October 26, 2010

Madikwe Part 2

Here is the second part of my Madikwe photo safari pictures:
(By the way, if the slide show is turned sideways on your screen, it is likely an Internet Explorer problem; it is perfectly fine in Chrome or Firefox).

October 22, 2010

From Furniture Store to Street Market and the Art of Haggling

When our container shipment arrived in March, it brought instant bliss to the kids, who loved having all their long-missing possessions dumped in huge piles in their rooms, and instant stress to me, looking at a mountain of stuff that needed to be assigned to new locations in a house that is completely different from the previous one. Such is the life of a family on the move. Yet it always amazes me how quickly you become settled. Six months later, all this frustration is forgotten. The stuff is all organized (lots of it banned to the remotest cupboard corners, making you wonder why you own it in the first place), the pictures are hung (although that’s almost another blog topic in itself – hammering a nail into this brick here is nothing like hammering a nail into American dry wall; we ended up having to drill the holes, generating clouds of dust, then placing the nails in the holes; a lengthy project as it involves power tools and is therefore the domain of Noisette, who has no time for it during the week and no stomach for it during weekends). Our life is now back to normal – deciding on a dinner  menu, organizing play dates, watching sporting events, going to the movies.

But the one corner of the house that has continued to bug me, day in day out,  is our entrance way. South African houses – forgive me if I generalize – are completely devoid of linen or coat closets. Our bedrooms have closets, but after years of training your kids to take off their shoes upon entering the house, you cannot get them to carry them up to their rooms. It simply won’t work. Therefore, I had to live with a huge pile of shoes, right next to our front door, for the last six months.  Almost immediately I set out to find a solution, some sort of coat rack/cubby combination I so love in the Pottery Barn catalogs, but alas, there is neither a Pottery Barn nor an IKEA in South Africa. I scoured many furniture stores in the northern suburbs of Joburg, from prohibitively expensive to affordable, without much luck. I did see some beautiful furniture, don’t get me wrong, just nothing in terms of shoe organization that would also look attractive in our foyer. From Wetherlys  (not my taste) to Furniture Warehouse (basic), Sutherlands (nice selection, both indoor and patio), @home  (terrific modern design but expensive), Coricraft, Weilandts (beautiful and eclectic wooden furniture), Patio Warehouse (biggest outdoor selection we could find), Boardmans (in my mind the most practical and affordable selection), Mr. Price Home (best value but also limited selection, reminds me of Target), even Gumtree (the South African equivalent of Craigslist), I had no luck. I found affordable curtains at Mr. Price Home, nice barstools (the kind that moves up and down, thrilling the kids to no end) at Boardmans, very nice fake wicker outdoor furniture at Patio Warehouse, but still no shoe solution.

Bryanston Street Market
The breakthrough, as is so often the case, came when I had stopped looking, in the unlikeliest of places. I was driving down William Nicol, looking for the African craft street market on the way to Sandton (at the corner of William Nicol and Main, where you take a slight left towards Sandton and a slight right towards Randburg). It is run by Zimbabweans who have tons of African crafts for sale – stone sculptures, beaded figures, wood carvings, you name it. That day I was looking for one of those birds made from welded metal (they also have giraffes and crocodiles and warthogs, if you want to go bigger) as a present for friends in the U.S. I pulled into the dusty parking lot, and what should I see there, tucked away and not visible from the road? A huge selection of dressers, light or dark wood, wicker baskets for drawers. I had actually seen similar ones before and thought they might work for shoes, but they never had the right dimensions. These didn’t either, but I was assured by a swarm of sellers immediately surrounding me that any size could be custom made without problem, in any color. So I pulled out the measurements I’d been carrying around with me for months, and right there, on a dusty street corner, sketched and negotiated away. There was plenty of nodding and measuring and overall excitement, a typical African group project. My plans were definitely the center of attention. I picked the number and size of drawers, which was dutifully scribbled on a piece of scrap paper that almost fluttered away in the wind, gave them R400 in cash for a deposit, exchanged phone numbers, and hoped for the best. In my mind I could already hear Noisette over dinner that night, incredulous: “You what? Just handed them money? You’ll never see them again!”

But first, I still had to find my bird, so I wandered off towards the next stalls. My dealmaking had not gone unnoticed, for I was immediately surrounded by new throngs of vendors who sensed that here was someone willing to spend money, practically tugging at my sleeves to veer me off toward their wares. I was the owner of 5 beaded keychains and 3 carved animals before I was able to escape to go measure some birds (I know, a very mundane way to buy art, but I had to make sure it would fit in the suitcase). These ones were nice but slightly too big. Another bird vendor spotted me and pulled me his way, proudly declaring his birds were smaller, and he had almost wheeled me in, when the first guy, sensing that he was losing out, simply took one of his birds and bent down the neck. “Here you go, ma’m, the perfect size for you.” And that still wasn’t the end of my shopping spree. With eagle eyes, two other stall owners had watched my every move and now came running after me to extract the last bit of change they knew I was still clutching. My last R50 bill went for a stone statue that I had bargained down to R40, but the vendor could only come up with R8 in coins as change. And then R8 was precisely the price of the carved wooden lion the other vendor shoved at me. Only when I had absolutely no money left was I able to walk to my car in peace. As a Westerner – we generally suck at bargaining – I hadn’t done too badly. The lesson: When you really don’t care for something, when you truly mean to walk away, is when you get the best price. I probably overpaid for the chest, although I still think R1200 or about $160 was a decent deal. The other lesson: When you go to one of those places to shop, don’t bring a purse. Not because it’s not safe, but because that implies deep pockets, hence higher prices. Bring only what you want to spend, best in small bills (no one ever has any change), and I promise you that you will walk out of there with what you came for, as they will never let you walk away without making a deal.

