10 Must-Read Articles for Expats Moving to South Africa

November 17, 2014

As Joburg Expat is nearing its 600th blog post and its 1 millionth page view, I can't help but feel that I've already shared everything there is to know about life in South Africa.

All you have to do is start at the beginning of my blog and read. And read and read. Believe it or not, there are actually people who do just that, and who then shoot me a gushing email on how grateful they are for the help. This always warms my heart and I do appreciate the feedback.

However, not everyone has the time to slog through my blog one entry at the time, or even zero in on certain topics by using the tabs across the top (which, I do have to mention, I am insanely proud of as they required quite a bit of HTML programming at the time).

Thus, the idea of giving expats a top-10 list of must-read articles from my blog (and from other websites I've written for) was born. A reading list covering every main topic from finding a school, renting a house, registering a car, finding a bank, and so on, up until the very important matter of booking a safari once the container is unpacked. It was really  hard to pick just ten items, but I think I've come up with a good list of essentials. Also, some of this is specific to Johannesburg, but I think that you'll find almost all of it useful no matter where in South Africa you choose to settle.

Without further ado, here it is:

Expat Moving to South Africa? Start HERE

    At the beginning of any expat move comes the decision. It's never easy, but it becomes a little easier when you are able to throttle fear and worry and instead allow yourself to become excited about the place you might soon call your home. Read Top 10 Reasons to Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate, even if your destination is another South African city - most of it will apply there too.
  2. SCHOOL:
    I didn't use to have this at the very top of the list, but space in both private and international schools in Johannesburg (and from what I've heard, even more so in Cape Town) has become extremely limited in the last few years, and so researching and selecting a school for your children is the number one priority. Read all about South African Schools and link from there to the list of private schools in Johannesburg.

  3. HOUSE:
    You've got the job lined up (or so I presume, it being the reason you're likely moving to South Africa), and you've found a school and hopefully reserved a spot or put your child on the waitlist, so now the third piece of the puzzle in the triumvirate of location is where to live. Reading Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1 is the best place to start, linking to Part 2 and other topics from there. If you're moving to Cape Town, follow the link to Expat Arrivals in the housing article.

    Hiring a maid may not be at the top of your list or even on your radar, but like every expat you will end up hiring a domestic worker and loving the lifestyle it brings with it. So you might as well read up on Hiring Domestic Help early and be prepared for when that first knock comes at your door, the very day you've moved in, with someone asking for a job. 

  5. CAR:
    Once you've arrived in South Africa, the first order of business is to find a car. Most South African cities, and Johannesburg most of all, do not distinguish themselves with their public transport system. In fact, they don't have much of one. You will need a car, and there is some bureaucracy attached to owning one. Start with How to Register a Car in South Africa, and link to the other car-related posts from the list in the sidebar.


    There is such a flurry of things you must do upon arrival that it's hard to decide which one to pick first, but Opening a Bank Account in South Africa is one of the first things you'll need to do. Some expats somehow manage without a local bank account, but this has always sounded cumbersome to me. 

    Hopefully, you don't need a doctor on the very first day of your expat stay, but you will want to go ahead and find  a general practitioner, dentist, orthodontist, and hospital of choice, as well as select a health insurance plan and make yourself familiar with all the emergency numbers. Read Going to the Doctor in South Africa for all this and more.


    Read TV, Internet, and Phone Service in South Africa to get these crucial services set up as soon as possible. Regarding internet, sign up for an uncapped plan, otherwise you (or, if not you, then your kids) will be frustrated by the low data cap, especially if you're planning on using a service like UnoTelly to stream channels from abroad. Be forewarned though that data speeds in South Africa are mostly slow.


    I'm not so much talking about pleasure shopping here, that will come later. But right after moving to South Africa, especially if coming from the United States, you will need to acquire new appliances and perhaps TVs as well, and most likely adapter plugs and extension cords. And, horrors, there won't be any Amazon.com to order from. Read Where Can I Find an Alarm Clock? for a list of places to start looking.

