October 24, 2016

The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours

I've lately gotten many inquiries about exploring Johannesburg and whether it is safe to do so.

While I don't want to be responsible for you getting mugged - something, I might point out, that can happen to you in any big city - I can tell you that in 3 years of living in Johannesburg I never encountered any trouble. And it's not because I stayed locked up behind the walls and fences of our security estate in the Northern suburbs. I took many trips into Soweto and Alexandra in my own car, I delivered firewood for women in Diepsloot, and I walked the streets of the inner city hunting for perfect pictures of jacarandas, graffiti, and the occasional This-Is-Africa worthy situation.

This shot was taken on my way to Arts on Main. It wasn't part of a walking tour but shows
the kinds of street scenes that offer such rich photo material when touring Joburg.

(You might also take heart in learning that Joburg is Africa's most visited city, ahead of Cape Town which is a distant second. So you won't be alone in exploring it.)

What I do recommend for those new to Johannesburg and concerned about safety is taking a tour as part of a group. It's more fun that way in any case.

Here is a list of what I've put together using my own experience, as well as that of Heather who blogs at www.2summers.net. She has become an expat's expert on Joburg few of us can hope to emulate in terms of her detailed knowledge of the city, and many of the links below are to her articles.

1. Walking tours with Past Experiences

I met Jo Buitendach, who runs Past Experiences, when I participated in one of her Graffiti tours of Braamfontein. It was fabulous. Jo's knowledge of the city is remarkable, she and her partner are a lot of fun, and the pictures I took that day were some of my favorite of all of my time in Johannesburg. See here for yourself.

You don't often see graffiti in the making, but Johannesburg is a good place to find some of
the world's most renowned graffiti artists.

2. Joburg Photowalkers (Page or Group)

It's a great way to explore Johannesburg on foot, but not alone. Plus, they'll get you to the best picture spots in town, as most of the photowalkers are photography enthusiasts. You might learn a thing or two from them about your camera too, if, like me, it's a bit of a mystery to you. My walk was during jacaranda season and I was very happy with Purple Explosion, the resulting photo essay. It's that time of year again, so see if you can get onto their next walk if you can!

My Joburg Photowalkers group in a puddle of jacaranda petals in Rosebank, 2011

3. Johannesburg Heritage Foundation

This was recommended to me by a reader and I don't have personal experience with any of their tours. However, their website is an excellent resource for all things Johannesburg, and the tour offerings look very interesting and unique, such as the Mosques and Minarets tour. Jacaranda tours are offered here as well - make sure you don't miss the chance while they are in bloom. For more insight into one of their tours, see Heather's excellent blog post From Mansions to Muti Shops: Exploring Johannesburg's Heritage.

4. Johannesburg Red Bus

It didn't exist yet when I lived there, but I've heard good things about Joburg City Sightseeing or Joburg Red Bus for short. City sightseeing has been in Cape Town for ages, but has newly arrived in Johannesburg, offering bus tours to the CBD as well as Soweto. Read about Heather's experience of a day on the Red Bus to get an idea of what it might look like. I also see that they offer free walking tours.

Again, apropos no specific tour I did, but I wanted to point out that Johannesburg has a vibrant
Chinatown. It also has an Ethopian quarter and some of the world's most impressive mosques.

5. Joburg Places

According to Heather, one of Gerald Garner's tours is a must for anyone wanting to understand Johannesburg's history and how it came to be the city it is today. It's also a must if you like to visit rooftops - and trust me, you will want to, as the photo opportunities are incredible. See What I didn't Know About Joburg for an excellent blog post on one of his tours.

6. Dlala Nje's Inner City Adventures

If you really want to get into the thick of things, "hit the streets of Hillbrow and discover the truth about one of the city's most notorious and misunderstood suburbs," starting out in the iconic building of Ponte City. If that sounds too gritty for you, try their "Taste of Yeoville" tour for a culinary experience. If you tell any South African that you're planning to go into Hillbrow, they will shudder and tell you you're crazy. It wasn't that long ago that Hillbrow resembled a war zone that no one in their right mind would venture into, at least not unarmed. But things are changing rapidly in Johannesburg, particularly the inner city which has been vigorously rejuvenated over the past few years, so I think even Hillbrow is well worth a visit if you've got an adventurous spirit and the will to experience the real South Africa.

7. MainStreetWalks

For a slightly different perspective of Johannesburg, try their Underground Pub Crawl, a nighttime tour to places you'd likely never get to on your own. Just make sure you have a taxi ride home lined up so that you can enjoy the drinks included in the tour without worry. MainStreetWalks also offers daytime tours with a slightly different twist, like their coveted picnic at the top of Carlton Centre.

View from the "Top of Africa" in the Carlton Centre. Photo credit: Zax.

8. Nielsen Tours

I found them via a link from the Red Bus website so can't personally vouch for them, but yet another outfit offering free walking tours. If you follow the maxim of "You get what you pay for" a free tour might not be your first choice, but I didn't want to withhold the information. Personally, I can highly recommend Past Experiences.

