How (Not) to Camp in the African Bush

September 28, 2015

Had we stayed longer in South Africa, we would have gone camping in the bush for sure.

Our friends, Mike & Jacky and Adrian & Andy (if you've read Kilimanjaro Diaries, those characters will all be familiar to you) had been trying to talk us into it for some time, but we initially resisted. You know, on account of lions, pythons, elephants, broken axles and such. We were smart enough to know that camping in Africa is not the same as camping in a National Park in the United States.

Although, lest you think we're complete wussies - as Mike likes to call those with inferior outdoor survival skills - Noisette and I have done plenty of camping, back in the day. A trip to Spain in 1987 comes to mind, where we vegged out on a beach called "Caya Gogo" boasting of a sound-proof disco which no doubt would have been soundproof had not all the windows been knocked out at some point, making sleep only possible between the hours of 4 am and 7 am, at which time the baking sun sent you scrambling out of the tent gasping for air. Still much better than sometime later in Denmark where it rained for 7 days straight and we kept having to prop up the tent from inside each time to wind flattened it into a pancake.

We also lived out of a converted Ford Aerostar minivan for 8 weeks in the summer of 1993 when touring the American West. We had the best salmon ever somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, bought at a market in Seattle and later grilled to perfection over hot coals. And we still salivate over the steaks we once had in Yosemite. They were so absolutely delicious when eaten in the dark on our picnic table that even discovering the next morning during daylight the evidence of having eaten clean through the paper plates (in the form of only paper plate rings left behind) did not change our opinion of their goodness retroactively.

Camping in the Ford Aerostar. Come to think of it, this would have worked well in Africa, except
perhaps a bit crowded with 6 people on a full-size futon mattress... Pictured: yours truly.
(June 1993, North Carolina)

Shocking, right? And by that I do not mean the sparse camping gear but the skinny shape of Noisette.
(July 1993, American West somewhere)

Perhaps our meal standards weren't so high back then. Having to skim a layer of ants off the top of a boiling pasta pot didn't really bother us much either. We were poor students then, and not picky. That steak might have been the only steak that month, so it was bound to taste good regardless. During those days, we developed a knack for getting a free meal off of a single beer during Happy Hour, and for resupplying our "travel kitchen" with plasticware and crackers at fast food restaurants along the way. But I digress - those adventures, which, happened all before kids, are fodder for another blog post.

Post kids, our camping exploits took a precipitous downturn. Quite optimistically, we did set out once, when our oldest was about a year old and chose that precise night to have the worst bout of diarrhea to date. Five hours of a tide that could not be stemmed. Which considerably dampened our desire to ever go camping with a toddler again. And, for that matter, teenagers.

Diarrhea or not, camping in Myrtle Beach is not really at the furthest outpost from civilization.
(July 1997, Myrtle Beach, SC).

In the end, there were only three instances of camping our family partook of while in Africa.

One, the time Noisette went father-daughter camping with Sunshine, our youngest, then perhaps nine years old. They drove the 3 minutes to school from our house, equipped with a pop-up tent, sleeping bags, and some beer, to join other fathers and their daughters on the rugby field for this bonding experience. I remember going to bed that night all comfy in my cozy blankets, glad that I was indoors and reading my book and looking forward to sleeping in the next morning. But I was rudely awoken at 6:30 AM when both husband and daughter clattered back into the house, thoroughly tired of camping and wanting to be served breakfast.

Two, the time all six of us went canoeing on the Orange River in Namibia - or, as the kids labeled that vacation, "double-buckled in the  middle of nowhere" on account of the limited space in our car's backseat on the way there. We had borrowed a large family-size tent as welcome shelter against the wintry Southern African night, except the tent was blown off by a sudden gust when first erected and suffered a fatal injury to one of its poles, so that the four kids had to squeeze into our ancient two-man tent, which Zax had insisted we bring along so that he could sleep separate from the rest. Well, that didn't work out so well for him, did it? The fact that the next day was his birthday, which normally he wouldn't have chosen to start by standing around a campfire in the freezing cold looking at 3 measly presents and an entire day of paddling in front of him, didn't much make things better. The only bright spot of the tent incident was that Noisette and I got to test the down sleeping bags I'd bought for the Kilimanjaro hike, right there under the star-studded Namibian night sky. What a spectacular sight!

Zax, on the far right, listening to us singing Happy Birthday and staring at the sparse offerings.
(August 2012, Namibia)

You're not exactly roughing it in the bush when you get this kind of almost-en-suite setup!
(August 2012, Namibia)

Three, the aforementioned Kilimanjaro hike by Zax and I (which, my publicist* tells me, I should slyly mention again here: Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life). 

None of the above really counts, however. Both camping trip Two and Three stood out in terms of the built-in luxury of a guide (many guides, actually, on Kili) doing all the heavy lifting for us: Packing all the food and stuff, carrying it, cooking it for us, telling us where to go, setting up the loo, and bailing us out on occasion (like when Noisette and Jabulani overturned their canoe and had to be "rescued" from a rock). In fact, one might say that these trips were chosen for the very feature of guides-slash-porters-slash-cooks being present.

It doesn't really count either when your tent's already waiting for you, along with a bowl of hot water.
(September 2012, Kilimanjaro)

But had my family ever gone camping in the African bush, this is very close to the blog post I might have written about it afterwards:

by My Thoughts From The Deep End

It's about a trip to Kruger Park, a guided self-drive with a few other couples they met there for the first time, each in their own respective vehicle. Just to give you a glimpse, this is how she (a fellow American living in South Africa) starts out: 

Mr. Deep and I created the preparedness challenge that I explained in this [previous] post feeling so confident that we would win. Who would design a competition knowing that they would lose?
We lost. We lost in spectacular fashion. To quote Bon Jovi, we went down in a blaze of glory. Only minus the glory.  
And then later:

It was then I began to realize that Mr. Deep and I were like a high school basketball team. We are a good team but we have never played outside of our division. We practiced hard and prepared well but we were outclassed.
Yep, I could have said "I told you so," had I been asked prior to the trip. You cannot outclass South Africans when it comes to bush-preparedness, and not just preparedness, but mind-boggling luxury. Like a full-service bar. Or a meat selection any Brazilian steakhouse would be jealous of. See for yourself the chart with all the other categories these campers were outclassed in - if as an expat you've been there, you'll laugh, and if you haven't gone yet, you'll now be prepared!

