Top 10 Must Visit Places in South Africa

December 15, 2014

"Hi, I have recently moved to Johannesburg and will be here for couple of years. Would it be possible for you to share the top 10 must visit places in SA with me. Thanks in advance!"

When I recently got this question from a future expat, I penned out a quick response without much thought. It wasn't that hard to select 10 must visit places in SA, to be honest, because in our two years there we hadn't really been to any MORE than 10 places. Much of our travels took us OUTSIDE of South Africa - Mozambique, Victoria Falls, Mauritius, Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro, Namibia, Botswana; all of them must-visit places in their own right, I'd say - which left me straining to even come up with ten places we'd seen within the country.

And yet, after some careful thinking and going back to my blog's travel archives, I realized that these ten places were really good candidates for my official list of 10 top travel spots in South Africa, which I hereby present to you:

Top 10 Travel Spots in South Africa



  1. CAPE TOWN:

    The Mother City is a must-visit place, if you don't already live there, and likely a place you'll return to many times. What we liked about Cape Town was its affordability. In a country where you will leave a LOT of money at too many pricey luxury safari lodges, Cape Town is a welcome surprise for family travel. There's so much to see and do: The V&A Waterfront, Table Mountain, a tour of Robben Island and Nelson Mandela's prison cell, a day trip around the Cape Peninsula with a stop at Boulders for the penguin colony and culminating in a photo op at the Cape of Good Hope, and too many world-class restaurants to mention. Start by reading Getaway to Cape Town for some travel tips, or if you're traveling with children, read my Cape Town with Kids series. If you have have time to venture out farther, add some adventure by going cage diving with great white sharks in Gansbaai, and stop for some whale watching in Hermanus along the way.

  2. MADIKWE GAME RESERVE:

    Madikwe is the one game reserve we returned to time and
    time again. First, it's close to Joburg. Second, it's malaria-free. And third, it has some of the world's best safari lodges and game viewing, in my opinion. All of the Big Five are represented, and it is one of the best places to see the resurging but still endangered African wild dogs. To get an idea of what awaits you on a family safari at one of its luxury lodges, start with In Pursuit of the Buffalo, which takes place at Jaci's Tree Lodge. We've also stayed at Mosetlha Bush Camp (a more basic yet very cool eco lodge) and Tau Game Lodge, and all experiences were wonderful. You can't really go wrong at any of Madikwe's lodges, so it might be a good idea to look for special offers any of them might have at any time.

  3. DRAKENSBERG:

    We didn't get to see the spectacular Drakensberg until the very end of our stay in South Africa. I'm glad we got to fit it in, but would have liked to spend more time there. Our oldest son got to hike in the Drakensberg as part of Dainfern College's Enyuka Challenge, a 10-day hiking tour carrying their own tents and cooking their own food, and I would have liked to do something similar with our family (though I'm sure the girls would have complained every step of the way). The scenery is gorgeous, especially in the summer months when the grass turns green, and the grandeur and ruggedness of the jagged peaks around you doesn't fail to leave a profound impression on your soul. Read Drakensberg for more pictures and a hotel tip.

  4. ORANGE RIVER:
     
    The Orange River forms the border between South Africa and Namibia in the far northwestern corner of South Africa (which, I'm always surprised when looking it a map, is actually to the south of Johannesburg) in what's called Namaqualand. One of our most memorable experiences was taking a rafting trip on the Orange River. You can pick any distance from one to five days, during which you and your guide paddle on the river during the day and camp on the banks at night. As always in Africa, you will be pampered with great meals magicked up amidst the wilderness. We did it through Felix Unite, but there are other providers as well. While you're in the vicinity, you might also want to check out the Richtersveld National Park and Fish River Canyon. I haven't blogged about the Orange River yet, as that will be part of my new book coming up, but Road Trip to Namaqualand will give you an impression of the general area.

  5. FRANSCHHOEK:
     
    Even though Franschhoek is near Cape Town and can easily be combined with #1 on this list, it deserves its own category, because you are guaranteed to want to come back many times once you've seen it. To me, it is an idyll I could easily imagine retiring to. Beautiful mountainous landscapes, secluded yet not remote, nice climate, great restaurants, home to nice art galleries - the list of selling points is long. Number one on that list, of course, is the wine. Franschhoek is the heart of South Africa's wine country (in addition to nearby Stellenbosch, but in my mind Franschhoek is more beautiful) and you can spend days, if not weeks, hopping from one winery to the other, each more beautifully set into the hillside than the last, and taste wine and eat gourmet food to your heart's content. Read the aptly named post I've Fallen in Love to get started.

  6. KRUGER PARK:
     
    I still maintain that Madikwe tops Kruger Park as a safari destination, especially coming from Joburg, but Kruger Park is of course worth its own visit. Some say that leopards are especially abundant there, so if that puzzle piece of the Big Five has still eluded you, then Kruger Park or any of the adjacent private game reserves such as Sabi Sands or Timbavati might be your answer. Along the way, if you get a chance, make a trip through the Blyde River Canyon (image on left) - its beautiful. Just be sure to take appropriate malaria medication depending on the time of year. I admit we never quite made it to Kruger Park proper, but we had a fabulous stay in Klaserie Game Reserve. Start with Stalking the Elusive Leopard in which you get to see pictures of beautiful Kitara Camp before it was swept away in a flood just a few weeks later.

  7. GARDEN ROUTE:

    The Garden Route is the area along South Africa's southern Coast to the east of Cape Town, encompassing the cities of Mossel Bay, George, Plettenberg Bay, and Knysna, all the way to Tsitsikamma National Park and Storms River. There are tons of fun things to do along the Garden Route, and the scenery is beautiful every direction you go. We visited Knysna only briefly but immediately fell in love and would have returned if we had stayed in South Africa longer. It's a picturesque town set against the breathtaking views of the Knysna Heads with lots of things to do, such as whale watching and a plethora of watersports, plus it has great art galleries and restaurants. Also worth exploring are Wilderness near George and Tsitsikamma National Park, where we partook in a Canopy Tour. Plettenberg Bay has a beautiful beach and is a favorite South African summer destination during the Christmas holidays. If you feel adventurous, add bungy jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge to your list. 


  8. UMHLANGA ROCKS/DURBAN:
     
    We didn't make it to Durban - South Africa's third-largest city - until 2 years into our stay in South Africa, which sounds a bit weird, but that's Durban for you. It just doesn't get the attention, but is definitely worth a visit. Spend a day at uShaka Marine World if you're into aquariums and water parks, take a stroll along the beach promenade for some colorful people viewing and, not least, the spectacular sand sculptures, and if you can at all manage it, spend a few nights at the nearby Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks just north of Durban. It's a one-of-a-kind retro-colonial experience, the views of the lighthouse from the Ocean Terrace are stunning, and you might enjoy hanging out on those beautiful sandy beaches and braving the impressive surf. The Indian Ocean is actually warm, welcome news if you've ever dipped so much as a toe into the icy waters off Cape Town.


