April 29, 2011

Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa

One of the hassles most expats have to endure is having to buy a car in an entirely new country. Some expats might decide to skip the car and do with public transport, but South Africa is not the place for that. You will need a car here, trust me. And buying it won’t be the quickest or easiest thing you've ever done, so it’s best to come prepared. Here is my story to learn from:


When the kids and I first arrived in Johannesburg, I fully expected to find a shiny new car in the garage. After all, Noisette had already been here for months, and I consider car-buying to be “guy territory.” But, sadly, this was not the case. Things don’t move that quickly in South Africa, and he hadn't even gotten his own company car yet, driving a beat-up Toyota rental instead. If you’re the trailing spouse, my advice to you: Don’t rely on your better half to have set up much – he or she will be incredibly busy with a demanding and time-consuming new job with many challenges most previous jobs will not have prepared them for. You’ll be lucky if you've already got a place to live. However, most companies employ one or more drivers, so in our case I made use of that service quite a bit before I inherited aforementioned Toyota.

The first challenge of buying a car in South Africa is paying for it. Car prices are about twice as high on average as in the United States, so you best adjust your expectations. What’s more, the market is not quite as big, so once you've settled on a car you like, you might not be able to find one. Check some used car websites (like Autotrader) early to get a better idea of what’s out there. One thing to look for when car-shopping is smash-and-grab protection. It’s a film that protects your windshield and windows against being smashed in, and most higher-end cars will come already equipped with it. But if not, you can add it later. It’s a good thing to have if you're concerned about security and crime in South Africa.

The second challenge of buying a car is coming up with the actual money for it. You might not have a bank account yet, in which case you would need a bank draft made out in ZAR. But it's a good idea to set up a local bank account as one of your first items to do, and this might be a good time to do it. I'll be talking about the details of bank accounts some other time, but rest assured it will involve a bunch of documents - passport with residence permit, lease agreement, etc. You'll need all those as well when registering your car, which is what I'll talk about in a minute.

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Let’s say you found a car and have money in your bank account to pay for it – what next? In most places I’ve lived, you would now meet at the bank with the seller, transfer the title to the car in return for the money, and drive away. But not so fast. Here in South Africa, there is no such thing as a title. Rather, you get a “Certificate of Registration” when registering your car, but this takes some time, and most people obtain it later, after purchasing the car. This caused a bit of confusion for us, because we – my husband, mostly – were not about to hand over a stack of money without receiving some kind of document in return. Our car dealer assured us that this is how it’s done in South Africa. And, in hindsight, that is absolutely true. But we were new in the country, and still trying to figure things out. People who were trying to be helpful, like colleagues and relocation agents, instead gave us our first glimpse into South Africa's racial tensions. "Don't trust those Indians in Benoni" was the exact phrase that was used, several times, because our car dealer whom we'd found online happened to be located in Benoni, a historically Indian suburb of Joburg. I know this sounds incredibly offensive, but I want to give you the story as it happened. When you're about to hand over several hundred thousand rand, you are not going to just brush away a warning, no matter how insensitive. [Though I quite pride myself in mostly doing just that, in multiple instances while living in South Africa, or I would never have ventured into Alexandra. As it turned out, I DID buy the car from "the Indians in Benoni," Dadas Motorland to be exact, was quite happy with it for three years, and I'm glad to give them a free reference here.]

So, in hindsight, if you’re purchasing from a car dealership, you can go ahead and pay them, get the car in return, and let them then handle all your paperwork without worry.

But there is one thing you still have to do it in person, and that's applying for a Traffic Register Number. Foreign nationals need this number in lieu of a South African ID, a fact that some car dealerships are not aware of. Basically, the dealer you are buying from (I assume this is fairly similar for buying a new car) should provide you with the following:

  • Roadworthiness certificate
  • Current registration
  • Invoice/your proof of payment
  • New license plates

But before getting the new license plates, you will have to appear in person at your closest Licensing Department - most likely the Randburg Civic Centre if you live anywhere in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg (Corner Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue in Randburg) but here is a list of all Licensing Offices in Johannesburg) - to apply for your Traffic Register Number or TRN as well as the Certificate of Registration. I'm told that as of recently, TRN applications can only be made on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 10:00 am at the Randburg licensing office. It’s best to go first thing in the morning and make sure you bring your lease agreement, passport, passport pictures, and foreign drivers’ license. The application process will take a few days, meaning you will have to go there again (on the Friday following the Wednesday) to pick up your certificates, at which time the transfer of ownership can take place. Once again, the car dealership might offer to apply for the Certificate of Registration on your behalf, but since you'll still need the Traffic Register Number, you might as well do both at the same time. I hope I'm not confusing you. Don’t be discouraged if the lines are long. Most people will be there for a drivers’ license renewal or something of that sort, and you should be whisked right through to the car registration counter.

