August 31, 2011

Face to Face with a Great White Shark

"Do they ever attack the cage?"

Jabulani asked this question, somewhat hopefully, as we settled into the briefing at Marine Dynamics in Kleinbaai.We had flown to Cape Town the day before, this being Jabulani's 13th-birthday-trip, and then we had driven all morning to this little town about two and a half hours along the coast. The closer we got, the more I was berating myself for my utter foolishness in including me, of all people, in this undertaking. It was HIS birthday, after all, and HIS excitement about swimming with sharks, and no one prodded me along - it was entirely of my own doing. There is something about living in South Africa that makes me fly in helicopters, balance above yawning precipices, and mingle with all manner of wild and dangerous animals. After being done as expats here I won't even have to come up with a bucket list anymore as I'm sure I'll have done it all.

So here I was, a nervous wreck, about to board a boat to go through some seriously huge waves and then lower myself into a cage, hold my breath, and look at sharks. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't the sharks that bothered me, and whether they would or would not attack the cage. It was the cold water I was deathly afraid of. I'm a whimp, at the best of times, when it comes to cold water. Technically, Gansbaai - the Great White Shark Capital of the World - is on the Indian Ocean, but barely, with the frigid Atlantic just a few hours to the West. Check out any online temperature chart, and you will learn that the current water temperature in these parts is more or less 15 degrees centigrade (about 60 Fahrenheit). Most decidedly not warm. Of course we had to time this trip such that August is actually the low point on such charts. (Timing is not our strong suit: In another example of what is quite typical for this family, our new underwater camera will arrive next week, precisely seven days after we've undertaken perhaps the most exciting underwater adventure of our lives).

Anyway, here we all were, listening to some last-minute advice and instructions from our assigned biologist, who assured us in response to Jabulani's question that he had never seen a shark attack the cage (I somewhat qualified that statement later when I learned that he had been in South Africa all of two weeks). Let me just say that if you plan on going shark cage diving, it is a good idea to keep your hands inside the cage.

After we were sufficiently briefed and fed and handed some coats and life vests, we boarded our ride:

I was barely warm enough on our trip out to Dyer's Island bundled into four layers including a down jacket. Thankfully, I was not among the first to get wet. We had to take turns of seven people each in the cage and other people went before us, while we struggled into our 7mm wet suits. Which is not an easy feat in and of itself, let alone on a violently rocking boat if you're also trying to take shark pictures every time somebody yells "watch left!"

We're getting in that? It looks tiny!

Loading time

It didn't take long for the first sharks to arrive, since we had left a trail of "fish chum," a lovely broth made from fish oil, in our wake. Noisette felt compelled to point out the fish chum smell at every opportunity, until we were all thoroughly sick from it. Add to that the pitching boat and the fact that several people were already making good use of their barf bags, and it's a miracle none of us got seasick, especially Jabulani, who cannot even look at an airplane without drammamine.

There comes the first one

Take note that the cage is still open on the left. And doesn't it look a bit flimsy?

Then it was our turn. We lowered ourselves into the cage and I couldn't breathe for about two minutes, it was so cold. And there isn't actually that much air at the top part of the cage, especially when the boat is rolling and there is no air at all. The best thing to do was to breathe in and go down, hooking your feet under the lower bar and waiting for a shark. And they obliged. Constantly baited from above with a bundle of fish heads on one side and a seal decoy on the other, they kept circling our cage.

Making off with the bait

Still, it didn't really feel scary. In fact, you kept wishing for more of them to come and to come more often, just because it was getting cold down there and you knew you'd be done after 15 minutes. And I was also quite sure I wouldn't be doing this again. Do I wish we would have had that underwater camera! Although in all honesty, with all that swaying and being knocked about and swallowing water, I'm not sure how many decent pictures we would have come up with. It was hard enough to take them from above.

My only picture approaching Jaws, at least a little bit

All in all, a must see for visitors to South Africa and anyone who likes a good thrill and to perhaps get a glimpse of these awesome creatures before there are none left. According to Marine Dynamics, there are only about 3500 Great Whites roaming the world's oceans, and still declining.