As for my drawer chest, the most amazing thing happened: In a country where I can never, I mean NEVER, get anybody to call me back, I received a text message just four days later, on precisely the advertised date, to please come and pick up my furniture. And it was exactly as I had ordered it. These people were professional, honest, and reliable. And yet street vendors are undoubtedly one of the first dangers you will be warned about when visiting South Africa, which just goes to show that you can't believe everything you hear.

October 16, 2010


I’ve been wanting to write about safaris and game viewing for quite some time. There are so many choices and places to go, it’s hard to even break through the surface. Your inclination, as a freshly-arrived expat, is to wait and get your new life sorted out before you feel like going travelling again. But don’t. After all, seeing the animals is what you’re meant to do in Africa, so you might as well get started right away. Before I tell you where to go, have a look at these pictures and I’m sure you’ll want to read more (click on it to view full screen in Picasa):

After conducting quite a bit of research (or, as Noisette might say, researching the thing to death) I’m happy to tell you exactly where you should go on safari if you live in or visit Johannesburg: Madikwe Game Reserve, which is located three and a half hours to the Northwest of Joburg, right on the border to Botswana. It’s an easy drive (“only” 30 km of dirt road) and you won’t find anything better in Southern Africa. You got the Big Five there, and much more, and it’s entirely malaria-free year-round, as opposed to the Kruger Park. It’s also much less crowded. You can choose from a total of 32 lodges in Madikwe, most of them 4 or 5 star luxury lodges, and unfortunately quite pricey, but that is the same everywhere. I recently stayed at Mosetlha Bush Camp, where the above photographs were taken, and had a wonderful time. It is also by far the cheapest lodge in all of Madikwe.

What I loved about Mosetlha is that it’s a true bush camp, not a luxury lodge. That doesn’t mean that you have to make do without amenities – it’s just a bit more complicated and you’ll definitely feel closer to nature. You will learn to use a donkey boiler, a most amazing contraption where cold water goes in one end and hot water comes out the other, you will enjoy hauling that hot water up into the shower bucket, and you will marvel at the fact that such little water can give you a pleasant bath. In fact, I found myself silently wishing that we had such a thing at our house, as it surely would conserve a lot of water and might put my “shower wars” with Zax to an end! (Although I shouldn’t have attempted to also shave my legs, by the light of a paraffin lamp). You will also marvel at the “VIP Toilet,” which through some ingenious design has absolutely no smell at all, even though it can’t be flushed. In fact, there is no electricity in the entire camp.

Mosetlha is located right in the middle of Madikwe’s 75,000 hectares that are home to some of the most abundant game you’ll find in Southern Africa: The Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino), zebra, giraffe, monkey, hippo, hyena, jackal, and a huge variety of antelope. Madikwe is also home to the endangered African wild dog, which you won’t find in many other places. Included in the price – as at any lodge – are two daily game drives. The food at camp is cooked on an open fire, where you’ll sit and share bush stories before retiring to your cabin on a path lined with paraffin lamps. The beds are very comfortable and you wouldn’t know the difference from a deluxe hotel room, except for the breeze – and flies – wafting through the canvas sides and the occasional roar of a lion.

For more information on Mosetlha, visit http://www.thebushcamp.com/.
The best place to research and book safaris: http://www.bushbreaks.co.za/
Another affordable game lodge we really liked (it’s located in the Waterberg and is not Big Five): http://www.yellowwoodgamelodge.co.za/

October 8, 2010

Crime and Security

In the interest of fairness and even-handed reporting, I will now step into the highly emotional minefield of discussing South African crime, a topic I’m usually trying to avoid. If you’ve been to any other expat forums, you will know that 90% of the South Africa coverage typically consist of a debate about crime, as if there is nothing else the country has to offer. How about climate, people, nature, freedom? Having lived in Singapore, one of the safest places on Earth, I know that you cannot make safety your number one concern. There are many things our family loved about Singapore, but it is still not the place we would choose to live the rest of our lives. The one thing I find truly alarming about South Africa’s future is not crime, but the Zuma administration’s recent efforts to suppress the freedom of press, just because they’re annoyed by persistent reports of the government’s ineptitude.

But, like I said, I also want to tell you all that I know. (You’ve certainly found out more about Eskom than you’ve ever wanted to!) Another school mom told me yesterday she was mugged somewhere along William Nicol, which I consider a safe area, when picking her car up from a car wash. We only talked in passing and I didn’t get the full details, like what kind of weapon, if any, was involved, but I had the impression it was not so recent, maybe within the last two years. In any case, you hear many such stories, but this is the first I’ve heard first-hand from someone I know, so I wanted to relay it to you. It does make you pause, because it is more real than just hearing it on the news. I have to admit I do not read any local papers (other than the Dainfern Estate newsletter). Headlines such as “Man fathered 4 million babies” have a way of turning me off, even in a country where many politicians’ escapades make the more fantastical headlines seem tame. A first hand account is different, but even so I have a hard time feeling alarmed. My thoughts always turn to practical matters, like “maybe I should remove my unused U.S. credit cards from my wallet, those are always a pain to replace” and “probably should keep my drivers’ license in a different place, especially since it seems impossible to get a South African one.” Oh, and should I use a different purse? I’m very fond of my Coach handbag and matching wallet and would hate to lose it. But it’s the only one big enough to hold all the stuff I’ve become used to toting around Joburg, such as our lease agreement, in case anybody asks about it. And also, should I have pepper spray? But would I really use that to counter a gun in my face, rather than just handing over the wanted goods?

I probably haven’t helped you much, but I did find clarity in one thing: Get Noisette’s company to finally give us that security training we’ve been promised for five months, so at least we know what to do in certain situations. Like not stopping for red lights in the middle of the night in suspicious areas. We were coming home from Sun City (to see Jeff Dunham live) late at night in September, and were both cursing because the route our Navi sent us on had one gazillion traffic lights. Since we didn't know the area and that was enough to officially declare it suspicious, we skipped every single one of them and let me tell you, it was the most fun we've had in a long time!

October 5, 2010

Eskom: Absolute Power to Turn Off Your Power Whenever They so Choose

I'm actually shaking with rage as I'm writing this. My South African friends will no doubt laugh and shrug their shoulders and tell me "Welcome to Africa." Noisette tells me that at least it makes for another good story, and he's quite right. I'm grateful to you, who are reading my blog, for letting me vent for the next ten minutes, otherwise I think I might explode.

Eskom came and turned our power off today. In broad daylight. I wouldn't even have known but for Sibu's (our domestic help) quick thinking, who spotted a security guard in our driveway and went to find out what was going on.

What was going on was that there were two people from Eskom, escorted by the security guard from the main gate (who it turns out is obligated to let Eskom into the estate without notifying the tenant) who had just turned off the power at our main box in the driveway. They were actually already on their way when Sibu (who has lived through all my Eskom ordeals with me and whose outrage probably even surpasses my own) rooted them to the spot, no doubt with some salty Zulu flying out of her mouth, and ran to get me. If you've been following my blog at all, you will be able to imagine how I came flying down the stairs, six months worth of account statements and reference numbers clutched in my fist, and practically launched myself at those poor guys with all the accumulated rage over Eskom's incompetence bursting out of me. I think I might have been foaming at the mouth. 

I pride myself in my reasonableness. I tell my kids that it doesn't matter who is right or wrong but just to get on with it and solve the problem. I remind Noisette that nothing ever gets accomplished with rage, especially when directed at the wrong people. And I just told you in the last post that I should just pay the darn bill and find something better to do with my time. But when you're foaming at the mouth you are no longer all that reasonable. Here they were, turning off our power, without warning, over R700 of withheld payment that WASN'T DUE UNTIL SIX DAYS FROM NOW, when we had just paid our last bill of over R10,000, and when the reason for the withheld payment had been logged in their system for FIVE MONTHS, but no one ever called us back? What probably pissed me off the most was glimpsing their list: Neat columns of house numbers, dozens of them, some of them crossed off, where they were doing exactly the same thing. Talk about alienating your best customers. If they have crews of people to spare, they should send them into the townships and install some much-needed electricity for people who've been promised better services since the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison!

I have to say that my fury scored a partial victory. I think they knew I wasn't backing down, though what I could have really done I don't know, flung myself in front of their truck? In any case, they agreed to turn the power back on, "just this once," but admonished me that I must call THE NUMBER. Ha! What a novel idea. Wouldn't have occurred to me. But that is precisely what I did, since the hasty retreat of the utility crew left me with quite a surplus of steam needing to be vented. You will think "that poor account rep," but don't worry. If there is one thing Eskom is good at, it is training their reps in anger management skills. Their customers' anger, that is. She never once flinched when I flung our entire account history at her and she coolly informed me that my request had been forwarded to the "relevant people" in the accounts department who would get back with me in due time. This prompted me to ask, with a hint of sarcasm, for a definition of "in due time," and if it was maybe asking too much if it was less than another four months? I think she, too, perhaps sensed that I wasn't going to be appeased with another reference number, so when I asked to speak with a supervisor, she promptly put me on hold. For about half an hour. And, miracle of miracles, my complaint was finally escalated to the next customer service level, thankfully without a new reference number. The one thing she wouldn't do is remove the disconnection order from our account, but I was successful in another way: I am now the proud owner of an actual name, at an actual office address (corner Rivonia and Kort), with an actual phone number (8000 121 - though that looks like a very suspicious format), with actual visiting hours (8-4) when people can come in and bring forth their case. 

That is what I'll be doing tomorrow. Keep posted.