Your Certificate of Registration for your car will look like this;
you will get a second, similar copy, from which you cut out
the round registration disk for your windshield.

In our case, this experience was pretty comical (only in hindsight of course – while you’re experiencing these things you tend to curse and foam at the mouth). Once we had found a car we liked – about 2 weeks – and then finally determined that we needed to get it registered before handing over any money – another week – I set out for the Licensing Department in Randburg, armed with all my paperwork. Or so I thought, until I discovered that a passport picture would be needed. Fortunately, some enterprising street vendors were at hand – as they are everywhere in South Africa – and beckoned me to a tent-like office where a picture could be taken and printed out instantaneously for R20. Armed with this I went back to my queue and proceeded to fill in the lengthy application. I eventually advanced to the inner sanctum where a very bored-looking woman took all my papers and proceeded to enter everything into a computer. Eventually she wanted to see my passport, but after a quick glance handed everything back to me and told me it was no good, she couldn’t give me the traffic register number. What? After all this hassle? It turns out that you can’t get a TRN – which, you’ll remember, is the key ingredient in getting the car registered – if you don’t have a permanent visa. My temporary one was no good. [Note: I have since learned that even a 2-year accompanying spouse visa is no good, the work permit holder is the one who will have to get the car registered, so save yourself the trouble if you're only the spouse].

Please note that you are never told these things upfront in South Africa. No one ever gives you a list with every single requirement. Instead you show up with what was mentioned over the phone, get sent home again because something that wasn’t mentioned is missing, and show up a few days later with the missing one, only to be told that now something else is required as well. Please also note the irony of driving back and forth between home and the licensing office when what you don’t actually have is a car

But there was nothing to do for me but to grab a new form, take it home to Noisette and somehow convince him to drive to Randburg through morning traffic and wait in line on my behalf – all another week’s worth of time gone by. But I was still lucky in that he had his permanent visa, whereas many expats arrive here without them, in which case they are stuck without a car. I have heard many such tales. And if you think hanging out at the Randburg Licensing Office is no fun, wait till you stalk the Department of Home Affairs for days or even weeks! 

Traffic Register Number Certificate; note that you only have
to apply for this once, it will be valid to purchase as many cars
as you wish; it's also a good idea to keep a copy in your car.

So, your number one requirement, if you want to purchase a car in South Africa, is to have at least one permanent visa together with a work permit in your family’s possession. Which is why I keep telling you to get your permanent visas as soon as possible!

Once you’ve purchased your car, stuck your license plates on, and affixed the round disk you’ve cut out from the registration certificate to the inside of your windshield (which by the way is renewable every year but you will get a notice in the mail for that), you will still need two things: Insurance and a tracking service. Most insurance companies will insure your vehicle over the phone according to the make of the car, and then follow up with an at-home visit to make sure you actually own a car and aren’t buying phantom insurance. They will also most likely require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar (about R180 per month).

I hope my tips will help you buy a car in less time than the month it took us. But remember, this is Africa, and things move a bit slower here. On the bright side, the one thing you won’t need to get is a drivers’ license. Your foreign license is perfectly fine as long as it is valid. I still haven’t been able to track down the exact wording of this rule, let alone where it might be written, but it seems to be true, as I’ve been stopped by police several times and my eclectic collection of Kansas/international/German licenses seemed to work every time. There you have one less errand to run that might have been on your moving checklist!

