May 29, 2010

Security and Crime

If you’re moving to South Africa, this is probably your number one concern, so I’ll share the few insights I’ve so far gained. Not that I’ve gotten much of a sample yet, because any security problem you might encounter would happen when driving into a not so safe area, and I haven’t even been able to do that because I HAVE NO CAR, in case I haven’t told you. Actually, since this weekend I do have a car, even if a rather basic version of one, but it has wheels and goes places. Noisette’ dealer has finally given him a loaner because they are slow in getting the real deal to him, so I was lucky enough to inherit his old rental. A Toyota.

May 27, 2010

Frustration Revisited

*** Note: I have since been able to find both Swim-Ear and electric toothbrushes, even rubbing alcohol which is called surgical spirits, at a large pharmacy chain called Dis-Chem. ***

Things had been looking up quite a bit, over 2 weeks into our life here, but now I feel like venting again. (Read Frustration, the previous installment, if you want to hear more of my whining). What seemed to be a promising car yesterday, when I first looked at it after the dealer had brought it to my house to look at, with the prospect of closing on it today, is turning into a rather shady business. It seemed so nice to be able to look at it right here, without having to go anywhere (which you’ll remember I have trouble with since I HAVE NO CAR), but it has the drawback that I’ve never actually seen the car dealership, so it might as well not exist. All I had was a number posted on a website with a name of a dealership no one has ever heard of. I called our relocation advisor (yes, we have one of those, part of the corporate deal) today, just to check on the car registration procedure, and was told in no uncertain terms that I should only deal with one of the official dealership and not “with a bunch of Indians.” Those were the exact words.

Apparently, car dealers of Indian descent don’t have a stellar reputation here. For all I know, I was told, the car could have been stolen or been through a complete wreck, or both. So now I’m unsure of what to do. What I really feel like doing is giving my husband a list of features I’d like to have in a car, sit back and read my book, and let him deal with it. Buying a car is a man’s business, in my opinion. I can’t negotiate for the life of me, and I can’t think of all the things that might go wrong, because I’m a trusting person. But we are talking about considerable money here (cars in South Africa cost about twice as much as in the U.S.) so I get the point. But I also don’t want to turn into a prejudiced person, after less than a month of living here. After all, prejudice was a major building block of Apartheid. There seems to be a lot of it left today.

My other, smaller sources of frustration:
  1. I have not been able to find a thing as simple as rubbing alcohol. What I’m really after is Swim-Ear. Having been through several painful bacteria-induced ear infections (swimmer’s ear in the outer ear canal, often caused by swimming pool water, as opposed to a middle ear infection) with the kids, I’ve been making sure to pour Swim-Ear down all their ears after swimming in our pool, because on top of everything else I really don’t want to be having to look for a doctor (and figuring out how to get there WITHOUT A CAR) at the moment. Maybe I’ll have to resort to a technique that worked for me once when I was travelling abroad as a student and could sense a beginning ear infection: I poured a half a bottle of my perfume into my ear and stank up a storm for 3 days, but it worked beautifully. Alcohol is alcohol. Or maybe our regular mail forwarding shipment from the U.S. office will have to include miscellaneous staples from the home front. We already had to order some World Cup soccer jerseys from Amazon, because there was not a single one to be found in all of Johannesburg, the soon-to-be capital of World Cup soccer. You might think that wouldn’t be a high-priority item with the World Cup still 84 days away and other more important purchases looming (like GETTING A CAR) but it just so happens that the kids’ school has a form of casual Friday called “Football Friday” where the students get to shed their uniforms in favor of a jersey of their favorite team in the World Cup. But if they don’t have one of those, it’s back to the uniform. You can imagine that they all lobbied hard for such jerseys. Hence, the special order.
  2. Equally, electric toothbrushes are not to be had. We have a few that work on dual voltage, but those for the boys don’t, and they are now completely discharged (I’m surprised they lasted this long, which makes me suspicious that teeth weren’t all brushed the length of time they were supposed to). Can’t order them on Amazon either, because of the voltage problem. And the transformers we bought are all in our furniture shipment, which will get here God knows when. I’m not going to get my hopes up on that one.
  3. Same story for night lights. But at least this is an instance where procrastination solves problems. If they’ve been able to sleep without night lights for 2 weeks, they can probably keep doing that for the rest of our expat assignment.
  4. I bought a phone handset today, feeling quite pleased with myself that at least one of my problems would be solved, but when I plugged it in eagerly and made my first call, there was so much background noise that it was impossible to hear a thing. Not sure if it was the line or the phone. Plus, it has a German plug on it, needing one of our few precious adaptors which are already in constant use for other things. How can they sell an electric device here that doesn’t fit into one of their own sockets?
  5. While I’m struggling to acquire much-needed items, hoping to create an inflow of goods we sorely need for daily business, it turns out that we actually have an outflow of goods. Our trash can was stolen yesterday. I’m not kidding. Or perhaps not stolen, but nevertheless it is gone. It was out by the street for two days, because the garbage truck didn’t come when it was supposed to, and then I admit I didn’t wheel it back right after they finally did empty it, because I didn’t have the garage opener at the moment, and then that evening it was gone. What’s with that? This is a completely secure neighborhood with thorough checks of anybody going in or out, so I can only assume someone within the neighborhood took it. I even do remember hearing the tell-tale noise of a trash can being pulled along the road that afternoon, but of course I assumed it was someone else’s and not ours! I’m not really sure how to proceed. I called security several times but got no answer there (now that’s not giving me any level of comfort – what if I really had a security problem?) but otherwise just chose to ignore the issue. But the kitchen trash is getting awfully full, so I’m reluctantly adding “get a new trash can” to my to-do list.
Note: I have now been able to find both Swim-Ear and electric toothbrushes, even rubbing alcohol which is called surgical spirits, at a large pharmacy chain called Dis-Chem.