  9. WATERBERG:

    Our very first South African safari took us to the Waterberg, only about 2.5 hours from Johannesburg, and that area will always hold a special place in our hearts. Where we stayed that time was not Big Five territory, but we found it lovely all the same. We gazed at zebras, wildebeest, and giraffes to our heart's content, we tracked the two resident rhinos at Yellow Wood Game Lodge numerous times, we swam in a lovely rock pool - okay, my family swam, and I watched, as it was freezing - and we had more than a little excitement getting stuck in the mud on an uncomfortably steep mountain slope. If you do hanker for the Big Five, check out Welgevonden Game Reserve, where I can highly recommend Jamila Lodge. If you take a look at my wildlife photo album from there (scroll to the bottom for the slide show), you'll agree that the sightings were pretty cool!


  10. SODWANA BAY/ST. LUCIA WETLANDS:

    We hadn't even quite settled into our new house and gotten acquainted with Johannesburg, when we were already invited to join another family - who would go on to become our best friends - on a scuba diving trip at Sodwana Bay, which is on the Indian Ocean just South of the border to Mozambique and Ponta do Ouro. It's one of the world's top diving destinations and the boys got quite spoiled to experience it right at the start of their diving careers. Sodwana Bay is part of the greater St. Lucia Wetlands, one of South Africa's biggest nature reserves. We also spent some time canoeing among hippos in Hluhluwe Game Reserve about an hour inland from there, where we were also served a glorious 5-star meal in the middle of the bush (which would have been even nicer had it not been absolutely freezing that winter night). (Photo courtesy of Jacky du Plessis).

There we go, that's my Top 10. What's missing, of course, is Johannesburg itself, because for us that was home, not a travel destination. However, Joburg has a ton of things going for it, which you can read all about in What to Do in Joburg.

I'm sure some of you will disagree with the above list, as there are so many more beautiful South African destinations. I'd love to hear about them, so please leave a comment!
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A Man With a Sack, Some Old Boots, and a Naked Baby: Merry Crazy Christmas!

December 11, 2014

In my previous post, I argued that expat children don't have such a hard lot, considering they typically get the benefit of every holiday they've encountered in the various cultures they were thrown into, often with the bonus of all the presents that come with that holiday.

Our four children are a good example when it comes to Christmas and all the German traditions we celebrate. As I often get questions as to how these traditions actually work, I thought I'd elaborate in more detail. Also, this gives me a chance to vent just a teensy bit about my Christmas-induced stress levels.

So pour yourself a large cup of coffee and find out how your life right now at this time of year, no doubt hectic on its own merits, could be even crazier.

St. Nicholas with a sack full of presents


On the 6th of December, we Germans celebrate Nikolaustag, St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas was an ancient Saint with a bishop's hat who walked around with a big sack full of presents he doled out to kids who'd been good. The ones who'd been bad would get a stick or switch from a pine tree (presumably to be beaten with). Something like that - I was too lazy to look up the exact history. The Dutch celebrate it too - Sinterklaas - except they do it the right way and REPLACE Christmas with it, so that they still end up with ONE holiday. Not so the Germans. We, of course, do both, at twice the amount of work for the behind-the-scenes mothers, excuse me, elves. Although in German tradition there are no elves. We will get to who makes and brings the presents in a little while, just bear with me.

By the way, St. Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus on his way to become the United States' Christmas symbol of choice. They are both related. Except that St. Nicholas lives somewhere in the woods and nowhere near the North Pole. And he heroically carries his own sack, bent over, without additional transport in the form of reindeer. Leave it to the Americans to make Santa Claus travel in style and in an oversized (and probably gas-guzzling) vehicle.

Anyway, this is what happens on the 6th: The kids open the front door, and there are the boots they put out the night before (and presumably also cleaned, though that never happens at our house), neatly lined up, filled with what in the olden days were nuts and raisins and oranges, but nowadays of course is a ton of candy. Tiny chocolate Santa Clauses and such. Plus a present. Not a big one, more like a stocking stuffer, but still, it has to be thought about and purchased and wrapped. By, you guessed it, the person already overloaded with Christmas-themed preparations. Not sure how the boot tradition evolved. Probably just some mother who was pulling her hair out because her kids would never shine their boots, and who finally hit on the winning persuasive technique.

Boots just after the arrival of St. Nicholas. Note the boot full
of cat food on the right - if all presents were so easily picked!


An Advent calendar to count down the days


What German kids also get is an Adventskalender. An Advent calendar where you can open a door every day from December 1 until Christmas, to find a nice surprise behind it. In the olden days (which also includes my childhood), this surprise would be a picture of something. We'd get the same recycled calendar every year, a large panorama of some wintery scene, and behind each little door a picture of, say, a snowman, would be revealed to you. Other kids, even in those days, got one with chocolates behind those doors. You could buy them in every supermarket, but of course my mother never did. She did not believe in spoiling the kids, and she most of all didn't believe in chocolate.

But my husband had no such mother. HIS mother embroidered elaborate Advent calendars with little pockets in them, and every year she wrapped 24 little gifts she'd stuff into those pockets. Every year Noisette got his calendar with those presents, and of course he grew up to cherish this tradition.

You see where this is going, right? So our first son was born. As you're prone to do with your first child, you overachieve in everything. You decorate the room just so. You record everything in the baby book. You know his weight and height and where he scores on the curve. You puree your own baby food. And you create your first Christmas tradition. Your mother-in-law has helped out by embroidering and sending an Advent calendar to hang on the wall, and you proceed to wrap 24 perfect little presents for your precious baby who doesn't even know what's going on.

I wish somebody had smacked me over the head just then. I wish I had been able to see into the future and perform some simple calculations. 4 kids, 24 days until Christmas Eve - that makes for nearly 100 little presents to think about, buy, and wrap. I run out of tape every single year. And because I'm a procrastinator, I always spend the night before sequestered in my room and hunched over rolls of wrapping paper with a scissors all day, measuring, cutting, wrapping, taping, and generally cursing traditions the world over.

Advent calendars over the years...

...and in different houses.

Yearly Advent calendar wrapping craze

The result looking all pretty and making it all worth it

Don't be tempted to use tape as shortcut: By morning half of
these will be lying on the floor.

At our house, St. Nicholas brings the Advent calendar on the night to the 6th. I don't think this is any cultural tradition anywhere, that is just the story that emerged in our family. So I cheated fate out of 5 days, I suppose. Big deal. 19 days times 4 kids still makes you wrap till your fingers bleed. The embroidered wall calendars with pockets are long gone, because the gifts never seemed to fit into them, so now the presents are hung from the banister of the staircase in whichever house we happen to live in at the moment. Sometimes, St. Nicholas takes shortcuts - no wonder, after all that wrapping, and all the wine that needs to be consumed to complete it without going insane - and tries to affix the presents with tape, which is much quicker than ribbon, but then they start popping off during the night and litter the floor by morning in a very unholy looking mess, and need to be re-affixed with string after all. It's better to do it the right way from the start.

Then you get a breather of barely over two weeks. In which you scramble like crazy buying everyone Christmas presents, the ones you had no time for earlier because every single present-related thought of yours went into suitable Advent calendar gifts.