Check out the other car-related posts:

Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa
Tips on Selling a Car in South Africa
Expat Tip: Always Keep a Tire Lock Nut in your Car
Should I Get a South African Driver's License?
Six Things to Know about Renewing your Vehicle License Disk
Finding a Good Car Insurance
Getting Your Car Serviced in South Africa

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April 27, 2011

HP Service in South Africa

HP Pavilion
Elite e9220y
One of the nice things about writing your own blog is that you can write reviews about pretty much anything and broadcast them to the world - or at least the world of your readership, which admittedly in my case is still a fairly small world. But I do have an audience and would like to take this opportunity to give a big thumbs up to the great service I received from HP here in South Africa.

We have a HP Desktop computer we brought here from the US, and a few days ago it refused to boot up. Just sat there and did nothing. I admit I might have had a hand in this development, because I unplugged it during the last thunderstorm, afraid it would be hit by lightening, and since I was in a hurry getting out of the house, I just pulled the cord without a proper shutdown.

So I searched my way through HP online help options that weren't very helpful, only to discover that the computer in question is out of warranty and no online help - not even via chat with somebody in Bangalore - would be forthcoming. I did, however, find a customer service center near Joburg somewhere in Midrand, and today I packed up the computer and - I am now a pro at those things - my Kindle and went there to try my luck.

What a pleasant surprise! After going through the obligatory queuing period (there were chairs, and I was actually looking forward to the quiet half hour of reading time) I stated my problem, encountered some hemming and hawing as to what the cause might be and whether HP could even solve it, but eventually I was waved through to the inner sanctum of sorts, where two very relaxed guys were busy fixing up computers. Their eyes lit up upon glancing at my computer and they practically drooled over how nice it was. Here I thought computers were pretty much the same all over the world, but our "fancy model from America" clearly stood out above and beyond typical African HP-ware!

I stated my problem again, encountered some more doubts having to do with the fact that our Windows CDs for that computer are missing (lost in the move!) so that if a new hard drive was needed it would be impossible to get Windows reinstalled without the original disks, but eventually they plugged it in, ran some tests, then a recovery utiltiy, vacuumed it out, wiped it clean, and handed it back to me. Just some software problem in the boot drive that was now fixed. I never had to fill out any forms (or produce my passport copy, for that matter) nor pay any money, just walked out of there with my computer working again. What's more, I had barely made it to my car, when one of the guys came running after me and handed me a power cord. It wasn't mine, but he insisted I take it anyway, "just in case." He had noticed I only had a power cord fitting into a US outlet, and wanted to make sure it would work properly here in South Africa.

Maybe my expectations are a bit low after a year's worth of haggling with Eskom over my power bill, but I was pretty impressed by that service. It's not that I'll urge you to now buy a Pavilion Elite from HP. In fact, I always thought it was bit finicky and it may well decide to give up on us after all. But companies that provide good service are good companies to do business with, and HP South Africa totally made that list for me today!

April 25, 2011

Egyptian Geese

I find it amusing that back home we had Canadian geese, and they were a nuisance because they pooped all over the golf courses. Here in South Africa, you have Egyptian geese living on all the golf courses, and they are just as much of a pain.

Different goose, same difference. Just blame a country from the North for the invasion.

This Egyptian goose looked very out of place on our rooftop

April 23, 2011

Expat Joys - Variety and Life Skills

I had trouble pinpointing a good title for this one, as it encompasses so much of the expat experience. I could have also called it "gaining perspective."  What I mean to convey is the following:

If you'd told me two years ago that we'd have to give up the kids' baseball and basketball in exchange for netball, field hockey, and cricket, I would have been crestfallen. It would have sounded like the end of the world to me. Our American lives were so permeated with those sports that it seemed unimaginable that there could be any meaningful life without them. My message to all of you: There is! And do you know what? It feels liberating.

Let's face it, most of our kids won't be professional athletes. So why are we so hung up that they get onto the gold glove baseball team, that they get to pitch in every game, that they get to play point guard, that they continue every breathing minute of their lives with that sport so as not to fall behind their peers? If we're honest with ourselves, is it  not often our own ambition that drives a lot of that? (I've explored a bit of that trap in my Strong Mothers Strong Sons analysis.)
In reality, what our kids will need most later in life is the ability to adapt quickly and to learn new skills, and that is exactly what has happened to us here. They were inserted into an entirely new school system, having no clue where to go and what to do for the first few weeks. They had to learn entirely new sports where they started off way behind their peers - I mean, the average American kid has never held a cricket bat in his life! - but  have since then accumulated quite a few "most improved player" awards, boosting their egos. I remember how I was outraged - and I mean OUTRAGED - the first week of school when I discovered the girls weren't allowed to join the school soccer team (boys only) and marched myself to the principal's office without delay. I often recall what he told us that day: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." While that may sound arrogant, I've come to truly appreciate that advice - and the opinions of our principal - over the last year. I still think gender discrimination is wrong, but there is enough else on offer that I didn't feel the need to pursue that battle.


