You Know You've Been Away from Germany for Too Long When...

July 14, 2014

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

The Divide of Infertility
Ginormous room key

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

July 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that Africa has taught them that.

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

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


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

July 1, 2014

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

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

Johannesburg...

...versus Kilimanjaro

So why choose Kilimanjaro over Joburg?

I think it's a combination of things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 16, 2014

We have a 17-year old in the house.

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

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

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


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


In came in plentiful abundance. 


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Who wants to come along?
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African Time is Like Dog Years

June 9, 2014

African time is like dog years.

Or maybe it's the reverse if you really did the math correctly. My point is, everything takes about seven times as long as you're used to if, like most expats, you've grown up on a continent with a more mainstream concept of time. Or maybe I should come right out and say it: A more Western concept of time.

For just about the entire three years we lived in South Africa, I tried diligently to get Woolworths - the South African grocery store chain - to approve my customer member card, so that I could get promotions per email and accumulate loyalty points and such.

Don't get me wrong, I adore Woolworths. It is the best everyday grocery store I've ever shopped at. I love everything about them: the convenient locations, the small stores you can easily navigate in about 10 minutes, the friendly staff, the superior quality of just about everything they stock. I even love the cloth shopping bags I got there and use now when I go to Publix, and every bagger here practically drools over them.

But while Woolworths is probably one of the best-managed South African companies, my quest to register for their customer loyalty program resembled all my other quests to beat the Bureaucracy of Doom. It dragged on and on, parked indefinitely at that oh-so-South-African sweet spot between Just Now and Never.

My first application was denied because of  the usual problem of digits: South African ID numbers have 13 digits, and US (or German, for that matter) passports don't. So it's impossible for your number to match their field, and it takes an act of God or at least the act of an extremely well-qualified and energetic supervisor to reconcile the two.

Lo and behold, I did eventually get the ID sorted out. But that's when my application somehow got lost, and I had to start the whole thing from scratch. Miraculously, I got the ID problem fixed a second time which finally did enable me to get the coveted discount card, but in order to receive emails with weekly discount offers there was yet another application, and I never was able to get that one approved.

Imagine my surprise, then, when just last week, about one and a half years after our departure from South Africa, I received a mouth-watering e-mail from Woolworths.


Woolworths
Food
Women
Men
Kids
Baby
Homeware
Beauty
Gifts
Financial Services
WRewards
Exclusively for WRewards Members
More savings this week
Mushrooms buy any 2 save R10
All butter crossaints 8pk - now R40.95 save R8
Potatoes 700 g buy any 2 save R10
Eat in for 4 under R150
All the public holidays might be over, but that doesn't mean that delicious family dinners have to come to an end. Tuck into a homestyle soup, a hearty lasagne, salad or veggies and malva pudding for 4, all for under R150. Supper, sorted.
Our sweet and sticky puddings are just the thing to warm up a cool winter night. So good you'll want them for the main course.
Bold, juicy red wines are a must for winter dinners, and we've put together a collection of our favourites.
Make the most of the winter hibernation with our collection of recipes for soups, curries, roasts, and winter puddings - everything you need for at-home entertaining.
The Cape's ultimate foodie experience is back again, and if you book now you can take advantage of the early bird special: buy any Celebrity Chefs Theatre presented by Woolworths and Robertsons Herbs & Spices ticket and get a free admission ticket. See www.goodfoodandwineshow.co.za for more details.

The idea that this paperwork of mine has somehow survived almost two years on some South African desk where someone just happened to come across it (how?), is preposterous. But that's how it must have played out.

Oh, the irony that I'll now have to be reminded on a regular basis of all the good stuff I can't have anymore, discount be damned! Because you know as well as I do that there is no way in hell that I can be taken off their mailing list again. Once on a South African mailing list you stay there till kingdom come. There might be fires and floods and a seven-year-plague, but the emails shall be rolling forevermore.

Please God give me the strength, from this point forward, to withstand weekly mouth-watering images of my beloved Luxury Muesli, Cape berries, the creamiest-ever-and-still-lowfat Ayrshire yogurt, delicious scones and mangoes, salami sticks and heavenly malva pudding, succulent leg of lamb, and, cruelest of all, a nice selection of the world's best Chardonnay at amazing prices.