There are some other options out there for exploring the city, such as Voice Map, a podcast-type app where you download walking tour audio onto your phone, or simply Uber. We used Uber on our recent trip to South Africa for our airport transfers, and it worked like a charm. Under 5 min waiting times, clean cars, good drivers, and incredibly affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Oh, and here is a seasonal tour that sounds like a lot of fun, put on by Joburg.co.za, another website you should bookmark: A Mystery Ghost Tour! I can't wait for one of you to go on that one and tell me all about it.

I hope this has given you a good overview of the many options of exploring Johannesburg, on foot or by bus. I'd love to hear about your adventures, or if you've found any new tours not mentioned here!

October 17, 2016

Repatriating Expats: How to Survive Losing your Live-In Maid

You know the saying Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all?

Well, I think it might be the opposite in the case of domestic help. Losing your maid after returning to a land where live-in domestic help was last affordable in the 1950s is so painful, so utterly despair-inducing, that you might be better off never having enjoyed a helper in your home in the first place.

However, it isn't always a real choice When we arrived at our new house in South Africa in March 2010 and woke up the next morning not quite knowing where to start, the doorbell rang before I'd even had a chance to pour a cup of tea. "Hello, Mama," said the beaming woman in front of me. "I heard you are looking for a helper!" Of course this wasn't true at all, but word spreads quickly in a South African estate. You live in a nice house and you are simply expected to employ people to clean it, tend to the yard, and perhaps even chauffeur the kids to school. The same was true a decade earlier in Singapore, and there are countless other countries outside of Europe and North America where it is similarly customary (and affordable due to, let's face it, weak labor laws) to employ household help.

Fast-forward to early 2013 and we were saying our tearful goodbyes not just to our friends, the bush, and shopping at Woolworths, but also to our beloved Primrose and, by extension, to lemon-scented tile floors, spotless bathroom fixtures, and meticulously tucked-in sheets. My husband, Noisette, had developed a special affinity for freshly-ironed underwear, a luxury hitherto unknown, and deeply mourned the abrupt return to the old wrinkly mess in his dresser.

Losing your domestic help means you might go from this.....

...to this

What's a woman to do?

You might try my approach as outlined in The New Domestic Help and delegate the job previously held by the maid to your very able children. But honestly, I find it incredibly exhausting to nag my kids 24/7 to do the things I can do in half the time. No matter how hard I try, I find that my kids will always outlast me in their dogged opposition to anything smelling of a communal chore. It's worked for laundry - you don't wash it, you can't wear it - but everything else either doesn't get done or gets done very badly.

And then I had my epiphany: I didn't have to delegate chores to someone else to be happier. I just had to find a way to do them happily myself!

How? How do you happily do a household chore?

You subscribe to Audible. Click here for a 30-day free trial of Audible. (Or, if you're cheap like me, try your library's Overdrive app - the best thing I've found is to have both, as not everything is available on Overdrive). I've discovered I'm A LOT less resentful of having to put away yet another round of groceries or unload the dishwasher or cook a three-course meal when I'm eager to get to the next chapter of a good book.

That's how last spring I came to clean every single ground-floor window of our house, one squeegee stroke at a time, a task I never would have tackled otherwise. I was listening to Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith and, already having vacuumed all floors and scrubbed all sinks and toilets, I needed a new chore, preferably a really long one. Windows!

There is no limit to what you can do while listening to your favorite story: Stretch and exercise, vacuum-clean, wrap Christmas presents. My yard is weed-free because of Ordinary Grace, a coming-of-age story in 1960s Minnesota. The carpenter bees have finally been eradicated and the holes plugged up because of Istanbul Passage, the latest WWII espionage thriller by Joseph Kanon who, in my humble opinion, is that genre's master. When I was scrubbing a wet winter's accumulated mildew off our deck and window sills, The Matthews Men and their valiant battle against German U-boats in the Atlantic were with me the entire time. I'm currently deep into the delicious intrigue of Henry VIII's England in Wolf Hall, and if I ever run out of material, I might go back and listen to Jenna Lamia's sweet Southern drawl in such classics as The Help, The Invention of Wingsor The Secret Life of Bees.

I even made it through polishing all the silver. I forget which book that one was.

For now, I draw the line at ironed underwear. But there is no telling what I'll do when the next Cormoran Strike installment by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling!) comes out.

I might yet surprise my husband. He might finally applaud my addiction to books.

Don't wait. Sign up for Audible now, it's a FREE trial and I promise you it's LIFE CHANGING!

October 3, 2016

M.I.T., Tummy Tucks, and Roger Federer: Why Joburg Expat Has Gone Silent

Dear Readers -

I realized this morning that it's been almost three weeks since my latest blog post. Gulp! Since the inception of this blog in March 2010, I've never gone more than a week at most without publishing an article. If you're a blogger, you will understand how anxiety-inducing a slowdown in posts can be.

If you're NOT a blogger, you're perhaps happy for the respite in assigned reading from Joburg Expat.

In any case, I thought I'd give you a quick update on what has kept me so busy lately that my beloved blog has taken a backseat. And I can tell you right now, it HASN'T been my new book.