Come to think of it, if we had undertaken that trip, we would have probably lost even more epically. One dead battery? I raise you three flat tires!

Read the entire blog post here.

And now think long and hard about how you're (not) going to camp in the African bush.

* I do not, technically speaking, have a publicist. Just thought I should be completely honest.
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Interview: "How we Retired in South Africa"

September 21, 2015

Retirement in South Africa is a surprisingly hot topic on some expat forums. Brits in particular seem to have a fondness for the former colony. You can't blame them, really, when you compare the average days of sunshine in London versus Johannesburg. 

But how to actually make it work? Making the decision is just one part of it, but then you've got to figure out a way to pay for it, apply for visas, and get all other paperwork in order. It involves quite a bit of knowledge of "the system," and it helps tremendously to know someone who's done it before you.

The perfect photograph for this blog post (taken in the Drakensberg), don't you think? An official
"no entry" sign but a helpful arrow pointing the way if you're undeterred.

Since I know just such a person, I decided to interview her for you. Her name is Lotte Sorensen. Together with her husband Lauge she recently retired to South Africa (though "retirement" is a very loose term, more on that later).

Joburg Expat: You and your husband have lived all over the world. Can you name some of the places you've made your home?

Lotte Sorensen: We left Denmark in 1998 for a short assignment in New York. One thing led to the other, and after 7 years in the United States we moved to Bangalore in India, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, then Johannesburg, had a short stint in Shanghai and are now back in Joburg.

JE: Having lived in so many places, what made you choose South Africa as your retirement home?

LS: It's a funny story, because at first I wasn't thrilled at all about South Africa. We had spent a wonderful two years in Malaysia, and I was sad to leave. The move was full of all these silly hiccups, and I found myself holed up in a sad service apartment, wary to venture outside on my own, (as I would probably get carjacked, robbed and shot on my way to Pick'n' know how it is). And it rained for the first two full weeks!

JE: So it wasn't love at first sight.

LS: No, not at all. But eventually we settled in, made friends and explored the country. Joburg and I grew on each other, to the point where I was devastated when it was time to leave. When we got to Shanghai, I almost immediately started making plans for how we could return. The timing was good: My husband didn't particularly enjoy his assignment there, and after 15 years "on the road" we were both rather ready to settle down.

JE: Were there any good reasons to settle in South Africa, other than liking it there?

LS: I would like to say that the choice to make South Africa our retirement home was based on very rational criteria: cost of living, quality of life, infrastructure, access to medical care, climate... And in fact, South Africa does tick most of these boxes. But mainly I was just madly in love with this country and very eager to stay in one place longer than two years at a time.

JE: Did the visa/permanent residency application process play a role in choosing South Africa?

LS: I suppose it did. If the retirement visa route to permanent residence hadn't existed, or we hadn't qualified......then it wouldn't have happened. In that case we'd probably live in Malaysia now, taking advantage of their retirement visa scheme called MM2H ("Malaysia My Second Home"), which is not a bad alternative and would have been our Plan B.

JE: What exactly do you mean by the "retirement visa route" you just mentioned, and what rights does your current status give you in South Africa?

LS: We applied for the temporary retirement visa [editor's note: the proper name is "Retired Person's Visa" - see more details on visa categories here], which is valid for 4 years and renewable for as long as requirements are fulfilled, at the SA High Commission in Shanghai. We spent a few months collecting all of our required documentation. The police clearance reports (from every country you've lived in since 18 years old - in our case six!), was a particular hassle. Financial statements, medical certificates, etc., including translations and legalisations... I won't lie, it was a lot of work. We finally went to the High Commission one morning with two big piles of paper to turn in, and to our astonishment received a call by lunchtime that our passports with visas were ready for collection.

JE: [Shakes head.] Wow, that last part will make anyone who's ever dealt with the Department of Home Affairs turn green with envy! So do you and your husband still have the status of temporary residents via your Retired Person's Visas?

LS: No, for the simple reason that as temporary residents we wouldn't have been allowed to work. As soon as we arrived in Johannesburg we started getting ready to file our application for permanent residence on the basis of our retirement visas [editor's note: It's called Residency-on-other-grounds; normally, you have to wait 5 years before you can apply for permanent residence, but residency-on-other-grounds allows you to start the process right away; click here for more info]. Except for a couple extra things, it was more or less the same documentation as we had needed in Shanghai, so thankfully we were able to skip a few steps and recycle some papers (the police clearance reports, e.g. are considered valid for 6 months).

This time we handed in our applications at the Home Affairs HQ building in central Johannesburg. We had hired an agency specializing in immigrations processing to double and triple check everything, as we had heard stories of applications being denied for any slight imperfection or silly technicality...

JE: Ha!

LS: ...and the clerk did spend a good 15-20 minutes closely looking over every single piece of paper, challenging us on a few of them, but finally was satisfied and handed us a receipt with a processing ID-number and a you will be contacted in 12-24 months. It was 13 months to the day when we received an email with the good news. Sigh of relief and cause for celebration!

JE: You mean to say, they just sent you an email without you having to prod them relentlessly, in person, standing in line for days? My readers might not actually believe you...

LS: Yep! We are now Permanent Residents of the Republic, with rights to live and work here permanently. We can apply for (must apply for, actually) SA identification cards and driver's licenses. Should we choose to, citizenship can be applied for after 5 years, this would grant rights to vote in elections and to apply for a South African passport.

JE: All joking aside, South Africa does have the reputation of being overly bureaucratic. But you've lived and worked in many countries. Would you say filing the paperwork and getting everything approved was easier or more difficult than elsewhere?

LS: During our time in the U.S., we did apply for and receive permanent residence (Green Cards). As far as I remember, it took 4-5 years from beginning to end, with endless paperwork and appointments, and cost an absolute fortune in lawyer fees. (And this was before 9/11 - I can't imagine the process has gotten easier.) So, compared to that, yes - SA has actually been a breeze.

JE: You are originally from Denmark but as you just mentioned also U.S. Green Card holders. Are you able to tap into retirement funds like Social Security while living abroad?