The (logistical) nightmare on Christmas Eve


Then, on Christmas Eve, when it has just gotten dark, our kids get to open their Christmas presents, all arranged in neat little (or rather big) piles around the living room while a fire crackles in the chimney and Christmas songs play on the stereo (we do not make them sing songs around the tree like I was made to do as a child). We do make them go to church, however, not only as a nod to the birth of Jesus but also for the very practical reason of getting them out the house so that SOMEBODY can arrange the presents they get surprised with after coming back from church.

This is where I take my hat off to the Americans: Ever practical, they fabricated the legend so that Santa Claus drops into the chimney in the middle of the night, meaning parents have all the time in the world arranging presents under the tree while drinking eggnog into the wee hours while the kids are sound asleep. You could even be smoking pot while laying out the goodies, and no one would be the wiser. Whereas German parents have real stress: How to get the presents under the tree in broad daylight without the kids noticing?

My parents solved this problem the way all German parents did in those days: They put the living room off limits and under lock and key for three whole days. Dinners were confined to the kitchen, and the goings-on in the forbidden room were all very mysterious and enticing. We couldn't stand not knowing what was going on. On Christmas Eve, when it was finally time, a bell would ring from that room, and we entered a magical scene in a room transformed: All was dark, except for the (real) candles on the (real) Christmas tree, there were stacks of the Christmas cookies my mom had baked and hidden away over the last three weeks (or I should say what was left of them, because her hiding places were never quite able to withstand the hungry determination of my brother and myself in discovering them), there was a doll house and toy grocery shop that got only put out at Christmas time, and there were the glorious piles of our presents, still very much out of reach because we first had to sing (and play the recorder) around the tree.

I still get delicious shivers 40 years later just recalling the glorious sight.

Alas, American houses are not built in any way conducive to putting an entire room into quarantine in this fashion. Houses have open floor plans with the kitchen at the center of everything, and unless you want to celebrate Christmas in the garage, everyone sees everything that's going on. Which is why it would have been VERY wise for us to just go ahead and adopt Santa, reindeer, chimney and all, and be done with it. Like I said, someone should have smacked me over the head back when our first child was born, and shown me the practical way. Instead, we have spent countless Christmas Eves concocting the most elaborate schemes to lure the kids away while one of us stayed behind to stealthily - and frenetically - drag presents from basement to living room. We've gone on drives to watch the pretty lights, we've had one of us "forget" something on the way to church and have to go back to the house, we've bribed a friend to put out the presents for us. I was very relieved the day the last of our kids caught on to the scheme so that they now happily play along with our shenanigans.

Yet another dude with a red coat, or a naked baby


Why all this mystery, you might ask? WHO brings those presents that it has to be so secretive? Having already used up St. Nicholas earlier in the month on December 6th, this is where it gets tricky. In Northern Germany - where there are more Protestants - it is the Weihnachtsmann, the guy they call Father Christmas in England and who looks suspiciously similar to St. Nicholas. Presumably he comes again two weeks later in the same costume but under a different name and brings presents all over again. Weird. So the Southern Germans - who are more heavily Catholic - came up with their own idea: Let's have the Christkind - Baby Jesus - bring the presents! That's right, little Baby Jesus flying around the world carrying armloads full of presents and delivering them to deserving children. Or wait, not just deserving, ANY children. As far as I can remember there were no strings attached. Apparently little Baby Jesus showers the world's children with presents indiscriminately.

Incidentally, Chris Kringle (whom I'm not sure who worships - is it the English? Americans in some parts?) is derived from that same Christkind - Christkindl in Bavarian German - which got butchered into Chris Kringle. I'm curious: What does Chris Kringle wear? I honestly don't think the world can support yet another bearded guy clad in red with a sleigh full of presents.

In my childhood room, there were mounted on the wall two fat rosy-cheeked cherubs blowing into trumpets. Why my parents thoughts this was the proper decoration of a little girl's room, I have no idea. They probably just needed a place to put them. In any case, because I was staring at those angels most of the year when I couldn't go to sleep, I always imagined Baby Jesus looking just like them: Happy, plump, and bare-bottomed. I never once reflected on how he could possibly carry any presents like that, or whether he mightn't be a wee bit cold, what with it being winter and him naked and all. I didn't care about any of that, I just loved him for bringing me the magic of Christmas.

This gives me comfort in that I hope my kids were equally unquestioning and faithful in their belief when they were younger. Because God - or, in the event, Baby Jesus - knows our traditions made no real sense. In fact, they were downright creepy. I mean, a man with a sack who might go around beating kids, and a naked baby? My Catholic Southern German self had won out and we had settled on Baby Jesus versus Father Christmas, but by virtue of our kids spending most of their lives in the U.S., they also believed in Santa Claus. What happened was that we'd talk about the Christkind in our German conversations, and about Santa Claus when we were speaking English. I'm a logical person, and all this back and forth, with St. Nicholas and the Advent calendars thrown in on top, made me cringe every year at the outrageous improbability of it all. It doesn't make sense!, I wanted to scream. Just like there shouldn't exist different voltages and different TV broadcasting standards and anything but the metric system for measurements the world over, there shouldn't be different and conflicting Christmas legends. It should all be standardized!

But the thing is, when you're a kid and you're getting presents, you don't give a sh*t who's the one bringing them.
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An Expat Kind of Holiday

December 8, 2014

There is a lot of literature out there about the expat child. How to make the transition easier for him or her, how to ease the pressures, how to make sure they don't lose their identity with all those international moves. There are psychologists employed by companies who consult expat families, and soon-to-be expat ones, who design workshops where kids get to role-play to know how to deal with new cultural situations, who generally make sure that the poor expat child does not suffer too much from the hardships visited upon him with yet another move.

But has anyone ever stopped to look at the other side of the coin? Because being an expat child has one HUGE upside: They get to celebrate every holiday tradition they've ever come in contact with on all their travels. I know this, because I'm one of the elves (also known as mothers) working tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all come together.

Take our kids. Having two full-blooded German parents, they get all the German Christmas traditions. Which are elaborate, let me tell you. We Germans never do anything half-assed.

On the 6th of December, they get their boots filled with candy and presents by St. Nicholas, the dude who later went on to become Santa Claus in the United States and by extension the world, yet still lingers in parts of the old world to surprise kids in early December.

Normally outside, but this time inside due to rain.
Note the boot for the cat!
On the 6th of December, our kids also get their own Advent calendar each. Individually wrapped little presents for each day until Christmas, to help pass the time and count down the days, because of course they have nothing to do and are bored out of their minds, while SOMEONE, presumably St. Nicholas, labors away on their behalf.

On Christmas Eve, our kids get to open their Christmas presents, just like their American counterparts get to do the morning after. So that's more or less the same.

But since we live in the United States, we also have to do all the other stuff Americans do at Christmas time. Which seems to mainly involve decorating everything to death. Americans LOVE decorating. And my girls pestered me long enough about everyone else's pretty Christmas lights that I caved and now spend a whole day perched on ladders, the wind whistling around me, nudging chains of white and green lights over uncooperative branches with a converted broom handle I manufactured just for that purpose. Every year half the lights from last year no longer work, no matter how lovingly you wound them up, and so this involves yet another shopping trip to the mall dodging all the other millions of people who are out shopping.