  10. 10. SAFARI/TRAVEL:

    It's finally time to play! At some point in time, you have to stop wanting the perfect house and waiting around for "just now" calls from service providers that, frankly, will never come, and embark on adventure instead. South Africa and surroundings is full of it, and your days there as an expat are numbered. But there are so many options, you say. Read Help! Which Safari Lodge? to get started, and link to What to Do in Joburg from there.
There is, of course, a lot more you'll need to know, from visa issues to pet relocation, pool maintenance, gardening, grocery stores, traffic, sports, corruption, language, recycling, bureaucracy, and utilities, and I've written about all of those and more (I probably have 35 blog posts on Eskom, the power company, alone). But I think the above will give you an excellent start with your new life.

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The Glory of Boredom

November 11, 2014

The following is another blog post I had started at the end of 2012 and inexplicably never finished, until coming across it in my drafts folder recently while cleaning up. Or perhaps not so inexplicably, considering that we were, well, in the midst of a move at the time.

A few days ago, the packers were here.

The house was a whirlwind of activity. I was running around like crazy directing and rescuing items from disappearing in the container (not diligently enough, it turns out, but that is a topic for another blog post), and then, opening the door to one of the kids' rooms, I witnessed a sight almost forgotten at our house:

It was a scene so calm and so enchanting, I almost cried. When did our kids last play Monopoly together? And an entire day of it, with not one of them storming off after half an hour yelling "your rules are stupid, I'm no longer playing!"

The reason, of course, was that there was nothing else to do. All the other toys were gone - except for the few board games Noisette had had the foresight to tell me to set aside - and the TV, horrors, was in the process of being unhooked and loaded, relegating the Xbox to a lonely existence next to the suitcases, rendered more or less useless.

The only time we ever play board games, in our hectic modern lives, seems to be when a natural disaster strikes. Like Hurricane Fran in Raleigh in 1996, which brought together neighbors helping each other and passing time in unconventional ways. Same with the ice storm a few years later. I suppose we can count moving households across international borders as another one of those natural disasters. Judging from the way your house looks during one, it's definitely comparable to a tornado.

Sometimes I wish that we could all return to a world where the kids play monopoly all day without having our houses first blown to smithereens. A time and day where they sit around their rooms bored out of their minds, trying to come up with some idea to pass the time. Which might be to build entire cities out of Lego bricks. Or organize a backyard olympics. Or play hide and seek. Or even make a YouTube video, for all I care, but together in a collaborative effort, not each one of them locked up in their own room with their very own screen.

Boredom was a big part of my childhood. I vividly remember sitting in my room staring out the window being bored. And, it being winter, watching all the birds in the backyard, and retrieving a bird guide from my parents' bookshelf and learning all about birds, just to beat the boredom. Or, when it was summer, I'd climb to the top of our cherry tree and look into the distance while stuffing my mouth with so many cherries I was sick for days afterwards. And worrying if what my older brother kept telling me, that if you swallow a cherry pit you'd have a tree growing out of your mouth, was actually true.

Of course there is no way for me to prove that boredom was indeed good for me. Maybe I would have moved on to win a Nobel Prize if my parents had scheduled my day around the clock, who is to say?

Although, speaking of Nobel Prizes, I did read that Einstein came up with most of his Relativity Theory while stuck in a totally non-demanding job as a clerk in a patent office. His mind wandered while he was stamping forms, and the rest is history, as they say.

There is so little time nowadays for boredom. We are so afraid of our kids being bored, we constantly keep them busy with homework and after-school activities and scheduled play dates, carefully choreographed and supervised so that no one's feelings get hurt, social integration without the pain of the olden days where you had to stand your ground in a street dodgeball match with a group of bullies.

I'm grateful our kids got to live in Africa for a while, where time seems to move a bit slower than here, and parents are less preoccupied with schedules and the need for some stupid charity program in preparation for their kids' college application.

Boredom may be the biggest gift we can pass on to our children.

