Top Five Adventures in Southern Africa

April 13, 2015

Frankly, I feel like our 3-year stint in South Africa was one giant nonstop adventure. I mean, you could already get a nice jolt of adrenaline by simply driving from Joburg to Hartebeespoort Dam and passing the first "hijacking hotspot" warning sign. Just leaving your house felt adventurous, because you ran the risk of being dragged off to jail by yet another overeager traffic cop on any given day. On some days, just looking out the window could make your hair stand on end if you happened to witness one of those Highveldt electrical storms Johannesburg is so famous for.

But I suppose you are reading this because you're looking for another type of adventure. They kind of adventure you can sign up for or book a trip to. And indeed, inspired by the Top Five series of posts by 2Summers as well as Johnny Africa's Top Moments Traveling through Africa, I have decided to put together my own Top Five collection. "Adventure" will be my first installment.

  1. Cage Diving with great white sharks: The best adventures are those you can tell a lot of stories about afterwards, not necessarily the ones that are the most fun while you're immersed in them. Quite literally immersed, in this case. Letting ourselves be submerged in a puny cage off the side of a boat bobbing in the close-to-freezing Atlantic in Gansbaai not far from Cape Town, the stink of lures made from dead fish heads wafting in and out of our nostrils every time we came up for a gasp of air, can't really be labeled "fun" by any stretch of the imagination. Leading up to the event, I couldn't make up my mind whether I was more scared of the gigantic sharks that would be swimming at me head-on and crash full force into the bars of the cage I was trapped in, or rather of the arctic temperature of the ocean. The verdict very clearly came down on the side of the ocean, but perhaps that's just me. Nothing scares me more than being cold. And yet I'd do it again and can highly recommend it. Anyone can do it, no scuba certification necessary. And while you're there, you might also book a diving session among sharks in Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town (this one is only for certified scuba divers). My husband and son loved that part of our trip the most. Read more about cage diving here, and about the aquarium dive here.

    Going shark diving in Gansbaai

  2. Bungy jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge: This adventure became even more adventurous in hindsight when I happened to watch the video of the Australian woman whose bungy cord ripped when she jumped off the bridge spanning the Zambesi at Victoria Falls and fell into the crocodile-infested waters below, feet tied together and trailing a dangling rope. It was bad enough watching my son hurl himself into the void from a distance. I still can't watch the video that was made from his experience without my knees buckling, it looks so scary. Okay, so add "heights" to cold temperatures in the "stuff she's afraid of" column. Perhaps I picked my Top Five purely on what I'm most afraid of. Overcoming your fears definitely makes for an adventure. By the way, should you live in Joburg without an opportunity to travel to the Bloukrans Bridge (which is labeled the world's highest official bridge bungy jump), you can probably get almost as much of a thrill by jumping off the cooling towers in Soweto. But please forget I mentioned the latter. We're strictly sticking to five things here. Read more about the Bloukrans jump (and watch the video!) here.

    Blourkrans Bridge on SA's Garden Route

  3. Dune buggy riding in Swakopmund, Namibia: If you want adventure, you'll simply have to add all of Namibia to your travel list. It brims with adventure and the rugged landscapes to go with it. Riding around the dunes near Swakopmund scores at the very top of our Africa adventure list, if you ask the boys in our family. They had to be dragged off those fourwheelers when our time was up, they loved it so much, roaring up impossibly steep slopes, only to take the crest so fast they flew through the air and then plunged down the next slope. It's a great outing for the whole family. As far as I could tell there was no minimum age, and even our 9-year old quite happily cranked the engine on her smaller-sized vehicle. While you're there, you should also go sledding off the dunes, using thin greased wooden boards and an individual lift service provided by your guides. Again, I hear you can sled or perhaps even ski down the mine dumps in Soweto as well, should your budget not allow for a trip to Namibia.

  4. Hot air ballooning in the Magaliesberg: See how I keep adding great heights to my adventure itinerary? It might not be so adventurous for you if, unlike me, you can remain totally calm looking down on the world below. It's utterly quiet up there, the views are spectacular, both onto the mountains and the other balloons around you, and you will spot plenty of antelopes and perhaps even some rhinos from above. Read more about hot air ballooning near Joburg here.
    See the itty bitty antelopes below?

  5. Canoeing down the Orange River: This is another adventure that takes you all the way to Namibia. Or, to be precise, right up to the border. The Orange River separates the two countries along a long stretch, and paddling through its winding serpentines (and a few rapids) was absolutely our number one family adventure while living in South Africa. Impatience maintains that it was the worst adventure ever, seeing as she fell into the river in one of the rapids (due to, she claims, her brother's inexpert steering), but that just proves my point. We did our trip with Felix Unite, and you can pick anything from just one day to an entire week, paddling during the day and camping on the banks at night, with your guide cooking for you and setting up the toilet behind a crest at every camp.

    Canoeing on the Orange River

There we go, your Top Five adventures in Southern Africa as recommended by Joburg Expat in a neat (though not-so-short) list. Except... If I were to look at all of Africa, the number one adventure, without doubt, would have to be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It was enough of an adventure for me that I wrote an entire book about it.
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Stupid Questions You've Been Asked About Your Home Country

April 9, 2015

If you've ever been an exchange student or an expat, this will be familiar turf for you. We've all gotten them, the wide-eyed questions from those who've vaguely heard about our country but don't really know much about it. 

You kind of want to give them credit for asking, but you also kind of want to punch them in the face for knowing so very little. But most often you're so baffled with the kind of question you get, you just patiently explain. That makes you a good citizen and a great ambassador for your country, but years later you sort of wish you could have thought of a cleverer answer.

Well, I've had years - decades - to think about some of these answers, so I thought I'd put together a list for you.

Stupid Questions You've Been Asked About Your Home Country...and the answers you should have given

  1. Q: Did you ride here on the bus? – from Sweden, in Mississippi, 1983. 
    A: No, I actually didn't ride the bus. Where I live, there are no buses, and no cars either. I had to ride here on a reindeer.

  2. Q: Are you from East or West Germany? – from Germany, in Mississippi, 1983. 
    A: East, of course! I went to a construction site and stole this crane and strung a long rope from it made from my own hair I had cut off and saved every birthday from the age of 5, and in the darkest of night swung back and forth from it a couple of times until I had enough height to catapult myself over that pesky wall. Oh, and I had to kill a border guard while I was at it. And you? Virginia or West Virginia?

  3. Q: You are from Switzerland? So you speak Swedish?  - from Switzerland, in the United States.
    A: Jawohl! And, contrary to common knowledge, we also all go by the name of Ingrid, not Heidi.

  4. Q: You’re from America? Do you know Dolly Parton? – from the U.S.A., in South Africa, early 1990s 
    A: No, but back home Michael Jackson usually does my laundry. (Incidentally, this is not such a stupid question; I wish someone would ask me now, because I could honestly say, “She lives right across the street from me!”)

  5. Q: You speak English in Germany, right? Like in the movies, just with an accent? 
    A: Yes, as soon as we learn how to talk, we speak English with a German accent. This is due to the fact that after World War II, the only movies they would show in Germany were American movies with Nazis in them, so our parents acquired that accent. No one really knows where that strange accent originally came from. There must have been an ancient tribe called “Germans” or something.

  6. Q: Is a vegemite sandwich, uhmm, a blow job? – from Australia, in Canada, 1980s
    A: No, a vegemite sandwich is a vegemite sandwich. It is much better than a blow job. Only Australians, of course, have the right taste buds for vegemite sandwiches. Most other people think they taste like, uhm... blow jobs.

  7. Q: You are from Germany? I love German Nazis! – from Germany, in South Africa, circa 1980. 
    A: [no words]

  8. Q: In your country, do y'all, like, go out on dates? – in Mississippi 1984. 
    A: No, we don't go out on dates. That only happens in American high school movies. We also don't have sex. We are a species that doesn't procreate at all. For entertainment, girls and boys in our country quiz each other about the capitals of the 50 U.S. states and the Founding Fathers. That is why we know so much more about your country than you do.

  9. Q: Why aren't you black? – from South Africa, Nashville, current times 
    A: What? I’m not black anymore?? Nooooo! I HATE this melting pot of yours…

  10. Q: You’re from South Africa? Which COUNTRY in South Africa? 
    A: Brazil.

  11. Q: What time does the Black Forest close? - from Germany, Boston, 1980s.
    A: The Black Forest closes precisely at 6:00 pm. There are Cuckoo Clocks mounted on poles every 100 meters throughout the entire forest, and at 15 minutes before closing, they all begin to chime so that you can make your exit. If you don’t exit before 6:00 pm, you have to appear the next day at precisely 12:00 pm to receive your punishment, which consists of having to write down 3 pages of “Punctuality is the biggest virtue.”

  12. Q: Can you drink tap water in Germany? – from Germany, in Mexico.
  13. A: No, you really shouldn’t drink the tap water in Germany. If you do, you can catch a thing called Montezuma’s Revenge, which is a really nasty stomach bug that was brought to Europe by the early explorers circumnavigating the globe. Bottled water is safe, though. We source all our bottled water from Latin America and India.

  14. Q: You don’t like crab cakes? Are you sure? ALL Americans like crab cakes! 
  15. A:No, I really don’t like crab cakes. I only eat at McDonald’s. Every single day. Like all Americans.

Got any more? Please do share! 
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Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Kilimanjaro Diaries has been Translated!

April 6, 2015

It was long in coming - one year, to the day - but now it is done: Kilimanjaro Diaries has been translated into German and is now available in the Kindle store.

Click on image to order from

If you're one of my many German blog readers (Germany just got edged out by Ukraine and is now in the #5 spot for all-time pageviews with South Africa, the United States, and the UK occupying the top three spots), you can now download Kilimandscharo-Tagebuch: Chlorwasser, kein WC, eiskalte Nächte - kurzum, ein Traumurlaub! directly to your Kindle or Kindle app from Or, for that matter, from or any of the other Amazon stores, should you not actually reside in Germany.

Whew! I'm glad that's done and dusted. Time will tell if it was worth all the effort. I did learn a lot about the German language in the process. That, for instance, just because a comma might be in a certain place in an English sentence, it has no bearing on whether or when it will appear in a German one. Although it is extremely likely it will appear often. Just as likely as it is for your book to be one and a half times longer than the original, once you add all those super long words Germans insist on throwing about. Then again I'm very pleased to have actually shortened that lengthy subtitle of mine in the German edition.

What I'm also pleased about is the fact that this project made the English version better as well. How so, you might ask? Well - one of my German proofreaders, being a good German, was very nitpicky. Why did I say in one place that it was cold, and then two paragraphs later it was warm? (Answer: the sun had warmed up the day, duh!) Why did I have to list so many advantages and disadvantages of each Kili climbing route so as to leave the reader totally befuddled as to which one to take, instead of taking a clear stand? Why did I always have to come back with "...on the other hand one could say that..." type phrasings?

Those were all good questions. Using a precise language, I learned, makes you realize when you haven't been very precise. Often times I could get away with it in English when it seemed glaringly inconsistent in German. Of course, being a perfectionist, this meant I just had to go back and fix the English version as well. At the time, I thoroughly cursed this process. Having both a Kindle and a Paperback file for my originals (in very different formats), I had to not just rewrite it into one file but also copy it into the other one for every single change. And there were many.

Keeping track of my dear friend Hans Meyer - he of "first-to-summit" fame - also proved to be a chore. He wrote his account of the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in both German and English (or had it translated, I'm not sure which, but I suspect, with all the talents he possessed, and being a fluent English speaker due to all his travels, that he himself wrote both versions), and getting the appropriate quotes in the correct language meant I had to go back and find them instead of translating them myself. The problem: His German original looks like this:

Yeah, right? Makes the search box a tad hard to use. As a result, I was forever searching through that document so helpfully scanned by some caring soul at the University of California. It was a royal pain, but also resulted in some unexpected strokes of luck. I came across a few anecdotes I had overlooked in the English version (the very easy to read version on my very own Kindle, no less!) and simply had to include, like what happened to the rocks Hans Meyer brought back from the summit, or what nickname his porters had bestowed on him.

The hardest part: I had to come to terms with taking out an entire chapter - the epilogue. The one where I share all my hard-earned words of wisdom in 20 life lessons from climbing a mountain. They came across as annoying and preachy in German, which made me realize they're probably annoying and preachy in English too. Let the book tell its tale and let the reader come to his or her own conclusions, was the advice, and so I took it, even though it kills you to delete something you've already written.

To the Germans among you: I hope you get to read my new (old) book, and I hope you might be a tad more forgiving than my proofreading team! Nevertheless, I would love to hear from you, even if it's just about a spare comma.
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Meet Our Woman in Johannesburg

March 30, 2015

"Meet Our Man in Tehran."

I was intrigued by the article behind this headline in the New York Times. It sounds a little "John le Carré" to me, suggesting intrigue, spies, and perhaps some exotic food.

It occurred to me right then that "Meet Our Woman in Johannesburg" doesn't sound all that different, and that this might be a headline I could use to introduce myself. (Well, except for the small part of not actually living in Johannesburg anymore, the alert readers among you will point out.)

Indeed, I saw a lot of parallels between the article in question and my own expat story (except, again, for the part that I am not actually employed by an internationally renowned news organization). For instance, take this passage:

"How, they ask, can one live in a country where angry mobs roam the streets denouncing Westerners, burning flags and shouting “Death to America”? Are you not afraid?

No. I am not.

Iran is more modern, livable and friendly than some portrayals would have you believe."

Except for the "Death to America" part, the same is true for Johannesburg. Haven't you been asked similar questions about your life there, or in South Africa in general (in fact, asked them yourself before moving there)? And have you not also struggled to describe why in fact it is not a crime-ridden cesspit of sin and doom at all, or that if it is, there are enough modern, livable, and friendly aspects to your life that they more than make up for it? That you are, in fact, not afraid at all?

When I first stood in Alexandra in late 2010 and took this picture, I was very afraid, I won't deny it.
But then I got to know some wonderful people and Alexandra never looked the same to me afterwards.

After having made your home in South Africa for just a few months, you probably find yourself bristling with outrage at the suggestion by outsiders that it is a place best avoided due to its problems, corruption and crime chief among them. And you are sure that everyone will see it your way, once they have seen for themselves. And yet you yourself, not having lived in Tehran, probably have the exact same fears about that place described above. And just hearing someone tell of how great a place Tehran is may not be enough to sway you to move there, should the opportunity arise. Most likely you've formed and are holding on to the same prejudices about life in Iran that most people have about South Africa.

You will, then, probably agree with this:
It's always that which we don't know that we're most afraid of. And, by extension, it's often that which we're most afraid of that we allow ourselves to hate. 
Which is why we have to strive to get to know "the other" - our neighbors, our political opponents, other countries, other places within our countries, and their people. It makes us less afraid, less prejudiced, and less hateful.

Start today. Get to know the people and places you don't know. Subscribing to someone's expat blog is a good first step, and it's absolutely free. Scroll down and look for "blogroll" in the right sidebar, and you'll find a sample of some blogs to get started!
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Going to the Gym in South Africa

March 23, 2015

I just came across another Johannesburg-based expat blog I'd never heard about before. It's called Johnny Africa and authored by someone who, like me, has spent some time in South Africa and since then returned to the U.S. But there the similarity ends. It looks like whereas I was constantly going places with four kids in tow, he was more or less free to roam the continent at a breathtaking pace, collecting the most envy-inducing pictures along the way. Go ahead and check it out, it's well worth it for all the travel tips alone.

His blog also has a great "Guide to Joburg" section which I think all Joburg-bound expats should check out. I'm working my way through it and found a post about going to the gym, and that made me realize that I never wrote about South African gyms at all.

The reason I didn't tell  you about gyms is that, ahem, I didn't go to any in South Africa. I was too busy living the expat wife life sipping cocktails in my chaise by the pool, I suppose. Actually, I'm just not a gym-goer, no matter where. The closest I got to going to the gym was when I signed Impatience up for winter swim lessons at Virgin Active in the Broadacres Shopping Centre and passed the time for her to be done by ordering a milkshake. I couldn't wait for winter to be over so she could swim outdoors again, as it should be!

But I can (and did) tell you all about boot camps in South Africa. You can check out the story about Gillian Sieling's Way to Wellness boot camp right here. I don't know if it's still offered at Dainfern College, but if it is and you live anywhere near it, go check it out. Just the location is beautiful (if you discount the fact that that thing spanning the valley overhead is actually a shitpipe).

Speaking of Dainfern College and the area around it, there are all sorts of sports option for you and your kids there, if, like me, you are adverse to gyms. There are private tennis and cricket instructors who use the school grounds for lessons, there is a soccer club and dance and/or ballet lessons offered at the Pavillion in Dainfern Estate, there are several horse riding stables scattered around the American School (one of them being Shumbashaba which as I've mentioned in From the Horse's Mouth is also an excellent place for volunteering), and there is the Junxion Centre just down the road toward Diepsloot where you can sign your kids up for gymnastics lessons or the Brazilian Soccer School. There are also a number of people offering Pilates instruction out of their homes (if interested, contact me, and I can set you up with a friend of mine). And, of course, if you really want some exercise, train for and compete in the 94.7 Cycle Challenge!

So now that I've told you all about how I hate gyms and given you other avenues to pursue fitness, I figure maybe it's time to deliver as promised in the title of this post and talk about gyms. Or, rather, since I know nothing about gyms - other than the fact you can buy a decent milkshake at Virgin Active - I will send you off to Johnny Africa's blog post about Gyms in South Africa. He covers the two main providers - besides Virgin Active there is also Planet Fitness - and the different plans and options they offer, including pictures of the different locations and a nice cost comparison at the end.

Visit Johnny Africa's blog for
more info on gyms in SA

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Load-Shedding? Try Real Hardship: Snow Days!

March 17, 2015

I'm writing this as the sun is finally shining, the birds are chirping, and spring is erupting with a vengeance here in the Northern hemisphere.

But just a few weeks ago, it was still bleakest winter here in the American South, where it's supposed to be mild and perpetually hot and steamy. It was a harsh winter, my South African friends. In fact, you think you got yourself some hardship with all that load-shedding? Well, you haven't experienced real hardship. You haven't experienced Snow Days!

I don't think these warthogs have previously experienced Snow Days either

Snow Days are the days your kids are out of school for ten consecutive days in February. In the kids' eyes this makes for a nice interruption of the impossibly long stretch between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but for us poor parents it makes for some pulled-out hair, more than the regular clumps you've already pulled out by virtue of your occupation.

Mind you, there doesn't have to be any snow involved to get yourself a Snow Day. There just needs to be the threat of snow. Or ice. I don't blame the school administrators for this. They can't win. Don't close the schools and you'll be crucified by irate parents whose kids you've endangered by not being more cautious. Close the schools, and you'll be assailed by furious parents whose schedule you've messed up.

Definitely not going anywhere on a day like this!

Every once in a while, you get real snow on Snow Days. Because of the Chicken Little effect, you haven't listened to all the warnings on TV and haven't rushed out to score the last bread and milk on bare store shelves, and so you find yourself stranded at your house for a week with a few wrinkled apples and some flour. And four kids. The roads are iced over, there is only one snowplow for a city of 500,000, so you can do the math - it will be a week before you can get out again. And, more importantly, before your kids can get out again.

Snow Days mean you're cooped up with four people who sleep in late, demand to be fed around the clock, trail yucky puddles of snowmelt into your house, leave piles of coats and mittens and smelly socks in front of all your doors, and watch Game of Thrones all day long, leaving a trail of popcorn throughout your living room like Hansel and Gretel.

Snow Days also mean that you find out, the hard way, what an "ice dam" is on your roof. It's something that will make water drip through your ceiling while you're having coffee and will make you climb over the rafters in your attic with a flashlight between your teeth and a laundry bin under your arm on the way to find the leaky spot and catch all that water, and it will mean that the carpet in your bedroom is a soggy swamp because you found the leak too late.

Snow Days also mean you get to do this. Right in front of Carrie Underwood's house.

And Snow Days mean that a day later you are idly wondering why the water pressure is so low until you look on the side of the house and see a fountain spraying from your sprinkler system which you did remember to have winterized, but apparently not well enough. It means that you are running around your yard like crazy, in your pajamas and in the dark, trying to find the bloody meter so you can turn off the water,but that is nothing compared to the dark stares your kids will give you upon learning they will not be able to take a shower this one night! Of course this is totally your fault, and you better fix it today mom, by the time I come home from school. (School has just been reopened, on a late start schedule, mind you, and all of a sudden, the thought of going to school, where there is water, is oddly attractive.)

Oh, the hardship, you have no idea! What, no running water? For a whole night? This will mean that one daughter will refuse to go to the bathroom that night and be very mad at her sister who finally gave in and used the joint toilet, only for number one, mind you, but a teenager will think that's one horribly contaminated toilet ever after. Not to be deterred, one of your boys will take all the ice from the icemaker and melt it in a bowl over his heating vent so that he can take a shower the next morning anyway. It might be worth having a burst pipe just for that little lesson in water conservation.

First-world ingenuity to produce water to wash hair with; note the
first-world central heating vent to make this possible.

Come to think of it, it was definitely worth it because your neighbor, an NFL football player of the most gorgeous build, came over to your house to inform you, did you know you had a fountain of water spraying out from the side of your house? Except that you weren't in your workout tights but in your pajamas...

We did get the pipe fixed the next day and the kids could go back to their ways of taking half-hour showers. Apparently, my kids are still a lot less spoiled than the average American family. The sprinkler repair guy who found and replaced the blown valve told me that some other families have demanded to be boarded in a hotel for the few hours they had to make do without running water.

Where can I sign up for load-shedding? I think we need to get our teenagers a weekly does of that!

Snow days aren't all bad; they force you to learn how to make a cream cheese filled danish braid,
so that you don't have to live off the Girl Scout cookies in your pantry around the clock.

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Clutter, Culture, and Getting Stuff Done

March 9, 2015

I love Pamela Druckerman.

I also envy her a little bit, as she went from blogger to bestselling expat memoirist to New York Times columnist. But mostly I just try to admire her. I've mentioned her here when I talked about balanced (expat) families.

Most recently she wrote about clutter, or rather, mankind's newest love affair with de-cluttering as the solution to all human ills. She arrives at the conclusion that it's probably more a fad, like all those other self-help fads we regularly feel compelled to try, and that " I’m starting to suspect that the joy of ditching all of our stuff is just as illusory as the joy of acquiring it all was."

"Less may be more," she goes on to say, "but it's still not enough." Gotta love that penchant for philosophy from a fellow blogger!

The part I most loved about the article, however, is what it revealed about different cultures through the lens of their respective domestic messes. A British clutter expert was consulted, and she shared some of her experiences with her international online courses.

The British, it turns out, have the most trouble with unwanted heirlooms. Ugh, those pesky Chippendale writing desks, what to do with such hardship in one's life! Italians apparently have the largest number of "unused objects" - there's a way to put a positive spin on the word "clutter." Germans, on the other hand, already have such orderly homes that whenever they mail photos of them to the expert, she is somewhat mystified as to how to help them further. Nevertheless, Germans stubbornly are her biggest subscribers. It's as if they want to wage war against the tiniest hint of a mess with all their might by squashing it before it even appears.

I had to laugh. Because of course this is so true. Have I shown you my "messy" kitchen drawer, you know, the one everyone has in their house for miscellaneous stuff?

Typical German messy kitchen drawer

Here is another one. Maybe, instead of writing books, I should try
to make money by becoming a de-cluttering expert?

If you're an expat, you may not feel a huge need to de-clutter anyway. Moving often (and being constrained by the dimensions of a 40-foot container) helps you continually get rid of things. As an expat you always find yourself either right before a move or right after one, and both will inspire you to throw away stuff en masse.

But does keeping your life clutter-free really make you happier and more efficient?

There is no doubt it makes me happier. I simply couldn't live in a cluttered home. I have, at times, gagged when entering a place and picking up my child from a playdate. 

But overall I tend to agree with Miss Druckerman. The trouble with the magic bullet of de-cluttering, promising that “once your house is orderly, you can pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life” is that that particular time never, ever, arrives. Trust me, I've tried. You can clean your house and pantry and desk until the cows come home, and you'll never get anything else done in your life, because there will always be more housework! The surest way to get something meaningful done in your life is to let the housework be and sit down at your keyboard and start typing already, dust bunnies notwithstanding. At least it worked for me and I have a book to show for it. My kitchen drawers may be orderly, but please don't look under my sofa.

And now, excuse me while I go and rearrange some things in my house so that it will look as if I have cleaned...
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Your Mobile Phone in South Africa

March 2, 2015

I'm working my way up to one of my Expat Tips, so if you'd like to skip my ramblings, just scroll on down where you'll find it. But here is the backstory:

After hitting the 1 million pageview mark for Joburg Expat, I had a brief feeling of elation, almost immediately followed by guilt. Why guilt? Because I feel like not living in South Africa anymore has moved my blog away from the stories my readers so loved and needed to read. Almost gone are the tales of standing in long lines trying to wrangle a concession out of a smiling but unmoving government clerk; no more stories about traffic stops where cops ask you what you've brought them today. Not even any complaints about the hardship of load-shedding!

It's only natural, you'll say, since I don't live there anymore. Still, I'd like for my blog to continue to be helpful to newly arrived expats, at least every once in a while. Luckily, I still have a good amount of material stashed away, collected during our crazy busy life in the Joburg sunshine, and so I've decided I should dig up these pieces at least periodically so that I can continue to share some advice.

Hence this post about mobile phones in South Africa, a rather banal topic. But, as I remember all too well, a very important one to the newly-arrived expat. I remember how it drove me crazy not having any phone the first 3-4 weeks of living in our gated community, not even being able to answer calls from the gate to let contractors in. The very contractors, I might add, that would help me be connected to the world, like the people from Telkom. A mobile phone, I quickly realized, was my ticket to everything that I needed those first few days, and yet I didn't have one.

Getting phone service set up in South Africa, mobile or otherwise,
took forever. But who cares when you can sit by a beautiful pool?

I didn't have one, because I'm a perfectionist. South African mobile phone plans, some of you might already have learned, are not easy to navigate. Especially when you come from the U.S. where most plans are simple as can be. You pay one monthly sum (a princely sum, to be sure) and you get unlimited airtime and texting, plus a chunk of data, like 7 Gig or 10 Gig or even 15 Gig.

In South Africa, by contrast, there are a bazillion plans. Imagine the menu at a cheap Mexican restaurant for a moment: Pages and pages of burritos and enchiladas and tacos and quesadillas, each with 20 different innards and 10 different sides, and of course all the combinations have to be listed in all the iterations. How to choose? That is exactly how I felt when first browsing Vodacom's catalog of phone plans. And then of course there are also Cell C, MTN, Virgin Mobile - and probably more. It seemed an impossible task to analyze them all and figure out what would be best for my personal usage. How many text messages (SMS) would I want to send per month? How many calls would I make? If I didn't allocate enough minutes and went over, would the higher charges blow the cost out of the water? Conversely, if I got too many and didn't use them, would I overpay?

I agonized over it, all the while without connection to the outside world, because I also didn't have a car. But I wanted to get it perfect. I didn't want to overpay, and yet I also wanted to use my precious iPhone (you'll get a chuckle out of the fact that it was an iPhone 3, so laughably out of date now), which had the slight drawback that its SIM-card was locked as per AT&T. I agonized for long weeks over how I could possibly make my iPhone work in South Africa. I made many trips to an obscure Apple reseller, I saw my phone travel to Cape Town and back and, finally, to Vietnam into the care of an obscure hacker, and eventually managed to make my iPhone work in South Africa, but boy did it take a ton of time an energy!

In hindsight, that tapas approach to cell phone plans I so agonized over is actually not bad at all. Compared to here in the U.S. (remember the princely sum I mentioned?), cell phone service in South Africa is cheap, precisely because you are able to custom-tailor it. But instead of obsessing over it as I did, the best approach is to just go ahead and select a plan, starting fairly low, and then increase your minutes/SMS budget later when you have an idea how much you need. There is no penalty for changing your plan upwards at a later date. You just can't go down - at least that's how it was for me with Vodacom a few years back. Or, choose pay-as-you-go and do without a plan altogether - you'll save yourself the hassle of all the paperwork when signing up.

In short, my Expat Tip: Pick a carrier (I picked Vodacom - at the time, the coverage seemed the best in our area), get a cheap phone to start, and get a low-level plan which you can upgrade later. Read my article TV, Internet, and Phone Service in South Africa for more detail. 
Back then I also would have recommended getting Blackberrys for the kids. They came with such cheap group texting plans that everyone had them and your child would stand out like a sore thumb if they didn't. However, things may have changed. A lot of SA friends' kids have since switched to iPhones. Jailbreaking may no longer be an issue, as you can buy unlocked phones anywhere, especially since most carriers in the U.S. no longer offer cheap phones as part of the contract. Most people buy their phones on Amazon or eBay, and you can take them anywhere in the world and put a local SIM card in them there.

I have also since then gotten some great advice from a fellow American expat in South Africa and wanted to share it with you. It involves going not with a local plan at all, but using T-Mobile's* Simple Choice Plan, which gives you unlimited texts and data in 120 countries around the world, South Africa included. Read here what she has to say about that alternative:

After hours of research, I decided to switch to T-Mobile from Sprint about a few months before we moved to Joburg. I wanted to keep my number for holidays in the US and for banking with Bank of America.

With T-Mobile, you can buy your phone out right or I believe you can finance it over 24 months at 0%. I chose to buy my phone out right so that after 30 days of having my service with T-Mobile, I could ask them to unlock my phone. Just a phone call and it was done.

My T-mobile service is month-to-month, so I'm not tied in a contract. I went with the iPhone because I was vested in the technology. I was actually looking at a Samsung S4-mini that has a dual SIM card slot. You can buy one online from Amazon that's already unlocked and just go to T-Mobile to get a SIM card so you can have your US number. When you get to South Africa, just go to the cell phone store and get a South African SIM card. Then both numbers, U.S. and SA, will ring. You can toggle to the U.S. T-Mobile and use the unlimited data and SMS it gives you for South Africa, and only use your SA SIM card for voice, so that you only have to pay for airtime when making calls in South Africa. Since there is no such thing as unlimited data in South Africa, at least not in any way affordable.

In hindsight, I should have gone with the dual SIM technology. But I guess I was blinded by my Apple devices and so stuck with the iPhone.
I hope you find this helpful. If you have any other information to share regarding affordable cell phone plans in South Africa, pleas share!

* This blog post is in no way sponsored or paid for by T-Mobile. It simply serves as a tip for expats. There might very well be other carriers and plans with similar options, but I wanted to share the one that is proven since it's worked for someone before.
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Voulez-Vous, You Know, Kiss Me?

February 23, 2015

A recent post by fellow expat blogger Nikki about the sort of silly questions you get asked as an exchange student reminded me of a long-forgotten story that happened to me as a child. But go on, read Nikki's story first, as I'm sure you'll want to know how blow jobs and vegemite sandwiches can possibly be related to each other, and then get back here for my story.

I was thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old. A few years earlier, my mother, a big believer in exchange programs and learning languages, but also a big believer in doing it on the cheap, had - through some family connections - reached out to this family in Rouen, France, and from then on we were constantly exchanging kids one way or the other. My older brother stayed with them for a summer, their oldest boy came to see us the next break, and so forth, until it was my turn to go.

I was on the train back home after my second summer in France, still flush from the experience of living with other people who are interesting and exciting and, most importantly, never nag you. I was speaking French like a local with only a trace of an accent and was making friends with this French boy in my compartment. I can't remember where he was going or what he looked like, but the memory of meeting him is seared in my brain because he - gasp! - told me that "tu es tres mignonne." No one had ever told me I was cute - I wasn't - and it was probably just a silly pickup line, but nevertheless we had a grand old time on that train, talking about this and that and joking around until he felt the need to ask me a question.

Did I like Itlaire, he wanted to know.

Now, you have to understand that I had a pretty sheltered childhood. Not overprotected, mind you - after all, here I was doing this trip all by myself at such a young age, crossing international borders no less, and this being Europe in the 1970s most parents weren't particularly alarmed about any possible dangers lurking out there. No, what I mean is that despite my travels I was not very worldly, especially in terms of pop culture. Our family didn't possess a TV, and even radios were only introduced into our household when I was well into my teens. My mother disdained what she called hott 'n' tott music and for years my home entertainment was confined to listening to Peter and the Wolf on our old roundtable record player, as well as reading illicit Donald Duck comics under the bedcovers by flashlight.

My son complains that driving a Nissan Leaf to school is not cool at all and that it gives rise to constant teasing. I want to smack him over the head. Aside from telling him that he is saving tons of money on gas and that driving any car must surely beat having to ride the bus, but that he is welcome to resort back to that mode of transport any time if he so pleases, I'd like to tell him about my hardscrabble childhood. About how I walked to school barefoot in the snow for miles... Okay, sorry, wrong line. But does he know how difficult it is to compete with kids who watch every television show out there every single night, who are allowed to have posters of Leif Garrett* on their wall, and who own every ABBA and Pink Floyd album under the sun? I'd like for him to understand how hard it is not to be teased in that environment! I mean, could I ever invite anyone to our house and face the horrors of them seeing my record collection of Peter and the Wolf and Räuber Hotzenplotz?

Like any kid would, I became quite the expert at masking my shortcomings. I quickly learned the names of songs that were popular at the time, even though I'd never heard them, so that I could write Another Brick in the Wall in yearbooks where questions about favorite songs and such were asked. I learned to nod knowingly when hot actors were discussed, and I successfully faked my way through any conversations about groups or movies unknown to me.

Which takes me back to the pretty boy on the Paris-Stuttgart train. I was sure Itlaire must be yet another popstar I didn't know, and of course I couldn't admit my ignorance. I decided to bluff.

"Yeah, he's not too bad," I said, and nodded vaguely. I'm pretty sure I didn't say "I just love Itlaire" because, when you're faking it, you never want to come out too strongly for or against anything. But I do remember giving my approval.

After that, it wasn't the same. I must have said the wrong thing, because the boy faded away, never to be seen again. The train ride wasn't going to last forever, and perhaps at that moment we arrived at our destinations and had to part ways. That's what I told myself for years when recalling that memory of the first stirrings of romance in my life, immediately followed by the first stinging disappointment.

Not until years later did it come to me, I think it must have been when I was watching a French movie with subtitles: Itlaire, you see, is how the French pronounce Hitler. I, a German girl, had confessed to a French boy I was trying to impress that I thought Hitler was pretty cool! I still cringe at the memory 30 plus years later. I probably set back Franco-German relations by a decade with that comment alone.

And it's all my mom's fault for not letting me listen to the Hitparade.

Come to think of it, it's ALWAYS the mom's fault.

My oldest brother and I, with my other brother cut off on the side (who takes pictures like that?).
Anyway, a typical afternoon of home entertainment at our house growing up. No TV, no radio.
Just paper and paintbrushes and the occasional peeled orange for a snack. Of course, now I'm
grateful. I trace my creative streak back to such afternoons:-)

* So I had to go on Wikipedia to figure out how to spell Leif Garrett, and there was a picture of him as he looks today. Yikes! what happened to that pretty boy?

Other musings about my exchange student days:

Memoirs of an Exchange Student: I'm Leeeeeeeaving, on a Jet Plane...Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!

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Joburg Expat Hits One Million

February 16, 2015

I wish it was one million dollars, but it's just pageviews. The number of times people have looked at (and maybe even read) my blog. Joburg Expat has just surpassed a million of those!

A million! (kinda embarrassing, though, to see it listed under last month's stats, which were not great)

When I first started Joburg Expat I didn't have any big readership in mind. I just wanted to share what I knew so that others would have an easier time making their decision to move to South Africa and, once there, settle in and all that. Who knew there'd be so much interest?

I sort of lost track of my pageviews after the excitement of checking them daily wore off. And after we moved back to the U.S., they sort of hit a plateau and have remained more or less steady each month instead of rising further. So I was a bit surprised when glancing at the stats the other day that I was approaching a million views.

To celebrate, I thought it might be nice to tell you a little about me, especially for new readers who are joining us now. Joburg Expat in a nutshell, so to speak. It just so happens that I recently wrote an article about our family for our neighborhood magazine that perfectly suits this purpose. The following is adapted from the original - names and locations have been changed to preserve privacy:

You could call us global nomads. My husband and I were born and raised in Germany, arrived in the United States in the 1990s for graduate school, lived in North Carolina for many years, moved around the country several times, and lived in Singapore for a while. That’s where our second son Jabulani, now sixteen, was born. Our other children are Zax (18 and soon off to college), Impatience (14), and Sunshine (12). We moved to our current home in Tennessee in January of 2013 after relocating to the U.S. from a three-year assignment in South Africa.

The things we were most grateful to rediscover were working traffic lights (including the fact that they are once again called traffic lights and not robots), Amazon, efficient and reliable service (except perhaps on the Comcast front), an abundance of power outlets in each room without the need for any adapters, the Starbucks drive-through, Major League baseball, the public library, water fountains, and yes, the U.S. Postal Service (it is still such a surprise when your mail gets there).

We were also happy to rediscover people who mean “right now” when they say it. South Africans have a rather conflicted relationship with the word “now.” When someone tells you he’ll do it “now,” it almost certainly means “never.” “Just now” means “maybe, but probably not today.” The only thing worth getting your hopes up for is “now now,” and even that is at best translated with “soon.”

And yet we do miss Africa. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It is precisely the slower and gentler pace of a life where nothing happens right away that has its charms. We miss the beautiful sunsets; the smiling and generous people who have the world’s best sense of humor; the parking guards calling you Mama; the screeching hadedas (a kind of bird) waking you up every morning; the hawkers at the intersection and the throngs of people milling about; the presence everywhere of Nelson Mandela; and above all, the African bush with all its glorious animals.

We even miss the language, which made for some misunderstandings early on. Ketchup is tomaaahto sauce, cookies are biscuits, biscuits are scones, and there is an entire baked-goods aisle containing rows and rows of rusks, which, frankly, can only be eaten without serious injury to your teeth by dunking them into your Rooibos tea. When you put something on your calendar you diarise it, an athletic cup is a ballbox (imagine my consternation when that first showed up on the school supply list), when someone promises to call they will give you a ring (or worse, a tinkle), things that are yummy are lekker, and when you’re having a bad day it is kak.

Going to a South African school and donning uniforms (yet sometimes no shoes) was quite an adjustment for the kids, but an exciting experience. They had to learn new languages, Afrikaans and Zulu, but perhaps the biggest adjustment came on the sports field. Zax and Impatience took up field hockey, the girls tried themselves at netball – a type of outdoor basketball with neither backboard nor dribbling, a rather sad affair if you ask me – and Jabulani played soccer, rugby, and cricket, the latter a game not unlike baseball but so slow that when the teams break for “tea and biscuits” at halftime it often constitutes the highlight of the match.

When we first moved to Johannesburg in early 2010, just in time for the Soccer World Cup, we had heard the most dire stories of carjackings, break-ins, and worse. Taking kids to such a place and to actually live there seemed quite insane. But, as often is the case, reality was much different from reputation. While Johannesburg is definitely not one of the safest places to live – along with many American cities I can think of – it has changed for the better in recent times, and we count our years there as some of the happiest of our lives.

The weather, for one, was nearly perfect. No need for air conditioning and bright sunshine year round. The sweeping landscapes, the friendly people, the outdoor lifestyle, and, oh, the wine! Don’t even get me started on domestic help, something I sorely miss (though I suspect the kids miss it even more, seeing as they now have to fold laundry, unload dishes, and prepare their own school lunches).

Maybe what we loved so much about our life there is that, in the words of Paul Theroux, “Africa, for all its perils, represents wilderness and possibility.” It instills in you a sense of adventure. You somehow feel more alive, younger, willing to do crazier things than you’ve ever done before. You know those African airplanes you shake your head about when hearing of another disaster? Or those minibus taxis with threadbare tires and overstuffed with smelly people? We traveled in them. Kissed by elephants and battled bush fires? Been there. Bungy jumping off bridges and diving with great white sharks? Done that. (By the way, it’s not so much the sharks that are scary, but the freakishly cold waters off Cape Town.)

Africa gives you this sense of adventure, but seeing so much poverty around you also fills you with humility and puts many of our modern-day grievances in perspective. And it definitely teaches you patience. Because between Africa and your efficient American can-do-nothing-is-impossible self, Africa usually wins.

When you return from all that to the much more predictable existence in American suburbia, you can't help but feel a sense of loss, even though you're surrounded by beauty, the phones work every day, and you never come across any street signs warning you of “hijacking hotspots.”

But we are very grateful to have found such a wonderful community. From the very first day we were welcomed with open arms, invited into our neighbors’ homes, and included in their activities. The kids have found new music teachers and sports teams (lacrosse replaced field hockey, volleyball took over for netball, while rugby remains rugby), and my husband enjoys the more predictable challenges of his job at a local industrial company.

As for me, I continue to write the blog I started three years ago, which is still called Joburg Expat but nowadays generates fewer stories of incomprehensible government bureaucracy or bribing traffic cops, and more about the wonders of First World living.

Noisette, Jabulani, Impatience, Sunshine, Zax, and Yours Truly, December 2014
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