We have to also do cookie exchanges. In which you never get back the same quality of cookies you've baked yourself, so that your husband gets mad that none of the good cookies are left and that he now has to eat a Rolo topped with a peanut posing for a Christmas cookie.

Christmas baking. I love it, I do, but it would be more fun without
all the other Christmas stress around it.


And we have to give the teachers Christmas presents, which might involve more cookie baking or some other elaborate and thoughtful gift like a personalized bookmark or notepad.

We also have to make sure to give presents i.e. cash-stuffed envelopes to the bus driver, newspaper delivery man or woman, the trash people, the mailman, and all the staff at school. All these are extras I would not have to do in Germany. Germans don't seem to value their teachers and bus drivers in quite the same way. Perhaps this is ok because teachers and bus drivers certainly make a lot more money over there.

Of course our kids also get to do Halloween. Which over the years has involved a lot of sewing and crafting and pumpkin carving on my part. When we moved to South Africa, I harbored hopes of escaping Halloween for a couple of years, but no, the custom seemed to have moved overseas ahead of us and I was stuck sewing costumes there too.

This year's pumpkins. The kids are now old enough to carve their own.


The only thing I was able to escape in South Africa was Thanksgiving. Since the kids didn't have off from school for it, they plumb forgot about it. I did my best not to bring it up, and I was giddy with relief over having dodged all that cooking. Which of course I really didn't because South Africans braai around the clock. There is always some meat to prepare for grilling in a South African kitchen. There were a ton of new holidays to be celebrated, none of which I understood, except that they involved yet another braai with friends over and beer and a stash of biltong so large it could have nourished a whole clan of Voortrekkers discovering another continent.

Of course now we are back in the U.S. and the gigantic turkey plus 18 side dishes is back on the menu. The only holiday tradition we've so far seemed to evade is Elf on a Shelf, by virtue of our kids being too old for the children's book when it came out.

One of the 18 Thanksgiving side dishes, acorn squash.

I doubt our kids are the only ones with double and triple whammies for holiday traditions. I'm sure there are a lot of other expat kids out there gleefully rubbing their hands at all the bonus stuff they get. And I bet they are accompanied by a lot of very exhausted expat mothers just like me.

By the way, this is the short form of our Holiday traditions. You'll be able to read all about St. Nicholas and the Advent calendars and Christmas at our house in my next post. Just pour yourself a coffee as it will be a long one.

Are you an expat? Share your traditions!

Other Christmas-related posts on Joburg Expat:
Christmas in Joburg and Where to Find a Tree
A Proper Fake Christmas Tree
The Spirit of Christmas
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How Can I Get a Job as an Expat in South Africa?

December 3, 2014

I always get a lot of questions from future expats, i.e. the people sitting in England and Bulgaria and Ghana and China and the Ukraine with a moving date to Johannesburg lined up in 5 months. Or the ones where the company has just broached the possibility of a South African assignment, leaving them in a panic about all the crime there. These people always have tons of questions and I love that they all come to me with them. That's what I started my blog for in the first place.

Most find all their questions answered after carefully reading my blog for a few days. Of course, there are always those lazy ones who shoot me an email with the first question that pops into their heads, not bothering to even search for the topic on my blog where most likely there is a perfectly fine article I've written on that very subject. Needless to say, I don't usually have time to answer those.

But the one glaring hole a diligent researcher will find on my blog is how to find a job. (Still, please don't send me an email, as happens more than you think, with "I need a job, please give me one" - I won't answer those either.)

The reason I haven't written about how to find a job is that I haven't done it. My job was to just get us there, battle with Eskom and Vodacom and the City of Joburg for a few years, and be a travel agent for a family of six. More than full-time employment, let me tell you. But not paid very well.

When just a few days ago I was asked once again how to find a job, I realized that while I can't speak from first-hand experience, I do have some thoughts on the topic worth sharing. Here they are:

  1. South Africa is among the countries with very high unemployment, but skilled workers are scarce and therefore sought after. Finding work as a foreigner is possible, especially in the right professions, but it isn't easy.
  2. South Africa, since 1994, has had an affirmative action policy in place trying to address the glaring inequality. It is called BEE for Black Economic Empowerment and has the goal to give previously disadvantaged groups of South Africans (like Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese who arrived before 1994) economic privileges. It is a complicated system awarding companies points in a number of ways, but the gist of it is that it makes finding employment hard for anyone not belonging to these groups. Small businesses are exempted, but they might face pressure from their larger business clients who are intent on improving their own scoring by subcontracting to BEE compliant companies, so in the end it applies across the board. I don't mean to judge this system - others have done that - but wanted to offer a little background on which difficulties expats face when finding a job, beyond the normal difficulties you typicall find as a foreigner in any country. Technically, you are subject to visa regulations that affect everyone coming to South Africa equally without regard to race, but our experience has been that this is not always the case. 
  3. Work visa: In order to work in South Africa you will need a work permit (now also called work visa). I've written extensively about all the various types of residence permits including work permits in Applying for a Visa for South Africa, so check that out first. What makes obtaining a work permit difficult is this requirement: "Work permits are issued only to foreigners where South African citizens with the relevant skills are not available for appointment."  Knowing South African bureaucracy (ha!), this is highly dependent on the person that actually gets to approve your case, and how many humiliating trips you've made to their office. My guess is, if the company you are wanting to work for is interested enough in you, they will help you get it done. But since I didn't know anything about this process, I recently asked someone who's done it, and this is their take: The best way to get a work permit is to find a company who is willing to hire you and sponsor you for a permit, just like I said. The rules are always changing, but in general it's not that difficult. What you do is create a job description that suits you perfectly and that no one else can fulfill. Say you speak Mongolian and Finnish, and are skilled in building yurts out of reindeer hide, and let's say you seek employment with a manufacturer of outdoor goods. What you do is have your employer advertise a job for someone who speaks Mongolian and Finnish to communicate with the suppliers of reindeer pelts in their country of origin (if, indeed, there are such suppliers - you can't totally make it up) and is able to supervise the manufacturing process locally. You collect the resumes that come in after a day of advertising and document why you are more qualified than any of them, which shouldn't be too hard, considering there probably aren't any South Africans who speak Finnish and Mongolian (there probably aren't any people who do, but bear with me and my example). This should get you approved with Home Affairs, and all that remains is collecting all the paperwork such as police reports, health certificates, and so forth. All in all this could be done in 2-3 months.
  4. Critical skills: If you have a skill critical to the Republic of South Africa, you can apply for a critical skills visa. Meaning they'll give you the work visa regardless of whether you have a job offer, because they need you and have trouble finding people doing that job. It's actually a very extensive list. If you have a skill ranging from sheep shearer, millwright, and architect all the way to doctor and geophysicist, if you work in cosmology and dark energy or cosmic magnetism, or if you're an engineer of pretty much any stripe or flavor, you qualify. Also, speaking a foreign language more or less automatically puts you on that list, so many expats will have one leg up in this regard. 
  5. Don't work in South Africa without a valid visa or permanent residence status. Doing so may result in your being placed on the undesirable persons list, which means you can be denied entry in the future. One exception: teachers at international schools are apparently allowed to work on visitor visas. But I'd still make sure this is the case before you begin any employment.
  6. Finding a job in South Africa, if you're not being transferred there, will entail hard work, just like anywhere else. You'll have to research companies, send resumes, call, cajole, beg, and generally be a total pain in someone's ass, if you want to get ahead. But my take on it is this: Expats are expensive, and more and more global companies are moving away from expat employment towards local contracts. If you are already a local and a company won't have to pay for your relocation and your kids' schooling, you are much more attractive to them than someone in the home country. So in my mind your best bet is to start with multinational companies with headquarters in your home country and offices in South Africa (of course your spouse's company being the first option), like banks and insurance etc. It's hard to find people with good skills in South Africa, since education is still so far behind, and a lot of companies want people with special skills or even general office skills, which you likely possess. It's just a matter of them wanting you badly enough that they jump through the visa hoops for you.
  7. One option is to check with the embassy of your home country. They often have jobs available that go to their own citizens. I'm not sure if you'd still need a South African work visa to work there but it can't be quite so difficult to obtain one, given that you're not taking a potential job from a local. If your embassy doesn't have job openings, it might still be able to provide information for your job search or be of assistance in some way.
  8. Another avenue for job opportunities are aid organizations like USAID or the Clinton Global Initiative. You might find an outright job with one of them, or if you're a photographer or writer, they might give out occasional freelance assignments. There are a ton of aid organizations based in South Africa (and again, your embassy might have a list of your particular country's efforts in this regard).
  9. Volunteering is always an option, either at one of those aid organizations or the many other charitable institutions, orphanages, schools, sports for the underprivileged - the list is endless. Of course this may not be what you're looking for since you're probably interested in making money, but while you're searching for a job and/or waiting for a visa, this may be a good way to stay occupied and connect with people. Read Volunteer Opportunities in  South Africa for more info. 
  10. If all else fails, retiring in South Africa is also an option. Of course it won't be cheap, but neither is it cheap anywhere in the world, so you might as well consider South Africa when that time comes. It's got some great things going for it - great weather, affordable domestic help, reasonable cost of living - and obtaining a retired persons' permit/visa is doable. The reason I list it here in this blog post about jobs is that if you apply for permanent resident status on the basis of a retired persons' permit, you are allowed to work.
That's all I have, please share your own experiences!