College Applications

For the last two years our family has been sucked into the college application game. You'd think that it gets better with child #2 and a huge learning curve from child #1 who is now happily installed at college and away from home, but the particulars of child #2's temperament (read: lazy!) don't allow for a respite. I spend an inordinate amount of time reminding, begging, pleading, and cajoling, none of which seems to much move the needle in terms of progress with university applications. I cannot remember the last time I walked into my son's room and didn't nag about a) the not forthcoming college essay or b) about the clothes I had to climb over to get through the door before I could nag about the college essay. It might have been sometime in 2011. What time I don't spend nagging, I spend fretting over the fact that everyone ELSE's child has already applied at 5 universities, submitted 3 scholarship essays, and secured a NASA internship for next summer.

He has high aspirations, I'll give him that. That's where M.I.T. comes in, and their engineering program. But I say, you'll never get into any school, not even community college, if you don't actually submit the application!

One of America's oldest universities. And no, it's not M.I.T. but rather the one
institution where Jabulani has actually managed to submit his application so far.

Maybe it will get better with children #3 and #4, because they show signs of being diligent and ambitious and blessed with foresight. In other words, they're girls.

Speaking of girls, I absolutely LOVE this study. Saying that nagging your daughter is an important factor for her future success. And that when she "rolls her eyes and says something like, 'Arrrrggghhh, Mom, you're so annoying,' what she really means, deep down in her subconscious mind is: 'Thank you for the helpful advice. I shall endeavor to act accordingly.'"


I'm not sure nagging has any effect on boys whatsoever. Other than strengthening their thick skin with another protective layer.

Plastic Surgery

No no no, before you even THINK it, I have NOT gone and gotten myself a pair of new clunkers. (I still have an iPhone 4s, people, that's how un-hip I am; and if I HAVE a few thousand extra dollars, it'll be a Mac Book Pro I'm getting, not new cleavage.)

And yet plastic surgery now occupies almost every waking hour of my day. One year ago, my husband and I purchased a company. Mainly so that we could finally settle in one place and stop moving while the kids are in high school. It is not your ordinary company, to be sure, but a plastic surgery practice specializing on - yes, it's true! - liposuction, butt lifts, breast jobs, tummy tucks, and all manner of facial fillers and laser procedures. You can check out our website if you're at all interested, and we're also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Any new likes are welcome! But, more importantly, all those pages show you what I've been busy with - as the new self-anointed head of marketing - over the last year.

Talking about a change of style in my writing! I've transmogrified from chatty travelogues and observations on local culture to slick marketing-speak about how you, too, can feel great about your body if only you get the new LazerLift procedure.

One upside is that my Photoshop skills have markedly improved, after having to plow through at least 150 before and after pictures of tummies and breasts to improve on around terrible lighting and unflattering underwear.

Photoshopping Before and After pictures might not be my favorite pastime, but
I admit I've had great fun with our iStockphoto collection.

My Tennis Game

Aaaaah. Finally we're getting to the fun stuff. You just can't keep a Brentwood housewife away from her tennis, as evidenced here:

And when I'm not climbing fences to get to a tennis court, you might find me watching Roger Federer's forehand in slow motion on YouTube. It's mesmerizing. I can do that for hours, especially with a big match coming up.

So you see, this is what the Ivy League, Brazilian Butt Lifts, and the world's greatest tennis player have in common. They conspire to keep Joburg Expat off the presses.

September 12, 2016

When in Rome, Buy a Lacrosse Stick and a Kindle

It was about 3 months into our new life in Johannesburg. I was sitting in the headmaster's office at Dainfern College and laying out carefully curated arguments to convince him that my daughter, and girls in general, should be allowed to play soccer.

He listened to all of it very patiently, said he understood my reasons, and smiled at me not unlike Dumbledore, in a gentle yet stern way. Then he said:

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I didn't like hearing this at all. How unfair, I thought, that my daughter would have to start from scratch playing netball - what the hell even IS netball? - even though she had played, and been fairly good at, soccer for years. What kind of signal did that send to her? Why was South Africa so behind the times? Wouldn't it be good for them to change their ways?

But - as every other expat knows - I was very short on time fighting these kinds of battles, what with a container having arrived with furniture that needed arranging and pictures that needed hanging and an entire new routine that needed establishing. So I didn't dig in.

Since the school team was a no-go, I went and signed her up for a boys' soccer team that allowed girls. I took her there, watched a few badly-run practices, and was not surprised when she wanted to quit a few weeks into it, telling me the boys were silly and were never passing her the ball and anyways she'd rather play whatever sport it was to be with girls. She joined the netball team the next day.

She chose to do as the Romans do. For pre-teens and teenagers, this is often the only sensible solution.

Then we had to start all over again when moving back to the United States, where there was of course no demand for good netball or field hockey players. The old headmaster's words still rang in my head when we scouted out the new schools, and what the Romans were doing best in Brentwood, TN, seemed to be lacrosse. So we we went shopping for a lacrosse stick.

Our oldest son also switched to lacrosse. Here he is practicing "wall ball" at school.

