July 31, 2011

My 7 Links - A Blog History Project

During the last few weeks I've seen these "7 Links Blog Awards" floating through the blogosphere and I have to say it made for some very good reading to see the best of the best of other expat writings. Thanks to fellow Joburg blogger 2summers (whose own 7 links make for excellent reading for any prospective expat moving to South Africa; or really for excellent reading period) I've now been nominated to select my own 7 links. Trust me, it took quite some time to go through my entire blog's history to find the most fitting ones, and the selection was quite hard. But it was also a great exercise to better understand my own blog.

My Most Beautiful Post

This was quite hard, because as a writer you tend to think all your writing is beautiful. But it is easiest to write a beautiful story about a beautiful topic, so I have to give my vote to Giving Hope at New Jerusalem. Incredibly, it has received no comments as of yet, which I hope will change by highlighting it here. I had approached the project a bit like a real reporter and I think the article came out well, except of course my blog was the only place it was published.

My Most Popular Post

This was the easiest one to select. Both Blogger and Google Analytics tell me that Your Kindle in South Africa comes out tops in terms of page views. I put quite a bit of research into some of my posts, and I'm glad  when they reach their intended audience. And wouldn't you know it, I just realized that my links back to Amazon actually resulted in some Kindle sales so that my advertising revenue (my only advertising revenue from this blog) is approaching a whopping $20! So it's also my most lucrative post.

My Most Controversial Post

I don't seem to have raised much controversy with my writing yet because I think my blog is still pretty much flying under the radar. The only outrage I seem to have provoked is that of an animal lover with my tongue-in-cheek post about Egyptian geese and that of a gentleman who insisted there are no cows roaming South African roads. But for here I will pick the post that I thought would be a bit controversial, because in it I talk about the class struggle in South Africa, and I also talk about my frustrations when Africans in government positions answer the phone. If not controversy, maybe I can at least elicit some comments this time around for Education - An Example of the Class Struggle in South Africa.

My Most Helpful Post

I tend to think all my Expat Tips are helpful in one way or another. I'll pick Moving Checklist because it is the one I would have most liked to have read before moving to South Africa.

My Most Surprisingly Successful Post

Judging by the number of pageviews, Weaver Bird Nests (How Men can Never Get it Right) was surprisingly successful. It's funny how you never know what will spark people's interest. There must be lots of folks out there researching weaver birds. I doubt it ever brought many regular readers to my blog, although I do think it is a nice story about South Africa.

My Most Underrated Post

For this I'm going to nominate another one of my early posts, The Life of a Domestic Worker, which also didn't get any comments. I like it because it highlights an aspect of South Africa most people won't actually get to see. At the time I wasn't too thrilled to traipse through a succession of hardware stores with my maid, but my little excursion into her life is one of the lasting memories I will take with me from South Africa.

Post I'm Most Proud of

I'm not so much proud of this post as much as I'm proud of what it has accomplished. Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township, thanks in no small measure to the help of fellow-blogger Bing and her Singapore readership, has led to my raising $2277 or over R16,000, which I've been able to funnel back into the township of Alexandra in the form of baseball equipment to aid underprivileged kids play the game I love.

Okay, time to pass on the buck and nominate others for the 7-links award (and make them spend hours digging through their own blog!):
The Story of Bing: I've learned a lot about blogging from Bing and look forward to her daily insights in my email inbox every morning. She's a fellow expat in Joburg but has a lot more blogging history to wade through. I can't wait to see what she unearths with her 7 links.
janeyfromjoburg: This is a blog I just recently started following. It is very well written and also focuses on life in Johannesburg, but through local instead of expat eyes. I am eager to read some more of Janey's older stories.
In Joburg - living on the rand: To keep everything within the Joburg family, this is also an entertaining blog about life in Johannesburg, as seen from yet another perspective. I especially love the photography.

