is another side to life in Africa, one that I’ll have to dig deeper to understand?

I’m struck by a sudden thought, and I open my computer once again. As expected, Googling “Kilimanjaro” yields an entirely more promising collection of links than “Expat in Johannesburg,” and before long I’m completely hooked.

A seed has been planted.

Part I – The Planning


“Nowadays, when all the world is on the move, and all sorts of traveling requisites are at the traveler’s command, the difficulty is not so much to know what to take as what to omit.”

– Dr. Hans Meyer, first to summit Mount Kilimanjaro


To Climb or Not to Climb Kilimanjaro


December 2011

We did move to South Africa in early 2010, arriving quite safely at our house that first day, fingers and windshields intact. Without waiting for a new routine to settle into, we embarked on a whirlwind of travel and adventure, fueled in equal measure by the knowledge that any expat assignment eventually ends and must be exploited, and by the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings. By now almost two years have passed, and the snows of Kilimanjaro are looming as distant as ever, even though I’ve been harboring the secret idea of climbing to Africa’s roof from the moment I stepped onto its shores.

I can’t tell you what drove me to read up on the ins and outs of climbing Kilimanjaro before we even settled on a South African school to send our children to. I’m not a mountain climber. I’m not particularly outdoorsy. I don’t even like going for walks all that much and would rather sit at my computer with a steaming cup of coffee. Klaus, my husband, often raves about the “fresh air” in an attempt to lure me and the kids – who are often as firmly glued to their electronic devices as I am to mine – out into the great outdoors. But you know what? I vastly prefer warm air over fresh air.

I’m rather a couch potato, if I’m completely honest. I do like the odd adventure, but mainly for the purpose of writing about it afterwards. While I’m living it, I usually can’t wait to get it behind me already so that I can take my shower and start my story, which invariably is funnier in hindsight than while it’s happening.

I’m not one to make bucket lists, either. I do like to make lists, but they are of the mundane variety: “Make dentist appointment,” “Repair sprinkler head,” and, lately, “Figure out how the hell to kill the mole that’s destroying our lawn.” If I did make any bucket lists, climbing a mountain is possibly the last thing I’d put on there. I’m terrified of heights, and I might even be more terrified of being cold, both of which are hard to avoid when you go mountain-climbing.

In fact, I can come up with a million other reasons why not to climb Kilimanjaro. I might get sick, for instance. I’m not a hypochondriac, but the ways you could possibly get sick on Mount Kilimanjaro, a little bit of research will tell you, are mind-boggling. Apart from the dreaded altitude sickness forcing many a traveler to a premature descent (or killing those who don’t have the good sense to turn around), there are a myriad other illnesses that could make life miserable for you on the mountain. If you don’t get attacked by a vicious stomach ailment from contaminated water, get an infected blister on your heel, or suffer from a broken bone after tumbling down a deep scree slope, you might still succumb to illness after your trip when malaria – only a threat during the two nights at the base hotel but that might be all it takes – catches up with you when you think you’re safely home again.

I’m also not really looking for any more excitement in my life. From that fateful day we decided to ignore all the warnings and give South Africa a try, we’ve embraced being expats and taking in as much of the country as we possibly can. It’s so easy to get sucked in by the demands of everyday life, wherever you might live, and totally forget that you are in the most exotic place you’ve ever been, but probably not for much longer. We know this from experience. South Africa isn’t the first expat assignment for our family, you see. When the boys were little, at the end of the last century (I love being able to say that!), we lived in Singapore for a few years. Incidentally, this was also the beginning of my housewife existence, as it was Klaus’ job that took us there, not mine. As soon as we arrived I took on my new role with a vengeance and with as much drive as I had previously mustered for marketing plans and team-building exercises. I got so busy instituting nap regimens, sticker charts, and potty-training routines, let alone trying to convince “no English lah” repairmen to fix our air conditioning, that I almost forgot there was a tantalizing and exotic world out there to be explored. We did venture to some normally faraway places like New Zealand and Indonesia, but in retrospect not nearly enough of them. We departed, pregnant with our third child and full of regrets about countries not visited.

So far we’ve more than made up for it here, exploring not only South Africa, which by itself already offers a lifetime of interesting vacation spots, but also even more exotic locales such as Victoria Falls, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, and Zanzibar. We’ve been kissed by elephants, petted a cheetah, dived with great white sharks, held a newborn lion, hurled ourselves off bridges and out of airplanes (okay, not all of us), swum in the Okavango, and paddled down the Zambezi. We’ve gotten as much adventure out of this life as one possibly can.