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Why Rugby Beats Football

November 27, 2014

Today is Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, which means that right now around the United States men of all ages (and many women too) are gathered around family TVs to urge on their favorite football team, while delicious smells of roast turkey and sweet potatoes are wafting in from the kitchen.

So I thought it's time I talked about... rugby!

Before moving to South Africa, I knew almost nothing about rugby, its national sport. I knew it was similar to football. American football, that is, because football is really soccer. Much like in American football, an odd-shaped ball that does not lend itself well to kicking or throwing had to be kicked and carried and tossed and ultimately moved into the opponent's endzone to score points. Except that with rugby the players were mostly crazed-looking Australians and preferred to ram into each other without the benefit of helmets, or really any padding for that matter.

I got to know rugby quite well by watching the Dainfern College 8th grade rugby team. 

A few years later, the Ravenwood high school rugby team in Tennessee
That was the extent of my knowledge of rugby when I watched my first game in April of 2010. I didn't actually want to watch it, but we were stuck in the Waterberg on Easter weekend, and it was raining cats and dogs for four days straight. Going out in a game drive vehicle was relegated to the sporadic bouts of sunshine far and in between, so most of the time we were cooped up indoors, with the choice of either watching the staff put buckets under the roof where it leaked ("It never usually rains here this time of year," we were told) or watching rugby on TV, at least until the power would go off again.

The game is almost never interrupted


It didn't take long for me to be pleasantly surprised. In just that one first game, I observed all the ways in which rugby, in my mind, is superior to football.

First, and most importantly, there are almost no interruptions to the game. A player will run with the ball, he will be tackled, he will be down, and lo and behold, that doesn't mean that all activity stops, like in football, to reassemble the line and have another go at a second down. What rather happens is brilliant: The player who is down will shelter the ball with his body from the opponents, who are only allowed on their side of it, and he will nudge it towards his own teammates on the other side, who make sure by pushing the opponents in what is called a ruck that they remain in possession of the ball. Another player lined up behind the ruck will eventually pick it up and make another run, or the ball might be passed down the line to the outside of the field and all the way back again, until a hole is found in the defensive line through which the player might run to score, or until he is tackled again and the procedure starts anew, all without a single annoying break.

Interruptions only occur when there is a foul or the ball goes out of bounds, in which case it is put back into play by a line-out, a move that also involves a player called a hooker. Rugby isn't short on interesting terminology. My favorites are mulligrubber, sin bin, and tighthead.

A good example of a ruck

You get to watch beautiful bodies


The second reason I prefer rugby over football is the fact that it is less specialized. No separate teams for offense and defense and punt-returns, just one crew of very physically fit specimens of the human race where everyone gets to more or less do everything. Sure, there are numerous specialized positions in rugby too, like the aforementioned hooker - a term that never ceases to offend a few upright mothers on American girls' rugby teams - or scrum-half. But more or less anyone needs to be strong and be able to run fast, which results in a lot of beautiful bodies you get to look at when watching a rugby match on TV.

If there is one complaint I have about rugby, it is the fact that the ball is only ever thrown underhand. In fact, it can only be passed laterally or backwards, meaning it usually gets passed to the side and slightly back, all the way down the line in search of an opening in the defense. Somehow, throwing a ball underhand seems girly to me. Same in softball pitching versus baseball; I hate it. But of course there is nothing else that's girly in rugby, and as I said, those glistening muscled bodies more than make up for the unmanly underhand tosses.

In rugby you also get to watch interesting facial hair. Hard to see here, but follow the arrow.

A "try" means you actually succeeded


All in all, rugby is pretty straightforward. When you run the ball into the endzone, you score what's called a try for 5 points, and subsequently kicking it between the goal posts gets you another point. Similar to football, you can also score 3 points by kicking a drop or penalty goal. There are 15 players on a team, 8 forwards and 7 backs,

Another reason I prefer rugby over football is that tackles are only allowed on the player who currently has the ball. This results in a lot less senseless ramming into each other, and it promotes agility in all players. You are not forced to compete against people the size and heft of a pickup truck with guts hanging halfway to the ground. Banging your head into someone or grabbing them by the neck is also not allowed, so that oddly the sport without helmets ends up being safer for your head. Not entirely - as a rugby mom I have had to live with the scare of concussions much more than I ever wanted to, along with the dislocated shoulders and thumbs - but in general rugby does not seem to be plagued by head injuries on the same scale as football.

Ever since the movie Invictus, of course, you might know a little bit more about rugby, even as an American who's spent his or her life blissfully unaware of it. If you haven't seen it, do so. It's brilliant. Less about rugby and more about Nelson Mandela, but must-see in any case.


Another must-see in the world of rugby is watching the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka:


If you haven't yet, go on, watch a rugby match and see for yourself. I can't promise you a delicious slice of turkey breast with gravy to go with it, but who knows, you might become a convert.