I just wish we didn't have to pack up our entire household and move abroad every time we want to achieve it.

More boredom beaters: Throwing blueberries in each other's mouths...
...and a makeshift ping-pong game on Moving Day.
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I Procrastinate. And I'm GOOD at it!

November 6, 2014

I'll come right out and admit it. I'm a procrastinator.

This frequently gets me into hot water with Noisette, who is rather the opposite. He likes to get started so early on things that we often have to climb over mountains of clothes in our bedroom that he has piled in neat stacks two weeks prior to an upcoming travel date.

I'm not kidding. Two weeks!

Don't get me wrong. I don't like being behind on things. You get that terrible pit in your stomach when you're running late or an impossible deadline is looming, and  you curse yourself for waiting so long. You wow, by all that you hold dear, to never ever do it again to yourself. Yet the next deadline approaches, and you find yourself on the same exact track once again.

Why do we do it?

Because procrastination is a model of efficiency, that's why.

Also, there is another reason waiting till the last minute works: Some items just take care of themselves, because you waited too long. If there's one thing I have learned in my life, it is that the world will continue to turn, with or without you. Most things we fret over aren't life threatening and the Earth will not spin off its axle when we fail to accomplish them in time.

Procrastinate, people! It works!

Moving is a perfectly fine example. Back in December of 2012, when we were moving from South Africa back to the United States, I'd had the date the packers were going to arrive on my calendar for months. And for months I was busy doing things that were most decidedly not on my moving checklist.

Writing this blog.
Going to goodbye parties.
Squeezing in last-minute exotic trips.
Riding in a cycle race.
Climbing the world's highest free-standing mountain.

But finally, when there was no escaping the fact that the following week some guys would invade our house and put everything in boxes whether I wanted to or not, I sprang into high gear.

I sorted through school clothes to be sold or donated.
I sorted through 220V appliances and placed for-sale ads for them.
I wrote an advertisement for our domestic helper who'd soon be looking for a job.
I cleaned out three years worth of "stuff" from the girls' room, some of it to be donated, some of it to be thrown away, all in the dead of night lest they caught me at it and threw a fit.
I started collecting items for our suitcases (including the suitcases) in a separate room, one that I could lock so that the packers would leave it alone.
I put together all our bottles of alcohol to be given away (or get senselessly drunk on, I wasn't sure yet).
I selected and ordered rental furniture.
I researched and booked a carpet cleaning company.
I went to Amatuli to buy all the drums and spears and buffalo heads and all the other African crafts we wanted to take home with us.
I went by all the doctor's offices to collect our records.
I ordered several cases of Chardonnay from Franschhoek.

I did a lot more, but I'll end on the one with the Chardonnay. Priorities. Also, you get the point. The point is, I kicked into high gear when I really needed to, and I got a bazillion things checked off in a minimal amount of time, things I would have needed 3 years to do had I done them at regular speed.

Desperation makes you work super hard. You know, like when that lion is approaching and you can suddenly jump 4 meters high into the next tree. That's how I roll when I run out of time. I develop superhuman efficiency.

The reason we procrastinators procrastinate is because it works.

Now excuse me while I nag my daugher to clean up her room. And please don't tell her anything I just said about procrastination.

If you're not a procrastinator, learn how to become one from my kids. They're experts!

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Perfect Day Trip to Pretoria with Kids

November 3, 2014

In a country where you can drive right up to a lion in the wild and watch him eat an antelope, or where you have to be careful an elephant doesn't sit down on your car, you might think going to a regular old zoo isn't all that exciting.

However, the Pretoria Zoo, also known as The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, is supposed to be well worth the visit. Since we never made it there during our three years in South Africa, I was very happy when Debbie Spazzoli, a good friend of mine, recently took her family for a visit and came back with a guest post including pictures for my blog.

The following is a great guide, not only for the Pretoria Zoo but also the Union Buildings and Sci-Enza, for when you have visitors in town or are just looking for a family day trip in the Johannesburg area.