Surely I, a housewife and mother of four children with more than enough on my plate, do not need to go scale one of the major mountains in the world?

And yet, that is precisely what I want to do. My gut tells me that if I leave Africa without at least trying to see the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I’ll feel incomplete. And it’s not because of some yearning to add another exotic destination to the list. All I can think is that deep within me I must have a longing to do something meaningful, something to break up the years between child-bearing and retirement, to scale something of magnitude. But not too much magnitude, mind you, and if you think about it, Mount Kilimanjaro is the perfect candidate for just such a mid-magnitude type of endeavor.

It’s high – high enough to make for some labored breathing up top, if you even make it that far – but not prohibitively high. It’s the highest mountain on an entire continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world, rendering your feat just a little bit more special. And consider the latitude. If I am to have any chance of not freezing to death on a mountain’s summit, the only one in the world sitting smack on the equator is the obvious choice.

Or maybe Ernest Hemingway is to blame, although I’ve never been a big fan of his writing. Who doesn’t equate “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” with sweeping African savannah, camps in the bush, and servants aplenty to obey your every command and guide you on the right path while carrying your gun?

I admit it’s this last image that sealed the deal for me: the prospect of someone else lugging not my gun, but my sleeping bag and wet wipes and water bottles together with tents and a mountain of food for seven days, while I leisurely stroll behind.

Okay, not so leisurely, it turns out. But you get the picture.

Where else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship?


To continue, download 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 from the Amazon.com Kindle store. 

Also available in other countries on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.in, Amazon.fr, Amazon.es, Amazon.it, Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.com.br, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.mx, and Amazon.com.au.

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Kilimanjaro Diaries Available on Kindle Bookshelf Soon!

March 26, 2014

Finally, FINALLY, I'm approaching the finish line. I knew that book publishing would be a humongous chore, but it was an even bigger chore. A lot of nitpicky formatting work, like getting a numbered list converted to Kindle format (full disclosure: it didn't). But also a lot of agonizing decision making, like which font size should the subtitles be?

Oh the joy of being so close to hitting that "publish" button. I can't wait and my fingers are itchy, but I wanted to give you all a heads-up so you'll have the benefit of a little anticipation before 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 goes live on Amazon.com.

Stay tuned!



Nowhere else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship.

This realization convinces housewife, mother of four, and expat blogger Eva Melusine Thieme that her idea to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as the crowning achievement of her three years in Africa isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it has all the trappings of a dream vacation: no cooking, no fighting kids, no class parties to be organized, and an army of porters to lug everything up the mountain.

But she soon finds out that the list of challenges and discomforts associated with scaling Kilimanjaro is long: sub-zero temperatures, blistered feet, long drop toilets (of which, you may learn, the drops are not nearly as long as they have once been, if you get the drift!), and the ever-threatening altitude sickness no one can quite escape from. Her climb turns into the greatest challenge she has ever faced, and ultimately she must make a fateful decision on that mountain, one that will have her question the meaning of life, identity, and family.

Part guide book, part travel memoir, part history lesson, this story has something for everyone – the seasoned hiker, the aspiring Kilimanjaro trekker, the armchair traveler, the housewife and mother. You will find yourself smile and at times laugh out loud as Thieme takes you on her journey up the slopes of Kilimanjaro together with her teenage son and a group of opinionated South African friends. From planning the trip to shopping for supplies to trudging uphill wishing with all her heart for an ice cold sip of water untainted by chlorination tablets, you will follow the author step by step on her quest to stand on the summit of Kilimanjaro or at least have a memorable time trying.

Warning: You might be determined to climb Mount Kilimanjaro yourself after reading this book!

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All Roads Lead to Alexandra: The Story of a Globetrotting Baseball Bag, Part One

March 24, 2014

It's not just the destination, it's the journey.

I've said this about my Kilimanjaro Climb*, and the same is true for how we've been able to get baseball equipment from the United States into the hands of underprivileged kids in South Africa.

Sure, if we had a lot of money, it would be easy as pie: gather donations, or even buy second hand equipment, and hire someone to fill out all the paperwork and ship it to Johannesburg. Done and dusted, destination reached.

But then there wouldn't be a story to tell.

One of the baseball collections for Alexandra Baseball, this one
assembled by Pitch in for Baseball, a U.S. based nonprofit.