During the course of our moves, we've had to adapt in other extracurricular areas as well. Arriving in South Africa meant out with baseball, basketball, gymnastics, girl scouts, vacation bible school, and in with field hockey, cricket, rugby, scuba diving, and singing.There was plenty on offer - in fact more than before - but a lot of it was new to our family.

In other areas of daily life, it was also out with Starbucks drive-through for a quick coffee on the fly, and in with afternoon braais that segued seamlessly into long evenings in the company of unhurried friends. Out with efficient shopping trips to Target and in with a cobbled-together shopping list featuring Star Butchery for biltong, Woolies for the pure joy of shopping, and a street vendor or two for some clothes hangers or a Springbok rugby shirt.

As I've said before in a blog post titled Expat Joys: Variety and Life Skills, turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective. You can go the path of the "grumpy expat" and try to force your old life into your new environment, meaning you'll most likely be stressed out and miserable, or you can learn how to be a successful expat. A lot of the latter course starts with "Doing as the Romans do."

The cool thing is that you get to dabble in stuff that you've never dabbled in before. In South Africa, we got into scuba diving and horseback riding as a family, activities we'd never have started without the new opportunities presenting themselves. I myself became a hobby photographer, took piano and violin lessons, and began playing tennis, a sport that has stayed with me and has proven to be a wonderful way to meet new people.

But adapting to your new environment isn't always all upside. For example, doing as the (South African) Romans do meant that our kids were hardly reading books anymore. Their peers didn't seem to be reading much, or if they were, the level was quite a bit lower, public libraries were nonexistent, and paperbacks were terribly expensive. So I convinced my husband that the investment in four brand-new Kindles was worth it. Sometimes you have to do as the Romans do with a twist.

Today, our basement is littered with old baseball bats, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, and more helmets of varying shapes and forms than you might imagine are possible. It is my secret dream that someone would come up with The Universal Helmet that can be worn for every sport there is. Doesn't each helmet have more or less the same functionality? But I guess the Romans had their own helmets too.

And their own lacrosse sticks.

When in Rome, buy a lacrosse stick so your kids can cavort with the little lacrosse-playing Roman bambini, but also get them a Kindle so they can best them in reading!

September 5, 2016

10 Ways Johannesburg and South Africa Have Changed Since 2012

Eish - you leave a place, and in the blink of an eye it changes on you!

In the three and a half years since we left South Africa, so many things have changed. I guess it's normal that things change. But it feels as if nothing much changed at all while we lived in Johannesburg, and then boom! - the minute we are gone, new stuff sprouts up all over the place.

What kind of stuff am I talking about?

Here are my observations during our whirlwind trip of last month of what is new in Johannesburg:

  1. William Nicol is now 6 lanes wide from Fourways to Dainfern (and I assume all the way to Diepsloot), meaning where you previously had to compete with a thousand minibus taxis to squeeze into one single lane coming home during afternoon rush hour is now a thing of the past. Construction on this had actually started in the months before we left, giving us the entire inconvenience of closed lanes without any of the future benefit.
  2. New Retailers have sprung up like mushrooms after a wet summer, giving South Africa the same shopping-crazed hype that we experienced in Singapore in the late 90s. It's as if shopping has become South Africa's new pastime. New franchises have poured into the country at an ever increasing stream, such as Burger King, Domino's Pizza, Forever 21, H&M, Krispy Creme, and Starbucks
  3. In equal measure, new shopping centres continue to be opened. The new Dainfern Square Shopping Centre next to Dainfern Valley is oh so convenient, with such nice stores as Vida e Cafe, Yume Sushi, a Virgin Active gym, Exclusive Books, and of course the fabulous Woolies. Right across is a new garden center I would have loved to have there when doing all my gardening. If you live in my old neighborhood, Dainfern Valley, and if you're so inclined, you can now shop and eat to your heart's content on foot or via golf cart without ever having to get your car out of the garage. 
  4. New houses in secure estates keep being built. Nashville, where we live now, is one of the new boom cities in the U.S., but I'd be darned if there weren't even more home construction projects going on in Northern Joburg. Take the legendary Steyn City, for instance. Developed by billionaire Douw Steyn, this new neighborhood right next to Dainfern Golf is either a crazy enterprise or absolutely brilliant, depending on how you look at it. It's a city within a city with schools, shopping, and even an equestrian center built right into it, so you presumably don't even have to go to the new Dainfern Square anymore, since everything will be available within the walled city. Strikes you a bit medieval, doesn't it? Just check out Steyn's own 3000 square meter mansion. Eish!
  5. Vodacom fibre (and other providers). One of the curses of living in the developed world is that you routinely get leapfrogged by developing countries with the emergence of new technology. This is how we're still handwriting checks for our kids' class fees and the plumber who comes to unclog our toilet, whereas South Africans have used EFT banking for years if not decades. And this is how our internet speeds have become very sad affairs compared to what some of my friends now get in South Africa. From the few conversations I've had, it sounds like Afrihost is still the way to go in terms of your internet provider, with great pricing for uncapped data and excellent customer service, without a contract.
  6. There is now Netflix in South Africa. I was informed of this from several sides, practically before I'd had a chance to say hello, that's how excited this news was first received. No more need to set up complicated constructs to change your DNS address, or employ a VPN. You'll still need a Roku, Google Chromecast,  Apple TV, or even a Smart TV, but you can connect those directly to Netflix and watch all your favorite shows. Or, rather, most of them - not all the shows Netflix streams to South Africa are the same, apparently. If you do want the same as in the U.S, you WILL need a VPN, but be careful - Netflix is able to detect and block the more commonly known ones. 
  7. Most U.S. TV shows are now available for South African viewing on MNet DSTV within 1-24 hours of airing in the U.S. It's called Express from the U.S. If you consider that while we lived there only 3 years ago, we were 2 or more seasons behind on everything, this is a startling development. Sadly, however, this also means that my beloved Chaplin's, a cute little DVD rental shop in the Valley Shopping Center, is now out of business. No need to watch actual DVDs if  you can get any show from the U.S. almost instantly. I have such fond memories of Chalin's! You'd almost always run into an acquaintance there, and you'd have to be fast on a Friday night or all the good movies would already be taken.
  8. I already wrote about this in a previous post, but Amazon now ships to South Africa. It's done this for a while, but the shipping rates seem to have come down drastically, making it a very affordable option. A friend of mine had a $95 textbook - not light by any means - shipped for $13 from Amazon.com and received it in 10 days. That is definitely no longer prohibitive, and it opens up a whole new world for South Africans and expats alike.
  9. This is a minor change that won't affect most expats, but there are now actual minibus taxi bus stops sprinkled along the most popular routes, little shelters with a bench and a roof over them. They immediately caught my eye. In a city that has such low coverage of public transport, this stood out to me. I also saw them in the Eastern Cape, so it's not just a Gauteng phenomenon.
  10. I saved the best for last: Uber cars. This, more than anything else, has changed the world for most of our South African and expat friends. Where teenagers were bound to the house or neighborhood, or had to rely on parents to cart them around, they are now much more flexible to safely and inexpensively get around with Uber. Adults use it too. We used it to get to and from the airport, for about $30 each way. It's as if a whole new world of public transport has been opened up that didn't exist before. Joburg is teeming with Uber cars these days, meaning you won't have to wait even 3 minutes for one of them no matter where you are (okay, I didn't test that one; I didn't try to haul one from within Alexandra - that might have been the true test). And, as I said, they're very affordable, more so than in the U.S. Which is actually amazing since gas (petrol) prices are quite a bit higher in South Africa.

our Uber driver at OR Tambo International Airport

This concludes my list. Did I forget anything?

But I'm not quite done yet. This blogpost wouldn't be complete if I didn't also mention some of the things that HAVEN'T CHANGED since I've left South Africa.

The highveld is as dusty as ever in winter, and the air has that same smell of woodfires.

You can still get an excellent meal at very affordable prices in a great selection of restaurants

The wine seems to have gotten even cheaper, or perhaps it has gotten more expensive in the U.S. For the price we pay at restaurants here for just one glass, in South Africa you can get an entire bottle of a very decent vintage.

Jacob Zuma's antics are as shameful as ever

Shopping at Woolworths is as wonderful as ever 

You still encounter a few random road blocks every day, and have to hope that your car doesn't scream "expat" at the cops pulling you over to ask, have you brought anything for them today?

The broken robot at Cedar Rd and Witkoppen is still out since the last time I drove by in 2012.

Joburg traffic is still Joburg traffic

You still get your drugs in those funny little cages

You still get your cappuccino artistically enhanced

August 29, 2016

Reason Number 2 Why You Won't Want to Leave South Africa: Woolworths

I've said it before and I'll say it again: In all my time at Joburg Expat (approaching 7 years), I have yet to come across any expats who look forward to leaving South Africa.

There are many reasons (I've recently found 30 of them) why people don't want to leave South Africa, chief among them the outstanding climate, the friendly people, and the laid-back lifestyle.

But when you talk to anyone who's made their home in Johannesburg or elsewhere in the country and ask them what they'll miss most about South Africa one day, I'll miss Woolies will come up almost immediately.

Woolies, of course, is what South Africans fondly call the grocery chain Woolworths.

My all-time favorite staple at Woolies.

When we first moved to Joburg, I thought that Woolworths was in some way connected to the English department store of the same name, the one I associated with cheap discount goods sold in cramped aisles and large bins to sift through, so I was a bit apprehensive. But there is no connection. Woolworths was founded in 1931 in South Africa (with its first store in Cape Town), and the English chain it actually was, for a time, associated with and modeled after, is Marks and Spencer.

Of all the reasons to be proud of South Africa, Woolies should be at the very top. It is, in my humble opinion, the world's best grocery store. In all my years in Germany, Singapore, and the United States, I haven't found another grocery store I'd rather spend time in and shop at than Woolies.

After we left South Africa, I thought that perhaps my infatuation with Woolies was misplaced. That perhaps I suffered from pure nostalgia, that I bunched Woolworths together with all sorts of irrational loves viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight that wouldn't withstand the test of time.

But I've just been back to South Africa, and one of my first errands was to go shopping at Woolies to fill my second suitcase brought specifically for that purpose. Immediately I was drawn into its bann again and remembered how much I loved it. It felt like coming home. I was practically giddy pushing my cart through the aisles, and it was super hard not to fill it up with everything in sight.

Biltong selection at Woolworths

Only my husband's valiant efforts kept me from loading up on biltong, on account of the biltong-sniffing dogs at American airports. Same for the little sausage sticks called Cabanossi that I could snack on all day, and have never found in American grocery stores.

Instead, we decided to buy a biltong machine, complete with biltong spices. My excitement to try it out is somewhat dampened by the fact that it's the wrong voltage meaning the built-in fan won't work, and the required light bulb doesn't fit into the socket. It will require so much tinkering that it would have been easier to build it from scratch. I'll report on my biltong-making venture at some future time.

It was also very hard to pass by the yogurt, the cheese selection, and the snack shelf. Yum!

Outstanding deli salads and fresh snacks at Woolies

It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I love Woolies so much. Mostly, it's a combination of two things: quality and convenience. 

The quality of the food you can get at Woolies, particularly the fresh produce, is consistently outstanding. You know how you will get a bad batch of peaches and think to yourself, oh well, they can't all be good, and move on? Not at Woolies. Every single batch of anything I've ever bought there was good, or better than good.

The best low-fat yogurt you'll ever taste.

While shopping at Woolies definitely puts you at the high end of grocery stores in South Africa, it's still not very expensive, particularly when compared to food prices in the United States. Woolworths has a large range of its own branded goods, in fact you won't find many branded goods on its shelves. This might initially be a turnoff to the newly arrived expat looking for Nestle chocolate chips or Honey Nut Cheerios, but trust me, you'll come to love the Woolworths brand so much that you'll cry big tears when you no longer have access to it.

Interestingly, Woolworths doesn't have a deli with cut-to-order cold cuts like so many other grocery stores. You'd think that's a big downside but it never bothered me. They do sell a few packaged hams and cured meats that were always enough for me, and not having to wait in slow deli lines was actually more of a bonus than a drawback.

And it looks like you can now even get German soft pretzels at Woolies, as well as other artisan breads, which used to be the only weakness when making a Woolworths shopping run.

But even more than the excellent quality, it is the convenience of shopping at Woolies that won me over so quickly.

Whoever is in charge of Woolworth real estate and store locations is a genius. If you like it just five minutes from home, go to the little Woolies with just four aisles that you can be in and out of in ten minutes. If you like a wider selection, go to the large shopping center you do most of your errands at, and there will be a large Woolies there as well. But even there, you won't be overwhelmed by miles and miles of aisles with too many choices. By actually limiting choice and instead focusing on good quality products, Woolies makes grocery shopping so much more enjoyable. I remember my first shopping run after we returned to the U.S. and how exhausted I was after comparing a bazillion brands in vast superstores. Turns out, unlimited choice is not nearly as great as it's made out to be.

Woolworths somehow manages to bring back the little mom and pop store experience of old, but with modern-day quality and selection. I also like who they are as a company, as described in their Good Business Journey initiative.

Note: This post was written without any incentives or sponsorship by Woolworths

August 22, 2016


Coming back to South Africa was almost exactly as I'd imagined it. 

The red sunset over a dusty city. 

The smell of wood fires in the air. 

The smiling faces around me. 

The feel of a Zulu handshake. 

Ordering a whole bottle of Chardonnay with dinner for ZAR 80 which is less than $7. 

Waking up to the cry of a hadeda. 

But since then we've entered a new dimension of bliss: the Wild Coast. I won't bore you with a lot of writing and instead just go ahead and post the first pictures from our Meander starting at Kob Inn going westward. 

This last picture is the view I have this very moment soaking my feet in the hot tub at our inn, sipping a freshly-brewed cappuccino and waiting for a massage. (Which is well-needed after 22 km against the strongest nonstop wind I've ever had blowing in my face.)

Can life get any better than this?

August 15, 2016

Africa, Here We Come!

I'm so excited, I don't even know how to start this blog post.

The reason I'm excited is that after 3 years and 7 months, I'll be treading on African soil once again. Tomorrow I'll be embarking on the first leg of a long flight to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg, people! I can hardly wait. I have a hard time imagining how it'll feel. Will everything look as new and intriguing as it did when I first arrived in September 2009? Or will it seem familiar?

The very first picture I ever took in South Africa: the entrance of Dainfern estate in Johannesburg

Either way, I plan to soak it all up like the thirsty African soil after a long dry winter. I can't wait for any of these firsts:

  • Hearing the first "Eish!" being spoken.
  • Glimpsing the Johannesburg skyline for the first time when driving in from OR Tambo
  • Driving by a phalanx of street vendors and taking in what they're hawking these days
  • Having a salesperson return change to me by extending one arm and touching their other hand to that forearm in that most graceful African gesture
  • A minibus squeezing into the impossibly small gap in front of us
  • Catching a glimpse of the glorious Magaliesberg to the North of Johannesburg in the wintry haze
  • Hearing the first screech of a hadeda
  • A parking guard smiling into my window
  • Touching the first Cape berry in the produce section of Woolies
  • Even - gasp! - a broken robot.

Seriously, it's true. Even the tiniest memory of  our Joburg days makes me nostalgic. It's the power of The Rose-Tinted Glasses of Hindsight. We Americans like to grumble about our crumbling infrastructure, but it was 3 years and 6.5 months that I went without seeing a single broken traffic light after moving back to the U.S. Just two weeks ago, I came upon a busy intersection where the light was blinking red. Everyone was confused and very gingerly made attempts to get across. I was elated. I was overjoyed. "A broken robot!" I shouted, much to my daughter's consternation whose friend gave me a very puzzled look.

You'll agree that I'm dire need of my Africa fix.

But what, my dear friends, should I make of my one full day in Johannesburg?

I doubt that I'll be sleeping for a single second. I'll be running around with a notepad all day making sure nothing, absolutely NOTHING escapes me that I might blog about, and I'll be up every night jotting it all down and sorting pictures. Maybe this will be a good opportunity to sample all of Joburg's new coffee shops I've been reading about.

I wonder if it'll feel like picking up exactly where we left it off in December of 2012 when we said Goodbye Africa.

I cannot wait for any of it.

Oh, and what will I be doing in Africa? More on that in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Nelson Mandela towering over me, September 2009,
Mandela Square, Sandton, Johannesburg

August 8, 2016

Top 5 Places for History Lovers in Johannesburg

I've written about so many different things to do in and around Joburg that I decided I needed to bring these to my readers again, this time in a slightly more structured fashion. So I've decided to pick different themes and summarize my Top 5 recommendations for each.

Today's theme: History in and around Johannesburg. It wasn't an easy pick as there are many other worthwhile attractions, but here we go:

1. Apartheid Museum 

Any tour of Johannesburg's and South Africa's history has to start with the Apartheid Museum. You can't help but be touched by the weight of history when issued your entrance ticket classifying you as "white" or "non-white", letting you experience the violent days when armored trucks roamed township streets and trials were held to convict freedom fighters for treason against the state as if you had been there yourself.

And while you're in Soweto, continue on to the Hector Pieterson Memorial about 20 minutes away, which is the jelly equivalent to the Apartheid Museum's peanut butter, to learn about Hector Pieterson, the 12-year old boy who was killed during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. On your way you might also stop at Nelson Mandela House on Vilakazi Street where the great man once lived (and within walking distance of another great man's house, that of Archbishop Desmund Tutu), Walter Sisulu Square where the Freedom Charter is on display, and Regina Mundi Church where you can see bullet holes next to beautiful stained glass windows. Don't worry if you can't fit it all into one trip, because for sure the giant bustling township of Soweto will lure you back in with its siren call, having become quite the tourist hotspot with many attractions like wine tastings, music festivals, and bike tours.

Read A Trip Back into South Africa's History and Soweto for more information.

2. Liliesleaf Farm

Liliesleaf Farm, while also inextricably linked with South Africa's Apartheid era, makes for a very different experience than the Apartheid Museum and is best tackled on another day. But it is no less fascinating. Located nowhere near Soweto but rather in what's now the Northern Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm today looks like a peaceful country retreat, belying its part in the violence that tore South Africa apart in the days when Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed faction of the African National Congress, embarked on a campaign of sabotage and bombing to draw attention to the civil rights struggle. Here you will learn all about the Rivonia Trial and how Nelson Mandela came to be captured the second time and locked away on Robben Island. With South African municipal elections just completed, a visit to Liliesleaf Farm is a great way to go back in time and learn how the ANC came of age, who its major players were, and why it still holds such political (if waning) power today.

Read Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial and Nelson Mandela for more information.

3. Maropeng Visitor Center and Sterkfontein Caves

This might strike you as an odd selection for this blog post, but then again the Cradle of Humankind is one of South Africa's oldest historic sites. It's located about an hour to the Northwest of Johannesburg surrounded by beautiful hilly country, worth the trip in its own right. Learn about the earliest hominids at Maropeng, which admittedly is a bit of a Disney-like attraction, though much smaller in scale, with a boat ride through evolution and a series of educational displays. Combine it with a visit at Sterkfontein Caves where 2 million years old "Mrs. Ples," was discovered.

With Professor Lee Berger recently in the news with the Homo Naledi discovery, the Cradle of Humankind should be on your shortlist if you're at all interested in archaeology or anthropology, but it also makes for a fun and educational outing for the entire family. You could top it off with a balloon safari and a dinner at nearby must-experience Carnivore Restaurant (or the equally unique Leafy Greens Cafe if you're a vegetarian).

Read Back to the Cradle for more information.

4. The Rand Club

For some reason, my previous blog post about the Rand Club created quite the controversy, which may be the only reason why I'm including it again here. I had gotten an invitation for two at some event there, I've long forgotten what for, and so my husband and I decided to try it out. I took many pictures and went home to blog about it, with special mention of the food, which we found mediocre, and the "faded glory" look of the place, which I described as having lived past its heyday from when gold was discovered near Johannesburg until well into the Apartheid years.