A Visit at the Pretoria Zoo

October arrived with a bang. It is my birthday month and the year that I turn 50. It has been a very busy year and so by the middle of October I was ready for half term. Most private schools in Johannesburg get a long weekend for half term sometime in October. Friday and Monday make for a breather before roaring towards exams, school concerts, and the end of the academic year. Many families take this time to go to Sun City, Umhlanga Rocks, or even Cape Town. This year we decided to use the time to have a day trip to Pretoria to see the jacarandas and visit the Pretoria Zoo.

Pretoria Zoo

I have visited the Pretoria Zoo three times in the last year, and I have enjoyed every visit. There has recently been some negative press about the safety of visitors. Personally, I have had no problems, and as long as you are vigilant - a must in South Africa - I can't see any reason not to visit the zoo.

The journey from Lonehill took just 45 minutes, and after paying R20 for parking we joined the queue of 30-40 small school children on their class visit. The children have colourful t-shirts that help the teachers keep them together and stop them getting lost. The entrance fee of R75 per adult and R50 per child was duly paid and we headed into the Zoo, after first having some ‘Disney’-like photos
taken of us that we were told to look out for at the end of our visit.

Next we decided to hire a golf cart for two hours, as there is so much to see at the zoo, and because I also wanted to get in a quick visit to the Union Buildings, see the jacarandas and pop in to Sci-Enza at the University of Pretoria. Golf cart hire is R150 for two hours with a R100 refundable deposit. You will need to produce a drivers licence in order to hire the cart, and don’t let your kids drive the cart or you will be chased and reprimanded!

First stop was the Reptile Park and Aquarium. With hindsight we should have gone to see this before hiring the golf cart, as we spent almost an hour looking at the snakes and the wonderful aquarium.

Trying to get the two boys to hurry up, we jumped onto the golf cart and headed up past the gorgeous flamingos, elephants and monkeys. Stopping to admire the animals, we spotted our first rhino. Sadly the rhinos have been dehorned, but it is for their own safety. Such a beautiful creature and we need to dispel the myth that there is any medicinal cure to be found in ground-up horn!

Opposite the rhino enclosure is a big picnic area where boerewors was being braaied (barbequed). It would have been a lovely place to stop and have our lunch, but we decided that we should go on.

Up and over the Apies River, we managed to see one of the most dangerous animals in Africa – the hippo. When we went in September last year, we were fortunate enough to see a 2-day old baby hippo playing with its mother.

Next were the koalas and kangaroos. We did not have much time left, so we will have to go back to visit the Bird Paradise, but we did manage to see the zebras and a couple more rhinos.

Time was up and we raced back to hand in our golf cart and buy our souvenir pictures at the exit from the zoo.

Visit the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa website for more information about opening times and tours (and to see the cutest pictures of cheetah cubs!).

Next Stop: Union Buildings

Only about eight minutes away are the Union Buildings where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first president of the new South Africa in 1994. He also lay in state at the Union Buildings in December of 2013 while people the world over came to pay their respects. The union buildings are well worth the visit given their beautiful architecture and location on top of a hill overlooking Pretoria. 

We were also going to see the 9-meter high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela that was recently unveiled near the Union Buildings.

We did not stay long as by now the kids were starving, and instead we jumped back into the car and headed for Hatfield, where the University of Pretoria is situated.

Jacaranda lined streets

The streets around Hatfield are lined with the beautiful jacaranda trees in their full purple bloom at this time of year. I was itching to take more and more photos but decided that one or two would suffice. Even though Johannesburg has its own jacaranda trees, the city of Pretoria is called the Jacaranda City for a reason, and an annual pilgrimage during October and November is a must.

University of Pretoria

Luckily for us my middle son is a student at UP (more commonly known as TUKS), so we parked at his apartment and walked across the road to the university, where we had our picnic on the lawn in front of the Old Arts Building.


Sci-Enza - a combination of the word "science" and "sebenza," the Zulu word for "work" or "to do" - is the oldest interactive science centre in South Africa. Interestingly, it used to be called Exploratorium, but when its San Francisco namesake trademarked the name, the Pretoria one changed theirs. 