So we've done as the Romans - or rather, South Africans - do, or at least tried to. Basketball and baseball are off the table, and instead the kids are now invested in  netball, cricket, field hockey, horse riding, scuba diving, swimming, tennis, and (boys) soccer, as well as singing, marimbas, piano, saxophone, and flute. Not that sports and music are the only areas in life where you acquire new skills. They are just a good example for our experience here.

But acquiring new skills is only part of the equation. I'd also venture to state that everyone in our family is happier than before. I know I am happier as I'm no longer driving around town like crazy for any of this, as it is all done through the school, and the kids are probably happier too because I'm no longer giving "useful" hints on how to improve their skills. I may still yell "get the rebound" during a netball match, but I usually quickly shush when everyone is staring at me like I'm from a different planet.Which I might as well be when it comes to cricket. I no longer feel compelled to drag Jabulani to batting clinics and such to improve his game, as we did with baseball back in the U.S., because cricket merely feels like a pastime, while baseball was serious business. Why? It's just our mindset.I finally feel like I can truly enjoy watching whatever the kids are doing, but I had to move across an ocean and see our lives disrupted in many ways before I could unlearn my old obsessive habits.



Finally, if you've been reading this blog from the beginning, you will know that I've become much more relaxed - often by necessity, but still - about life in general. This is Africa, but it's not a pain, it's a gift.

Turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective.


Entire Expat Joys series:


April 21, 2011

It's Not a Strike, it's a Toi Toi

Courtesy of The Epoch Times
I'm reminded that we've lived in South Africa for just over a year, because the garbage workers are on strike again. Remember my trash odyssey last year? First the disappearing trash can, then my trek to the police to get a document to affirm that it was stolen so that I could get a new one delivered? And, at precisely the moment I finally got the new trash bin, the strike started. We were drowning in trash for weeks.

Well, it's that time of year again and garbage bins are overflowing everywhere. Nothing has really changed, except my attitude. Whereas last year I was on the phone trying to get to the bottom of such a disruption of life as I knew it, this year I just glance at the trash can in the driveway, take note that it has still not been emptied, and shrug my shoulders. I honestly can't summon that feeling of stress from last year. It did get emptied eventually, didn't it?

Garbage collectors on strike in Johannesburg
That's what a year in South Africa will do to you. Maybe we're in danger of becoming too relaxed if we stay here much longer and won't be able to cope with US-style efficiency and workaholism when we return?

Courtesy of BBC News
But talking about strikes makes me want to share what I've learned about this art form - and it is indeed an art here - in South Africa, which is rich in its history of striking workers. After all, strikes were one of the main (and often only) conduits for Africans in this country to try and effect change during the apartheid years, and they've got it down to a science. Unfortunately for the current government, a population used to striking doesn't just stop overnight, even if many of the injustices are gone. Strikes are a regular occurrence around here and can be very disruptive. Last year, striking teachers and hospital workers caused schools to close for weeks and patients to be turned away at hospitals, all because the 7% wage increase offered by the government (and way above inflation during a time of recession) wasn't satisfactory to the unions. But students themselves are just as prone to strike, or regular people demanding a bigger housing allowance, pretty much anyone with any kind of grievance.

Courtesy of Sulekha.com

If you see a strike in South Africa, however, you can't but admire the strikers. That's because they are not just on strike, they Toi Toi. One day I was shopping at Pick 'n Pay and heard beautiful singing drifting towards me, and when I went to investigate I saw a crowd of about 30 people ambling through the store, everyone clad in red t-shirts and clapping and swaying while singing the most inspiring song (South Africa's National Anthem arose from one such battle hymn sung regularly by ANC members). It almost had a religious feel to it, and when I asked an employee what was going on, I was very startled to hear that these were just striking workers. This is so typical South Africa to me: Taking something that is rather nasty and dull, like a strike, and turning it into something beautiful.