The first one begins with my friend Heidi Rozman in Waukesha, Wisconsin. We only lived there for one year from 2006-2007 (more precisely, it felt like one long winter), but were blessed with the most wonderful neighbors, Heidi among them. When years later she learned of my involvement with the Alexandra Baseball
club after our family had moved first to Kansas and then to South Africa, she took it upon herself to reach out to the local high school (Kettle Moraine High School) and ask them for discarded equipment and uniforms. She drove back and forth to collect it all and stored it in her garage until such time as a viable path across the Atlantic presented itself.

It did soon enough, in the form of the Graham family from very near Waukesha, right in Heidi's backyard, who was in the process of moving their household to Johannesburg. How more perfect could it be? They met, exchanged the stuff, and a few months later it arrived at my doorstep in Dainfern Valley, together with at least 200 jumbo muffin cup liners I seem to have also requested "from America." I also made a good new friend in Pam Graham, who cooks the best German food and has wonderful stories to tell.

As new equipment was constantly pouring in thanks to Heidi's tireless efforts, we soon needed a new shipping plan. It emerged in the form of the Doty family of Houston, also with ample container space for baseball gear. (Or it might have been the Doty's first and then the Graham's - don't hold me to exact dates.) Julie Graf, my former Waukesha neighbor on the other side from the Rozman's, pitched in by having it shipped to Houston, and once again, a few months later, I found myself the recipient of not only the needed bats and helmets, but also two huge jars of Mexican chili powder and a bag of Starbucks beans I also seem to have requested in exchange for information on life in Johannesburg. And, as before, a good new friend, Paige Doty, entered my Dainfern circle.


Do you get the idea? My life has been incredibly enriched by all these machinations, a win-win situation all around. It's the incredible journey of all this baseball gear, and all the people who've met each other because of it, that makes me grateful I set foot into Alexandra that fateful day in 2010, even though it scared the living crap out of me (I had been told to never ever go there, if I loved my life).

I won't go into the details of all of the other tales of pants and mitts and baseballs and cleats reaching me in a similar fashion, because there are too many of them. You can read some of them here and here and here.

But there is one last story of the globetrotting baseball bag to share, the one with the most circuitous route to date. Stay tuned to hear it in my next post!


* Just a few more days until 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 is available for download on your Kindle.
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Title-Gate

March 6, 2014

The good news is, my book about my Kilimanjaro adventure is coming out soon.

The bad news is, I can't decide on the frikkin' (as co-climber Mike would phrase it) title! I've been agonizing longer about that title than my daughter does about deciding what to order in a restaurant. Before she gets the chicken nuggets.

I'm pretty sure I'll also end up with the chicken nuggets choice of book titles. Kilimanjaro Diaries is what I've been calling it all along, and there's a good chance I'll stick with that. Not all that creative, but safe.

The question, at this point, lies with the subtitle. Every non-fiction book out there has a subtitle, and for good reason: you need to give your readers an inkling what it's about. And not just in terms of content. You also make them a promise of what to expect, a preview into your style perhaps, a dangling of the fruit, an answer to the question: Will I be entertained by this? That is all any reader cares about.

Against the advice of some people (you'll get 50 different opinions and no real answer!), I decided to ask some readers for title feedback in this blog post on my author website, and also on Facebook, by posting the cover with its working title, Kilimanjaro Diaries: The Housewife Guide to Climbing Africa’s Highest Peak. I did get back 50 different opinions and no real answer, but I also learned something else: the word "housewife" seems to stir a firestorm of emotions in people. Some folks (okay, men) are sure that outing yourself as a housewife strips you of all credibility as an author, dooming your book. Some folks think it is demeaning (especially, it seems, the folks who have no problem with you performing those "demeaning" tasks housewives typically perform - I won't name any names), and some (but fewer) folks think using the word in conjunction with Kilimanjaro is funny.

It caused such a debate that instead of abandoning the housewife, I felt like doubling down on her. I felt like the honor of all housewives the world over might be at stake. I felt like throwing down the gauntlet, with a title like Kilimanjaro Diaries: Housewives Can't Go Mountain Climbing. 

But having already opened that can of worms, I decided it wouldn't hurt to ask you for feedback one more time. Here I give you the three titles I've winnowed my considerable list down to:


Pole Pole 
Memoirs of a Housewife on Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro Diaries 
Or, how I spent a week trudging uphill, drinking crappy water, and making bad jokes while having the time of my life

Kilimanjaro Diaries 
Walk Slowly, Bring Wet Wipes, and Other Survival Tips


To go with this cover, for those of you who haven't seen it yet:



I kind of like #2, but I know my cover artist, Nicole, will hate it. Where to put all those extra words? Isn't that what the inside of the book is for? I can already feel her accusing stare.