More posts on South African sports in the eyes of an expat:


What the Hell is Netball? Or: You mean, you call taking away the backboard and the dribbling and the three-point-line from basketball can still be called a sport?

Must the Ball Go Over the Plate? Or: Yes the ball must go over the plate! And there is something called a strike zone! And the batter must not hit it all those other times it is way out of the strike zone! And by the way please do call it batter and not batswoman! And while we're at it, the pitcher is not a bowler! And what's wrong with the word steal that you've made it into sneak? And we call it base running for a reason, so please tell your children to hurry up and get there... And other reasons why South Africans should perhaps stick to cricket and not try themselves at softball.

What is a Ballbox? Or: The new equipment you might have to buy for your kids playing a sport in a new country, and what that says about the psyche of said country.

Cricket for Expats. Or: The game in a nutshell as explained by What is a Googly by Rob Eastaway, which is hilarious.


Don't miss out: FREE Kindle download until Sat, Nov 29 2014 of Kilimanjaro Diaries, a Travel Memoir. 
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Applying for a South African Visa

November 24, 2014

If you're an expat sent to South Africa by your multinational company, in all likelihood your visa is being sourced for you by the company lawyer, and all you have to do is gather the documents they tell you to gather (which, trust me, is painful enough).

However, you might just decide to move to South Africa on a whim. Or join your fiance, who is South African (this seems to happen quite a bit, at least to the group of people who contact me for advice). Or join your expat spouse and decide you also want to work.

Let's get some terminology out of the way first. The piece of paper or rather the stamp you need in your passport to enter the country is called a visa. That's just to get in. If you want to work, you need a work permit. However, the new visa regulations issued this year apparently have changed the word work permit to work visa, although the Home Affairs webpage doesn't seem to be updated to that effect. I am therefore using both terms interchangeably.

Types of Visa


Basically, there are three different ways a foreigner can legally reside in South Africa: As a visitor, a temporary resident, or a permanent resident. 

Visitor


If you're a visitor, most likely you won't require a visa because you are visa exempt. Most Western countries are on that list. In that case you will receive your visa stamp in your passport upon arrival. It is, however, important that your passport be valid for 6 more months, and that you have at least one 2 consecutive blank pages in it where the visa can be stamped. If not, this is what can happen

Please also note that sometime in 2015, the new regulation requiring parents to carry an unabridged birth certificate for their minor children accompanying them will go into effect. It was introduced in 2014 but put on hold due to huge backlogs in issuing such birth certificates for South African children. Foreign birth certificates are typically already unabridged.

As a visitor to South Africa, you're allowed to stay in the country for 90 days. After that, or if you want to study or work in South Africa, you need to apply for temporary residence. 

Temporary Residence


This is the category most expats will (at least initially) fall into. To live, work, and study in South Africa, you and your dependents will need a temporary residence permit of some form (one exception I have come across: teachers at international schools are allowed to work on a visitor's visa). As mentioned above, as of this year (2014), there are new visa regulations in place (for a brief summary click here). The big change is that expats can no longer enter the country on a visitor’s visa and then apply for the work permit, which is exactly what we did, because it was quicker that way. Nowadays, you have to apply for your work visa at a South African embassy in your country and wait for it to be granted before you (or your family) can enter South Africa. I know it's not great news, but the good part is that apparently South African embassies in foreign countries are a ton more efficient than Home Affairs.

The types of temporary residence permits are:

  • Business permit
  • Work permit
  • Study permit
  • Exchange permit
  • Retired Persons' permit
  • Relatives' permit
  • Medical treatment permit

Most of these permit categories are self-explanatory. A business permit requires that you have a ton of money, like ZAR 2.5 million, and most likely isn't feasible for most expats. As an expat, the subcategory you most likely will fall into is as work permit holder, see more on the different types of work permits below.  Another permit worth pursuing is the retired persons' permit, more on that also below.

Permanent Residence


If you're neither a prohibited or undesirable person (like when you've overstayed a visa previously, though you can be rehabilitated again), you may become a permanent resident. The advantage is that you automatically are allowed to work in South Africa without an employer sponsoring you (much the same as it is for the American Green Card). 

There are two avenues to obtain permanent resident status in South Africa: First, you can apply for permanent residence once you've lived in South Africa as a temporary resident for 5 years, or if you're a dependent of a permanent resident. It's called a Direct residence permit

The other, lesser-known avenue is a so-called Residency-on-other-grounds permit. You can qualify, if you:
  • are in possession of a permanent work offer in South Africa, or
  • have exceptional skills and qualifications
  • intend to establish a business in South Africa
  • qualify as refugee
  • qualify as retired person
  • are financially independent
  • are relatives of a South African citizen/permanent residence permit holder
Some of these overlap with the temporary residence categories above. From what I gather, this means that you can hold one of those temporary residence permits and use them as "other grounds" to apply for permanent residence without waiting the full 5 years.

I'm not sure where exactly the so-called Life Partner visa falls, as I couldn't find it listed, but would assume it's in one of these two permanent residence categories. The terminology keeps changing, so please forgive me. More details on permanent residence status can be obtained here

Visa Application


To apply for a temporary residence visa, you will need:

  • Two passport photographs 
  • Passport valid for 30 days or more after the date of intended departure from South Africa (elsewhere, 6 months are mentioned, so make that your minimum)
  • Medical report (this is a form your doctor has to sign, mainly stating that you are not insane)
  • Chest X-ray dated within one year of application proving the applicant does not have tuberculosis (for anyone 12 years of age and over)
  • Full birth certificate 
  • Police clearance certificates for applicants 18 years and older in all countries where they resided for one year or longer (I doubt they will go back and check every place you lived, so for simplicity I'd say it's sufficient to provide this for the place you currently reside, if that's also your country of birth; in our case, we were born in Germany, coming from the U.S., and one of our children was born in Singapore, so we felt we had to get police clearances from all three countries - a major pain!
  • Completed application form 

You may also need a Yellow Fever certificate if coming from an at-risk country. And other documents may be needed for other types of visas, i.e. bank statements and financial documents. Check out all visa requirements here.

Visa Renewal


Visa renewals can still be handled from within South Africa, even  under the new visa regulations. But I think you now have to wait until the renewal is granted before you can leave the country, whereas before you could simply prove that you had applied and that was enough. Not anymore. Enter the Department of Home Affairs and a long (and probably frustrating) wait. Start early with your renewals!

Work Permit


A work permit is what you need to be allowed to work in South Africa if you are NOT a permanent resident. The types of work permits include:

  • Intra-company-transfer work permit
  • General work permit
  • Critical skills work permit
If you're being moved to South Africa by a multinational company, the subcategory you most likely will fall into is an Intra-company transfer work permit. In this case your company will have taken care of the permit by getting a lawyer working on it, and it might simply be annoying because it's taking too much time, as such things are bound to do in South Africa. But as a general rule it won't likely be denied. It used to be valid for 2 years and was renewable thereafter, but if I understand the new visa regulations mentioned earlier correctly, it is now valid for 4 years but no longer renewable. I'm not sure what happens to expats after those 4 years, still short of one year to apply as permanent residents.