LS: During our time moving around the world, we kept our Green cards - barely - by applying for "re-entry permits" and special circumstances. But in the end, once we had decided on a future in SA, we decided to surrender them. Which, interestingly, is a whole process on its own. [Editor's note: As a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder you owe the American government taxes on your worldwide income, which is the reason why some people surrender their Green Cards or even citizenship; for tax implications for British citizens abroad, click here.] But to answer your question: No, I don't believe we are eligible for any kind of Social Security or benefits from the U.S., or Denmark, for that matter.

JE: If you aren't able to tap into any benefits from abroad, do you need proof of sufficient funds and/or health insurance/medical aid to apply for a retirement visa? If not, what medical aid route do you recommend, i.e. a local or global plan?

LS: Yes, there are specific requirements financially, to be able to obtain a retirement visa and subsequently permanent residence. There is also the option of the “independently wealthy” category, but this carries a steep non-refundable fee of ZAR 175,000. If you don’t want to pay that fee, you just have to jump through a few more hoops to show that your net worth or pension is high enough to pay out a certain monthly annuity.

As for proof of health insurance, I don't think that's required. We were never queried on that. We have chosen a local "medical aid" or private health insurance plan. It seemed to make more sense since we do consider ourselves locals now. [Editor's note: There are some other benefits of South African medical aid schemes, like receiving discounts on gym memberships.]

JE: Is "permanent residence" indeed permanent or is there any way to lose it again?

LS: I just checked my new shiny certificate. It says in small print: Permanent residents who are absent from the Republic for three years or longer may lose their right to permanent residence in the Republic. The "may" part, I suppose, opens up to potential exemptions, but the general rule seems to be 3 years. But that is not an issue for us since we plan to stay.

JE: You mentioned earlier that you used an agent specializing in immigrations processing to handle your permanent residence application, were you happy with them and can you share the name?

: Yes, they're called Immigration Boutique. We were quite pleased with them - they are experts in that field, so it was nice to have someone who could advise and reassure us. They did place calls with Home Affairs and followed up on our application status throughout the process. Their fee was around ZAR 10,000, which I find quite reasonable for the peace of mind.

JE: What advice do you have or those following in your footsteps? Is there anything you would have done differently?

LS: I'd just like to mention that we applied before the new immigration act came into effect (in May 2014). Some things have changed. The Retired Person's visa and all that still exists, but the criteria may have changed, and the application process definitely has. All applications must now be submitted through the VFS processing centers and not Home Affairs. I couldn't tell you if it has made things easier or more complicated.

JE: Thank you so much for sharing your story and helping future retirees navigate the process! One last question before we finish: You chose Johannesburg for your residence and not Cape Town, even though this time around you weren't tied to any job. Some of my readers will wonder why - do you care to share your observations, at the risk of setting off a culture war - about Joburg v Cape Town?

LS: Lots of people have asked us that question. We enjoy the Cape tremendously - for weekend getaways, trips to the winelands, or lovely vacations by the sea. To us, it feels more like a holiday destination than a place to live. Joburg has that urban, vibey feel of an actual big, working city. We like that. Oh, and the weather, again....nothing beats the Highveld climate!

JE: Thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on your permanent residency, and all the best for your life in South Africa!
Lotte with kitty Tessa: finding a permanent home had the other huge advantage of finally getting a pet!

Lotte and husband Lauge (though pictured here not in South Africa but in Swaziland).

This concludes my interview with Lotte Sorensen. One last note: I mentioned earlier that the word "retirement" might not really apply in the case of the Sorensens. Lauge, Lotte's husband, has been busy building a new vocation that he's very passionate about. And, I would argue, very good at. Check out his first works as a photographer and budding documentary filmmaker here: Lauge Sorensen Photography.

Related links:

Retiring in South Africa: Sponsored post by Whichoffshore.
Applying for a South African visa? Here is what you Need to Know: Guest post on SA People
How Can I Get a Job as an Expat in South Africa?
How Do I Obtain or Renew a Study Permit for a South African School?
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The Absolutely Worst School Project Ever (Or: Why Some Mothers Self-Medicate with Chardonnay)

September 13, 2015

The scene: A beautiful Sunday morning in September, a serenely calm house, a just-poured mug of coffee, the New York Times still pristine in neat folds ready to be plucked apart and spread out.

Daughter, plodding down the stairs: "Mom, I have to build a cell replica for science class on Tuesday."

Mother, with infinite patience: "Okay. Wait... the one your sister did two years ago?"

Daughter, eyes shining: "Yes!"

Mother, cringing, because this brings back all the agony, the crying, the slamming doors preceded by All the other kids get the styrofoam ball from Michaels for $15 too! But then, with dawning realization: "It's still in the basement, you know. I kept it all this time."

Daughter, pulling a long face: "I know. I saw. It's got mold on it."

Mother, more and more hopeful: "Never mind the mold, I'll scrape it off, but you can totally just take it as is, no one will ever know! Besides, it's a new teacher this year."

Daughter, now defiant: "I don't want to cheat. I want to do my OWN project."

Mother, for once wishing this was one of the boys' projects, because they surely would embrace (if be a bit puzzled by) this wonderful opportunity to evade all the work: "But it's all there already! The modeling clay nucleus, the pipe cleaner, the ribbons...All you have to do is change the label with your name."

Daughter standing mutely, lower lip jutting out, a solitary tear rolling down her cheek.

Mother, in defeat: "Fine. But we're NOT buying another [repressed expletive] styrofoam ball for $15! You can scrape all the modeling clay and pipe cleaner and ribbon off the old project and re-use the ball."

Daughter storms off and slams door.

Mother, more loudly: "And don't come to me for help with your project!"

Daughter, the next day, having scraped all the old decorations off the styrofoam ball, a  worried look on her face: "Mom, I don't really know how to build this cell replica for science."

Cue gathering storm clouds around Mother's head, and her brain ready to explode: "You can't be [barely repressed expletive] serious?"

A few hours later, Mother and Daughter are seen in the car on their way to Michaels, Daughter happily chatting away: "I'm going to buy modeling clay and pipe cleaner and ribbon and..."

To all the 7th grade teachers out there: Do you know that the only way one can build a reasonable replica of a cell is with a styrofoam ball? Unless one wants to get knee deep into paper mache? And that styrofoam friggin' balls are going for $15 at Michaels (2 years ago, that is; for all I know, this year's edition comes to $19.99), which with its cramped aisles of  crap and sensory-assaulting stink of potpourri is a place no reasonable person should ever be sent to, not even by her worst enemy?