Tell me what you think. This is the last time I'll ask. All editing is done, and the book is going into production tomorrow. (Ha, how lofty that sounds! I'll write another blog post about what, exactly, that entails, but I can already tell you that it will involve some housewife duties.) 

Please comment below. Don't hold back. The housewives can take it.
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The Right Papers

Apartheid is a word you will have heard almost immediately upon moving to South Africa, or perhaps even earlier. It is of Afrikaans origin and means, roughly, the separation and classification of people according to race. It's a term inextricably linked with South Africa's fascinating history. I've talked a little bit about Apartheid before:

I've told you about the Apartheid Museum. It's the best place, should you find yourself in Johannesburg, to learn more about it.

I've told you about the history of Apartheid and how, in its day, it led to such strange concepts as the term Honorary White for American black dignitaries visiting the country. 

I've told you about Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela spent a good portion of his life languishing in prison as a result of his acts of defiance and sabotage in opposition to the policy of Apartheid.

But what I haven't talked much about is what life during Apartheid times (from 1948 until 1990) was like. How difficult it was for non-whites. How the Group Areas Act forbid you to own property in most of the desirable areas of town. How there were pass laws that made it a crime to be caught outside of your designated area at the wrong time. How almost every facet of your life was dictated by the color of your skin. 

I couldn't really tell you much about any of this, because I wasn't there to witness it. That's why I was so happy to recently come across a book that does just that. It is called The Right Papers, by Nico Bester. It is a collection of short stories that are all set in the time of Apartheid, all of them interconnected with each other in a clever way. They feature everyday people from all stations of life, of various racial backgrounds, and from all corners of South Africa, who sometimes resort to extraordinary actions to adapt to life under such arbitrary rules. From the Coloured woman who obtains a forged birth certificate for her son so that he can "pass" as white and go to a better school, to the impoverished weed-smuggling wife in a township near Durban, all of the actors in these vignettes about ordinary life in 1970s and 80s South Africa are so real and believable, you might think you could have known them yourself.

You might think that these stories are bleak, but they are not. In fact, I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times. I was reminded of Roald Dahl and his plot twists that often end in the macabre. Yes, there is human tragedy, fueled by the suspicion and fear Apartheid stirred in people, but there is so much more in this book. The relationships between the people in these stories are beautifully described, and the character development is exquisite. I also enjoyed the lively dialog, peppered with some wonderful Afrikaans phrases.

The Right Papers is not a condemnation of Apartheid, even though it will give you more than a glimpse into what living under its yoke was like. It is a celebration of everyday people, of the stubborn striving for daily survival, of the ingenuity of regular people in the face of insurmountable obstacles. And it is yet another wonderful snapshot of life in Africa.



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How to Register a Car in South Africa

February 27, 2014


More car-related blog posts on Joburg Expat:

Buying a car in South Africa is relatively straightforward. You pay, you get the keys, more or less. It's the registering of your car which will have the potential to drive you insane, so I'd like to give you a quick overview.

The main reason many expats will question their sanity a few weeks into their stay in South Africa is a little document called Traffic Register Number. You need one before you, a foreigner, can register your car. Most South African nationals don't know this, because they just have to show their ID and have never had a problem with it, and consequently will give you the wrong information when asked. Even car dealerships, which will happily offer to register the car for you, typically don't know that they can't, in fact, do that.

Traffic Register Numbers have to be applied for in person. What you need are the following documents, which the seller should have provided you with:

  • Roadworthiness certificate
  • Current registration
  • Invoice/your proof of payment

In addition, you will need these documents, which you should have already gotten used to carrying around with you:


  • Lease agreement
  • Passport, including valid work visa
  • Passport pictures
  • Foreign driver's license


In order to obtain your Traffic Register Number, you have to take these documents to your closest Licensing Department. If, like most expats, you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg, this will be the Randburg Civic Centre at the Corner of Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue in Randburg. If you don't live in the Northern Suburbs, check out this list of all Licensing Offices in Johannesburg (click through all three pages of the list). If you don't live in Johannesburg at all, Google a list of licensing offices in your city. Make sure you call ahead to find out which one applies to you, and what their hours are for Traffic Register Number applications. But be prepared for two things: 1) no one might pick up the phone, and 2) they might not in fact know the answer. You might have to call several times to triangulate all answers to form your best guess as to where you should go at what time.