I personally appreciated the fact that this particular adventure didn't involve any heights! Like all adventures, the actual event wasn't something I enjoyed all that much, and I couldn't decide whether the violently swaying boat, the foul smell, the biting wind, the freezing water gushing down my back, having to squeeze in and out of a wet suit in frigid temperatures, or the barfing passengers were the worst. But the "having done it" feeling is awesome!

Next up: More Diving with Sharks

August 30, 2011

13th Birthday in Style

Breakfast at the Westin in Cape Town
As of yesterday, we have another teenager in the house! That sounds like a lot but we're hopeful the second time around is easier than the first. After all, we're only halfway there yet. Or less than half-way, some might argue, as the next two are going to be girls.

But I wanted to talk to you about our thirteenth birthday tradition. Being brought up by very normal (and somewhat thrifty) German parents, neither Noisette nor I have any kind of intriguing family tradition to draw on when it comes to this important rite of passage for our kids. We don't have any Bar Mitzvah's to offer like many of our Jewish friends back in Overland Park. We're not South African and therefore can't bring ourselves to open up our house to 70 rowdy teenagers for a disco party, and we certainly don't practice any manhood rituals where our boys get sent into the woods for a week to meditate and slaughter a bull and perhaps get circumcised in the process.

We did, however, want to do something special for our kids at the age of thirteen, and I have my friend Jenny back in the U.S. to thank for inspiration. We decided to copy the family tradition she had started, which was taking each child on a special weekend trip with just the two parents right when they turned thirteen.  For Zax two years ago the obvious place to go was New York City to see a Yankees baseball game, and we also visited the U.S. Intrepid and NBC Studios while there, all of which he greatly enjoyed.

Yankee Stadium August 2009
It's always nice when the home team wins (10-0 against White Sox, for the record)

When you're one of four kids, I'm sure it's pretty cool to go travelling with your parents all by yourself for a change (just before it becomes very uncool to be travelling anywhere with your parents). But you know the really nice thing about this tradition? Every two years, Noisette and I get a nice weekend away, practically without kids. It is so easy to just have one child with you. I'm sure this wouldn't be the case if you only ever had one child, but if you're used to the tempest created by four, one is a breeze. There is no arguing where to go for dinner. No fight over who gets to sit where. No debate, in fact, about anything! Just a few polite exchanges about lunch plans, perhaps, and serenity all around. A tad boring, in fact.

Not bad waking up on your birthday with Cape Town spread below you

What to do with Jabulani though? It's not that easy when you live in an entirely new continent. Back in the U.S., we could have just trekked back to New York and substituted a Mets game into an otherwise identical itinerary (for some reason our two sons picked these two opposite poles of the spectrum when it comes to baseball) but here in South Africa we needed something a bit closer to home. (Impatience, in true Impatience-fashion, is already plotting a trip to Paris but unless Europe is our next expat assignment, she'll probably be disappointed).

Early-morning view of the V&A Waterfront from the Westin Hotel

The solution presented itself this April when we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium during our Cape Town trip (prodded to no end by our kids, if you'll remember). A poster there informed us that diving among the sharks was on offer for those who are scuba certified, which Jabulani is. He was instantly intrigued, which settled it, and so we set to planning the event. Just to be able to stay at the Westin again with those great views and the gorgeous breakfast buffet was enough to get me excited. But a half-hour scuba tank dive didn't seem quite "big" enough to warrant the trip, so I got the special bundle including "cage diving with great white sharks." You won't believe this but I foolishly signed myself up for that part as well.

I'll be telling you all about how that went in my next post.

August 29, 2011

The Insurmountable Picture Hanging Project

The one huge downside about being an expat is that you have to move to get to wherever your assignment is. And the one huge downside about moving, at least for me, is that you have to hang your pictures all over again. That's right, in my mind it surpasses visa trouble and cultural barriers to sit right at the top of the pain-in-the-ass list of expat existence. I cannot tell you how often we've had to hang these same pictures, every time on a set of differently configured walls, to the point where I cannot even look at them anymore.