Whatever happened to building fun projects, like this:

Soap box car project at Dainfern College, South Africa
Please, oh Puh-leeeeease, spare us any more cell replicas. Anything involving a trip to Michaels, really. Feel free to give those kids excruciating exams on cells. The toughest exam ever, if you wish, one that makes them sweat water and blood. Feel free to give them an F if they can't remember all the parts of a cell. Do whatever you wish in that classroom, just don't make them glue together a science project which you've gotta know, just KNOW, renders the Mom with first-degree burns on both hands and requires craft and office supplies sufficient to run a small country.

And while we're at it, don't put 25 Number 2 pencils on your back-to-school shopping list. No kid will ever need 25 pencils in one school year. Unless of course they sit there breaking them in half out of pure boredom because they have to color in yet another picture of a cell. One mechanical pencil with some extra lead would be just fine, but you've banned mechanical pencils. Banned! And who do you think is going to carry around 5 3-ring binders stuffed full of 10 sheafs of wide-ruled paper in their backpack, I ask you?

Please excuse me now while I run out to buy a new supply of glue sticks. After a detour to the liquor store to replenish the much-needed self-medication supplies, also known as Chardonnay, to get me through yet another 7th grade science project.

The end product. Admittedly even more beautiful than its predecessor. Still...

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Ticket to Timbuktu

September 7, 2015

Remember the faraway places you read about as a child, and the sense of wonder you felt at their mention?

One such place for me was Zanzibar. I’m not sure exactly where I got my information, but it might well have been a story from Arabian Nights. I’d lie in bed long after my mother had declared it a night and closed the book she was reading aloud from, and I’d imagine colorful people in turbans, exotic scents wafting from their hookah pipes, bustling about in a busy marketplace bargaining for wares.

When we lived in Africa and had the chance for some extended travel, both Noisette and I knew exactly where we wanted to go to fulfill a childhood dream: Zanzibar. You can read about our exploits there here and here and also here.

Another such place exerting an equally fascinating pull on us was Timbuktu. It has that same exotic ring to it, a place nearly at the end of the world that’s very hard to reach and fabled to contain riches beyond belief for those who should be so fortunate to reach it. But alas we never made it there.

When I recently came across a copy of Ticket to Timbuktu by Joe Lindsay, I jumped. The next best thing besides traveling to a place is visiting it by proxy when reading a compelling travel memoir.

I was not disappointed. Ticket to Timbuktu is nothing fancy, nothing overly dramatic, but a very honest account of one man’s trip from his home in Scotland to Timbuktu and back. Going there had been a childhood dream, and when his wife gave him the trip for his 60th birthday he overcame his misgivings and plunged right in, braving the overland route from Dakar much like the early explorers might have done.

I was much reminded of Paul Theroux’s writing in Dark Star Safari, another excellent African travel memoir. Traveling overland in Africa always seems a particular adventure, much more so than doing the same in Europe for instance, and Lindsay’s story did not disappoint. From border crossings to almost-arrests for illegal, if innocent, photography to having to share a mattress with a self-proclaimed policeman, he paints wonderful scenes of his trip through Senegal and Mali that are so vivid that you believe you're right there with him. What I particularly like is his approach to dealing with the locals: wary at first, which in truth we all would be when confronted with the constant hustling and unknown customs, but always open-minded to observe and learn, and by the end of his trip savvy enough to get by even when confronted with an extreme shortage of money.

Yes, I'm aware of the fact that this is neither Dakar nor Timbuktu nor anywhere in between. I took
this picture in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and it is a street scene I imagine to be as close to what Joe
Lindsay saw on his overland trip as described in Ticket to Timbuktu as I can produce. Just imagine
desert instead of lush tropical foliage, and it's probably very close.

Here are some examples of the descriptions I found charming:

“The streets are filled with people walking. If it was Scotland, you would think there must be a football match on somewhere, but here, it was simply life.” 

To anyone who has ever lived or extensively traveled in Africa, this rings very true and brings a smile to your face. If there is one thing I miss about Africa, it is the crowded streets teeming with life.

Or this:

“Now, I was in a pickle. My passport was being held by a rural African policeman. The Chief of Police was no doubt going to accuse me of spying, and I hadn’t reported in to control [Joe's wife] for two days. I had also involved Michael [a fellow traveler on one stretch], and he had a bag of drugs.”

It is matter-of-fact statements such as this that made this story so funny at times, without even trying.

Or this:

“I taught a little boy how to make a paper aeroplane. We flew it all over the cabin, then out into the big grey river. Children are fun, no matter where you are.” 

Is there a better observation of humankind than that?

And also this:

“He nodded, and said something completely unintelligible, which I interpreted as “Aye, ok.” In retrospect, he may have said “Yes, and if you do, you’ll probably be shot.”

It is this simple prose and humble telling of a story that made this an enjoyable read for me. If there was one thing I might have liked to learn about that wasn’t present in the book, it is the history of Mali and Timbuktu. Lindsay is such a good storyteller, he could have easily gotten me to learn a bunch of new facts about that part of Africa that I didn’t know, without even having to try. But with or without history, this is a nice travel memoir, and if you’re at all planning to travel to Timbuktu via the overland route, or for that matter anywhere in Africa by road, this is a must-read for you.

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Joburg Traffic: What Do You Do in a Traffic Circle?

August 31, 2015

Something moved me to re-post an old blog post of mine, DOs and DONTs in Joburg Traffic, on my Facebook page the other day. In it I speak of potholes, street vendors, robots (the working and the non-working kind), minibus taxis, and yes, protecting yourself against smash-and-grabs.

It instantly became one of the most-viewed posts that week. Perhaps it's not surprising that Joburg Traffic evokes such strong emotions - after all, as a Joburger, you spend half your life in it!

Then it occurred to me that there was actually one thing I missed about the dreaded Joburg traffic: traffic circles, or roundabouts.

I don't know if it's an African thing, or a South African thing, or just a Joburg thing, but traffic circles there work very differently - and, once you get the idea, better - than in the rest of the world. Noisette still doesn't understand it to this day, but it is a brilliant concept. Because, you see, you don't indicate with your blinker that you intend to get ONTO the traffic circle, you indicate which way you're going to turn OFF of it.