I'm thinking: If I request to be taken off their mailing list now, I could nurse a dog from puppy to old age before the sweet torture ends.

On the off-chance that we'll move back to South Africa in the meantime, I'll gladly keep the emails coming.
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A Real-Life Book to Touch and Feel and Gaze at Adoringly

June 3, 2014

After months of wading knee-deep in paragraph styles, margins, and those devilish Word section breaks I'll soon tell you more about, it feels almost anticlimactic. It feels more like I want to take a long rest, especially from all things keyboard and word processor. And yet I do want to celebrate this milestone, because that's what it is.

I published my first Paperback!

Every writer toying with the idea of one day writing a book has an image in his or her mind, and it's not of a Kindle screen. It's of an actual, physical book she can hold in her hands, leaf through, and otherwise mostly gaze at adoringly for hours. It's like a shiny new car! It looks good in so many places! Copies of it piled in a stack! Randomly tossed onto the coffee table! Next to a mug of freshly-made cappuccino! In the bookshelf with your favorite authors! In a selfie with your sweaty tennis outfit on!

In a selfie with sweaty tennis outfit

Randomly tossed (ok, arranged carefully) on coffee table

In bookshelf with other books by (more) famous authors

Piled in a big stack

Maybe this is why I'm pretty confident books will never be obsolete.The readers might not care how they're consuming a good story and might opt in ever greater numbers for the electronic convenience. But authors never will give up on publishing their works in a good ole book.

It's too nice to see your own name on the cover of one.


Here's where you can order Kilimanjaro Diaries, the Paperback:
United States: Amazon.com, UK: Amazon.co.uk, Germany: Amazon.de.

If you don't live in any of these countries or prefer the Kindle version, you can order it from these Amazon stores: Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.inAmazon.frAmazon.esAmazon.itAmazon.co.jpAmazon.com.brAmazon.caAmazon.com.mx, and Amazon.com.au.

Not sure yet that you'll like it? Perhaps take a look at what others are saying about Kilimanjaro Diaries:
Even though I have no plans to climb Kilimanjaro, I really enjoyed reading Kilimanjaro Diaries. I read many of Sine’s blog posts about her Kili climb back when it actually happened in 2012, and it was great to see how she expanded those posts into a book. I especially loved the early chapters, when Sine describes her preparations (or non-preparations, in some cases) for the climb, and the late chapters when she tells the story of her summit attempt. I don’t want to give away the ending but I’ll just say that I cried... [Excerpt from 2Summers.net. Read more here.]
A funny, wry, and moving account ... Sine devotes a chapter to each day of the 7-day climb, and I have never felt so strongly that I was on a journey I wasn’t actually on. I felt the exhaustion and camaraderie along the way, sharing each day’s challenges and pleasures. I saw the rainforest at the lowest elevation and the “bleak but sunlit alpine desert” as they climbed higher; I always felt the terrain beneath my feet. I felt like I was listening in on their regular topics of conversation... [Excerpt from Bacon on the Bookshelf. Read more here.]
Read more ...

Perfect Marketplace for Expats: Gumtree.co.za

May 28, 2014

I've told you my story about buying a car in South Africa, in all its glorious (and sometimes embarrassing) detail. I've also told you my story about selling the car again, taking place almost three years later, and it provided another welcome opportunity to let you learn from my successes and (as more often than not) mistakes.

But what might have saved me a great many words (and almost certainly some money) is a simpler approach: I could have used Gumtree.

And no, by that I do not mean that I should have trekked to the village square where business is conducted under a large tree and where goods change hands, although when I first heard of Gumtree I thought that it must have derived its name from exactly such a scenario.

What is Gumtree?

www.gumtree.co.za is a classifieds website, much like Craigslist in the United States. I've since learned that the name was a brainchild of the original founders, who launched the site in 2000 and were looking for a name that might appeal to their target audiences in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and connect them in some way. Even though Australian and South African gum trees, to my knowledge, are very different species, the name was chosen and has stuck.