But what's even worse here in South Africa, similar to Singapore, is that the walls seem to be made from titanium. When you go at them with something as obvious as a hammer and a nail, they practically laugh in your face. All you will accomplish is a stash of bent nails and walls that look like you've just survived the siege of Stalingrad. I almost cry when I think back to those cooperative American dry walls that are so soft you can practically push in a nail with your bare thumb.

So when I recently gave Noisette some photo canvas prints for his birthday - and when after about a month they were still standing in exactly the same place, attracting both dust and accusing stares from my housekeeper - I once again decided it was time to pull out our trusted tools of picture-hanging, South-African style:

Yep, you really do need a drill. To make the hole you're then going to stick the nail in. And a vacuum cleaner for all the mess you're creating. And some spackling paste for fitting the hole around the nail in case it is too wobbly. I realize that I can't offer this as one of my expat tips, because it sounds way crazy, but honestly, it is the only way we've gotten this to work. We tried that Hilti tool and those special nails it comes with, but that was just as bad as a regular hammer and nail, just more expensive.

Making progress

It took about two hours of measuring, levelling, marking, drilling, vacuuming, hanging, and adjusting, but it was all worth it for the final outcome, I think:

It took me three trips down to our garage to put away all the picture-hanging gear. It feels good to be done and for all I care that drill can rot in hell for the next two years. But I know it won't last. We are bound to forgive and forget and fall in love with a new piece of art all over again.

By the way, I will offer this tip: take photos of all your walls back home before packing up. It will help to know how you arranged your pictures the last time, even if the rooms are now different, and save time on planning the new layout.

August 26, 2011

Skiing in Johannesburg

Yep, you read that one right. There is in effect a place where you can go skiing and snowboarding right here in Joburg, even if there is no snow. That place is called Avalanche.

It's located in Cedar Square, not far from Dainfern/Fourways, and I got to check it out during Impatience's recent birthday party, although unfortunately I forgot my camera that day and therefore don't have many pictures to show.

The surface is plastic, like a very strong-bristled carpet, slightly moistened by a fine mist of water that's sprayed from underneath. The speeds you achieve are actually very nice, even though of course you won't find yourself in the Rocky Mountains. There is a rope on the left side which you can use to walk back up more easily, though it's not quite a magic carpet. Which I thought was just right for a sugar-loaded birthday party with lots of accumulated energy to get rid of.

Most visitors opt for the tubes, but you can also ski or ride snowboards (call ahead for the schedule). All equipment is available for rental. You can also take lessons with an instructor. All in all a very nice outing for an afternoon, and a welcome break from your more typical African adventures such as safaris and canopy tours.

Of course I had to try it out myself!

This article is part of Joburg Expat's What To Do in Joburg series.

August 25, 2011

My Dark Secret

I have a confession to make: I hate hate hate birthday parties. I consider myself a fairly good mother in other ways, but organizing and hosting birthday parties for my kids isn't one of them.

I hate having to listen to Impatience and Sunshine chattering about their birthday plans most of the year (I strictly ban all birthday talk directly after the birthday but invariably it resumes about a month later, with eleven months to go).

I hate having to plan so far ahead to find a suitable date and possibly a venue for the event.

I hate having to get invitations out to everyone.

I hate organizing all the little stuff you need on party day, like paper plates, forks, napkins, etc. etc. Where other mothers love to spend weeks planning table decorations and the contents of the goodie bags, I find myself rushing through the house and grabbing the essentials last-minute on the way out the door. And when the day is finally done and all the presents unwrapped and sugared-up kids tucked in bed, I’m usually as exhausted as if I’d paddled upstream and against the wind for an entire day.

Of course I didn’t anticipate all this when having children. The first few parties were actually kind of cute, when there were just one or two every year. Being a perfectionist, I threw myself at them full-force, creating cute little invitations, party props, and cakes. In fact, I'm glad I took these pictures over the years, otherwise even I myself wouldn't believe how many cool birthday cakes and props I've created.

My first birthday cake ever. Full disclosure: This being Singapore, my Filipino maid helped!

Zax's 3rd birthday. Can anybody guess his passion at age 3?

My crowning achievement in birthday props, made from moving cartons

The Titanic (see the iceberg?) was another one of Zax's passions

I think this one was for Jabulani...

...complete with fire engine prop

I remember spending quite some time with this one

Maybe you will find it hard to believe that I didn't enjoy making all these cakes, and it's true. When pushed, and at the 11th hour, I usually get energized enough to crank out good stuff. But as time passed, the novelty subsided. Or maybe by now I'm simply worn out. I also should have thought about the fact that when you crank out kids, German-precision-style, in August of every second year, you will be saddled with lots of birthday parties every August. (You might now wonder what happened every November the year before – going back through our photo albums reveals that several company incentive trips to Hawaii are to blame).

The first time I solicited outside advice from Family Fun

Lest you think I only did boy cakes!

Here in South Africa, birthday parties are especially lavish affairs. Or maybe just here in ritzy Dainfern, where the urge of keeping up with the Joneses seems to be programmed into every mother’s DNA. When your child turns thirteen, it is very common to invite the entire grade of 70-plus kids into your house and host a disco-cum-crazy-pool-party which, trust me, invariably involves a lot of sweeping and mopping up the next day, and maybe a burst eardrum in the bargain. If the thought of that invokes nightmares in you, as it does with me, you always have the option of choosing another venue and coughing up big bucks for the rental of facilities and disc jockey. Jabulani was upset with me last year for not letting him go to a party of a girl I had never met and whose parents I didn’t know, who had boasted to her classmates that her party cost R60,000 or some otherworldly sum, and where the gift bags reportedly were actual gym bags filled with designer clothes.

Thank God two of our kids are now teenage boys who could care less about pretty invitations let alone a color scheme and who are perfectly happy to SMS their friends three days ahead of time for a low-key movie and sleepover. But that still leaves the girls. You might remember that my new strategy is to pick a place where I can at least take plenty of action pictures and later write about it in my “Around Joburg” column, which landed us at JoziX for Sunshine’s party in June. So this time up, for Impatience’s turn, was Avalanche, an artificial ski slope right here in Joburg at Cedar Square (which I’ll write more about in my next post).

The one good thing about Impatience’s obsession with birthday planning is that she, well, plans ahead. I can leave a good deal of all the pre-birthday stuff to her, like designing and printing the invitations and – get this – actually handing them out to her classmates. That would have never worked with Zax, where I regularly find such things as birthday invitations or Valentine’s greetings, even report cards, crumpled up in his backpack – together with the occasional moldy ham sandwich – months later.  But Impatience is very organized (if she ever becomes more patient I might concede to a blog name change to that effect – any suggestions?). The notebooks in her school bag are sorted by the order of her subjects, and her homework entries are color-coded. How this could have sprung from the same family as the fifteen-year old whose method of organization is to shove every single piece of paper he’s ever been given at school into his closet next to the hockey stick and smelly shin guards is a mystery to me.

But I digress. I was told to book Avalanche way in advance, because apparently their party slots go quickly, and so I did. I also ordered the birthday cake, feeling pleased with myself, and remembered to pick it up on party day. But that was the extent of my planning. In my defense, we were leaving for Zanzibar the very next morning and I had to finish packing and doing all those other things one usually does on the last day before a trip, so the party was not exactly on the top of my mind. “Just grab the cake and get out the door” were my thoughts when it was time to leave. We were also taking two friends with us, plus Sunshine, and the chatter of four very excited girls did not exactly help my focused thinking. I managed to grab some napkins and paper plates, some chips and grapes and a plastic bowl, and then I froze. Candles! I didn’t buy any candles for the cake! Fortunately, cheap as I am, I had kept Sunshine’s candles (I mean, you only use about 0.5% of these every time you light them because they get blown out immediately!) so I raced back upstairs while everyone was already in the car and grabbed those pretty silver candles out of the drawer. Alas, there were only ten of them, which had worked for Sunshine who had turned nine. But I needed eleven! What to do? This is what fellow blogger “4 kids, 20 suitcases, and a beagle” might call a MacGuyver parenting moment. I searched my brain frantically on what I might have that passes for another birthday candle, and sure enough came up with the perfect solution: Ages ago we had been to one of those places where the kids get to make their own candles by dipping a wick into wax, and the resulting gold-colored candles (which I’d also kept in an obscure cabinet) were slim enough to pass for birthday candles. And you know what? I even came up with the perfect cover story. “Ten silver candles,” I said, “and one golden one in the middle because it’s your golden birthday.” She had been going on and on about the golden birthday (I must admit it’s kinda cool, turning 11 on the 11th of the month in the year 11) so you might imagine how pleased I felt with this perfect solution.

I had another brief moment of panic while we were driving to the party and Impatience asked me whether I had brought any goodie bags. Of course I hadn’t! Goodie bags are another thing I hate – getting OR making them. But it turns out Avalanche bailed me out on that one. There waiting for us was a table beautifully decorated in pink and purple tones (how did they know?) with goodie bags all ready for the taking. I didn’t have to do a thing. I must say I had a bit of party envy when glancing at the next table, where a mother AND father were busy setting out sandwich platters, tiered platters filled with delicious brownies, and a swirly lollipop wrapped in cellophane and cute ribbons on every child’s plate. It made my two plastic bowls of grapes and chips look a bit sad. Then they proceeded to take pictures of their beautiful creation, which reminded me that I had totally forgotten my own camera, somewhat hindering my plan to take cool sledding action pictures for my blog. Well, you’re going to get some action pictures taken with my phone, but they will be a bit blurry, plus they might actually be of other people’s kids because by the time the shutter snapped on my old phone my own kids were already safely at the bottom of the hill.

It gave me some satisfaction to see the other table wrap up their beautiful platters untouched and taking several trips to lug them back to the car. All of our kids were way too busy to actually spend any time at the table, and the party was a big success.

But I still hate them.

Celebrating the Fourth of July in South Africa

I realize I'm a bit tardy with this post. I was going to write it "just now" about a month ago.

You know I've been helping a township baseball team raise funds for new equipment, and I'm always on the lookout for opportunities to promote their cause. Just such an opportunity arrived when I was approached by the American Society of South Africa about putting up a booth and running some baseball games for the 4th of July bash at the American embassy in Pretoria.

Unfortunately I was away that week, so all I  had time for was putting together a very last-minute poster and organizing transport.

Tedius took a small group of players to represent the team and help run the booth. It was a good way to get the word out that there is indeed baseball in South Africa (we'll post a schedule as soon as the new season starts), and I think great fun (and good food) was had by all.

Our boys' old batting stick getting a lot of use

Nice backdrop for warm-ups

Both flags are honored

Can't have a Fourth of July without a bike parade, even if it's in South Africa
I was going to say "hot dogs and apple pie" but it looks more like
"hot dogs and "Budweiser" for this group of Alexandra baseball players

Thanks to Christal with the American Society for the invitation, and thanks to Tedius for taking these pictures, which succeeded in making me just a tad homesick for the USA.

August 24, 2011

Looking for a Handcrafted Kindle Cover?

Sunshine with her
new Kindle bag
Our youngest daughter Sunshine is extremely lucky in that she has found a best friend who lives three houses down the road. She probably spends more time there than here, and frequently comes home with the most beautiful hand-made items bestowed on her by this loving family, who are also in the business of performing a kind of magic using fabric that I could never replicate.

In fact, when we first moved here and were looking at the approaching winter, I discovered with horror that there was a gap under our front door a small cat could squeeze through, let alone megatons of cold air. When I picked Sunshine up from one of her first playdates with this friend, I noticed several long sausage-type structures placed in front of their doors. I barely had inquired about this when I was sent home with a custom-made sandbag for our house.

Since then Sunshine has been the recipient of a steady stream of beautifully crafted gifts, from hats to cheer-leading outfits and dolls. But the crowning achievement must be this beautiful Kindle messenger bag - not technically a cover, she already had one of those - but a place to stick her Kindle when we're going out and about.

When I thanked my friend for the beautiful gift, I learned that she now actually has an online shop where you can buy (and custom order) these gifts, all made from quality materials and with excellent workmanship. Shipping to both the U.S. and within South Africa is available. Please check out Wishfull Thinking - the perfect place if you're decorating a child's room or need a new baby gift.

And of course if you'd like a more unique case for your Kindle (please inquire about custom orders).

August 22, 2011

Getting your Car Serviced in South Africa

This one I can't quite file into my "Expat Joys" series. What I like about having my car serviced here in South Africa is the, um, service. They take me to my house (or anywhere else I wish to go) after dropping off the car, AND they actually pick me up again in the afternoon. I always hated having my car serviced in the U.S., where they'd take me home alright but not pick me up again. Meaning I'd opt to wait for my car then and there munching chips from the vending machine while watching "The Young and the Restless" at top volume. Here they serve cappuccino or tea with muffins, very civilized. And they always wash my car, inside and out.

So far it's perfect, right? BUT. The reason the service at Fourways Audi (and I imagine any other place) doesn't actually qualify for one of my expat joys is that I always have to arrive with a big bag to dump every little possession from my car into, lest it be stolen. For Noisette that's an easy task, since he is very neat and doesn't believe in any kind of clutter, but for me and my habit to tote around everything you might ever need in case you have a spare second at the red light (hand lotion, makeup, tooth picks, floss, tweezers, a notebook for blog ideas, coins for the parking attendants, water bottles, gum, the South African Road Traffic Act, a blanket, shopping bags, phone charges, mailbox keys, pens, you name it) it's an entirely different story.

And you HAVE to do it. They even make you sign a form upon check-in that you've removed your valuables from your car. They even record the level of fuel. My first time there I forgot to remove the coins I keep in a cupholder for the parking attendants, and they were all gone afterwards. The last time I was there, I left my water bottle in the car, and it went the same way as the coins. I like to think that someone thought it was trash and was overeager to tidy up my car during the detailing, but I can't be sure. Don't even THINK of leaving your CD collection in your car in South Africa.

No one here really thinks twice about the fact that this is so. It's such accepted behavior that I'm afraid it will never really change. It's almost as if whoever services your car thinks whatever is left in it is intended by the owner as a tip for them and it's their absolute right to take it. You find this attitude in other workplaces as well. Noisette informs me that they cannot keep their fire extinguisher in place at his factory. The minute they replace it, it is gone. Which poses a huge problem when there are audits and the auditing company gives an order to halt production because of safety violations. The only time rampant theft at their premises worked to his advantage was when he needed to get rid of some old wood planking. They loaded it onto a truck, drove it some way into the distance and left it standing there, unguarded, for about 20 minutes.When all the wood was gone (but not yet the tires) the driver retrieved the empty truck and everyone was happy.

You also hear stories of theft among domestics, but I tend to take these with a grain of salt. Domestics and gardeners are probably the most accused group of employees you will find in South Africa, just by virtue of their proximity to your household possessions. Once again, I can highly recommend the book " " to see and understand the world from a domestic worker's perspective. Most of the people I know are very happy with their housekeepers, affirmed by the fact that they are often employed by the same families for decades.

Still, I cannot begin to understand why anyone would want to risk their job - in a country with 35% or more unemployment, no less - just to make off with a few snatched items. But the reason I cannot understand this is probably that I've never known how it feels to possess so little and to need so much. I wonder if there is also an element of retribution in all of this, i.e. "we were treated so badly and as an inferior class during the years and years of apartheid that it's only fair if we take back what's due." (As you can see, I'm trying very hard to write that controversial post that eluded me during my "7 Links" project).

Whatever the reasons, I hope that one day I'll be able to get my car serviced here without having to clean it out first.

More car-related posts on Joburg Expat:

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