If you don't have a company that is moving you - meaning you're probably the spouse and moved to South Africa with someone who already has a work permit and now want to find a job of your own - you would have to qualify for a General work permit. This will be more difficult. The difficulty stems from this little sentence: "Work permits are issued only to foreigners where South African citizens with the relevant skills are not available for appointment." As opposed to an Intra-company transfer work permit, where your only requirement is that you have to have been employed by your company for 6 months prior to moving to South Africa, a General work permit requires your would-be employer to prove that they haven't found a South African to do the job. I will be talking more about this process in How Can I Find a Job as an Expat in South Africa.

Critical Skills


I'm making this its own subheading because I'm not sure it still falls under the work permit category anymore. The Home Affairs website hasn't been updated, but from what I understand the new visa regulations have combined what was formerly the exceptional skills work permit and the quota work permit, and combined it under critical skills.

If you have a skill critical to the Republic of South Africa, you can apply for a Critical skills visa, which is not dependent on an existing job offer. Here is the very extensive list of official critical skills. 

From what I understand, a Critical skills visa is open-ended. It is valid for 5 years at a time, but will automatically be renewed. So for all intents and purposes, until something changes again in the regulations, this will allow you to stay in South Africa permanently, or at least the required 5 years, at which time you can apply for permanent residency.

It says somewhere in the small print that you have to find a job in your area of critical skill within 90 days. But it also says that you can file for an extension.

Retirement


I have friends who recently retired in South Africa, so I thought I would provide some first-hand information they gave me. 

Basically, they applied for the Retired persons' permit in the temporary residence category. It's valid for 4 years at a time, and renewable indefinitely. As soon as they arrived, they filed their application for permanent residence, on the basis of the retiree permit. This would save them the trouble of renewing every 4 years, and also gives them work permits. The processing time for this is estimated to be 18-24 months.

If you have obtained the Retired persons' visa already, you apply in the "residency-on-other-grounds" category for permanent residence. There is no waiting period. It's not exactly "easy" to obtain the retired visa. They were closely scrutinized, particularly on the financial criteria. Had to have everything notarized, certified, etc. by a chartered accountant. An easier option is probably the "independently wealthy" category, but this carries a ridiculous, non-refundable fee of ZAR 175,000 R, so my friends decided against it. They just had to jump through a few more hoops to show that their "net worth" equaled the requirement of the monthly payout on an "irrevocable annuity".

Check out this guest post for more information on retiring in South Africa (especially if you are British).

I got a good laugh out of the "We Care" message on the Home Affairs website. 

Lastly, you should familiarize yourself with visa types and requirements on the Department of Home Affairs website. Everybody hates Home Affairs, especially those who've stood in line only to be sent home again to collect more paperwork, but the website covering all the visa information is actually not bad (except for the fact that it hasn't been updated with the latest regulations and that some of its terminology is rather confusing).

I know this is a lot to read and process and probably still doesn't cover everything, but I hope it gives you some clarity and a good start to your move to South Africa. I welcome all your comments, especially if I've left anything off that needs mentioning.

Good luck!
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10 Must-Read Articles for Expats Moving to South Africa

November 17, 2014

As Joburg Expat is nearing its 600th blog post and its 1 millionth page view, I can't help but feel that I've already shared everything there is to know about life in South Africa.

All you have to do is start at the beginning of my blog and read. And read and read. Believe it or not, there are actually people who do just that, and who then shoot me a gushing email on how grateful they are for the help. This always warms my heart and I do appreciate the feedback.

However, not everyone has the time to slog through my blog one entry at the time, or even zero in on certain topics by using the tabs across the top (which, I do have to mention, I am insanely proud of as they required quite a bit of HTML programming at the time).

Thus, the idea of giving expats a top-10 list of must-read articles from my blog (and from other websites I've written for) was born. A reading list covering every main topic from finding a school, renting a house, registering a car, finding a bank, and so on, up until the very important matter of booking a safari once the container is unpacked. It was really  hard to pick just ten items, but I think I've come up with a good list of essentials. Also, some of this is specific to Johannesburg, but I think that you'll find almost all of it useful no matter where in South Africa you choose to settle.

Without further ado, here it is:

Expat Moving to South Africa? Start HERE


  1. TO MOVE OR NOT TO MOVE:
     
    At the beginning of any expat move comes the decision. It's never easy, but it becomes a little easier when you are able to throttle fear and worry and instead allow yourself to become excited about the place you might soon call your home. Read Top 10 Reasons to Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate, even if your destination is another South African city - most of it will apply there too.
  2. SCHOOL:
     
    I didn't use to have this at the very top of the list, but space in both private and international schools in Johannesburg (and from what I've heard, even more so in Cape Town) has become extremely limited in the last few years, and so researching and selecting a school for your children is the number one priority. Read all about South African Schools and link from there to the list of private schools in Johannesburg.


  3. HOUSE:
     
    You've got the job lined up (or so I presume, it being the reason you're likely moving to South Africa), and you've found a school and hopefully reserved a spot or put your child on the waitlist, so now the third piece of the puzzle in the triumvirate of location is where to live. Reading Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1 is the best place to start, linking to Part 2 and other topics from there. If you're moving to Cape Town, follow the link to Expat Arrivals in the housing article.

  4. DOMESTIC HELP:
     
    Hiring a maid may not be at the top of your list or even on your radar, but like every expat you will end up hiring a domestic worker and loving the lifestyle it brings with it. So you might as well read up on Hiring Domestic Help early and be prepared for when that first knock comes at your door, the very day you've moved in, with someone asking for a job. 



  5. CAR:
     
    Once you've arrived in South Africa, the first order of business is to find a car. Most South African cities, and Johannesburg most of all, do not distinguish themselves with their public transport system. In fact, they don't have much of one. You will need a car, and there is some bureaucracy attached to owning one. Start with How to Register a Car in South Africa, and link to the other car-related posts from the list in the sidebar.


  6. BANKING:

    There is such a flurry of things you must do upon arrival that it's hard to decide which one to pick first, but Opening a Bank Account in South Africa is one of the first things you'll need to do. Some expats somehow manage without a local bank account, but this has always sounded cumbersome to me. 




  7. DOCTORS:
     
    Hopefully, you don't need a doctor on the very first day of your expat stay, but you will want to go ahead and find  a general practitioner, dentist, orthodontist, and hospital of choice, as well as select a health insurance plan and make yourself familiar with all the emergency numbers. Read Going to the Doctor in South Africa for all this and more.



  8. TV/INTERNET/PHONE:


    Read TV, Internet, and Phone Service in South Africa to get these crucial services set up as soon as possible. Regarding internet, sign up for an uncapped plan, otherwise you (or, if not you, then your kids) will be frustrated by the low data cap, especially if you're planning on using a service like UnoTelly to stream channels from abroad. Be forewarned though that data speeds in South Africa are mostly slow.


  9. SHOPPING:

    I'm not so much talking about pleasure shopping here, that will come later. But right after moving to South Africa, especially if coming from the United States, you will need to acquire new appliances and perhaps TVs as well, and most likely adapter plugs and extension cords. And, horrors, there won't be any Amazon.com to order from. Read Where Can I Find an Alarm Clock? for a list of places to start looking.