May 26, 2010

Driving on the Left Side

This, oddly, has not been a source of frustration. You’d think that having to switch sides, on top of all the other issue with moving to a new country, would be a major hassle. But I have to admit I’m actually enjoying that part. It’s almost like you’re back in your late teens, fairly new to driving, and welcoming each opportunity to go out there and challenge yourself. You really do have to focus, especially if you’re first in line at a red light and about to turn right. It feels all wrong. Invariably, you will walk to the wrong side of the car to get in every single time, invariably you will turn on your windshield wipers when you’re really wanting to use the blinker, and invariably you will grope around with your right hand after backing out of a parking space, trying to shift gears. You will also really never know which way to turn your head when you back up the car.

But aside from all that, the left side driving experience is not bad. I have much more trouble as a pedestrian. I never know which way to look first and where cars might be coming from. Your entire instinctive reflexes you learned at your mother’s hand as a toddler have to be reprogrammed. Especially when crossing one of those roundabouts that seem to be just about everywhere here. You really have to think hard every time, trying to figure out which way cars might be circling around it.

What’s really funny too is passing people on the street. I always want to pass them on their right side, just because it feels natural, but I guess to them passing things on the left seems more normal, so that I am constantly bumping into people. Even turnstiles go the opposite way, isn't that funny?

May 25, 2010

Joburg Traffic

Traffic in Johannesburg is bad. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, trying to sugarcoat it. Granted, there is a lot of construction going on building up to the World Cup in June (and everyone keeps insisting it will all be finished in time but I find this highly unlikely at the speed at which things are happening here), but most of the traffic problems are due to overcrowded streets, too few lanes, and no synching of traffic lights (excuse me, “robots”).

A gazillion people pour into Johannesburg from the townships early in the morning, and then back in the evenings, so that if you live along one of those routes, you are bound to end up in traffic unless you hit the road before 5:45 am. Luckily the sun rises around that time too (no daylight savings time), so at least you get to enjoy a nice sunrise while “queueing.” The problem is – if you’re lucky enough to have had a look-see trip prior to your move – that your realtor will take you places at a very civil hour, like 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and that everything will look just fine, and if you do take the trouble to look at a map or even program your navigation system, then the commutes all seem very reasonable, but the reality could be much different. If you’re planning to move and work here, make sure you try out your work route during rush hour when you look at different neighborhoods, just so you’re not unpleasantly surprised on your first day!

A big problem adding to the traffic woes of Johannesburg is that there is no public transportation (at least officially, more on that later). There is a project in the works called Gautrain, and I think the idea was to have that completed in time for the World Cup too, but here I also have my doubts. I did find a website where you can check out progress on tracks being laid so far, which is kind of cool. In case you’re interested, we live somewhere on the outer edge of the large orange circle, to the left of Midrand.

There is, however, an unofficial mode of public transportation, the minibus taxis - mostly white Toyota minibuses – that transport people to and from the surrounding townships into the business centers of Johannesburg. And they’re not precisely taxis either, as they only drive along certain routes, more like buses. They seem to be completely unsanctioned and unorganized, but without them I’m sure everything would break down completely. You have to be careful around them, as they stop wherever they please to pick up passengers, quite abruptly if need be, and then pull out into traffic again just as abruptly and without warning. They will also drive off the shoulder of the road to bypass a traffic jam and then squeeze in again at the front, and always get away with it. Everyone just accepts that this is so, and I have yet to see the driver with the nerves to resist yielding when a minibus taxi muscles its way onto his lane. I have to say, however, that if I ever have to squeeze into the other lane last minute, these taxi drivers are usually more forgiving than other drivers and make space for me. Most of those vans probably have several hundred thousand miles on them and you frequently see a broken-down one by the side of the road, hood open with many heads bent over the engine. You will also occasionally hear stories of these taxis being in accidents where the paramedics pull out something like 40 people from a single vehicle. No kidding. It has become a pastime of sorts for me to count people in the taxis around me when I’m stuck in traffic, admittedly a morbid pastime, but I can't help looking.

Little things you will learn: Instead of a green arrow for a right turn (which, if you remember, is like our left turn) you get a blinking green arrow which is very easy to miss. And there is no turn on red. Which I’m actually quite glad about, at least for now, so that I can stop and gather my wits about what needs to be done to turn into the correct lane. There is also quite a bit of honking and impatience and gridlock at any time of day here, making you feel like you’re driving through New York without the skyscrapers. Amazingly, the one thing that works like a charm is when traffic lights (excuse me – robots) are out of order (quite frequently, I must say). They don’t turn to blinking, they are just completely out. Everyone then treats it as a four way stop and politely waits their turn, when normally politeness is not something to be found on Joburg roads.

Intersections take some getting used to as well: There isn't a single one, big or small, where there isn't at least one person selling trinkets or handing out fliers or begging. You'll have to get used to weaving around all that foot traffic. But it can also come in handy. Even though I was warned to never ever open my window at an intersection, I've made some very useful purchases that way. Here are some Joburg traffic scenes:

I haven’t been stopped by police yet, but sometimes there are roadblocks where everyone gets frisked, and I’ve been told it’s good to have cash with you because otherwise inevitably something wrong will be found with your paperwork. Theoretically you are allowed to drive with your American drivers’ license (at least according to research I can now not quite remember how thoroughly I conducted beyond jumping to the first Google link I found) but I went ahead and got my international drivers’ license through AAA before leaving the US, which was recommended to be on the safe side, especially when travelling to other African countries. That license is valid for a year at a time, after which you are required to obtain a South African license. I’m almost giddy with the thought that I can delay THAT errand until next year!

May 24, 2010

Should I Get Pest Control?

(or: Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!)

As I am now – about two weeks into our new life here - on my third bottle of Doom (or rather Mortein Target, which even though it came recommended I find less powerful than Doom, in that it only kills but does not seem to create a barrier for future invasions), researching pest control options was on my list today. These are the pests I was told to watch out for:

  • Ants. No kidding! The word is they are much worse this year than normally, just as the rain this year is unprecedented. Probably one causing the other. It could be worse. Other people have reported frog invasions in their houses. I’d rather take the ants, thank you very much. But they ARE everywhere. You do sort of become more tolerant of them over time, so for instance when you see a few crawling on your bed, you pretty much ignore them, as you are only focusing on entire road systems.
  • Fleas. Yes, sadly, there seem to be fleas, weather you have a dog or not. That explains why we still get bitten, even though we’ve taken precautions against mosquitoes.
  • Bedbugs. This is where I’m starting to be pissed off. Who wants to know that they have bedbugs? Little red flat things that live in your carpet and mattress and bite you at night, preferably on your upper body (as opposed to fleas that get your legs), leaving a tiny bite with a white-ish center. That would account for some other unexplained bites that have bothered us. I blame the rental furniture, but who knows how clean the previous tenants were.
  • Cockroaches. Haven’t seen any of them yet, will worry about those when I do.
  • Crickets in your lawn that destroy the grass roots. Those are not crickets as you might imagine them, they are veritable giant shrimps! We found one in our pool the first day. Apparently that is why we have so many Kevin-birds digging in our lawn. They are after those crickets.
  • Rats. Haven’t seen one of those either and am not eager to. Apparently, that is the one and only pest our neighbor has pest control for. Let’s hope their bait traps are covering our property too!
So let’s talk about Pest Control services. A no-brainer, you might think. But they charge you through the nose. Maybe it’s because the locals are quite used to these bugs and don’t bother with pest control, leaving the expat community to pay? Whatever the reason, an annual service with quarterly visits will cost you around R5000. Per pest. That’s almost $700 to spray, say, for ants. Any additional pest will cost you extra, another R1000 per pest. If you want to go all-out, you can add a couple of mosquito diffusers for R200/month each. So if I want to wage simultaneous war on ants, fleas, cockroaches, bedbugs, rats, and mosquitoes (and live in a mist of noxious fumes?), I’m looking at almost R14000 per year. That’s over $1800.

Or… I could come up with my own plan, Alternate Pest Control 101:

  1. Go to the hardware store (a place that has long been on my list but keeps being pushed back because I STILL HAVE NO CAR) and buy some ant bait (I remember a kind of chalk from Singapore, which you use to draw lines where you don’t want the ants to cross), a healthy supply of more Doom, a few more of those mosquito oil thingies you plug into your outlets (the one we got for Jabulani to prevent more swollen-ear cases seems to be working fairly well), and maybe one of those mosquito-zapping lights for the porch.
  2. Get a cat. That would serve the dual purpose of making the kids happy, who had to leave behind Oreo the bunny and have long had a cat on their wish list. Saving big bucks on pest control might even make the case to my dear husband, although our record with cats is very mixed, and the last one we owned, Kika, was so scared of everything she habitually ran up tall trees from which I had to rescue her with elaborate techniques. Not sure who would be chasing whom in the case of big ole rats.
  3. Maybe have a one-time fumigation done to the house if bedbugs and fleas continue to be a problem after we get rid of the rental furniture.
I’ll keep you posted on what happens. By the way, one pest I didn’t mention above is snakes, only because the service guy didn’t mention them to me. But Noisette told me that they have a construction site at work, and one day last week when they were digging up the road, they found themselves staring at a black mamba.

The next day, none of those workers came back.

[Note: I ended up going with Rentokil pest control, and was very satisfied with their service. It's not cheap, but it was worth the money not ever having to worry about ants. They came every three months to spray or spread granules, both in house and yard, and if there was a problem in between they came whenever you called. You don't have to really pay for any other pest than ants, in my opinion. If whatever they spray kills ants, it might also get some other crawling insects as a bonus.]

May 20, 2010

South African Food

I just got a note home from Impatience’s class about her class social next week, and I had to pick if she wanted to eat “boerewors” or “prego roll.” Must be the equivalent of hamburger and hot dog?

The yoghurt here is a pleasure. Finally something better on offer than fat free! Absolutely heavenly.

Today, I ate the most delicious mango of my life. I also love the Cape berries, or Cape gooseberries. They are yellow, a dark yellow bordering on light orange, slightly bigger than blueberries with a slightly thicker skin, and very tart, in a passion fruit kind of way.

As a German, I have spent half my life searching for good bread. I just hit a veritable bonanza at the Spar Supermarket (a German chain). Not all Spars are the same, but the one in the Broadacres Shopping Centre carries a great selection of rye breads, the swiss rye bread (Schweizerbrot) being our new favorite.

Boerewors turns out to be sausage, just as I thought. There actually is something called the “Boerewors Curtain,” something like an invisible line separating English-speaking South Africa from Afrikaans South Africa, or, less politically correct, the city people from the rednecks. I’m quite pleased that I’ve already picked up such delicious slang.

One thing driving me crazy is that all the meat cuts have different names from what I know. So when you think you’ve just bought Ribeye for your nice braai party on the weekend, you actually end up with something more of a shoesole-type texture. I’m told of several German butchers, so finding one of them will be a project for the near future. Actually, Woolworth’s has quite a nice selection of already-marinated meats for your braai, so I can’t complain.

One thing that is quite startling is the amount of corn meal sold in the supermarkets. There are entire aisles of different bags of corn meal, or, as they call it here, maize. From what I’ve learned, it is a huge staple for the black population (or certain groups thereof), who prepare an oatmeal- or grits-like porridge called mealie (or mielie) pap from it.

The restaurants here are quite good, and very affordable, but I will devote an entire chapter to restaurants later on.

May 19, 2010


I will now indulge in a little bit of whining, if you don’t mind (please bear in mind that my blog is several weeks behind, because it took a while to get the internet up and running, another frustration).

March 10, 2010:

The kids were dragging their feet much more the second day of school than the first. On the first, it was still new and exciting, whereas today, it was apparent that everything was different and how much they didn’t know. So they basically didn’t want to go back, and especially Impatience had a hard time, hating everything. This made my morning pretty frustrating, and I came home practically in tears after dropping them off, letting a wave of self-pity wash over me. I have my own long list of complaints:

  • I have no car
  • There are about 2 electrical outlets (4 if you’re lucky) per room, and they are never where you need them. Vacuuming is a challenge, as there are vast areas of house that are not within cord length of an outlet.  
  • There are absolutely NO electrical outlets in your bathrooms, so you can’t use any electrical appliances there. Hairdryer, curling iron, toothbrush charger all have to be put somewhere else, and using a dental jet is completely impossible unless you want to wind an extension cord into your bathroom. This is not just our house, but South African (and I suspect British) building code.
  • Our bathroom has no door to the bedroom. So I pretty much have to rise with Noisette who has decided he has to get up at 4:30 to get to work without impossible traffic (that is HIS major frustration). Or maybe go to sleep with those earplugs and eye shades I got from the airplane. But I’m thinking more along the lines of a project for the handyman who’s already made an appearance – maybe he can install a curtain or something.
  • No one knows much at school, Dainfern College. I’ve met Sunshine’s teacher and have asked her questions about the next day, but the other kids were all whisked away and then come home complaining that they don’t know where to go, and get mad when I don’t know either. But when I then ask at the school, I get “he/she must ask” as an answer. Asking is not a forte for my kids, but maybe this will teach them.
  • The school’s (or country’s?) curriculum seems too easy. Not that things are easy for the kids right now, as everything is new and that makes them feel rather behind, but so far from what I’ve seen, especially in math, the kids are way ahead. We will give it a bit of time, but then I want to talk to the math teachers. Sunshine, in grade 2, seems to almost be back in Kindergarten. They get let out earlier than the others, have a lot of play time, and read these easy reader books with only a few words in them. Her classroom has no chapter books, and you are only allowed to check out one book from the library per week. We will have to do something about that too. She already told me that she is in her own individual reading group (which she named “bunnies,” ha!) because none of the existing groups were up to her reading level. Anyway, you’d think that this private prep school would be a bit more demanding. All of you Blue Valley parents back in Overland Park can rest assured that your schools are pretty advanced in this (admittedly limited) international comparison!
  • My dishwasher is a half a mile away from my kitchen. I’m sure this has to do with the fact that everyone here has a housekeeper living in the (embarrassingly small) quarters behind the kitchen, so that it makes sense to have the dishwasher in “her” kitchen out of sight from “your” kitchen. But since I do not have domestic help yet, I’m covering vast distances trekking back and forth every day.
  • There are ants everywhere. Thankfully, I discovered Doom as a very effective ant-killer after the incident with the infested coffeepot. I now keep a spray can of it at arm’s length everywhere I go so I can take out newly discovered ant routes, which the kids have gotten very good at reporting to me. I have some misgivings about the environmental impact (can’t be good) but if you’ve ever had ants in your house you will know that few things are as satisfying as being able to snuff them out with a well-directed burst of spray. In general, the environment does not seem to be at the top of the list for anybody. First, I was told there was no recycling whatsoever, but meanwhile I’ve found out that there is, but you have to pay for it. At least that’s something.
  • I have no doorbell. I believe this is the first house I’ve ever lived in that didn’t have a doorbell. When people come by, they just sort of stand in front of our gate, and you just happen to see them or not. It drives me crazy. Or actually, it did until today, when I installed a wireless doorbell that you just glue onto the wall by your gate. One of my cheaper purchases, and it worked on first try. And it started what I’m sure will be many trips to the home supply store, Builder’s Warehouse, which is actually a pleasant surprise. Much like Home Depot but with better service (but make sure you're not satisfied with a "we don't  have that" from the first person you ask - keep asking). Oh, and if you ever need a handyman, there is always a long line of them camped out right in front holding up signs of what they can do. Or rather say they can do. My confidence was somewhat diminished when I saw one holding a "plumber" sign in one hand and waving a painter's roller in the other.
  • Our house has no coat or linen closets. Where do people keep all their stuff? We don’t even have any stuff yet, as we’re still waiting for our shipment, and it's already messy. Shoes everywhere by the front door. I suppose this has to do with the maid too – people are just used to dropping everything and the maid carries it away?
  • I have no phone. Neither cell nor house. The house phone will come next week (2 weeks after we’ve arrived!) when they will also install our internet connection. And the problem with my cell phone is that a) U.S. iPhones will only work here if you jailbreak them – a term I had vaguely heard before, it is a risky endeavor that may result in your phone not working at all – and then get a new contract and b) to just go ahead and buy a cell phone, ANY cell phone, you have to bring your passport and proof of residence. You pretty much have to show your passport for anything. But my passport is currently at the lawyer’s office so that our visa can be changed from tourist to permanent, who knows how long that will take. So, no cell phone for the moment, other than Noisette’ old U.S. Blackberry, which means any call I make is an international one, which also means that most people cannot call me back from their cell phones. Especially the people at the security gate have no clue how to call me, which is a problem, because then no one who has any kind of delivery for me is let into the estate.
  • My appliances are rather basic. I knew this would happen when Noisette negotiated to have them included with the house – they just went out and bought them, and of course got the budget model of each. So my fridge is rather small for the space it is put in, the dishwasher is tiny with a detergent compartment that only opens half the time, the microwave has one of those buttons that you turn as a timer, which is totally imprecise, and the dryer only has a timer dial, meaning you have to figure out how long to dry which kind of load, otherwise you end up with either damp clothes or totally crisp and wrinkly clothes that have probably shrunk by two sizes.
  • I HAVE NO CAR! did I mention that already?
Read the sequel, Frustration Revisited.

May 17, 2010

Red Robot

The following comment as I was browsing a Johannesburg travel forum on Wikitravel was making me laugh:
Can someone explain what is a "red robot"? [QUOTE]At night do not stop at red robots.[/QUOTE]
A robot, to all newcomers, is what South Africans call traffic lights! I remember feeling confused at first, when people would give me directions, and I would think: "What kind of robot should I be looking for? Made of tin? How big?" and "There seem to be an awful lot of robots by the roadside... maybe some kind of local art form?"

But in my self-proclaimed capacity as an advisor to fellow expats in Johannesburg, I should probably expand on the topic of whether to stop or not to stop at red traffic lights at night. I have heard the same recommendation as above, to drive on, but I think it really depends on where you are driving at the time. So far, I've stopped at all the traffic lights I've come to, day or night, as stopping seems a lot safer than driving through! But I seem to be only going up and down William Nichol Drive, which I guess is considered a safe area. I suppose in the end it comes down to common sense, as always. If you're stopped in a lonely area, and/or see some shadowy figures approaching, by all means drive on.

What I think is more of a concern is what to do in a traffic accident. It seems entirely plausible that someone might stage an accident scene or ram you on purpose, only to make off with your valuables, or worse, assault you, when you stop. I know this first hand from long ago in France (generally considered a safe country), when we were unwillingly separated from our wallets in just that fashion. I've read somewhere (but will research this further) that you are not expected to stop when involved in a fender-bender here, but should rather drive on to the next public area, like a service station. If your car still moves, that is. If it doesn't, I guess you should call the police and/or your roadside assistance number immediately while staying in the car. But I hope to find out more about this issue in our soon-to-be-scheduled security training and promise to update this post then.

May 16, 2010


Check out the official 2010 World Cup soccer ball, Jabulani. This means "happy." Isn't it cool? Given that "Felix" also means happy, and that Felix absolutely loves the Jabulani as well as everything Zulu,  I am officially changing his blog name from Felix to Jabulani. If you're interested, you can find the Jabulani here: adidas World Cup 2010 Official Match Soccer Ball

May 15, 2010

Images of Africa

I painted this ages ago, but watching the local women carry things on their heads on the way to Diepsloot just down the road reminded me of it.

May 13, 2010

The Language(s)

The official South African language is English. This is good news for us. Although I have to say, I’ve blended in better as a German in America than I have here. Just last week, I entered our real estate agent’s office, and was told how funny it was that “only people with accents” had come by that day. I was somewhat offended to be counted among “people with accents” but that is precisely what I am in this country.

In addition to English, there are many other languages spoken in the rainbow nation. The country’s constitution guarantees equal status to 11 official languages:

English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sepedi, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Zulu, Swazi and Tsonga. While English is the language most widely used and understood, it is far down the list when looking purely at mother tongue. On that list, Zulu is at the top, as the mother tongue of around 24% of South Africa's population, followed by Xhosa at 18%, Afrikaans at 13%, and English at 8%. Some of these language actually have common roots. Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele are also referred to as the Nguni languages and are fairly similar. The same is true for the Sotho languages, Tswana, Sepedi and Sesotho. It is not uncommon for black South Africans to speak more than five of those languages.

Afrikaans is descended from 17th century Dutch and became its own official language in 1925. I’d have to verify this with my Dutch relatives, but in my opinion it is a simpler version of Dutch. Especially the written version is almost understandable for someone who speaks German. For a complete discussion of all the South African languages, is a great site.

Almost all schools use English as language of instruction. At Dainfern College, the additional mandatory languages are Afrikaans and Zulu, with the option of choosing one of the two starting in grade 6. Confronted with this choice, and knowing almost nothing when we first arrived here, both boys decided to take Zulu. Jabulani because he thought Zulu was cool, and Zax because he was afraid that Afrikaans might mess up his German. hen again, that would have made for a much easier language to learn. Zulu seems strange at first sight, with words that seem unnecessarily long and cumbersome, and then there are a number of different endings to adjectives depending what letter the corresponding noun starts with. I’m not kidding. At least that’s what I’ve understood after a first glance at Jabulani’s workbook. But he seems excited about it. He loves his teacher, Mama Mncube. The “c” after the “n” comes across as a sound like clicking your tongue. It’s very hard to get right!

Thank goodness the actual language spoken here is English, you might think. But woah! Not all English is the same. Here is a first cursory vocabulary from what I’ve picked up so far:
Am. English = S.A. English

sweater = jersey
trunk = boot
vest = slipover
pants = trousers
traffic light = robot
math = maths
eraser = rubber
barbecue = braai
night light = I have no idea but can’t seem to describe it when trying to buy one
underwear = brookies
pick-up-truck = bakkie
three-thirty = half three
sports bag = tog bag
mark your calendar = diarise (now that’s an efficient term!)
Kindergarten = Grade Nought (Zero)
Marihuana = dagga (at least this is what Zax tells me – should I be concerned?)
And while I might get used to the way they say aluminium, tomato, and kilometre, I’m not sure I will ever get used to “schedule," pronounced "shedule."

One more note on language or rather culture: After the kids talked about their new teachers, it became apparent that black teachers are always called “Mama” something, whereas the white teachers are “Mrs.” Noisette and I found this somewhat offensive, as it sounds like something out of Gone with the Wind, but then Jabulani explained why this is: For Zulus, it is a term of respect that elders, who could be your mother or your father, have to be called Mama or Papa, together with their name, instead of Mrs or Mr. So it is not offensive at all, but respectful.

Along those same lines, I had this interesting conversation with G, my driver: We were talking about the rest of Africa, and the problems people from other countries pose here when coming through the borders. It’s almost funny how that is such a universal complaint – in Germany it would be the Eastern Europeans who are all criminals in the minds of people, in the U.S. it is the Mexicans, and here according to G it is the Nigerians and people from Zimbabwe or Congo coming into the country illegally or as workers who bring drugs and corruption with them. So G started complaining to me about all those corrupt governments and how they can’t run their countries, and that is why people from those countries want to come here to South Africa and mess it up. And then he says this: “I think South Africa is such a good country because it was built by Whites.” He says this with a completely straight face and I’m sure he is dead serious. This of course makes me and my liberal enlightened mind (or what I like to think of as a liberal enlightened mind) extremely uncomfortable and I proceed to talk about the virtues of democracy and freedom and that Apartheid was very wrong.

But I don’t think it makes any difference to him.

May 7, 2010

The Climate

The climate in a nutshell: Put on sunscreen!

Sunday was the first day of full sun and clear blue skies. Coming from a sun-starved Kansas winter, we were eager to spend it playing in the pool (a luxury we've  never had until now). We put on plenty of sunscreen, but it wasn’t enough. Impatience – the only one without a rash guard – looked pretty red that evening, but the others had gotten some too, like on the back of their legs, where I normally don’t bother with sunscreen.

Part of it can be blamed on the rather dry and cool climate, which makes for cold water and an even colder feeling when you step out, so that one tends to want to lie flat in the sun to warm up. I put rash guards (or whatever they call it here) on my never-ending shopping list, and vowed to do a better job from now on. I also found out you have to put sunscreen on the kids before school in the morning. They have two breaks where they go outside, and especially Sunshine looked pretty red at the end of the day. That’s why they make them wear hats. The rule is, so Felix informed me, “no hat no play.” So you can sit in the full sun without your hat, but you don’t get to play. I guess that is supposed to be an incentive for kids to wear their hats?

Apparently, the summer has been very rainy this year. In fact, with just a little bit more rainfall this year will go into the record books as the rainiest ever in South Africa. But normally December and January are very hot. It’s March now, which by my calculations is the equivalent of September, so we’re approaching fall. I’m sure that would be called autumn. I’m working on a vocabulary list. But whatever the season is called, it is one of perfect weather. Very crisp in the morning, grass full of dew, which makes the walk uphill to school very pleasant, and very warm in the afternoons so that you appreciate being able to go downhill. Except that by then your uncomfortable black dress shoes are not feeling so great, so you might want to take them off and walk barefoot.

Another note on sunscreen: We have learned that even putting on rash guards – or swim shirts as I have now found out they’re called – will not prevent sunburn. The sun somehow goes right through the fabric. They help, like sunscreen does, but are not enough. You actually have to put sunscreen on first, then your swim shirt, and, preferably, a hat, like those they wear in Australia, and then you can go swimming. The best idea is probably to limit time in the sun between 10:00 and 2:00, but with the weather being so beautiful here that is very hard to do!

In more professional terms, Johannesburg has a "subtropical highland climate." December and January are the hottest months, with an average high of 26 C (79 F), which is not all hat hot if you remember that there is almost no humidity, and the coldest months are June and July with average highs of 16 C (61). Winter, so we're told, is actually the dry season, so that it supposedly never rains from May until September. But the average low during winter is only 4 C (39 F) which makes for very cold mornings and evenings. Since most houses here (as in Australia and England) aren’t well equipped for cold temperatures, be prepared to be freezing when you get up. And it’s best to put “under floor heating in all rooms” on your house hunting checklist.

In terms of travelling, I’ve been asked what the best time of year for a visit would be. Since you can’t very well come to South Africa without going on a safari for a chance to at least glimpse the Big Five (I'll be talking about safaris in more detail once we've gathered more information), the best time to visit are the winter months, May to August. Little rainfall means that animals converge around waterholes and the lower brush (as compared to the rainy season) is ideal for wildlife viewing. Just makes sure you pack warm layers for when you’re rising at the crack of dawn, which is often the best time to go on a bush tour. Another reason to favor winter over summer is that the threat of malaria is much lower in the winter. South Africa is mostly malaria free, especially Johannesburg and surroundings, but some areas like Kruger Park and KwaZulu Natal are high risk malaria areas, and some other spots are considered intermediate risk, where use of anti-malarial drugs is only recommended in the summer months (October-May). It’s a good idea to specifically research the malaria risk areas prior to your trip.

Also see: Johannesburg Climate

May 6, 2010

The Second Shopping Trip

School Uniforms:

Today was a Saturday, which meant that we’d have our own car (or actually, a rental car, a little old Toyota, because the company car hasn’t materialized yet either) which we would have to cram into for a trip to Fourways Shopping Centre and the school uniform store. The name of the place is McCullagh & Bothwell, which, together with the whole uniform/boarding school environment, made me feel like we were in 19th Century Scotland. (A quick trip to the McCullagh & Bothwell website confirms this, as it says there they were established in 1896).

Armed with our supply list from the school, we proceeded to fit everybody into various garments – for the girls 2 dresses each, 1 jersey, which turns out to be a sweater, hair accessories, white socks, black shoes, hats, and shorts and a polo shirt for P.E., the same for Felix except navy dress shorts and a golf shirt instead of a dress and long navy socks instead of white ones, and for Zax long dress pants which will have to be shortened, a white button-down shirt, a blazer, and a tie. It probably took us a good two hours to try everything on and check it off our list, which seriously tested Noisette’ patience. Zax, surprisingly, was a good sport about it, although he maintains that he cannot possibly tuck in his shirt (“that would look horrible”) and that he will not be seen in his P.E. shorts because they do not come down over the knee. But I’m sure, come Monday, the fact that everyone else will wear exactly the same clothes, will somewhat soften his stance. I understand that he is very nervous about the first day, I would feel the same way. Felix, as always, was very easygoing, trying everything on without complaint. The girls, being girls, were excited about any opportunity to try on and actually receive new clothes, which is fortunate. I think, at that age, I would have thrown a complete fit about being stuck in a stiff plaid dress and black dress shoes.
In case you’re interested, the whole school uniform shopping spree cost us R5700. I do not even want to convert that, but it is a ton of money! And guess what: That was only for the summer uniforms. Next month, we will switch to winter uniforms, so we will soon be back at McCullagh & Bothwell’s.

We finished the outing with lunch at Fournos, the highly-praised bakery, but exhausted kids made for a less than stellar experience. Impatience didn’t like her French Toast because the “syrup wasn’t right,” Sunshine was in tears because the lemonade had bubbles, and Noisette got mad because Sunshine had insisted on pouring the ketchup herself and ended up with a lake of ketchup on her hamburger. And everyone was in hysterics about the wasps that were circling our food, which prompted Impatience to start sobbing that this was a horrible place. Time to go home and be done with the day! We picked up two DVDs at Chaplins DVD Rental and spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool and watching Parent Trap and Delta Farce. I even managed to alter the buttons on the girls’ dresses – not a bad day’s work.

May 5, 2010

The First Shopping Trip

Imagine being in a store you’ve never been to before (Woolworth’s, also called Woolly by the locals, with probably your best quality groceries in Johannesburg, but more on that later), with about 1 hour’s time and a 2-page shopping list to start a new household, accompanied by your friendly driver G who insisted on coming and pushing the shopping cart, plus your 7-year old daughter who also insisted on coming and is helpfully pointing out every other item in the store, and you will understand that this was not my most relaxing shopping experience.

At least I wasn’t hindered by an abundance of choice or Walmart-type vast expanses of space to cover, so it was not too hard to file through every aisle and check off my basic supplies (apples, one kind, check, toilet paper, 2-ply or 3-ply, check, insect spray, one kind, definitely check. Plus, it’s much easier to make decisions when you have no earthly idea how much you might be paying for an item. I was glad to get through my list before running out of time (and out of shopping cart space, even though G proved very helpful by expertly rearranging whatever I threw in), and equally glad that apparently my American Express card was welcome here. This was a good thing, as I had run up a bill of 2,200 Rand, which I think is about $300. There are so many possibilities for exchange rates, like 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 10:1, 100:1, or even 1.5:1 like back in our Canada ski trip days, but no, we had to pick a country with an exchange rate that’s 7.5:1. Multiplication and division with 7 has never been a strength of mine. I might just have to disregard prices for the time being.

The reason I was in rather a hurry was that I had to be back at school by noon to pick up Zax from his test. That morning I had already gone to get my ID badge at the estate security office – which took quite some time and I think was an indication of things to come in terms of paperwork and bureaucratic speed – and checked out our PO box. A word on PO boxes from our “Guide to living in South Africa” handed to us by our Corporate Relocations lady: “Street deliveries of mail are not common in Johannesburg and even where available they are not necessarily reliable or secure and we therefore recommend you rent a Post Office Box for a rental charge of approximately R249 per year. There is a shortage of available boxes in some areas and therefore your application may be put on a waiting list.” Interesting! But at least there seems not to be a shortage in our area as we were already able to secure a PO box. It is in the shopping center next to our neighborhood and my first inspection yielded a pile of really old mail and a half-inch layer of dusty soil. I made a mental note to return with some cleaning equipment. Zax’s testing appointment was at 10:00, then said shopping trip, then a quick lunch for everyone while putting away what I’d bought, then back to school for the other kids’ tests at 1:30 (or 13:30, as I will have to get used to again). Sunshine’s was very fast (she says they just had her read a book with 5 words on each page and add some simple numbers), so I waited, then ran back with her to get Zax to meet with the principal at 14:30. By the way, each time we pass our security gate, in our out, we have to swipe my new badge. I’m sure this will become routine but it is already quite annoying. Also, after just one day with a driver, I am 100% sure that I do not want to have a driver but my own car. Nothing against G, who is very lovely, but I hate not having the freedom to come and go as I please, and I have to admit I am looking forward to the challenge of driving on the left side of the road. Weird, I know, but I do want to do it. However, this might not happen so soon, as everything seems to move at a much more glacial pace than it would in the U.S. To be honest, I had actually thought I’d already find a car in our garage upon my arrival, what with Noisette having been here for 2 months and car-buying a very manly thing to do. But apparently, we can’t buy a car without a bank account, and we don’t have one of those yet because we don’t have our permanent/work visas yet, and we don’t have those yet because we just now brought our FBI and Singapore police reports with us, which will hopefully trigger the whole chain of events. Apparently, it’s also not easy to even find available cars and get people to quote you a price on them. Getting an internet connection and phone line seems equally slow. We have an appointment with Telkom for installation of an ADSL broadband line sometime next week.

But back to that Friday of first shopping and school appointments. Upon getting back to school, Felix and Impatience were finished as well, so I left them and Sunshine sitting in some armchairs in the reception area while taking Zax to the High School principal’s office. It was a very nice meeting, with plenty of information on the subjects he’d be taking and choices for after-school sports. His only subject elective is foreign language and he chose Afrikaans – thinking it might be easier due to some connection between Afrikaans and Dutch and Dutch and German – but over the weekend he reconsidered and is now leaning towards Zulu, thinking that Afrikaans might mess up his already not so great German spelling. There definitely won’t be any risk of that with Zulu! Regarding sports, they have different seasons, and the one upcoming now is for rugby or field hockey. Our talk with the principal also revealed that Zax had done fine in his test, especially math (or “maths” as they call it here, adding to our growing dictionary of new words), which is not surprising, considering they were testing for 7th grade math and he was taking 10th grade geometry in Kansas. They do not offer subject advancement here, so we will have to see how that pans out. We were assured that the teachers would give him challenging work. But for now we will worry about other things. Sorting Zax into a house (no sorting hat but otherwise completely Harry-Potter-like, when you consider the house names Phoenix, Kraken, and Griffin!) would occur over the weekend, we were told. By the way, the principal also told us he had just last year taken a group of students to Wichita, or Hutchison to be exact, for a one-week space/rocket science program offered there, which is something I had seen in a summer camp brochure a few years back.

After we got back to the reception area, we found Felix and Sunshine stretched out in their armchairs, sound asleep. Impatience was the only one awake. It was quite a feat rousing everybody again and hustling them to the car in the now pouring rain. This gets us back to where we’re sitting in the house watching the thunderstorm on our first evening. I busied myself with getting the last groceries put away, starting a first load of laundry, and making dinner. I was quite exhausted at the end of the day, considering the fact that I hadn’t slept at all the previous night, but all my first-day efforts earned me a “I thought we’d at least have a completely neat bedroom after a whole day here” from my husband!

Observations on Local Wildlife - Part I

As I was lying in bed all night, wide awake, at times squeezed from both sides by equally wide awake (and fidgety) children, I had ample opportunity to listen to the animal sounds wafting trough the open windows: A variety of birds, one of which sounds JUST like Kevin in the movie UP, a meowing cat, and in response to the cat’s calls a small dog’s hectic bark. Looks like we’ve got all the bases covered regarding neighbors with noisy pets. The bird, I found out later, is called a Haw-di-daw or something similar, and is the only member of the Ibis family to make a sound (preferably on newly-moved-in expat rooftops). But my true intro to South African wildlife came the next morning. Spotting an electric water-boiler amongst our rental equipment, I decided to make tea. I filled the kettle with water, stood it on the heating element, and turned it on. So far so good. But when it had come to a boil and I wanted to pour it into the teapot, the whole kettle erupted in crazy movement. Thousands of tiny ants were crawling from some hidden crevices under the hinge of the lid and soon swarming all the way up my arm. If I were one to scream, this would have been a fitting moment. But I am not, so I simply dumped everything into the sink and proceeded to rinse it out. It was not that simple, however, and took submerging the entire contraption for the rest of the day in soapy water to successfully flush out all its unwanted inhabitants. Needless to say, I never quite got to enjoy a peaceful cup of tea that day. Instead, I proceeded to write my first shopping list, with ant killer as its very first item.