Let's say the traffic circle has 4 exits, 1 being the one you're using to get onto it, 2 being the next one to the left - after all, you're driving on the left side of the road - 3 being the one straight ahead, and 4 being the one turning to the right after you've made a three quarter turn. It's exit 4 that I'd like to talk about. In most other places where there are traffic circles, you'd blink LEFT to get onto the circle (or right, in right-side-driving countries). You'd go around as far as you wished, and then you'd blink LEFT again to indicate where you're getting off, just before you're getting off. Not really much help to the people waiting on the outside wanting to get on.

In South Africa, in this particular situation you wouldn't blink LEFT to get onto the circle. Duh, everyone knows you're gonna get onto the circle, why should you have to indicate this? No, what you do if you intend to take exit 4 is you turn your blinker to RIGHT as soon as you drive onto the circle. Why? Well, this way the person waiting opposite from you will know that you intend to make the three quarter turn and pass him on your way, therefore making him wait. If you intended to take exit 2 instead (the left turn one), you'd blink left, thereby indicating to the person opposite that you are going to leave the circle BEFORE passing him, therefore allowing him to get onto the circle. Even if you're using exit 3, going straight and not using your blinker, the person opposite could drive onto the circle while you get off at the same exit. Brilliant concept, speeding things up just a tiny bit in a place whose roads are clogged up all too often.

Because I know this all sounds crazy, here is a little back-of-the-envelope (literally) diagram I drew for you while sitting through yet another endless parent night at school:

Joburg traffic circle. Now it all makes sense, right??

I do hope you get it, or I will seriously doubt my artistic prowess.

The person who first introduced me to this novel idea was, unexpectedly, my domestic helper. She was sitting in the passenger seat one day when we were running errands, and suddenly spoke up:

"You should have indicated to the right!"

We had just gone through the Dainfern Valley traffic circle coming home, and the above was the situation I faced multiple times every day. I had dutifully used my blinker as I was taught in my German driver training, which as you can imagine has rules for just about everything. "What does she know," is what I was thinking at the time, "she probably doesn't even drive." But over the next few weeks, going through the same circle day-in day-out, it suddenly dawned on me: She was absolutely right! It made a ton of sense! Just as you would blink right when turning right at a regular intersection, why not blink right at a traffic circle too? It's such a huge courtesy to the other drivers entering from different directions.

I have no idea why I felt so compelled to write this much about one silly such little thing, but somehow I wanted to share. In closing, there is another thing I miss about driving in South Africa: The warning-light-courtesy-blink-a-frenzy. Say you are on a long stretch of country road with a slow-poke car in front of you, and they see you behind them and pull over to the far left so that you can overtake them easily. You pass them, veer back over in front of them, and the first thing you do is fumble for your emergency lights so you can blink them a quick "thank you!" Typically, in response, they will then blink "you are welcome" back at you, and if you want to really be thorough, you might blink a quick acknowledgement of their reply to indicate you appreciate their politeness. This could go on and on except for the fact that you did overtake them for a reason and are probably by now out of sight so that the blinking may have an end. It can be quite distracting but I've found it to be such a feel-good thing to have this visual conversation with strangers on those lonely roads. It's quite the opposite of road rage, isn't it?

I've been told there are other countries where this happens too, but I can tell you this: It NEVER would happen in Germany. The only flashing lights you get in Germany are the headlights from the person behind you who is telling you, no DEMANDING, that you better move over from that left lane of the Autobahn to make room for his fancy and powerful Mercedes or he will climb RIGHT OVER YOUR CAR AND PULL YOU OUT FOR DARING TO BE SO SLOW!

Read more on Joburg traffic here
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First World Problem: How to Spread Two Cars Between Three Teenagers

August 24, 2015

Every once in a while, as an expat blogger - especially an expat WIFE blogger, also known for sipping mojitos by the pool all day while the domestic help works her magic around the house - I'll get a comment from an outraged reader. He - it's almost always a "he" - will accuse me of being privileged, of whining about my "hard" life of having to deal with pool maintenance guys and temporary power outages in my luxurious mansion, and often he'll follow this up with the admonition to "shut up" and take my First World Problems elsewhere if I don't like the life I lead in my guest country. Any attempt to reply with some kind of explanation about the nature of my blog - it's like having to explain the punchline of a joke - usually falls on deaf ears, because said accuser will have already moved on to another blog to wag his self-righteous finger at.

This blog post will be right up his alley.

Because what screams privilege louder than indulging your three teenagers with not one but TWO entire cars at their disposal?

But if you live in America, that is exactly the kind of situation your typical suburban mother will wring her hands over. In her defense, she's kicked those three teenagers in their collective butt to go and be responsible and find jobs, and now they need to have transport to and fro. And of course the mother can't provide it, because she's got other sh!t to do. Like sipping mojitos by the pool. Also, she's done a fairly good job raising kids that don't feel completely entitled. If they were, obviously there'd be THREE cars, not two.

This is the situation a good friend of mine found herself in. I've always admired her for her organizational parenting skills - she has taken "color-coded" to a whole new level - and so I was curious as to how she had solved the car conundrum once her three teenagers were of driving age.

Her plan is absolutely brilliant:

  1. There are two cars, both old, but one slightly nicer than the other
  2. The nicer one is the "master" car, the other one the "slave" car (if you are the blog commenter mentioned above, you have permission to now be rightly be indignant about my use of the word "slave.")
  3. The cars alternate between the three kids on a weekly basis
  4. Whoever has the master car may do with it as he/she pleases
  5. Whoever has the slave car gets to drive it but is also responsible for providing rides to that week's car-less sibling
  6. Every driver is responsible for paying for their gas
  7. The car's inside has to be cleaned up before hand-over to the next person

The reason this works so well is that people, like elephants, have a long memory. If you so wish as to totally abuse the poor slave driver, he/she is sure to remember and pay you back handsomely when the positions are reversed the following week. I've tried to poke mental holes into this but couldn't come up with any. It sounds like a sound plan. Lucky for me, I haven't had to try it out, as in our family there is "only" one car to share between two teenage drivers, making the math somewhat easier. I do recall some big eyes the first day son #1 realized that he'd have to share the car with his younger brother. What do you mean, SHARE the car? OMG Mom, I can't be asked to TALK about this with him every morning! Like, I'll have to take him there AND pick him up again? No way, I can't do THAT! 