Sci-Enza is located close to the university and the entrance is free.There is so much for the kids to touch and discover that we could have quite easily spent the whole day playing and learning at the same time. One of our favorites was the mirror maze, and we can also highly recommend the Camera Obscura. The staff at Sci-Enza was very welcoming and gave the boys brochures about planets, stars, and the moon phases. Sadly, time was not on our side, and it was time to head back to Joburg before the Friday traffic became too hectic!

Click here for more information about Sci-Enza.

Hi, I am Debbie. We moved to South Africa in December 2004 from Zimbabwe with my husband and our 3 sons on a 2 year inter office permit. We have been in South Africa for 10 years and are proudly South African permanent residents. Our boys are almost more South African than Zimbabwean, but with many happy memories of growing up in Zimbabwe.

For ideas for another day trip to Pretoria, read In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers.
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Moving Day. In Pictures.

October 30, 2014

I wrote about Moving Day in my last post. Now I thought it would be nice to tell the story again, this time in pictures. It's actually a collection of several moving days, spanning several  years. Enjoy!

Above: Moving out of Kansas on what must have been the coldest day of that year, 2010. Mental note: don't move in winter!

Arrival in Johannesburg, April 2010: The perfect makeshift office!

Three years later, end of 2012, moving back to the USA from Johannesburg. It's already dark, and still more stuff to be squeezed into the container. Including, at the end, a pair of loose screws and bolts.

The South African packers redeemed themselves partially for the loose screws and the rotten potatoes by making me laugh with this cartoon on a wrapped piece of furniture.

Peaceful mayem. It all looks calm, but it's a whirlwind.

Oh to be a kid again and going with the flow like this, without a worry in the world, knowing that Mom will make your stuff reappear on the other side. Even if your lunch box might smell like rotten potatoes.

What to do with all this? The packers have informed us they won't pack it. The obvious solution? Get senselessly drunk.

At this point, still all looking very orderly and planned out.

Moving Day, from the kids' perspective. So much better than Moving Day from the Mom's perspective. Even though this Mom hates Monopoly.

The bed, already disassembled to the point where I won't have a freakin' clue how to put it back together. Plus there will be some key screws missing on the other side, which we don't even know about yet at this point, and they will be screws that won't be available anywhere in the United States. If we can ever even figure out what to call them so as to search for them online.

Now which one of these has the rotten potatoes in it? 

Catching blueberries. With your mouth. Makes for good entertainment for at least 20 minutes. Also has the benefit of removing at least one edible item from the list of potentially hazardous materials making it into a container where they're trapped for 3 months somewhere on the open seas.

See the blueberry? Will it go in or bounce off?

What emerged on the wall from under the kids' desk. I was tempted to compare prints to feet to find out the culprit, but decided against it. One of the hazards of living in South Africa is that your kids walk around barefoot most of the time, and that the soles of their feet are black most of the time, due to all the soot in the dry winter air from the ubiquitous grass fires dotting the countryside. Naturally, some of that rubs off onto the wall under the desk.

What we called the "staging room" in our Johannesburg house in December 2012 where all the stuff was put that was not allowed in the container. Including, apparently, the toilet paper. Although sadly not the rotten potatoes. 

Arrival of container, screws, and rotten potatoes in Brentwood, TN, January 2013.

Time to open up that baby. Let the screws roll out!

Emergence, thank GOD, of the South African wine we succeeded in smuggling with us. We may have parted with the hard liquor we had to leave behind, but we weren't going to give up on the wine. But it was hidden so well we didn't find it until the second to last box we opened.

The kind of mess you have to deal with after moving. Or maybe forever.

I almost want to puke when I remember the mess.

Best to put the person whose bed it is in charge of putting it back together, missing screws notwithstanding.

This concludes my Moving Day in Pictures. Do you have any to share?
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Moving Day

October 27, 2014

It is moving day. Soon, the packers will show up in droves and you house will look like a battle zone. You have your last cup of tea in peace, and you think of what is to come.