It's hard to explain a Toi Toi until you've seen one. Watch this video to get an idea. It's a bit lengthy, but the interview with the one guy is pretty hilarious too.

April 19, 2011

What to Do in Joburg

If you're an expat in Johannesburg, no doubt you've had (or, trust me, will have) your fair share of visitors. Isn't it funny how your friends and relatives were horror-struck at the thought of your family moving to Crime Mekka, but then couldn't wait to purchase tickets to visit you there? I think we expats as a group have single-handedly done more for South Africa's goodwill abroad than the entire World Cup!

Anyway, what you need for when your visitors arrive on your doorstep is a good list:

What to see and do around Joburg - shopping, art, museums, amusement parks, safari, evening entertainment, sports, what to do with kids, what to do without kids. My list is ever-growing, which is good, because some visitors are already booked in for the second time! 

So here it is, and if you need more information on any of these activities, you can always check the "Around Joburg" tab at the top of this page.

VibeScout
Are you a visitor or expat in Johannesburg and looking for authentic local experiences such as food markets, art exhibitions, nightlife, or live music events, rather than the traditional tourist activities? Check out VibeScout, an easy free entertainment guide for most of the events happening all over Joburg and other areas. Read more about What to do in Johannesburg with VibeScout...

Northcliff Hill
A great place to take visitors for a spectacular view of the Johannesburg skyline is the top of Northcliff Hill, and it's absolutely free. You can reach it by car, or you can park further down and walk up through leafy streets taking a peek at some of Joburg's older and more expensive homes. Read more...
Gold Reef City
A Disney World type amusement park with rides for the entire family, ranging from Kiddies Corner for your toddler to the Tower of Terror for your teenager, and everything in between. It's a perfect size park so you won't get lost in it, but beware of long lines on public holidays. Read more...
011 248 6800

Johannesburg Zoo
I have to say I'm amused at the idea of a zoo in Johannesburg, when you can find a huge variety of game roaming the wild within a few hours' drive, but it is actually a nice zoo set in a beautiful park. Something to do when a full-fledged safari isn't feasible.
011 646 2000

Apartheid Museum
Right across from Gold Reef City, the Apartheid Museum is one of Joburg's must-see destinations. It takes you back to the not-so distant past and the struggle for equal rights, freedom, and ultimately democracy for every South African. Read more...
011 309 4700

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum
Dedicated to Hector Pieterson, a 12-year old boy who was killed during the Soweto Uprising in 1976, this museum brings alive the history of that day and the injustices that led to it. Very moving displays and video documentaries.
011 536 0611



Soweto Tour
Take a tour of Soweto, South Africa's largest township and another place steeped in history. You will see the Hector Pieterson Memorial, Regina Mundi Church, Mandela House, the Apartheid Museum, a squatter camp, and a traditional shebeen where you'll taste Joburg Beer.  Read more...
011 463 3306


Maropeng Visitor Centre
The "Cradle of Humankind," about one hour from Joburg, is where they found "Mrs. Ples" or rather her remains which are 2 million years old. Tour the Epcot-like visitor centre to learn more about our human ancestors, or descend into the spectacular Sterkfontein caves. Read more...
011 956 6342 (Sterkfontein Cave)


Lion Park
If you won't have time for a safari, the Lion Park is your best bet to get a good close-up view and great pictures of lions as well as cheetahs, wild dogs, and a range of antilopes. As a highlight you also get to pet and play with lion cubs. Read more...
011 691 9905

Montecasino Bird Gardens
A great place for kids (and adults) to interact with birds and other animals. Combine it with a stroll past the shops of  "Monte," have lunch at a cafe on the Piazza, or take the balloon ride for great views of Joburg. Read more...
011 511 1864 

Rosebank Rooftop Market
Visit the Rooftop Market at Rosebank Mall on a Sunday to browse everything from African crafts to cheese, spices, jewelery, hats, and paintings. Includes a flea market. Read more...
011 442 4488