Needless to say, a way was found. There is nothing like the prospect of walking - or, for that matter, being late to something your mother doesn't care about - to provide an incentive to make a plan.

What are your first world parenting problems? Do share!

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About Cecil, Cute Baby Lions, and American Dentists...

August 17, 2015

Lions have been much in the news lately, as in the story of the American tourist who was killed by a lion in Johannesburg's Lion Park, and more recently the killing of Zimbabwe's beloved Cecil the Lion by an American trophy hunter.

It came as no surprise to me to witness the public shaming of the dentist who is now in hiding after being outed as Cecil's killer. After all, he did set out to kill a lion, even if not specifically that one. If you abhor the hunting and killing of animals, especially endangered ones, then perhaps you have reason to be indignant.

But what surprised me when the first story hit, the one of the woman mauled by the lion through her open car window, was the likewise vicious response condemning the woman not only for being stupid enough to roll down her car window but also for visiting such an immoral and vile place such as the Lion Park in the first place. Surely it was an accident, even if caused by carelessness and a disregard for the rules? Surely wanting to see lions on your African vacation - something all of us lucky enough to have traveled there are guilty of - cannot be construed as an immoral act in and of itself?

There are so many angles to this newfound spotlight on the African lion that I've put off writing a blog post about it until now, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. I'll try to organize my thoughts below and hope that you'll read to the end before chiming in on the debate.

Canned Hunting

I can honestly say that I never heard that phrase until a few months ago. I had shared an innocent picture of someone petting a lion at the now infamous Lion Park - barely 20 minutes from where we used to live - on my Facebook page, and woke up to my own version of public shaming the next day. "How could you?" was the consensus of several animal rights advocates who'd discovered my post and appropriated it for their campaign. But it was effective. I followed up on all the links they readily supplied and tried to educate myself about what it was they deemed so reprehensible to prompt such a - so I felt - vicious attack.

"Canned Hunting," according to Wikipedia, is "a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in a confined area, such as in a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill." That this happens never really occurred to me. I was aware that lions are hunted, in some countries only and in exchange for large fees, but I thought they were wild. The thing is, there aren't that many truly wild lions left. According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 30,000 African lions remain in the wild today, with a sharp decline seen over the past 20 years. And while the wild lion population is dwindling, the canned hunting industry has grown at an alarming rate. Semi-tame lions are bred and raised in petting zoos all over South Africa (and, I suppose, other African countries too) and then sold off, once they become too big and dangerous to handle, to places that cater to trophy hunters who hail mostly - but not exclusively - from the United States.

Is Hunting Immoral?

Animal rights activists decry the practice of canned hunting as shameful because it gives such a huge advantage to the hunter versus the prey. The lions are confined to a small area, and they are also not adapted to live in the wild as they've been reared by humans. But honestly, doesn't the hunter, with his gun or even crossbow, have the advantage anyway? It's really just a matter of time, even if you're going after a truly wild lion. If you're going to be outraged about canned hunting, shouldn't you be outraged about all hunting? And it doesn't even stop there. In my research for this blog post, I came across the excellent headline Eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the Lion. While no doubt controversial, the author has a point. Unless you are a vegan, you are contributing in some shape or form to the breeding of animals purely for our consumption. Und unlike the cute lion cubs who at least get to have fun and play outside while they're little, the chickens might never even see daylight.

It reminds me of the scene in 7 Years in Tibet where Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer despairs, when supervising a building project for the Dalai Lama, because the workers he employs make no progress and instead are busy digging up worms so as to relocate them, lest they be hurt by the construction. It strikes you as ridiculous at first, but what truly is the difference between a lion and an earth worm? They are all God's creatures.

While I could never shoot an animal for sport and don't understand what makes hunters tick, I also find that I can't wholesale condemn those who can. I do believe there is a place for hunters where wildlife populations need to be controlled, and it is also true that large fees levied on trophy hunters can help pay for conservation efforts. Yes, we humans are the reason that wildlife populations are out of whack in the first place, but that debate leads us nowhere. We can't turn back the clock, and even if we were able to stop all hunting overnight, we would create other problems.

However, do lions specifically need to be hunted? From what I gather, lions, as the top predators, are the ones already doing that job for us - controlling wildlife populations to preserve habitat. With their numbers dwindling so alarmingly, it's hard to make a case that hunting them serves any purpose other than the hunter's ego.

As I said, I'm no expert, but I have learned that nothing is ever black and white. There is a huge grey area in these testy debates, and I for one need to read much more about it before I can form a firm opinion. From what I've learned so far, I can't support the practice of canned hunting, and will never again walk into a petting zoo such as the Lion Park so innocently, now that I know what is the likely fate of those cute cubs. And I will do my best to warn my readers about what's going on. Scroll to the bottom and you will find a list of links to articles about canned hunting and animal protection websites.

Public Shaming

It's so easy to do. Someone says something inopportune online or commits what you deem an inexcusable crime, and you go and publicly shame that person, setting off an avalanche that might result in them going into hiding. Easily done, since you don't know him or her. I recently read an eye-opening article about this. A writer had actually tracked people whose lives had been ruined by such public shaming campaigns, and I couldn't help but think "what if that had been me?"

We all make mistakes. It behooves us to think long and hard whether we really want to be the first ones to cast the proverbial stone. I have no particular love for the dentist who shot Cecil, but does he deserve to lose his livelihood over it? To receive death threats that have forced him to go into hiding until further notice? And not just him but most likely his wife and kids as well? Does the family of the woman who was killed by the lion deserve to be told, over and over again, that she was stupid and deserved to die? Where is our empathy?

I've never liked self-appointed vigilantes, and that is precisely what the Internet shaming crowd seems to be. Like a posse, like a lynching mob, they move on from one victim to the next, not bothering themselves too much with nuance and second-guessing.

Perhaps there is some good to be found in all of this. Zimbabwe, I've heard, has placed a moratorium on certain hunts and put long-missing rules in place - though I'm sure in the end the lure of big money will continue to prove too enticing for officials of such a poor and corrupt country. Delta Airlines has announced that it will ban the transport of animal trophies. And, as this New York Times editorial so aptly points out, perhaps the recent spotlight on a single lion will rub off on the much larger issue of poaching endangered species such as rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks.