The only reason I didn't buy or sell my car on Gumtree was that I simply didn't think of it as a trading site for cars. However, I've been told that Cars for Sale is Gumtree's biggest category by far, with almost 800,000 monthly ads. I learned this when I was recently approached by Gumtree to inquire about advertising on my blog. Since I've been wanting to write about them for quite some time, we agreed for me to write a sponsored post (which this is, just to be upfront about it). Here are some other interesting facts I learned about Gumtree:

  • It is South Africa’s #1 classifieds site, and the 6th largest site overall in SA
  • It was purchased by eBay in 2005
  • It first started out in Cape Town, and was subsequently launched in Joburg and Durban in 2009
  • Most of Gumtree's visitors come from Gauteng
  • About 2.5 million ads are posted on Gumtree.co.za each month
I was surprised to hear Gumtree is owned by eBay. Somehow that gives it a mantle of respectability that (at least in my mind) its American cousin Craigslist lacks. I'm not surprised, however, that most of Gumtree's visitors come from Gauteng. Most of everything that happens in South Africa seems to be happening in Johannesburg and surroundings (i.e. Gauteng Province), which is why Gumtree is such a must-visit location for all Joburg expats.

A recent screenshot from the Gumtree cars for sale listing in Johannesburg

I can't quite believe that I navigated through three years of expat life in South Africa without ever conducting a Gumtree transaction, which I would have loved to report to you. However, my blogger friend 2Summers did just that, and you can read about her experience here (it went smoothly and to everyone's satisfaction). Based on this and other feedback I've received, I'm confident that I can wholeheartedly endorse Gumtree.

How to Use Gumtree

So, whether you are a newly-arrived expat, perhaps still in your home country nervously surfing the Internet researching car prices, or whether you're looking to trade in your car for something else, give Gumtree Used Cars a try. If you're looking for bargains, you might want to specifically look for repossessed cars. Or perhaps you're looking at the other end of the spectrum for that nice BMW you've always wanted to have? Or go completely South African and get yourself a bakkie - once you've completed your South African language lesson about bakkies, lekker, takkies and such.



Of course you'll find a host of other categories on Gumtree besides cars, such as properties/rentals, household goods, electronics, all sorts of services, and even jobs.

If you're at the tail end of your expat days, you'll undoubtedly need to shed a few possessions before the arrival of that moving truck, and Gumtree is a great way to put up your car and household goods for sale, while saving those costly advertising fees you'd have to pay on another website. Posting a free ad is as easy as pie - you choose your location, pick the category, and enter all the details - voila, you are ready to sit back and wait for the calls that are sure to come.


As easy as 1-2-3: Posting a free ad on Gumtree

Safety Advice

One worry you might have is how safe a Gumtree transaction might be. As with everything else in South Africa, safety is always a concern. And as with all other situations you might encounter, I'd say you just have to be sensible about it, as I'm sure every South African will tell you.

Being sensible means to take some common-sense precautions when conducting a Gumtree transaction. Make sure you only correspond with a buyer/seller via the contact data officially sanctioned by Gumtree, and when you set up a meeting, do it in a neutral/populated place like a coffee shop or garage (SA speak for gas station), or if it has to be in your home, make sure you are not alone (most estate security guards will be happy to show up for a small tip). It's really the same as anywhere else.

On the plus side, you'll save some money, earn some extra cash, and perhaps meet some colorful characters along the way, which always makes for a good story to tell! But just in case you still have concerns, Gumtree has put together a safety guide for its users that addresses a list of various concerns.

Go ahead, give Gumtree a try by signing up here. And please let me know how it goes.
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Travel in Namibia

May 26, 2014

You may remember that our family made an almost epic road trip through Namibia in August of 2012. It was meant to be the last hurrah of our African adventure. Just weeks earlier we had found out we'd be moving back to the U.S. by the end of that year (with Noisette actually having to start his new job September 1), so we started scouring travel websites and calling travel agents like crazy, all in an effort to not let a place we'd had on our radar for so long slip through our hands at the last minute. It all worked out, we got a trip booked in more or less a week (saving months and months of time we would normally have poured into such a venture), and we had one of the most fantastic experiences of our lives (though our kids still may have to come to that conclusion sometime in the future).