The doorbell will ring, and you'll welcome the moving crew inside. You'll show them the different rooms, and all seems to be just fine. Since you've moved before, you have thought ahead and equipped yourself with a black Sharpie to help label the boxes, because from experience the packers' labeling isn't exactly helpful when you get to your new place and wonder which "kitchen supplies" box has the knives and which one the spices. And what the hell room they meant with "lounge." Which means as soon as the packers get going - and, while perhaps not hailing from the top of their class, they are extremely fast at what they're doing - you will be running around the house making sure you do all you can to add little notes to your future self.

You'll also want to make sure you give instructions on how to handle the Indonesian rice bed you've babied from Indonesia via Singapore, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and all the way to South Africa, because the bottom has a tendency to fall out if handled the wrong way, and your husband will kill you if something happens on your watch.

If you have smaller children, you may temporarily lose one of them and work yourself into a minor panic trying to locate him, wondering if it is, in some crazy way, possible for him to have been packed into a box? Because he is gone! You eventually find him again an hour later, sitting with his back to a big carton in the farthest reaches of the house, headphones on and engrossed in a book, oblivious that 4 people have been yelling his name for 30 minutes straight.

As you move around the house putting out fires, you will realize, now that you can see everything without furniture, that the walls are a disaster and will need to be painted or your landlord will sue you. On the wall under the kids' desk you will discover a multitude of neat brown footprints, all in different sizes and shapes and not traceable to one particular kid, where they stretched their legs when working on the computer.

For some reason you have dentist appointments for all four children, on this very day of all days. It sounds crazy, but anyone who knows how hard it is to get a dentist appointment, even 6 months ahead of time, knows that you can't just let it go. Plus, who knows how long it will take for you to find and actually call a new dentist wherever you're moving. So today, while the packers are at your house, you will have to shuttle back and forth to the dentist, dropping off kids and picking others up, because you don't want to just stay there the whole time with God knows what the packers might be up to at your place.

Like putting rotten potatoes in a box, for instance.

You'll also have to somehow take pictures of the bed you bought used for one of the kids and which will be disassembled into a thousand pieces, with no re-assembly instructions for when it emerges on the other side. You'll want some kind of documentation of the steps.

What you should be doing is giving this job to one of the children. Because, frankly, your children have nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. They will play monopoly for hours, they will make themselves comfortable between all the boxes, and when there is nothing left to do they will throw blueberries at each others mouths to see who has the best aim.

It will be just as well to have blueberries all over your kitchen floor. Better than having them accidentally packed up in a box. Although they're bound to smell better than rotten potatoes.

You will be so happy when the day is finally over and the last of the crew is out the door that you will, in an unexpected bout of nostalgia, want to go see the container one last time up by the road before it begins its journey. This might not be a good idea, because instead of seeing off your sealed container as you expected, you might come across a scene of disarray where two packers are sitting on the pavement, in the twilight, taking apart shelves that frankly you had told them earlier, without sounding rude, they should take apart but which they insisted would fit into the container whole, but now that they didn't, had to be taken apart, screw by screw, while you settle in with the rest of the packers watching with baited breath. And hallelujah, eventually everything fits, albeit barely, and they throw all the screws into the container and bolt it shut. What?? Did you just see them throw all the screws in like that, loose to knock around as they please?

But as you sit there in the morning sunshine, sipping your tea and thinking of all of this and more in the day ahead of you, you're already too tired to care, should this actually ever come to pass.

You've moved six times already, and if that container, including all the screws (and perhaps some rotten potatoes), sank to the bottom of the sea on its long journey, you might actually be relieved. You are tired to your bones of moving stuff around the world.

