March 31, 2011

An Update on the Alexandra Baseball Project

Alexandra players with the old laptop I donated
Even though we don't have our equipment yet for Alexandra Baseball (shipping stuff to South Africa takes time, and, in a country that has produced Eskom, it also takes bureaucratic tenacity!), I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a status report.

A huge thank you to those of you who've helped out. We are now at over $1,800 or ZAR13,600, enough to get the equipment shipped and some more! I was stunned at the outpouring of support, first from a large number of Singaporeans - who, you should know, don't even play baseball in their country - and then from many of my friends back in the U.S. (who I had prodded to uphold our country's honor by catching up with Singapore).

This player will be happy to
receive some proper cleats!
We've also received generous donations from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa itself, making this a truly international effort.  But the most humbling moment came yesterday, when I received a donation from Japan. Someone out there, in a country so full of misery at this moment in history, was thinking of somebody else's misery and decided to help. I was stunned in the face of such generosity.

Due to the surplus in funding over and above the shipping cost, I have decided to divert some of it to enable several players and coaches to go to the Interregional Tournament, which will be held from April 3-7 in George this year. I hope this is okay with those of you who've donated. Several Alexandra players had qualified to represent the province of Gauteng, but the lack of money jeopardized their participation. They are now very excited to be packing their bags, and are hoping to get a chance to be seen by some of the MLB scouts who are sure to make an appearance. The best of luck to those players and coaches Tedius and Ron who will accompany them, and thanks again to you, my readers, to have made it possible!

Coaching and administrative staff of Alexandra Baseball

Before I forget, make sure you LIKE the ALEXANDRA BASEBALL Facebook page to keep updated about what's happening - game schedules, awards, and exciting stuff like American MLB players training with the Alex kids.

March 29, 2011

Giving Back

Bing with some kids from the Kliptown Youth Program
I know I've rallied hard in the past month for donations for the Alexandra Baseball League, and I'm very grateful for the funding we've received to date (more on that in my next post). But I'm not the only one out there, and today I wanted to give credit to my friend Bing (who was very instrumental in rallying for a large part of our donations from Singapore), who is doing admirable work collecting and distributing supplies to various programs in the poorest townships.

If you have a moment, take the time to read her blog post on "Giving Back in South Africa." It is incredibly inspiring, and you will also find that she takes great pictures! Make sure you watch the little video of a performance given to her and some other donors by a youth program in Kliptown. It always amazes me how kids who have so little can be so happy and generous with their time. It really makes you reflect on your own values in life.
Bing's donations to The Door of Hope

March 24, 2011

Strong Mothers Strong Sons

I recently took part in a parenting workshop sponsored by Dainfern College, our kids’ school. It was facilitated by Megan de Beyer, a psychologist who has run a number of these “Strong Mothers Strong Sons” courses throughout South Africa and in California.

Although expat life and parenting are strongly intertwined for me (in a sense, one has strengthened the other), I’ve put more detailed notes about this workshop on my parenting blog, Desperate Mothers, for those of you who are interested. But just as a brief overview, here are some of the main messages (in Twitter format, if you will): 

  • Love your son as a separate person and a gift to you
  • Recognize your son’s ownership for his growth
  • If you keep your eye on the problem you will continue to bump into it
  • Parenting is relationship building
  • A good relationship with his family inoculates a boy against harmful behavior
  • Stop nagging and simply be present
  • Own your emotions
  • Accept that there is a place for laziness in your son’s life
  • Create times that are free of pressure and conversations that are free of judgment
  • Families who play together and pray together will stay together
  • Your son’s natural passion and creativity has to come from within him, not from within you
  • Don’t let your ego interfere with your parenting
  • Be honest about what you’re raising your child to be

To read the entire article, click here.

Note: Megan de Beyer will be back in Johannesburg for another Strong Mothers Strong Sons workshop 10-13th June 2011 at St.Stithians. Please contact her directly at if you are interested in attending.

March 23, 2011

Not all eTickets are Created Equal!

"Can I have your credit card?"

This can't be good. I can see Noisette's face falling. We are standing at the South African Airways (SAA) check-in counter at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, on our way to a weekend getaway to Victoria Falls. Until a minute ago our spirits were great - a perfect cup of cappuccino this morning, kids all delivered to different friends, no traffic on the way to the airport - but now there seems to be a problem. Our e-tickets were booked using our American Express credit card, which Noisette - planner of all planners - didn't bring. And now the agent wants to swipe it. We offer her our whole range of different credit cards, South African and otherwise, but alas, she insists on Amex. We are sent to the ticket office, where we join another line.

My overriding feeling at this moment is not annoyance or anger - those are my dear husband's territory anyway - but relief. I am SO glad I wasn't the one who forgot the card (or rather failed to take note that it was even needed)! Whew! What's done is done, I am thinking, what do we do now?

Buy new tickets, it turns out. You can't just transfer existing tickets to a new card, which in my mind is as easy as pie. Remember, this is South African bureaucracy we're dealing with! So, to all you expats in South Africa out there, I give this advice: When you're travelling and booked your flights on an e-ticket, always, ALWAYS remember to bring the credit card you booked the ticket with! In fact, this is true in most situations. South African merchants insist on swiping your card due to all the fraud they encounter. For most of your online shopping you need an extra password to be registered with your bank (see ATypical Day in Africa for the intricacies of that), but that only works for South African credit cards. International cards always need to be swiped. We are so used to air travel in the U.S., where all you ever need is your driver's license to check in, that we forgot. Or, actually, it wouldn't have been a problem there, because one of us would actually have had the Amex card on us, but here in South Africa, afraid of crime (though nothing has ever happened to us), we have taken unneeded cards out of our wallets. The point is, we should have foreseen this problem.

We have no choice but to buy two entirely new tickets (at least they are the same price) and accept the agent's claim that we can obtain a refund via for the old ones, minus some vague cancellation penalty. The fact that he will not look into our eyes while he tells us this is not very reassuring. Noisette is fuming - partly because he is mad about the additional R4,500 expense, and, in equal proportion, because he can't blame anyone else. But I glance at him brightly and chirp: "Don't worry honey, it was much cheaper than a set of new tires for my car!"

By the way, I have been on hold with SAA the entire time I've typed this. My only success so far was to be given a new number which I was promptly disconnected from.

March 20, 2011

Expat Tips - Pool Care

So after months of preparations and paperwork you've finally arrived in your beautiful new house in South Africa. The sun is shining and your new pool is sparkling blue. But not for long if you don't take care of it! Trust me, I speak from experience. Our pool has gone through many stages of green, and not many things are actually quite so distressing as a green pool, even if it is winter and no one is swimming in it. We are one of those families who had never had a pool before, and I've learned quite a bit in the pool care department over the last year. So I thought I'd give you a few pool maintenance tips.

What a well-maintained pool should look like

    This pool needs attention - overflow not circulating
    back into pool, barracuda hose has come loose, and
    a good dose of chlorine is needed
  • If you have any choice in the matter (most likely there are too many other factors when picking a house), avoid pools with overhanging trees or grasses. Also, rimless pools with an overflow look stunning but are a pain to clean up, since your pool cleaner does not cover the overflow area. They also cool the water down more quickly. If you have small kids, make sure your pool is covered with a net (or insist that your landlord installs one).

  • Consider hiring a pool service and ask your neighbors to get recommendations. The cost will range from R500-R700 per month. There are many garden services that will also maintain your pool. However, I've found that those services are great with the weekly visits, but not so responsive when you have an emergency. When your pool is turning green, you want to fix it quickly, not in four days, so I think you need to learn the basics of pool maintenance yourself (and then you don't really need to pay for your pool service). If you decide to take care of your pool yourself, you will soon develop a feel for what it needs at any given time.

  • Have your landlord explain the pool pump to you. It has a timer that's fairly easy to understand, it has an on/off switch for the pump (maybe two pumps if you have an overflow like we do), and it has what looks like a large lever on top that you can lift and turn to various positions (like filtration or backwash) which I'll explain later.

Pool pump set to "filtration" (where it normally is)

  • Make sure your pool cleaner - often referred to as Kreepy Krauly or Barracuda, which is the vacuum thing moving across the bottom and sides of your pool - is in good working order, and the hoses it is attached to don't have any holes. There should be a lot of suction and it should rhythmically creep along. When we first moved in, our cleaner would frequently stop for no reason, until we discovered a crucial part was missing and the hoses were leaky, causing it to lose suction. We now have a Zodiac Pacer  and it has been running like a charm.


  • Program your pool pump so it runs a sufficient amount of time during the day, when the sun is the hottest and algae growth the fastest. We have ours run about 8 hours a day during summer, from about 8:30 to 4:30, and as little as 2-3 hours a day during winter. It's pretty much a function of temperature. If you have a solar heater (I highly recommend having one installed if you don't - for a one-time cost of R14000, which we split with our landlord, we've been able to add 6-7 degrees Celsius for a summertime temperature of about 30 degrees) you will want to run your pump while the sun is shining.

  • Your pool should also have a floater in it, which you can buy anywhere, like Pick 'n Pay or Builder's Warehouse, for around R50. Some are better than others, so I wouldn't buy the very cheapest brand. You can twist the bottom of the floater from a smaller to a larger opening, thus releasing the chlorine faster. We usually have ours on the largest opening, but we also have a large pool. A smaller one will be sufficient for a smaller pool. In summer, we've been running through a floater in 3-4 weeks. You will know when it is empty when it starts tilting to the side.

  • Also equip yourself with a big bucket of chlorine and perhaps a testing kit or just test strips. There are pool supply stores like Brandon's Pool Care (Leaping Frog Shopping Centre near Fourways) where you can have your water tested and get every chemical imaginable (I once walked away with at least 10 kg of bottles, sachets, and tablets, together with 2 pages of step-by-step instructions). But just know that at the end of the day it all comes down to chlorine. It's not rocket science. Especially during summer, the chlorine released from the floater might not be enough, so you'll have to add about a cup every week, sprinkling it slowly along the edge of the pool. After it rains, or whenever the pool doesn't look sparkling clean to you (like I said, you'll develop an eye for this), add another cup. If your pool has already turned green, shock it by adding six cups. Let the pump run for several hours after you've added chlorine to your pool.

  • If your pool has an overflow, clean it once a week. Scrub it well with a brush attached to a pole, then wait an hour or so for the dirt to settle on the bottom (or you can do the scrubbing the night before).Turn off the pump, remove the barracuda from the end of the hose, extend the hose with another link if necessary, and plug it into the sweeper attachment at the end of a long pole (which you can also get at Builder's Warehouse; in fact, you can pretty much get anything at Builder's Warehouse, including Boerewors hot off the grill or even your very own plumber looking for a job). Take care not to get much air into the hose during this process or you will lose suction, which is a pain to get back. Then turn the pump on again and slowly sweep along the bottom of the overflow. You won't need to sweep your actual pool if you have a barracuda, as the barracuda will perform this very function automatically.

Sweeper attachment

  • Backwash and rinse your pool once a week. You best do this on the same day every week, so as not to forget. Turn off your pump, shift the lever to "backwash," turn the pump back on and run it for about 2 minutes (some pumps have a little clear tube on the side where you can see the water flowing through, and you will want to backwash until the water is running clear). Turn off the pump again, shift the lever to "rinse," and run 1 minute. This process will remove dirt particles that are caught in your filtration sand and prevent it from becoming clogged.

Pump set to "backwash"

pump set to "rinse"

  • Every once in a blue moon, check the basket in the weir (the place at the side of the pool where the barracuda hose is attached) and clean it out. You'll be amazed to find some long-lost items. If your pool has an overflow (in case you haven't yet realized what a pain an overflow is), you might have to clean out the filter that is built into the separate circuit pumping overflow water back into the pool. Ours frequently gets clogged up with grass and small leaves and there are times where I have to unscrew and take apart the entire filter and spray it out with the hose (usually getting myself soaked in the process) several times a week. You will know it's clogged when the overflow is, well, not overflowing.

Filter for overflow pump
Clogged filter
Clean filter

  • Don't forget to swim in your pool and enjoy it! Even if you're a chicken like my when it comes to cold water, you'll have worked up such a sweat from all the scrubbing and cleaning that you'll happily dive in.

    Seemed like a good idea...
    ...but revenge followed on the spot!

    Life could be worse!

    All this probably sounds more complicated than it is. Once you develop a routine, your pool maintenance should take almost no time. I actually find pool cleaning therapeutic! I usually scrub the overflow Sunday nights (or, I should say, I subcontract this task to one of the boys), once everyone is done with a weekend full of swimming . On Monday mornings, before the pump has even started running, I'll vacuum the overflow, backwash and rinse, hose out the overflow filter, and add chlorine if needed (both to the pool and overflow). Takes me less than 20 minutes and my reward is to look down at a freshly sparkling pool all day as I'm sitting at my desk writing expat advice blog posts.

    March 17, 2011

    From Zimbabwe to Atlanta

    When Noisette and I recently travelled back to the US, our itinerary brought as through the Atlanta airport. We hadn't been there in a long time and traded fond memories of our international student days, where every year, upon our return from Christmas in Germany, a huge portrait of the Braves' Terry Pendleton would greet us right outside immigration. His smiling face under a baseball helmet was to us the symbol of the United States.

    But this time an entirely different sight greeted us: Beautiful stone sculptures, one after the other along those interminable walks from one gate to the next. They made us feel right at home, since they were from Zimbabwe, a country we are now, as epxats in Johannesburg, neighbors with. A lot of this Zimbabwean art is on display in Joburg, either in art galleries or along the road.

    What I liked about the exhibition in Atlanta was the story attached to each piece, explaining what the artist was trying to express as well as his biography. It made the art come alive. Here, you just go and buy one of those statues from a guy you mostly haggle about price with, but you know nothing about the artist (he might be the same guy, for all I know).  Of course, the upshot is that here you are likely to pay a fraction of what it would cost in Europe or the US. Take a look at the Atlanta International Airport Zimbabwe Sculpture exhibition and then compare it to our latest acquisition below, which we just found a new home for in our yard. Maybe you'll start wanting to place orders with me!

    March 15, 2011

    Fried Rice in South Africa via Singapore

    What I love about living in South Africa is the truly international group of friends we've made (in addition to all the wonderful South Africans). I can go out for coffee and have flavors of Spain, Austria, Kenya, Turkey, Holland, England, Belgium, America, and Germany in my conversation. And, thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Bing, I can now have flavors of Singapore in my food!

    We had recently talked (over coffee of course) about all the things I loved about Singapore (we lived there from 1998 to 2000), and when the conversation soon turned to food I mentioned Chinese Sausage, which she told me is called "Lap Cheong" or 臘腸 (I hope that's right). Zax used to absolutely love fried rice with this sweet-tasting sausage in it and still talks about it to this day. So Bing said she'd bring me some back from her next trip to Singapore, which she promptly did, and after our  next coffee about a month later I was the proud owner of a package of Lap Cheong.

    You have to submerge the sausages in boiling water for a few minutes so that you can peel off the skin

    So I made fried rice with it last weekend, armed with Bing's helpful instructions. I didn't get off to a good start, however, on the most basic part of it: cooking the rice. In my defense, I've cooked rice millions of time and never had a problem, but I usually cook it while cooking something else in the kitchen, which helps me watch the rice. This time, however, I wanted to do it the correct way and use overnight rice that is nice and dry. So I got it started, left the kitchen to read the newspaper on the patio, and promptly forgot about it. About half an hour later, Noisette and I were wondering why there was a smell of roasted coffee present, but it still took me another 10 minutes to go and check my kitchen, where it turns out severely burned rice does produce an odor similar to roasted coffee. Needless to say, I had to make new rice and my arms got exercised very well that day from all the scrubbing.

    Try to use very dry ingredients so that your rice does not get soggy
    I enlisted some help in the kitchen

    What a wonderful meal we enjoyed that evening. And a nice break from Boerewors, Biltong and Rusks. Thank you Bing! 

    March 12, 2011

    School, Leadership, and the Power of One Man's Words

    Having lived as an expat family in South Africa for a year, we have been very happy with our choice of school. Whereas I've previously written about the pros and cons of South African schools versus international ones, today I just want to sing the praise of our kids' school here in Johannesburg, Dainfern College.

    It's not so much a matter of South African versus International, IB vs Matric, or even Private vs Public (though it does probably help if you're not so much constrained by test scores and government mandates). Like in any successful organization, it's a matter of good leadership, and Dainfern College has plenty of that.

    Our kids seem to have more of a purpose, sort of a glimpse into the future and what they want to become. I've never before had such a strong sense of why we're sending our kids to school, and it doesn't actually have much to do with academics. Yes, you send your kids to school because that's what's done, but here I actually want my kids to go to this particular school and can't wait to see how they come home each day and how they've grown in subtle ways. And the funny thing is, they are more relaxed than ever before, with less stress and more free time.

    Founder's Day 2010 at Dainfern College

    How is this possible? I'm sure there are many reasons, like a powerful vision for the future versus a mechanical adherence to curriculum, a sense of community between the prep school and the high school, the focus on well-rounded students and life skills, the involvement of the headmasters who are walking the grounds every day, encouraging the students, all of whom they know by name, etc. etc. But to me what stands out most in terms of bringing it all together are the weekly assemblies and other occasions where the entire school is addressed.

    We don't go to church very often, but a Dainfern College assembly always has me walking home with a new sense of purpose and satisfaction, like you would after a good sermon. Whether a motivational speaker is brought in or the kids perform a skit, there's always something to make you feel good, some message to reflect upon, and lots of singing. Most often it will be Mr. Webb, the senior prep headmaster, telling you a story that will make you laugh or cry but most certainly reflect upon a value like working hard, being kind, or not giving up. And, unlike church, you will not drift off, because he is talking about your kids, the most interesting topic on the planet to any parent. Assemblies are completely optional for parents, of course, but you'll find yourself wanting to go to more rather than less if you're a parent at our school (unless you get put on the spot by the headmaster and must come up with something you're thankful for in front of 400 people).

    And the messages are getting through to the children. Last week Tuesday, the eve before the start of Lent, Impatience was talking about what she wanted to give up for the next six weeks. Mind you, our family of one Catholic and five Lutherans has never before observed Lent, though we have talked about maybe someday perhaps wanting to try it, at a convenient time. But Impatience, it turns out, had listened intently to Mr. Webb at assembly that morning, who had talked about the idea of Lent, probably not so much in a religious sense but from the perspective of appreciating what we have (I wasn't actually there but I can hear it in my mind). By the end of dinner, our little 10-year old girl had convinced a teenage brother to give up Xbox and a father (by name of Noisette!) to give up chocolate, all in all six of us who would give up something dear to us. I'm not claiming we'll all be successful, but so far we've mastered four days.

    If one man's words can change six people's behavior for at least four days, surely they have the power to change the world.

    Dainfern College - beautiful grounds

    Sports at Dainfern College

    Interhouse Swim Gala 2011

    For more information on Dainfern College, also see this article in Independent Education.

    March 10, 2011

    Getting Closer on Alexandra Boys' Dream

    Slowly but surely we are getting there, with the help of so many of you. Thanks to all of you who have already donated to support the baseball league in Alexandra! We now have close to ZAR 5,000 (about $700) and I only need ZAR 2,000 more to pay for the shipment of the bats, helmets, gloves, and catching gear donated to us by Pitch in for Baseball. If I can find just 20 more donors for $10-$20 each, it will be enough!

    Last Sunday I went to a game played by the U16 team. As you can see above, they are a happy bunch. Even though they looked a bit ragtag with their mismatching socks and belts, they were the better team that day and won handily against the Marks Parks Mustangs, 12-7. I saw some excellent pitching, batting, catching, and base running (the latter a bit too aggressive for my heart rate but it worked very well most of the time).

    This pitcher is one of the provincial players we're trying to
    get sponsored for a tournament in George

    You can't imagine how wonderful it was to see a baseball game again! Yes, we've actually given cricket a chance and I've dropped my somewhat condescending attitude towards it, but do you know what's really missing in a cricket game? The satisfying "plop" of a ball caught in a mitt, and the "dzingg" of a ball well  hit. Those were the wonderful noises greeting me as I arrived at the game when the kids were warming up.

    Warming up - I was too busy taking pictures, but will join the fray for sure next time!
    High Fives in the dugout
    What probably thrilled these kids the most last Sunday was the small following they suddenly had: Myself, three of my four kids (whom I admit I'd bribed with a trip to McDonald's on the way), and my friend Bing from Singapore with her husband, who also came to take pictures and wrote a story on her blog. You have to remember that they usually have NO ONE watching their games. Every Sunday, the coaches scratch together some money for a taxi, which most likely is crammed to the hilt way over the legal limit (I wouldn't be surprised if both the U13 and U16 team that day had come in one taxi), and take the kids to game day, where they often will also have to come up with some food for the players if the different games stretch over the entire day. There is almost no parental support. However, as Coach Tedius Ncube assures me, if we can cause a bit of a stir and show that this team is good and has some legitimacy beyond Alexandra, more support in the local community will follow.

    I hope I've inspired you to support our cause. A small donation will go a long way, but there are other ways to support the Alexandra boys. You might have equipment at home that you're no longer using, or, if you live here in Johannesburg, you might be able to come cheer at a game. I'll be posting a game schedule on my blog when I have it.

    Coach Tedius, the engine behind this club, with one of the players

    You might also want to read: Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township.

    March 9, 2011

    Stone Art from Zimbabwe

    This is another ode to South African street vendors (see previous post about the iPhone skin). Remember my story some time back of  the dresser with wicker baskets that I ordered from a street vendor? And the metal birds? That entire market, on a street corner in Bryanston where Main splits from William Nicol, is run by industrious Zimbabweans, who I've found extremely trustworthy and easy to work with, and they offer fabulous prices.

    They also sell beautiful stone statues, one of which Noisette gave me for Christmas. Or rather, given that this is Noisette who thinks of Christmas present exactly two days before Christmas, he didn't quite give me a statue but a certificate for one. We went and looked at what they had, and both liked the figure of three women, sort of abstract. But we liked another kind of stone better, and a statue where some of it would remain rough, not polished, and before we knew it we had placed an order for the statue how we pictured it.

    March 8, 2011

    Traffic Update

    This just in: The robot at William Nicol and Broadacres coming out from Dainfern is now fully functional!

    I like to chalk it up to my persistent efforts to complain, but of course it might also be pure coincidence. After all, it was out (or, like I said, half out) for over three weeks.

    Anyway, my latest action in this regard was to send a letter to the editor to one of the local newspapers, The Star, I think it was Friday last week (see email and response below). They, in turn, promptly replied to me that they had forwarded my letter to the Joburg Roads Agency, and I was slightly annoyed by that, as I had wanted them to print my letter, not forward it to the very people who had already not been responsive. However, maybe a complaint coming from a newspaper carries slightly more weight? And I'm glad to see that South African newspapers seem to be very prompt and responsive. Like I said, it did the trick, and the traffic light was working again by the following Monday.

    Coincidence or not, I'm happy we can now all drive a little more safely (though not any faster, as witnessed in these photos).

    Typical morning rush hour in Johannesburg

    Minibus taxi passing us on the left shoulder and squeezing back in

    Ample time for snapshots while stuck in traffic - love this recycling concept!

    My correspondence with the Star:

    From: Sine Thieme 
    Sent: 04 March 2011 11:38
    To: starnews
    Subject: Letter to the editor: Broken Robots
    How can Johannesburg call itself a “World Class City” when the average driver goes through at least three broken robots on any given day?

    There is a robot coming out from Dainfern onto William Nicol that has been “half” broken for almost a month. One side shows green while the cross traffic’s light is out, then the cross traffic’s light turns green while your light turns off. No repair crew, nor any police to direct traffic, has ever shown up.

    Needless to say, this is extremely dangerous. You can’t have robots with green on one side and NOT RED on the other. I almost got hit by a car there yesterday while trying to turn onto William Nicol. When I called Joburg Connect to report the robot, the person on the other line was extremely unhelpful. It took three tries to even report the robot, but of course no one could tell me if and when it would be fixed.

    Surely a “World Class City” would have a better system and act more quickly to protect citizens and visitors alike?

    Sine Thieme

    Sent: Friday, March 04, 2011 11:46 AM
    Subject: FW: Letter to the editor: Broken Robots

    Dear Sine

    We have forwarded your complaint to Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA).
    Please let us know of the progress or the lack thereof.

    Kind regards

    Yasmin Palani & Anna Cox