The only tidbit I ever shared about Namibia on this blog was a collection of some spectacular (or so I think) pictures, mostly of landscapes, because the landscapes are Namibia's most spectacular feature. Click here if you'd like to take a look. The reason I shared nothing else is that I'd made the conscious choice not to blog extensively about Namibia. I was going to write a book instead, you see. Except the book I actually DID write was of the trip immediately following our Namibia adventure, which of course was Kilimanjaro Diaries. Leave it to Kilimanjaro to put everything else in its shadow. 

I don't have any regrets about this course of events, but many of my readers do. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not on the radar of every expat in South Africa, but going to Namibia apparently is. Ever since we got back I was badgered by many to write more about it. I did patiently answer all the questions emailed to me, and I did have some tips to dish out, but none of it ever made it into another blog post.

Which is why I'm very excited to break my 21-month Namibia silence to share some tips from someone traveling in my footsteps. My friend Natalie just returned from her family's own Namibia trip, and wanted to make sure future travelers can learn from her mistakes.

Natalie's #1 Tip for Traveling in Namibia:


Here is a tip I would like to share about Namibia. If you are flying to Windhoek, book your rental car first before you book your flight. You must get a 4x4 vehicle. Back into your flight after you book your car.

Here is the back story. In January, I booked our flight for 7 from Johannesburg to Windhoek. I then tried to book a rental car online but ran into problems with my American passport etc. So, I went to the Avis office in person in Rosebank. I have rented many cars there before and I am on a first name basis with the manager, Gina. She could not find anything available online so she called the Avis office in Windhoek. They were totally out of automatic 4x4's for April but we could get 2 Toyota Corollas. I explained where we would be driving them to see if a sedan would be ok - Windhoek, Swakopmund, Sossusvlei, Windhoek - and they said no problem. (I am now guessing the person at Avis has never driven on a gravel road in a sedan). I have never, ever driven a manual car. I made it very clear the cars had to be automatic.  No problem. I was starting to freak out a bit that I had just spent R30,000 on airplane tickets and might not be able to get a rental car so I jumped at anything and was happy to have confirmation of two cars.

When we landed in Windhoek, I had my printed confirmation sheet for 2 automatic cars and headed to the Avis office. I was told they had a slight problem and that they did not have any automatic cars. The great thing about living in South Africa is that while this did upset me, I knew they "would have to make a plan". So after going over and over different options, it was finally decided the 7 of us would squeeze into a Toyota Fortuner and our luggage would follow in another car to Swakopmund. When we would get to Swakopmund, 2 automatic cars would be waiting for us. Perfect!

So, that is exactly what happened. But, as you know, you really, really need a 4x4 car in Namibia. We totally managed in sedans but must have had a guardian angel looking out for us. We had no flat tires and no cracked windshields. Amazing!

Interestingly enough, Avis in Windhoek is really not Avis. They are Oshana Transfers and Toursand we could have booked directly with them. Their number is 00264 61 22 4834. 

Just for good measure, I'll now add my #1 tip for traveling in Namibia, and it is very brief. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Sine's #1 Tip for Traveling in Namibia:


Make sure your car has 4 new tires on it, plus 2 spares in the trunk. Actually, make that 3.

Our car troubles started on the way to Damaraland. Our GPS had
failed us and we were lost. We were afraid we'd never find our
lodge, and that only years later somebody...
...would discover the remains of our car.
The first time, it was charming and a welcome lunch break
The second time, the boys became experts at changing tires
The third time, I started checking the surroundings for possible
camp sites.
When the spare also started hissing, we were overjoyed to come
across this dump, a veritable heaven of spare parts and friendly
(though a bit Deliverance-type) mechanics. This was the only
habitation within hundreds of miles.
At least our  "Day of Changing Tires" made for a great photo
book entry afterwards!

That's it for now. I hope it will be less than another 21 months before I tell you more about Namibia. You might be happy to know that I have, indeed, started on the book. I even already know the title. Keep your eyes open for Double-Buckled in the Middle of Nowhere in early 2015.



Have you traveled in Namibia? Which tips would you give?
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