I started writing this blog post in December of 2012 as we were about to move from Johannesburg to Nashville, and for reasons now forgotten, I never finished it. It's kind of nice to now look back into the past this way. Stay tuned for some more pictures to go with it.
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10 Ways Expats Love South Africa

October 23, 2014

I was recently asked by the online travel magazine jummp to write about South Africa from the expat perspective. Boy did I jump - no pun intended, honestly - at the opportunity! Showing that South Africa is more than a collection of crime statistics is, as those who've followed this blog from its beginning will know, my favorite pastime. Even if I occasionally have to grumble about the bureaucracy.

What I came up with was a list of  "10 Ways to Fall in Love with South Africa," even though that didn't end up being the title when it was published. In any case, if you want to find out about my Top 10 for expats in South Africa, click here to read the article on the jummp website.

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What Expats SHOULDN'T Let the Packers Put in the Container

October 20, 2014

The other day I posted my Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist on Facebook. A blog post, I must say, that I've worked very hard for, if only to be able to use it myself one day should we ever move again, at which point I'd normally be tearing my hair out that I was so foolish to have thrown away all my other moving checklists of years past. Having it on my own blog, I figured, would ensure that I'd be able to find it again when needed. Even if it's just accidental, by Googling "expat moving checklist" and then being totally surprised to find a link to my very own blog.

Yes, I'm getting that old.

Anyway, the funny thing was that the comment I got in response was not about what else to make sure to remember to pack. It was the opposite. It was all about what not to pack.

What had happened, this reader told me, was this: She and her family were all set to move from the USA to South Africa, and she wanted to bring a San Francisco sourdough starter in her hand luggage. She had carefully cultivated and fed it over years, and anyone who's ever baked sourdough bread with their own starter knows how precious it becomes. Like your own baby. She made sure she kept it next to her personal belongings like passports and flight tickets and all that in her kitchen, until the fatal day when she briefly left the packers alone to pick up her kids from school. When she got back, the sourdough had been packed and none of the packers remembered into which box.

I can almost feel her despair. But there was nothing to be done, and that was the end of that particular batch of sourdough, which as expected did not survive the three-month journey to Pretoria intact.

Moving day: Once it's in a box, it's gone. Just hope it's not your sourdough starter.

Sourdough should not go into your shipping container. Here are a few more things:

The rental furniture
The passports
Rotten potatoes - duh!
Fresh potatoes - they will become rotten!

Why do I  mention rotten potatoes? Well. We all know that moving day can be crazy. The packers are spread out throughout your house, you're running around like crazy taking care of last-minute business, and everything takes on a life of its own. Including the potatoes in your pantry. Or, well, not a life of their own quite yet. That will only come later, as your container is peacefully moving somewhere along a shipping route on the Atlantic in 40+ degrees heat. Back in Johannesburg, all that is happening is that a packer mindlessly grabs the potatoes and packs them up, together with the kids' lunchboxes and whatever else is in the vicinity.

Boy do I never want to open that particular box again! What wafted out of that box was the foulest breath I've ever taken in, not to mention having to touch slimey and almost-liquified potatoes. I held my nose and fished out the lunchboxes and immediately threw them in the washing machine, but even four cycles of rigorous washing did not remove the rotten potato smell, so we had to get rid of them.

Here is my advice to all those in the midst of an international move: Take all perishable food out of your house before the packers arrive, or employ a guard stationed in your kitchen who will watch it like a hawk.
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Travel in South Africa in the Age of Apartheid

October 15, 2014

When I was still a kid, my older brother, who'd been off to university for a few years, decided to travel around South Africa for a few months. 

I remember when he came back and regaled us with his stories. He is a wonderful storyteller, and as an impressionable teenager I'd sit there and hang on his every word. My favorite story was the one he told about the hotels, or perhaps they were more like Bed&Breakfasts, that he stayed in while traversing the country. At the first one - I can't remember where it was, probably somewhere in the Transvaal, just because I love throwing out that ancient-sounding name for what today is Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and parts of the Northwest Province - he was baffled as to how to take a shower. There were two distinct spouts, you see, one for scalding hot water, and one for cold. How to get the water into the temperate zone somewhere in between? The solution was a nifty contraption he eventually discovered for sale when asking around, and which he subsequently christened "The Milking Machine." Looking much like an oversize stethoscope, it came with two rubber cups that you fitted over the hot and cold water taps, and then you would stand underneath the dangling spout on the other end where both streams merged. 