Bryanston Organic Market
Another nice craft market your visitors will love, featuring lots of African crafts, organic food, live music, and several outdoor cafes. Every Thursday and Saturday morning.
011 706 3671



Elephant Sanctuary
A day trip to Hartbeespoort Dam one hour from Joburg makes for a nice outing. Enjoy the beautiful scenery around the lake and visit the Elephant Sanctuary, where you get to touch, feed, ride, and even get kissed by an elephant! Read more...
012 258 0423


Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt
Visit one of the few places in the world where cheetahs (as well as other endangered animals) are bred in captivity. You can pet a cheetah, take a game drive to view the different animals, and watch the cheetahs race. Read more...
012 504 9906


Pilanesberg National Park
Pilanesberg is a Big Five game reserve only two hours from Johannesburg (adjacent to Sun City). Self-drive through the park as a day visitor (adults R45, children R20) or spend the night in one of the safari lodges. Read more...
014 555 1600


Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory
Another half day outing to the Hartbeespoort area for the science-minded in your family, featuring great hands-on activities and loads of interesting facts. Public viewing one Saturday each month. Read more...
012 301 3100


JoziX
If you don't have the stomach for an all-day slug at Gold Reef City, drop in for a few hours of great fun at JoziX in Bryanston, a sort of giant jungle gym for kids and adults. Read more...
www.jozix.co.za
082 456 2358


Magaliesberg Canopy Tour
A bit of a stretch at 1.5 hours from Joburg, but if you're looking for thrill and adventure this is the perfect day trip for you. While I haven't done this particular canopy tour, I have written about the Tsitsikamma one, which is similar. Read more...
www.magaliescanopytour.co.za
014 535 0150

Avalanche
Joburg really offers pretty much everything. You can even hit the slopes with your skis or snowboard (or opt for tubing) at Avalanche, located in Fourways at Cedar Square. Lessons and birthday parties available. Read more...
www.avalanche.co.za
011 467 2426


Liliesleaf Farm Museum
Another great place, in addition to the Apartheid Museum, to learn more about Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle, set in beautiful surroundings and never very crowded. Guided tours available. Read more...
www.liliesleaf.co.za
011 803 7882

Skydiving
The perefect destination for the adventure lover is the Witbank Skydiving Club about 1.5 hours from Joburg, where you can do a tandem skydive without any prior training or take part in a skydiving course. Read more...
www.skydivetandem.co.za
072 150 7680


Balloon Safari
There is another way to soar through the skies for those not inclined to jump out of airplanes - booking a balloon safari over the Cradle of Humankind, about an hour's drive from Joburg. Read more...
www.air-ventures.co.za
083 356 2435




Cradle Nature Walk
For nature lovers who'd like to experience the bush on foot rather than on the ubiquitous and noisy safari vehicles of Southern Africa, the guided walks at Cradle Nature Reserve are the perfect half-day getaway from the hustle and bustle of Joburg, followed by a gourmet lunch with a beautiful view. Read more...
011 659 1622

April 17, 2011

Expat Joys - Service at the Gas Station

It's really called a garage here in South Africa, with emphasis on the fist syllable, and what you're getting is petrol, not gas. But once you've gotten used to the different terminology, you'll love the experience of filling up your car.

That is because you're not actually doing any of the filling. You drive up and follow the friendly wave of at least two attendants, who somehow seem to know exactly what type of gas your car is in need of, to direct you to the correct pump. Then you turn off your car, press the button for the lid on your tank if necessary, and do nothing. Everyone who returns home after having lived in South Africa has the same rude awakening when driving up to the pump for the first time. You find yourself sitting there in your car, waiting, but nothing happens!

Here, what happens is that they fill up your car, check your oil, adjust the tire pressure, and wash your windshield, all for a little bit of a tip. When they're done they bring you the bill, which you can either pay with cash or using your garage card, a sort of credit card specifically dedicated to gas stations (you cannot use your regular debit or credit card - I had a moment of panic when filling up my rental car in Cape Town and discovering that I didn't have a garage card on me, as I always keep that in my car at home; fortunately, I had enough cash).

For all this I usually give anywhere from R5 to R10, depending on all the things I want checked, but it is entirely up to you.