If only we could publicly shame entire countries, like Laos, Vietnam, and China, into submission to stop their insatiable and misplaced hunger for African animal parts.

Further Reading and How You Can Help

An excellent article by Dereck Joubert on not only the morality but also the economics of hunting; National Geographic - Hunting Lions for Fun

To learn more about African lions, why they are vulnerable, and how you can  help, read: World Wildlife Fund: About the African lion

To find out more about the practice of canned hunting, read: Canned Lion Hunting - Mass Commercialization of Trophy Hunting in Africa and 'Canned hunting': the lions bred for slaughter

In case you've found yourself - like me - enjoying the interaction with cute lion cubs at a petting zoo, read: Five lies you need to stop believing about the lion cub petting industry

If you're seeking a ban on the captive breeding of lions for the canned hunting industry, join: Campaign Against Canned Hunting

If you'd like to see all animal trading banned, support: Ban Animal Trading South Africa

If you're looking to visit an animal park but are unsure whether it engages in ethical practices, check out: WASP International - Ethical Wildlife Sanctuaries

If you're looking to volunteer at a place but are unsure whether it truly promotes conservation of animals, see: Volunteers in Africa Beware Facebook Page

No doubt the story of Cecil the Lion has pulled at our heartstrings so much more than the countless statistics of slaughtered rhinos and elephants ever can, because it allowed us to put a face to it. If you can stomach it, here is another way you can put a face to the killing:

Perhaps we can all take this message beyond one lovable lion and do our part to educate the world about other endangered species targeted in senseless killings. While remaining professional and polite about it.

You might also like:

Shark Fin Soup and Rhino Horn
Save the Rhino... By Shopping?

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The Essential Expat Support Group: Trailing Spouses Johannesburg

August 10, 2015

After "How dangerous is Johannesburg" and "Which is the best school for my child," one of the most-asked questions I get when people contact me is whether I know of any support groups for expats. Until recently, this was also my most-dreaded question, because I didn't have a good answer.

Somehow, Joburg seemed to be lagging behind other major cities in this department. There used to be the Dainfern Social Club, but I don't know if it still exists. In any case, it never had a website that I knew of. Then there is the International Women's Club, but the one time I went to one of their presentations, I stood out like a sore thumb as everyone else seemed to be at least 70 years old. Not quite my crowd - yet. Not that I mind standing out like a sore thumb, but I just didn't see myself engaging in nature walks and swapping recipes with this bunch. The one group I'm always happy to refer people to is the American Society of South Africa, but it's a bit less support network and more something you join for Cocktail Hour.

In any case, imagine how happy I was when I stumbled across the Trailing Spouses Johannesburg Facebook group the other day, quite accidentally, when browsing reader comments on another expat forum. I commented back, was put in charge with Nicola Beach, the founder of this group, and solicited a guest post from her, which you will find below.

P.S.: If you are in Pretoria, you're in luck: Nicola also just founded a Trailing Spouses Pretoria Facebook group (scroll to the bottom for all the links).

THE Facebook group you need to know about if you are heading to Jo’burg on an expat assignment: Trailing Spouses Johannesburg

by Nicola Beach

There’s nothing worse than starting a new expat assignment and no sooner have you stepped off the plane than your partner disappears on a business trip and your child comes down with a mystery malady in the darkest, most hopeless hour of the night. It’s an unwritten rule of expat life: Things always go utterly pear-shaped when you are at your most vulnerable, when the sole member of your support network is out of town. So, what could be better than a real-time interactive group of expats in the same leaky boat as you, helping you to navigate the choppy waters of your new posting and keeping you afloat throughout your stay?

I couldn't find a lifeline like this when I arrived in Johannesburg, so eventually, while cooking dinner one evening and perhaps emboldened by a sip or two of wine, I decided to set one up. I added around 10 friends. I panicked a little bit. I sipped a bit more wine and then started telling people about it. Over the ensuing weeks it gained momentum and took on a life of its own. I realised that it was really catching on when total strangers started asking me if I had heard about the group, recommending that I should join.

It’s an online group so there are no meetings or committees and yet it has been a catalyst to bring people together. For example, a cycling group has formed, play-dates and coffee mornings have been arranged, expat events and volunteer opportunities have been advertised, and there is currently tentative talk of setting up a knitting club!

The group has frequently come to the rescue of people who have locked themselves out of cars or garages and had flat tyres or car batteries. Members have been able to get hold of out-of-hours doctors and dentists in emergencies.

There is no such thing as a stupid question and we've had posts on a wide range of topics. Aside from practical queries regarding visas and the new travel regulations for travelling in and out of South Africa with children, one of the most popular threads to date covered where to buy the best birthday cakes. Cake is important. So is wine. That’s another hot topic.

All new members are screened to weed out the spammers, scammers and other dubious individuals. Plenty have mistaken ‘Trailing’ for ‘Trading’ assuming that we are some kind of wife-swapping group. (We're not, just to clarify). We’ve had the occasional individual thinking we were a running club. (We're not one of those either, although if you were looking to set one up, it’s a great place to do so). We’ve also had plenty of South Africans wanting to join because they heard “it’s a good place to find reliable house help or sell a sofa.” It is, but regrettably we only accept expats who land up here without friend or foe and desperately need to learn the ropes in a brand new place.

New member requests are checked regularly. However, if you haven't heard anything after couple of weeks, please make sure you have checked your “other” inbox before contacting us. It’s next to your regular Facebook inbox, but a lot of people have never noticed it. As well as messages from long lost loves and school friends you had intentionally lost touch with and forgotten about, there should also be one from us, checking your eligibility to join our merry crew.

The "other" Facebook inbox for your Trailing Spouses notification

If you are a current Trailing Expat Spouse in Johannesburg or will be one soon, you can find us here: very great pleasure, I look forward to welcoming you to our group, helping to smooth the waters and make your stay in Johannesburg plain sailing.

Trailing Spouses Johannesburg’s founder, Nicola Beach, is originally from the UK, but she has also dodged stray bullets in Lagos and stray cats in Istanbul. She is now getting cosy in Jozi and blogs about her expat experiences at

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Join Me for a Live Interview!

August 7, 2015

Mark your calendars:


The thing that's so much fun about being a new author is that there is a first time for everything, much like milestones in your child's life. First sale, first time someone leaves a review for your book, first time you get fan mail, first time you do a book signing. Oh, and the not-so-coveted ones, like the first time someone leaves a one-star review on Amazon. That's kind of like the first time your toddler poops without his diaper but not into the potty. All the same, many tell me a scathing one-star review is when you know you've truly arrived.

Today's milestone will be my first live interview. No, not on the Daily Show, I'm afraid. Jon Stewart managed to be leaving just before I got famous enough for him to come knocking at my door. All the same, I'm very excited about this interview. Especially since I won't have to speak in front of people or a camera. For those decrying our modern times and social media, please pause a second to reflect on all the good it has brought into the world. Like giving us introverts a chance to do an all-day interview without having to break out in cold sweats and stammer and be at a loss of words, and without spending the next three days thinking up ways one could have said everything much better.

Instead, I get to do what I love best: Sit on my couch in my pajamas all day and type on my computer keyboard. I'll have time to come up with witty comments and anecdotes and can still get up every once in a while to reheat my tea in the microwave or steal to the pantry for a handful of Lindt balls (psst: have you discovered the coconut ones yet?), which I can stuff in my mouth three at a time and still answer the latest question without a hitch.

Except, what if no one has any questions? So... if you have nothing else to do on Sunday and want to keep me (and my Lindt balls) company, please stop by between 8 AM and 8 PM Central Time and ask away. All you have to do is join the fabulous We Love Memoirs Facebook group and visit their page on Sunday after 8 AM. I promise you won't regret it. WLM has some wonderful fun-loving members who have one thing in common: They all love to read books. Memoirs in particular, but I suspect everyone sneaks in a few Gone Girl's and All the Light We Cannot See's on the side. I get a good chuckle almost every day when I scan the page, I've gotten some great book recommendations, and I've gotten a free book bargain out of it more than once.

Speaking of which, I'll be giving away two ebooks after the interview.


Chat with you Sunday!
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How I Got My Kids to Pay Me to Do Their Laundry

August 3, 2015

I have made a sad progression. I went from being an employer of paid (and therefore professional) domestic help to hiring the new free (and slightly less professional as well as reluctant) domestic help. And now, the final stage:

I AM the domestic help.

Remember the Zits cartoons? I feel an affinity to Jeremy's dad. He, too, is the domestic help.

But in my case it's not really as sad as it sounds. Because, everyone, I'm now getting paid! I have a regular income doing my kids' laundry! Together with my book sales that pays for about two Starbucks runs a week.

So how do you get your kids to pay you for doing their laundry? Here is what I did:

I announced I would no longer provide laundry services. Surprisingly, this elicited no tortured wails whatsoever, not even the slightest complaints. They were probably all thinking "I can't believe she hasn't caught onto that before now." Here is the letter my four kids got delivered to their doorstep one morning:
Dear Children:

This serves to notify you that I will no longer wash and pre-fold your laundry. Pre-folding suggests a follow-up act of actual folding and putting away in your closet, which I can see you have decided to give up on altogether, all my nagging notwithstanding.

I have decided to give up on the washing (as well as the nagging).

As of now, should you wish for clean clothes, you need to wash and dry them yourselves. The hours for the washer and dryer will be 7 am to 9 pm.

Whether you team up for your laundry or each do it on your own is up to you. And whether you end up folding your clothes or just dumping them back into your bin and living out of that (as you have been already, except that they were nice and pre-folded) is also up to you. 

I will be available to teach you how to use the equipment.

Your very loving and housework-tired Mom
I can't tell you how wonderful it felt to see kids scurrying around the house with laundry bins the following week. I'd walk by the laundry room and hear the washer spinning, and say to myself, "how nice that there is work being done in this house, by other people than me, without me having to tell them."

They figured out pretty quickly that if you don't fold your sh*t as soon as it comes out the dryer, it gets more wrinkly than elephant skin. So they each developed a routine:

Zax (18) - had to be reprimanded a couple of times for midnight use of the washer but now washes his laundry during daylight hours as needed (and often) and uses his bin as his portable closet, because God forbid, putting away clothes on closet shelves is just SO YESTERDAY!

Living out of - admittedly orderly - bins

Impatience (14) - being the most compulsive planner among the kids, immediately designated Saturday morning as laundry day and efficiently dispenses of the task. Washing, drying, folding, putting away, boom!

Sunshine (12) - as picky with her clothes as she is with eating, only ever uses about 2 shorts and 3 t-shirts out of her limitless assortment; her laundry pile is so tiny that Impatience, being the nice sister she is, most often just washes it along with her stuff. But Sunshine is our best (if also slowest) laundry folder. In painstaking labor she folds everything down to razor-crisp edges, even - especially - the underwear.

Sunshine's closet. I suppose it's easy if you only ever wear 2 of those t-shirts.

Jabulani (16) - hates, just HATES folding laundry. Mail-ordered a contraption once that he thought might help with the folding but realized the folding still had to be done. Then noticed Sunshine's folding acumen and decided to hire her as laundry folder for $6 a load.

As these things go, Sunshine got through folding half of her first load after she was hired, then got called for a sleepover at a friend's house, leaving behind a dryer-full of Jabulani's stuff. You have to understand, Jabulani's laundry loads are huge. Leaning once more on the Zits cartoons (I couldn't find the exact one I was looking for), Jabulani's room looks exactly like Jeremy's:

Don't you love the pants still in the shape of exactly how they were dropped?

So I casually inquired as to who would be folding the rest of the laundry now that Sunshine had left the premises, and would the payment by chance be transferable to a subcontractor? Yes, was the answer, it was. And thus I earned my first $$ folding my son's laundry.

Now we have a routine: He leaves his laundry bin in front of our bedroom when it has become absolutely impossible to squeeze even one more piece of clothing into it. Again I refer to Zits for an illustration:

I then take his bin and pry out solid blocks of the sweat-soaked-then-dried-into-cement-like-substance out of it - this is by far the most labor-intensive part of the process - and proceed to wash, dry, and fold, then go up to him to collect my $6 payment for a 15-minute job.

Considering the state of the bookselling market and by extension my opportunity cost, I would have done it for less.

Pssst, don't tell anyone.
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