He carried the Milking Machine with him everywhere he went after that. It was not without its pitfalls, because those rubber cups had a tendency to pop off just as you'd gotten soap all over yourself, and then you would stand there and try to get those slippery suckers back on again while tap dancing on your feet to avoid receiving first-degree burns on one side and frostbite on the other. You simply didn't have enough hands to hold on to all the loose ends at once, and so most showers resulted in flooded bathrooms. 

He also told us other stories and repeatedly tried to explain his impressions of apartheid to us, and what it meant for everyday life. I remember that it all sounded mind-boggling to me, defying any kind of logic, but I didn't pay close attention. It was the tale of the Milking Machine that stayed with me the longest.

It is this same brother who recently unearthed the ancient travel guide he had used back then. It is called South Africa: On R10 and R20 a day and is dated 1981-82. Looking for a better home for it, he bequeathed - and sent - it to me, which is how I now find myself in the possession of this gem.

Of course, I immediately peeked into the Johannesburg section. Some parts sound just like today, for instance:
There is a vitality and vibrancy in the air, the rush and bustle of a city intent on making the most of every business opportunity and the edge that comes with such keen competition. It is obvious in the traffic that moves with determination, drivers taking the smallest gap given them, always aggressive, intent only on reaching their destination in the shortest possible time.

And that was before the advent of minibus taxis. One can only imagine how slow-moving the rest of South Africa must have been in those days. Because "making the most of every business opportunity" would require, to my Western expectations at least, that people actually call you back the same day when they say "just now." And yet, the words vitality, vibrancy, bustle, and of course traffic are still the ones most often used to describe Johannesburg today.

But then I chuckled when I came across this:
The various attractions and activities in the city are spread between the Carlton Centre in the south and Hillbrow in the north, a distance that can be walked within about a half an hour...

You won't find many South African travel guides, especially those geared towards foreign visitors, promoting taking a walk anywhere near Hillbrow. Most South Africans I got to know haven't been there in decades and likely never will go again. To be fair, things have changed dramatically since the late nineties when Hillbrow was known as one of the most dangerous places on earth, where you'd only set foot if you were heavily armed and certainly never after dark. Even Johannesburg hasn't escaped the modern trend of urban revitalization, and many of its formerly taboo inner-city areas are once again hip and quirky and, yes, vibrant, drawing especially the younger artsy crowds. Walking is making a comeback too, something I got a glimpse of when joining the Joburg Photowalkers during jacaranda season (for which it is just now the time of year again!) and when going on a graffiti tour with Past Experiences. If you'd like to find out more about this newly-emerging trendy side of Joburg, read Heather Mason's blog 2Summers (see all links below).

Graffiti walking tour in Braamfontein with Past Experiences

Jacaranda tour in Rosebank with Joburg Photowalkers

My shock, even though it shouldn't have been unexpected, came when I turned the page. The following subheading was staring me in the face:
Accommodation for Non-Whites

Then came a short list of men's and women's hostels in Alexandra and Orlando und below that, curiously, a list of international hotels. In the equivalent section for Cape Town, this was explained with "All International Hotels in the city cater for all races." I guess it makes sense that those, in 1981, would not officially condone apartheid and therefore open their doors to everyone. But not so fast - when you then scrolled through the Johannesburg listings, you found that all rates are for "bed only." Apparently, you were allowed to sleep there, but couldn't be seen mingling with the whites in the dining room.

I'm glad that South African travel guides have changed in this regard.


More information on walking tours and today's "quirky" and trendy places in Johannesburg:

Joburg Photowalkers on Facebook
Past Experiences on Facebook
The best blog about exploring Joburg and beyond: 2Summers

I'm sure no one would really want to buy this travel guide, but I was impressed that it was listed on Amazon:

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