It's not a big deal to get out of your car and do it yourself, I know, yet this is one of the small pleasures of life in South Africa that I enjoy the most.


Entire Expat Joys series:

April 16, 2011

Expat Joys - Beautiful Art in Your House



We had (and still have!) good friends in Singapore who'd been expats longer than us at the time. It was already their second assignment. I remember entering their house for the first time and being in awe. There was so much artwork, such beautiful mahogany furniture! Unique paintings, masks, and statues from all over the world, or so it seemed to me. It made our house full of sensible Ikea-type desks and shelves we'd accumulated during and after our graduate school years seem completely boring and uninspired.

Headrest which we're using as
a stool for putting on shoes
Since then we've acquired our own share of beautiful things, each and every one with a history if its own. The rice-bed-cum-coffee table (which Noisette went looking for in Indonesia, because we had taken too long to debate the one we had seen in Singapore and it had been sold from under our noses) is especially dear to our hearts. It is also especially cursed by each and every moving crew who had to pack and carry it since then.



Indonesian Rice Bed

Mask from
Burkina Faso
Being an expat gives you so much more exposure to the different cultures of the world and you gain an appreciation and personal connection to their various expressions in art. Even if you find a beautiful piece while travelling, it's usually impossible or at least very expensive to transport it back, whereas an expat assignment typically comes with a 40-foot container attached to it.

We found a new
home for our statue
from Zimbabwe
Africa in particular is full of beautiful and relatively inexpensive art. My favorites are the wood and stone carvings, but also the welded metal animals. Our only problem is that even with a 40-foot container we're running out of space. We will have to cross that bridge when we get to it. But until then we will be busy browsing places like the Rosebank Rooftop Market here in Joburg and keep our eyes open on upcoming travels to Mozambique and Zanzibar!


April 15, 2011

Expat Joys - The Head Massage

Moving is annoying. Moving overseas is even more annoying, and with all the stuff you have to get sorted out you easily feel  like you lose an entire year between getting ready to leave and then arriving and settling in.

Even the kids appreciate
the head massage
And it's often the little things that are most annoying, not the big ones, at least for me. Moving to a different continent? No problem. Finding a new hairdresser? You've GOT to be kidding me, after I had finally found one I liked! These were my exact thoughts when I heard about our first expat assignment over ten years ago. I mean, nothing really fazed me - gathering tons of paperwork for our visas, getting our house packed up, selling the minivan I'd come to love, arriving in Singapore and having grave doubts whether Singlish was indeed a form of English, existing without a car for months and having to carry a stroller plus five grocery bags up countless flights of stairs, learning how to drive on the left side of the road when I finally did get a car... None of that bothered me nearly as much as finding (and trusting!) a new person to cut my hair. Not that I spend any amount of time or worry on my hair, to the contrary, but that's exactly the point. You just need to have a hairdresser, period.

So it was with great trepidation that I first set foot in a hair salon in Singapore. I felt a little like Elaine in that Seinfeld episode, where she's at the beauty salon and suspects all those Chinese ladies to be talking about her, which they indeed are. But then, imagine my surprise when I sat down to get my hair washed: I got the most wonderful  head massage! Nothing like the bit of rubbing and rinsing I was used to from the U.S. - this was a full-fledged 15-minute massage that makes you break out in goose bumps all over. And no need for conversation, as everyone around you is speaking Chinese! To hell with who they're gossiping about or how the hair turns out, that massage was absolute heaven. 

Needless to say, I became a regular and frequent customer of that particular hairdresser in Holland Village. And I have now, ten years later, rediscovered the joys of the head massage at my neighborhood salon in Dainfern Valley. It is just as thorough and soothing as its Chinese counterpart, except that the conversation lulling me to sleep is conducted in Zulu.

Enjoying expat life is a matter of perspective. Instead of bemoaning what you've lost, look at the things you've gained.

Stay tuned for more "Expat Joys" posts - all the small and often overlooked things that are enjoyable as an expat. Of course this will be just my personal selection about our life here in South Africa, and others might not see it quite the same way, but any expat out there should have a similar list. It's just that sometimes you don't know about it until you've moved away! That's the beauty about being an expat for the second time: You become much more aware of those little joys and learn to savor them while you have the chance.



Entire Expat Joys series: