The Wild Things

January 19, 2015

Maurice Sendak, the legendary children's book writer and illustrator, once said that he modeled all the characters of his "Wild Things" after relatives - aunts and uncles who scared him as a child.

I was recently filing through the troves of safari pictures I amassed during our African travels, and I was struck by how many of these wild animal portraits resemble family portraits from the olden days. You know, the sepia ones where no one is smiling but instead staring at the camera as if they were on death row. Before ever going on a safari, I imagined having to stealthily track the wildlife and catching a brief glimpse before it got away. But often, it's nothing like that. Instead, these animals will stop in their tracks and stare at you just like you are staring at them, giving you a great photo op.

Here I've assembled my favorite such "family portraits" of my own Wild Things. If I was Maurice Sendak, I'd use the inspiration to write a children's book and become rich and famous.

"It's shameful what these young folk are wearing nowadays,
don't you think, Edna dear?"

"Have you heard about that new crazy dance... I think they
call it the Charleston?"

"For Chrissakes, Arthur, will you stop farting
and just stand still for a moment?"

"Mother, he keeps pushing me!"
"Just shut up and look at that man with the black box."

Sorry I couldn't resist. My grandmother circa 1913, far right,
with her parents, sister, and 3 brothers

"If they tell us to say cheese one more time, let's scratch them."

Grandma Hattie trying to shove her false teeth in place for the photo.

"You think they can see me?"

"What an awful bore standing still for this commoner who calls
himself an artist. I do hope tea and scones will be served soon!"

"Can you please tell me when it's over?"

"If I wanted to, I could kill you with one swipe."
"If I wanted to, I could kill you with my pointy mustache."
(an unspecified ancestor of Noisette's)

[blank; no thoughts whatsoever in there]

"And as I was saying... uh... wait, where were we?"

"You think we should rather show them our pretty butts like this?"

"One day they'll call this African Gothic. Wait, where's my

"Who needs a pitchfork with those horns?"

"...and then turn slightly to the side, like that, so you'll look
thinner. It will work wonders with those stripes!"

"I wonder if that black box sizzles if you spray it with water..."

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Africa House

January 12, 2015

One feature of my blog that I'm quite proud of but which gets the least attention is its Africa Bookshelf. I love reading, and I love telling others about the books I've read. While my passion for reading covers a wide range of topics, I particularly love to return time and time again to the Africa Bookshelf and add more works into the "read and reviewed" column.

The most recent such addition is The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream by Christina Lamb. Pour yourself some tea and sit back - this one turned out fairly long as I had bent over so many page corners to later quote from.

Africa House is an exquisite book. Reading it gives you perhaps one of the best descriptions of British colonial life in Africa in the early 20th Century that you will come across. And so much of what you find in Africa today is determined by its colonial past. In that sense the observations in Africa House are highly relevant for anyone with an interest in Africa.

The story of an extraordinary man

But it's more than a story about life in Africa. It is the life story of an extraordinary man, most likely one you've never heard of, but one who you'll come to love on these pages. His name is Stewart Gore-Browne, an English gentleman in the truest sense. He first came to Africa in 1914 as a young army lieutenant, on some sort of surveying commission with the British army, and when he went off to explore the land on his own at the end of his stay, he came across an enchanted piece of land in what today is Zambia but in those early days was called Northern Rhodesia. It was all part of the empire envisioned and relentlessly pursued by Cecil Rhodes in the late 1800s. When he first set eyes on the area on the banks of Lake Shiwa Ngandu that he had stumbled upon (a giant sapphire nestling in a bed of green hills), he knew with absolute certainty that he was going to come back and settle precisely on that spot by building a grand estate, even though he had no prior experience that might have qualified him for such a venture, nor an income giving him the financial means. World War I intervened and so it wasn't until 1920 that he came back and was able to realize his dream. It would take many years to come to full fruition (and, it can be argued, never achieved financial success).

What I love about Africa House is the way the author manages to tell a more or less ordinary person's life and makes it interesting. She leans heavily on Gore-Browne's diary and the many (thousands?) letters he wrote, most of those to his beloved Aunt Ethel back in England. In fact, even though she was some 15 years his senior, she was in many ways the love of his life, and the fact that he could not have her a great tragedy. Passages from his letters are seamlessly fed into the narrative so that it moves at a fast pace, yet gives the reader a distinct feel for the time and place and especially Gore-Browne's complicated personality.

On the one hand Gore-Brown was a hopeless snob, which most often shines through in his correspondence with his aunt, who of course was of similar upper-class breeding. For instance:  My gear looks so nice, the table with the clean white cloth, shining silver knives and the cockioly bird china cups, plates and teapot. They look like they belong to a person of substance. I loathe the kind of Englishman who travels with folding tables and enamel mugs as if he'd purchased all his things in a general store. At some point, he had to host impromptu visitors to the estate, Sir and Lady Vyvyan, who improbably stepped out of one of the early Imperial Air service planes when it was forced to land in the bush due to bad weather (Lady Vyvyan was very relieved to see white people. She told us that when they started hurtling down through the jungle, she and her husband had been imagining cannibals and witch doctors and all sorts.). Even though he had chosen a life far from everything and everyone he grew up with, he was always elated to have guests of his own background, even if it meant mobilizing his entire estate without any warning to put on a good show of hospitality. In this case, it meant putting hundreds of his men to work around the clock to straighten out a piece of land near the lake to use as an airstrip for the plane to take off from again.

But he also held a deep love of the natives, or Bantu as they were called then. He felt himself responsible for everybody he employed (in the heyday of the estate, those numbered in the thousands) or who was otherwise connected to Shiwa Ngandu, to the point of treating them like his children (Sometimes it is like dealing with children, even the most basic instructions go unheeded.) He was even reported to beat them when misbehaving, a fact that seems impossible to reconcile from today's vantage point. But as time passed, his view grew more nuanced (I used to have ideas of conferring patriarchal benefits on the Bantu but that's I'm afraid all moonshine. The natives don't want to e patriarched.). He eventually decided to enter politics (I know the problems of this place by now and would like to be involved in some kind of system where black and white can work together, he writes to Ethel). His views were quite progressive for the time: Hope for Africa lies not in segregation, repression by a dominant race or even some form of benevolent white autocracy though of course this is the tradition we were brought up in, but in a kind of partnership between the white and black races, however long that might take. There is a beautiful anecdote from 1946 of an incident in an African pub on the outskirts of Lusaka, where his manservant Henry had taken Gore-Browne one evening. White police officers entered the bar in a raid, and surprised to find "a gentleman" there, accused him of being a "bit of a kaffir lover are we?" for hanging out "in a nigger bar." Gore-Browne, who by then was a well-known politician in good standing, later recounts that he told him these people here have worked all day for a few pence. Their wives work and their children work. They probably haven't eaten meat since Christmas. While you are stuffing your fat faces with beer and chicken and slurping your whisky sodas, they are surviving on one bowl of watery porridge. And you begrudge them one bowl of millet beer you wouldn't even let your dog drink! A young native protege of his, Harry Nkumbula, who  had witnessed the scene, said of what happened: Tonight is the first time that I have ever seen a white man defend one of us against one of his own. My shame is that we cannot stand up for ourselves. But one day we shall have all the fine white words at our command and then you will be proud of us. 

The drive for equality and Zambia's independence

Ironically, it was his upper-class snobbism that left him so offended when common courtesies weren't extended to all people equally. If an African is in my house at teatime, I would naturally ask him to tea. It is a simple question of manners, he wrote to Ethel. And seeing the colour bar enforced, particularly by uncouth whites of no breeding, so infuriates me. As a member of the Northern Rhodesian Legislative Council or LegCo, he tirelessly fought to end the color bar, to allow offices to employ African clerks, and to permit Africans to form trade unions. In a speech he gave, prompted by an incident where a shop owner was urged not to sell "European goods to these stinking kaffirs and what not," he said to the assembled Council: "All I would ask, as I have half a dozen times before, is the recognition of our common humanity with the African." Recalling how blacks had fought for the Allies alongside whites in World War II, he addressed the Governor directly: "I would ask whether those men back from Burma who marched past you, Sir, the other day, I would ask whether they are stinking kaffirs?"

When Zambia finally became independent, with Kenneth Kaunda as its first president (who it is not surprising to learn was also a former protege of  Gore-Browne's - I've always liked the fellow and he's got a big job before him) Gore-Browne was the first white man to renounce his British citizenship to become a Zambian citizen. The Independence celebration was one of the greatest days of my life, he writes, and he remained an influential advisor to the young new government until his death in 1967. Kenneth Kaunda himself said of him: "Stewart Gore-Browne was one of the most visionary people in Africa - he was born an English gentleman and died a Zambian gentleman." Gore-Browne remains the only white man in Central Africa to have received both a state funeral and a chief's burial. His grave is on a hill overlooking his beloved estate.

What I most love about Africa House are the vivid descriptions of Africa that still hold true today. It was good too, to breathe the air of Africa again, that smell of virgin land, of nature in full-force, of ancient earth and beasts that have passe through, and just a slight hint of threat, reads one passage early on. The women carrying loads on their heads, he wrote, were making a jolly sight, walking with that classic grace which English women seem to have lost. Behind them follow the old chief and his wife, rounding them up, everyone singing all the while. By mid-morning the whole place is resonant with harmony as different work-gangs go back and forth in various directions, all singing. There is a passage describing how remote indeed the location of his estate was, that it was so rare to see another vehicle on the final stretch of road "that if one did, one usually puller over and made tea." That's not unlike you still feel in some parts of Africa today.

All the things of which Stewart Gore-Browne writes concerning his daily life are so vivid to me that they make a yearning for Africa come screaming back through my veins. Sure, his account is rose-colored through the colonial lens and a part of his Africa is forever gone, and yet he seems to have grasped the essence of it as few white men have been able to do.


Note: Even though the book, to me, was more about the man than the house, the fate of the house does indeed become important to the reader, as it is such a central part of the story. Like I mentioned, the estate almost never made any money from the many ventures Gore-Browne concocted, and after his death fell into disrepair. I remember reading a passage early on, where he describes the custom of lining up all the house servants and foremen in uniform on the front lawn and welcoming new visitors with song and dance, and thinking that is just how they did it for us at game lodges!. His real strength was playing host and giving visitors an unforgettable experience. Had he lived today, he would have made a very profitable existence out of the house as a luxury safari destination. I fact, that is what one of his descendants eventually did with Shiwa Ngandu. It is comforting to know that it has found a place that Stewart-Gore Browne would have approved of.

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Not Mañana, Just Now!

January 5, 2015

Noisette always accuses me of reading too much. I accuse him of reading too little. And yet it is he who often comes across exquisite nuggets of writing about life or travel overseas.

So it was with "A Move to Panama" in The Wall Street Journal on December 1.

At first, I wasn't sure why I should read it. Panama isn't one of the countries on my radar. If there is a country we've got our eyes on in terms of retiring, as the writer of this article has done in Boquete, a small rural Panamanian town almost equidistant between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it is South Africa. Or perhaps even Botswana or Namibia.

But then I was struck by the similarities. He and his wife had been looking at countries in search of "a simpler life" and were immediately captivated by Boquete on a two-week vacation: "The weather is ideal; the countryside has spectacular views; expenses are moderate; and Panamanians are gracious and tolerant of outsiders. Some call this paradise."

I don't think many would call South Africa a paradise, mainly due to its persistently high crime statistics. And one could argue that not all outsiders are tolerated, given some of the nasty excesses of xenophobia that occasionally flare up across the land (though of course never directed at us). But weather and countryside do come close to my definition of paradise, as does the part about the simpler life.

Why does the promise of a simpler life sound so alluring? Are our Western lives so complicated?

At first glance, you'd rather think the opposite. I mean, where else but the U.S. can I sit in my central-heated and perfectly comfortable home all morning, order everything that I need by button-click from Amazon (and I do mean, everything!), drive a short distance (without encountering any broken traffic lights, nor much traffic) to the library to pick up my pre-ordered books that I get to read for absolutely free, and pick up the mail at the end of the driveway which arrives automatically and without fail every day of the week?

Complicated my life is not. And yet we seem to all yearn for something simpler, easier, more down to basics.

I think it has to do solely with pace. By streamlining processes, by building better infrastructure, by making everything convenient, we've gotten so good at getting stuff done that we are constantly adding more stuff to our list. The more we accomplish, the more we want to tackle. It's like a drug that stimulates you for a short while and then burns you out.

Africa, and apparently, Panama, are an antidote to that. It's like going cold turkey on your workaholic ways. At first this can be extremely uncomfortable. The writer of the Panama article describes it this way: "If you're thinking about a move to Latin America, it's best to leave type-A expectations at home... The dictionary translates the Spanish word mañana to mean tomorrow; here they translate it to mean not now, but sometime in the indefinite future. That is a cultural reality and, for some expats, a difficult transition."

Ha! I have just such a word (2 words, actually) for "not now but sometime in the indefinite future." You can read all about it in "Just Now" or "Now Now"?, one of my early blog entries on Joburg Expat. And I've also written about the need to shed your type-A personality in  Welcome to Type-A Remedial School, just as above writer recommends. Surprisingly, it often turns out we don't grudgingly surrender it as much as willingly embrace a life freed from it. "Living in Africa," I wrote, "will infuse you with a healthy dose of humor, if you'll only allow it. You will laugh about things you used to frown at, you will forgive where you used to hold a grudge, and you will find beauty in everything, from the toothless smile of the street vendor to the fat bum on the sidewalk in front of you blocking the way."

In short, a simpler life.

All you need is patience and an open mind, and the reward might be something close to paradise.

Maybe this is true wherever you might live?

Can you spot Jabulani? Whose name means "happy."
As I said, patience and an open mind!
(picture taken near Cape Point in April 2011)
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Looking Back on 2014

December 31, 2014

Lots of stuff happens when you're an expat. You see new places, you meet new people, and you have plenty to write about. 

Then you move back home, and that year is kind of busy too. You pack and unpack household goods until they come out your ears, you get settled in new schools and places of work, and once again you have plenty to write about.

Then comes the year AFTER, and nothing much happens in it at all. You go about your back-home business every day. You order stuff from Amazon, which even after a year of such luxury still gives you a little jolt of pleasure every single time. Ditto for Starbucks and working traffic lights aka robots. You spend a lot of your time with the household chores previously done by your maid during your days of glory as an expat sipping-mojitos-by-the-pool wife, and you spend some more of your time arguing with your husband over why you don't feel the house needs to be quite as clean as it was during said glory days.

2014 was that year after for us. Not that much of note happened, and so not that much of note is deserving of mention in this reflection of the past year.

One thing, however, IS, and I'll shamelessly seize the opportunity to put in another plug for it: In March 2014, I published my very first book, Kilimanjaro Diaries. Making up my mind to sit down and finally start writing sometime mid-2013 was actually the biggest biggest hurdle to overcome and doesn't belong in this year at all, but the part where I finally pushed the "publish to Kindle" button so that people could come rushing to buy it does. It came around the end of March, after countless rounds of conferring with my editor, applying corrections, and proof-reading it until I could no longer stand my own story, and I do admit that it was one of my great moments not just in this year but my entire life. And shortly after that, in May, came another, even better moment, when I held an actual paperback copy in my very own hands. For about 11 hours straight before I could bring myself to let go of it. I also count giving a talk about my book and signing copies of it at Parnassus Books right here in Nashville among the other highlights of this year.

And while I'm shamelessly plugging it: No matter which country you are in, Kilimanjaro Diaries (Kindle version) can be purchased by clicking this link. Unless of course you already own a copy, in which case I'd like to say thanks for your business!

Looking toward 2015, I have big plans: Publishing the German translation of Kilimanjaro Diaries in January or February and publishing my second book, the one about a 6-person family traveling through Namibia in a 5-person car (and changing lots and lots of tires) later in the year. I also plan to get started on a third book, the topic of which I won't reveal just yet. But who knows - I'll also have to help get our oldest child out the door and into university, and at the rate that project has been going this year, I might very well spend the entire first half of 2015 nagging and sending out deadline reminders.

Finally I thought I'd end this review of 2014 by listing the most popular posts on Joburg Expat this year:

3rd most read post, somewhat surprisingly, in which I compared South Africa and Brazil through the lens of each country's soccer world cup and and how determined people can achieve great things, even with the deck stacked against them:
  From World Cup to World Cup: Soccer, Poverty, and Determination.

2nd most read post
, in which I reflected on first world problems we encounter here in our sheltered and spoiled life, and hopefully gave you a few good laughs:
Coyote Sightings, Ungainly Outhouses, and other First World Problems

1st most read pos
t, with a very boring title but apparently full of good information for fellow expats navigating the intricacies of South African bureaucracy:
How to Register a Car in South Africa
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A Very Merry South African Christmas!

December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas to all my South African readers and friends!

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'Twas the Night Before Christmas..."

December 19, 2014

I'm going to be lazy this year and treat you to last year's Christmas poem, which I don't think I ever published here. The sweat and blood (and copious amounts of Chardonnay) I put into all that rhyming warrants a bit more exposure than our list of friends and family who it was sent off to a year ago. Plus, there really isn't much new stuff that has happened to us this year. America will do that to you. So, here goes:

At a House in America in December...

‘Twas some nights before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring but the Microsoft mouse.
The cursor was blinking, the screen was aglow,
And progress, as last year, was painfully slow.

My fingers were tapping on the keyboard with care
In hopes that the Christmas card soon would be there,
When out of the kitchen there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.

“Could it be?” I was thinking, “Could this be the year,
When Santa and all of his helpers appear?”
For let me speak frankly, I could do with a break,
If only for everyone’s sanity’s sake.

Never mind the big bundle of toys on his back.
What I needed was twenty-one elves in a pack!
Twenty-one elves to do all of my work
Would be ever so lovely a holiday perk.

And right there in the hallway I counted the ways
In which I’d employ an elf army for days:
One to do laundry, one to cook food,
One to scrub sinks, one to lighten the mood.

One to string twinkling chains of light
So our house will pass muster in the dark of the night,
One to check Facebook and one to check Twitter,
And one for the tree to add sparkle and glitter.

I need one who will look at my shopping list
To find all of the presents I might have yet missed.
One rich one to refill my PayPal purse,
And a poet  – for your sake –to help put this in verse.

One I’d dispatch to go drive in the car1)
With Son Two at the wheel, and me very far
Because frankly quite thoroughly up I’m fed
With hours and hours of driver’s ed.

Though thankfully Number One now has license and Leaf
So my time at the wheel’s gone from often to brief
While he transports himself from home to pool
To earn money while whistling from a tall stool.

Celebrity tracking would be one fine job
For a music scene elf whose heart might throb
After Carrie, Nicole, and Keith and Joe Don
Though that last one has sold and since then moved on.2)

That’s thirteen so far, but wait, there is more
To another or two, I offer this chore:
Help sort travel pictures, learn Photoshop,
Which mystifies me, except how to crop.

And one, retroactively, to help us move in
As our patience for moving has worn a bit thin.
Schlepping boxes, hang pictures, fix broken stuff –
The seventh time moving has us yelling “enough!”

Also now that I’ve finally written my book
I need elves to prepare it for Kindle and Nook
One each to edit, draw cover, make website a tease,
That makes three total elves just for Project Book, please!

“But what of last summer,” Saintly Santa might ask,
“Why wasn’t it then that you started your task?”3)
And I would have, except that we answered the lure
Of Amsterdam, Paris, and Winterthur.4)

If you count all these elves, and two more for good measure
You get twenty-one helpers to serve at my pleasure.
And I thought: “That is just the right number I’ll probably need”
As I ran towards the crash in my kitchen with speed.

Alas, ‘twasn’t Santa, not even an elf,
It was Findus the cat who’d pulled cake from the shelf.
“No, Findus!” I yelled and sprayed with Febreeze
And away he scrambled, trailing crumbs and a sneeze.

I’m certain by now you’ve grown bored of this rhyme
Plus not even rhyming elf showed up in time.
So this, folks, concludes Sine’s Poetry Lite
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Findus the cat doing what he does best

1) Speaking of cars, another elf could divide his time between a) driving around town to see if any traffic lights – robots – are out of order or if it is indeed true that they always work, and b) telling all our friends here what a miracle this is to the recent African traveler.

2) Not only did Joe Don Rooney put up his house for sale pretty much the minute we introduced ourselves as the new neighbors, the couple who bought it has since then put it up for sale again. Is something wrong with us?

3) Noisette, who actually sort of shares a name with Santa in his real life, often asks the very same thing.

4) The actual order was the reverse, and more: Frankfurt – Hannover – Heilbronn – Tübingen – Munich – Winterthur – Paris – Amsterdam – Hannover – Frankfurt. I didn’t count the kilometers but we spent nine whole days on a train. And we lived in the crappiest apartment in all of Paris, but guess what: Picasso used to have his studio in the same building! A big thank you to all who hosted us so graciously, too many to name.


To find out more about our past year, visit – there is almost nothing that doesn’t make it onto my blog as a story (sometimes to the embarrassment of our kids). We wish you all a happy holiday season and all the best for 2014.

Brought to you by the creators of Joburg Expat, December 2013

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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


    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.


    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.


    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.


    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. 

    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.


    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!


    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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