You wouldn't believe the outpouring of venom I received as a result, from people who take great pride in the Rand Club and its selective admissions policy. To them it must have seemed like I attacked the very symbol of their pride and nationalism.

Whatever you may think of it, it's worth a visit. If you go, I'd love to hear about it, as it has recently been renovated and reopened to the public (or only to members and their important friends, for all I know). You can't help but think back to Cecil Rhodes and his grand African ambition when you sit in the wood-paneled bar or look up into its magnificent glass dome.

Read The Rand Club: Truly a Bygone Era for more information.

5. Kruger House Museum

More captivating than even the house was the railroad car in
which Paul Kruger left South Africa to go into exile
Technically not in Johannesburg but rather Pretoria, so I hope you'll forgive me for misleading you a bit. The thing is, you absolutely should go to Pretoria when visiting Johannesburg, as much of the nation's history lives on in the nation's capital (or one of its capitals, to be exact). There are many other places to visit there (Voortrekker Monument, Church Square with the Palace of Justice, where the Rivonia Trial mentioned above took place, and Union Buildings, to name a few), but for our family the most memorable was Paul Kruger's former home. It's not nearly as grand as you'd expect the house of a former president, especially a president so universally beloved as "Ohm Kruger," and that exactly is its appeal. It reminded me of my grandparents' home in Southern Germany, down to the musty smell of old furniture.  

If you don't know much about South Africa's history, a visit of Kruger House Museum will pique your interest enough to delve into it deeper and go beyond what you know about what came later during Apartheid and after its fall the transformation into a democracy.


This article is part of the Joburg Expat Top Five series. You might also like:

August 1, 2016

What's in YOUR (Expat) Suitcase?

Remember those credit card ads that ask: "what's in YOUR wallet?"

I was recently reminded of that line when I saw this picture:

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

It made me want to ask,

What's in YOUR suitcase?

Even though most Brits (and also Australians) I know are VERY loyal to their Marmite, apparently it can become too much of a good thing when well-meaning visitors arrive with armfuls of the stuff for their expat host's pantry. 

Of course not all expats are cut from the same cloth. Even a single ONE of those jars would be one too many in our household. But it's hard to imagine that our family would ever complain about having too many of these:

6.6 lbs of pure joy. Bring it on, people who are visiting us!

It occurred to me that whatever you pack in your suitcase is a dead giveaway of your nationality, more so than anything else. You might adapt to your host country in many ways that allow you to blend in, adopting customs and lifestyles, perhaps becoming fluent in their language. You might be able to pass for a local if you truly love a place, but if forced to open your suitcase after a trip abroad, your true identity would be revealed by its contents.

So, what's in YOUR (expat) suitcase?

Is it five packs of tampons to last you the next two years, because you are extremely loyal to the brand you've used ever since you can remember (only to discover, when those five packs do run out eventually, that the local brand you've been avoiding for years is actually far superior)?

If you're a South African living abroad, I would bet my right arm that I'd find a bottle of Mrs. Balls Chutney nestled between your socks. That and some clandestine biltong - if you can get past what I've heard are biltong-sniffing dogs at certain American airports. As much as I love biltong, my choice of South African import is Woolworth's luxury muesli. If I could, I'd import a year's supply of Cape gooseberries to go with it for my daily breakfast:

Asian expats seem to be particularly partial to their spices. Which is totally understandable because you can't produce such heavenly flavors with just salt and pepper. Just be sure when smuggling your herbs they don't look like a sh*tload of weed.

Personally, what I always put on special order from my Singaporean friend is Chinese sausage or Lap Cheong. No fried rice recipe is truly complete without this delicacy if you've ever had it.

If ginormous jars of artery-clogging Nutella weren't enough, German expats also like to import their oversized Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate bars. If you've ever had it, you'll know why.

I can't remember the purpose of the cucumber. To somehow negate the calories?

How about you? What do you nestle between YOUR shoes and toiletry kit, wrapped in some dirty underwear to serve the dual purpose of extra padding as well as warding off prying customs officials? 

Or perhaps you don't do any of these things. That's the good thing about globalization, Donald Trump's shouting notwithstanding: In this day and age, you can pretty much get anything anywhere in the world without paying a huge premium.

But in a way that's also a sad development, as it makes the world less interesting. Part of the fun of living abroad is discovering new delicacies and merchandise, and then scheming the rest of your days how to get your hands on it when you're no longer there.

Something gets lost when there is no more scheming. I wonder if people from communist countries ever reminisce about the old days when they had to stand in line days on end whenever rumors flew that a rare batch of hand soap had arrived?

So, even if nowadays you can find it on any shelf in the far corners of the Earth, I will never stop packing jars of Nutella in my suitcase.

A beautiful sight in the Godforsaken town of Helmeringhausen in Namibia, just
South of the Tropic of Capricorn. Although an even more beautiful sight that day
was the lone garage. Find out why in Travel in Namibia.


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