Let's hope you live in the Northern Suburbs of Joburg. In that case, you take all of the above documents to the Randburg Civic Centre on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 am. This, as of the time of this writing, is the only time you can make your Traffic Register Number application. It might change again, or it might not be true every week, but this has been the latest information from expats who have tried. Go to the information desk, and ask for an application for a Traffic Register Number as well as an application for the Certificate of Registration. You will be told where to go after you've filled them in. Don't be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for other matters, and you usually don't have to wait too long to have your turn.

I realize I have said "you," but I haven't specified who that "you" is. Because if you're "only the spouse," you will not have any luck with this errand. Only the breadwinner, the one with the work visa, and presumably the one with the bank account, is entitled to a Traffic Register Number. I am aware that this may not always be true - stories where spouses have obtained Traffic Register Numbers have reached my ears - but you can save yourself some headaches and return visits by sending the work permit holder to apply.

The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to return. If all goes well, this will be on the Friday following the Wednesday you applied, and on that day you will receive your Traffic Register Number. If you were able to turn in the application for the Certificate of Registration at the same time, you will now receive that as well, or you can turn it in now, and hopefully receive both documents on the same day.

This is what they will look like:


Your Certificate of Registration for your car will look like this;
you will get a second, similar copy, from which you cut out
the round registration disk for your windshield.

Traffic Register Number Certificate; note that you only have
to apply for this once, it will be valid for the purchase of as many
cars as you wish; it's also a good idea to keep a copy in your car.

When all is said and done, you should come home from the Licensing Office bearing these things:


  • Traffic Register Number Certificate (make a copy to keep in your car)
  • Certificate of Registration
  • License Disk (cut out and affix to upper left corner of your windshield from the inside)
  • License Tags (to be taped on with double sided tape, front and back)


The round license disk will have to be renewed every year, but that's another story.

All that's left for you to do now is to purchase an insurance policy for your car, if you haven't already done so. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone according to the make of the car, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own a car and aren't buying phantom insurance. They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Tracker or Altech Netstar for about R180 per month.

By the way, the one thing you won’t need to get is a driver's license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine as long as it is valid. 


Did you find this article helpful? Find Joburg Expat on Facebook. And check these other posts about moving to South Africa:

FAQs about Moving to South Africa
Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1
Moving Checklist
South Africa: All you Need to Know about Banking, Shopping, Healthcare, and More
Private Schools in Johannesburg
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Which Charger Should I Get for my Kindle in South Africa?

February 20, 2014

As an expat in South Africa, your Kindle may very well be your most prized possession. Books are expensive, shipping from overseas is not very reliable, and libraries are more or less non-existent. (I've written about public libraries in Johannesburg here, but don't hold your breath.)

I've told you about how your Kindle works in South Africa here and here. But recently I got a question about Kindle chargers and adapters, and I thought my answer warrants a blog post of its own.

Question

Please can you help me? I live in California, I'm going to visit my Dad in Pretoria and want to buy him a Kindle. Do I need an adapter and what should I buy? Amazon has been no help to me at all, I've spent over 40 minutes with customer service and they still can't tell me! Thanks so much!

Answer

Option 1: The Kindle uses the same exact charger as a Blackberry. Does your Dad have a Blackberry? Then you wouldn't have to get him a charger at all. He could use his Blackberry charger for the Kindle and be totally fine.

Option 2: Buy him the Kindle charger on Amazon.com (the regular one fitting into a US outlet) and in addition buy a universal adapter plug - it will fit into a South African outlet, and anything will fit into it on the other side, including European and American plugs. I'm thinking you'll need one or more of them anyway when you travel, for all YOUR chargers from the US. You could then just leave one of them with your Dad when you return home. The universal adapter plug that we used in South Africa, and really liked, is the VCT VP110 Universal Travel Outlet Plug Adapter for South Africa from Amazon.com.

In case you are wondering, you don't have to worry about the voltage problem (South African voltage is 220V like in Europe, versus 120V in the U.S.) - both Kindle and Blackberry chargers cover the whole range of voltages. You really just have to get an adapter plug that allows for the American plug to be put into a South African outlet. And don't think that buying a Kindle from Amazon in the UK will change anything - you'll still need an adapter plug for the European Kindle charger to fit into the South African outlet, the Kindle will likely cost more in Europe, AND you'll have to now have it shipped from Europe to South Africa, a risky proposition (in case you've been following my Postal Service series). Bringing the Kindle from the United States when you are visiting is by far the best way to go.

And now, go ahead and buy that Kindle. Do it by clicking the text link or the link below - it will get me some much appreciated advertising dollars from Amazon:-). Even if you don't buy that one but another kind, it will still be linked back to my site. Thank you!


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