  10. 10. SAFARI/TRAVEL:

    It's finally time to play! At some point in time, you have to stop wanting the perfect house and waiting around for "just now" calls from service providers that, frankly, will never come, and embark on adventure instead. South Africa and surroundings is full of it, and your days there as an expat are numbered. But there are so many options, you say. Read Help! Which Safari Lodge? to get started, and link to What to Do in Joburg from there.
There is, of course, a lot more you'll need to know, from visa issues to pet relocation, pool maintenance, gardening, grocery stores, traffic, sports, corruption, language, recycling, bureaucracy, and utilities, and I've written about all of those and more (I probably have 35 blog posts on Eskom, the power company, alone). But I think the above will give you an excellent start with your new life.

Enjoy!
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The Glory of Boredom

November 11, 2014

The following is another blog post I had started at the end of 2012 and inexplicably never finished, until coming across it in my drafts folder recently while cleaning up. Or perhaps not so inexplicably, considering that we were, well, in the midst of a move at the time.

A few days ago, the packers were here.

The house was a whirlwind of activity. I was running around like crazy directing and rescuing items from disappearing in the container (not diligently enough, it turns out, but that is a topic for another blog post), and then, opening the door to one of the kids' rooms, I witnessed a sight almost forgotten at our house:


It was a scene so calm and so enchanting, I almost cried. When did our kids last play Monopoly together? And an entire day of it, with not one of them storming off after half an hour yelling "your rules are stupid, I'm no longer playing!"

The reason, of course, was that there was nothing else to do. All the other toys were gone - except for the few board games Noisette had had the foresight to tell me to set aside - and the TV, horrors, was in the process of being unhooked and loaded, relegating the Xbox to a lonely existence next to the suitcases, rendered more or less useless.

The only time we ever play board games, in our hectic modern lives, seems to be when a natural disaster strikes. Like Hurricane Fran in Raleigh in 1996, which brought together neighbors helping each other and passing time in unconventional ways. Same with the ice storm a few years later. I suppose we can count moving households across international borders as another one of those natural disasters. Judging from the way your house looks during one, it's definitely comparable to a tornado.

Sometimes I wish that we could all return to a world where the kids play monopoly all day without having our houses first blown to smithereens. A time and day where they sit around their rooms bored out of their minds, trying to come up with some idea to pass the time. Which might be to build entire cities out of Lego bricks. Or organize a backyard olympics. Or play hide and seek. Or even make a YouTube video, for all I care, but together in a collaborative effort, not each one of them locked up in their own room with their very own screen.

Boredom was a big part of my childhood. I vividly remember sitting in my room staring out the window being bored. And, it being winter, watching all the birds in the backyard, and retrieving a bird guide from my parents' bookshelf and learning all about birds, just to beat the boredom. Or, when it was summer, I'd climb to the top of our cherry tree and look into the distance while stuffing my mouth with so many cherries I was sick for days afterwards. And worrying if what my older brother kept telling me, that if you swallow a cherry pit you'd have a tree growing out of your mouth, was actually true.

Of course there is no way for me to prove that boredom was indeed good for me. Maybe I would have moved on to win a Nobel Prize if my parents had scheduled my day around the clock, who is to say?

Although, speaking of Nobel Prizes, I did read that Einstein came up with most of his Relativity Theory while stuck in a totally non-demanding job as a clerk in a patent office. His mind wandered while he was stamping forms, and the rest is history, as they say.

There is so little time nowadays for boredom. We are so afraid of our kids being bored, we constantly keep them busy with homework and after-school activities and scheduled play dates, carefully choreographed and supervised so that no one's feelings get hurt, social integration without the pain of the olden days where you had to stand your ground in a street dodgeball match with a group of bullies.

I'm grateful our kids got to live in Africa for a while, where time seems to move a bit slower than here, and parents are less preoccupied with schedules and the need for some stupid charity program in preparation for their kids' college application.

Boredom may be the biggest gift we can pass on to our children.

I just wish we didn't have to pack up our entire household and move abroad every time we want to achieve it.

More boredom beaters: Throwing blueberries in each other's mouths...
...and a makeshift ping-pong game on Moving Day.
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I Procrastinate. And I'm GOOD at it!

November 6, 2014

I'll come right out and admit it. I'm a procrastinator.

This frequently gets me into hot water with Noisette, who is rather the opposite. He likes to get started so early on things that we often have to climb over mountains of clothes in our bedroom that he has piled in neat stacks two weeks prior to an upcoming travel date.

I'm not kidding. Two weeks!

Don't get me wrong. I don't like being behind on things. You get that terrible pit in your stomach when you're running late or an impossible deadline is looming, and  you curse yourself for waiting so long. You wow, by all that you hold dear, to never ever do it again to yourself. Yet the next deadline approaches, and you find yourself on the same exact track once again.

Why do we do it?

Because procrastination is a model of efficiency, that's why.

Also, there is another reason waiting till the last minute works: Some items just take care of themselves, because you waited too long. If there's one thing I have learned in my life, it is that the world will continue to turn, with or without you. Most things we fret over aren't life threatening and the Earth will not spin off its axle when we fail to accomplish them in time.

Procrastinate, people! It works!

Moving is a perfectly fine example. Back in December of 2012, when we were moving from South Africa back to the United States, I'd had the date the packers were going to arrive on my calendar for months. And for months I was busy doing things that were most decidedly not on my moving checklist.

Writing this blog.
Going to goodbye parties.
Squeezing in last-minute exotic trips.
Riding in a cycle race.
Climbing the world's highest free-standing mountain.

But finally, when there was no escaping the fact that the following week some guys would invade our house and put everything in boxes whether I wanted to or not, I sprang into high gear.

I sorted through school clothes to be sold or donated.
I sorted through 220V appliances and placed for-sale ads for them.
I wrote an advertisement for our domestic helper who'd soon be looking for a job.
I cleaned out three years worth of "stuff" from the girls' room, some of it to be donated, some of it to be thrown away, all in the dead of night lest they caught me at it and threw a fit.
I started collecting items for our suitcases (including the suitcases) in a separate room, one that I could lock so that the packers would leave it alone.
I put together all our bottles of alcohol to be given away (or get senselessly drunk on, I wasn't sure yet).
I selected and ordered rental furniture.
I researched and booked a carpet cleaning company.
I went to Amatuli to buy all the drums and spears and buffalo heads and all the other African crafts we wanted to take home with us.
I went by all the doctor's offices to collect our records.
I ordered several cases of Chardonnay from Franschhoek.

I did a lot more, but I'll end on the one with the Chardonnay. Priorities. Also, you get the point. The point is, I kicked into high gear when I really needed to, and I got a bazillion things checked off in a minimal amount of time, things I would have needed 3 years to do had I done them at regular speed.

Desperation makes you work super hard. You know, like when that lion is approaching and you can suddenly jump 4 meters high into the next tree. That's how I roll when I run out of time. I develop superhuman efficiency.

The reason we procrastinators procrastinate is because it works.

Now excuse me while I nag my daugher to clean up her room. And please don't tell her anything I just said about procrastination.

If you're not a procrastinator, learn how to become one from my kids. They're experts!

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