I can't wait what you guys turn up. Thanks again to 2summers for thinking of me:-)

July 30, 2011

At Home in a New Country: The Dentist Test

I don’t know about you, but the final measure of whether you’re completely at home in a new place, especially as an expat, is when you’ve found a new doctor and dentist. And not just anyone, but somebody you really like. Just a few days ago I realized that, judging by this standard, we’ve finally arrived in South Africa. Almost one-and-a-half years after we actually set foot on African soil.

If you've been an expat before, you know what makes this process so lengthy: First you actually ignore the whole issue because you've got other, bigger ones on your plate. You've got to battle the Department of Home Affairs because you've been waiting for your visa for three months and no one will sell you a car or cellphone without one. You've also got to chase a bunch of contractors as well as the owners of your house who live in Australia because the fireplace has never been working and the pool pump has broken down. And you make a trip to the school uniform store every other day because you didn't buy the right kind of PE shirt or the one you did buy has disappeared in the bottomless pit of your school's Lost-and-(never-again)-Found. And remember you're doing all this without a cellphone or car, because... Well, you get the idea.

Then you get sick from tick-bite fever after your first ever safari trip and, since you don't actually have a doctor and since you have no stomach to research one now, you opt for the emergency room, which is good to get to know in any case. While you are waiting to be admitted, then waiting for x-rays, then waiting for an ultrasound, then waiting for a blood test (while wondering if it is save to have a blood test in Africa), then waiting for the doctor again who proceeds to tell you that you are the 15th patient today with tick-bite fever but she wanted to rule out anything else with this battery of tests, you pledge that you will search for a proper doctor ASAP when you get home. But alas, the antibiotics have the desired effect so that your busy life can reclaim your attention and once again the doctor search slides to the bottom of your list.

Some time afterwards you're off to your first visit of Mozambique for which you need malaria tablets, so you select the nearest travel clinic where you get great advice on tropical diseases but not so much on the common cold. At this point it occurs to you to ask some friends and acquaintances where the heck it is they go when they get sick. But this is a bit tricky in a new country. They might swear up and down that they have the best doctor, but is it really up to the standards you know from home? Another expat might recommend their dentist but then you pause and think what country they are comparing it to - frankly, if it's somewhere in Europe, I am not so impressed. (Whenever my kids complain about going to the dentist, I pounce on them with stories of "Frau T." who did not believe in any anesthesia whatsoever when pulling whichever teeth she felt like that day). You find yourself surreptitiously glancing at the other person's mouth to get an inkling of the quality of said dentist...

Anyway, to spare you all this, I'm going to recommend our doctor and dentist to those of you who live (or will live!) somewhere near the Fourways area of Joburg:

Family doctor:

Dr. Moray Shirley
General Practitioner

Shop 15 Broadacres Shopping Centre
Cedar Rd, Fourways

011 467 1432
082 898 6748

What I like about this practice is that it's small and that I can always get a same day appointment. There are two doctors (both women), so you don't end up getting handed around like at larger practices. Since we've been there their diagnosis has always been accurate. Note that this is a GP, not a pediatrician (those act more like specialists, typically at a hospital, that you might get referred to by your GP). 


Dr. Richard Lombard

Fourways Mall, one floor up from cinemas (by elevator)

011 465 6410
082 657 6410

Don't be fooled by the cramped and tucked-away quarters. The practice has several good hygienists so I'm able to schedule all my kids at once, and we've gotten excellent advice so far. 


Dr. George Thomadakis

Rivonia Rd cnr School Rd, Morningside/Sandton

011 783 8880
082 782 8880

An excellent orthodontist who comes highly recommended in Johannesburg; just be aware that orthodontic treatment is fairly pricey in South Africa, and book early as to get your kids a slot.

July 27, 2011

The Medupi Power Station

Medupi Power Station
Following my previous post about energy, where I somewhat romanticized the notion of poverty and low energy usage in South Africa, I thought I should be honest and show the entire picture.

South Africa, you see, is building the world's largest dry-cooled coal-fired power plant. When completed, the Medupi Power Station will have six boilers powering an 800 MW turbine each. No other coal plant has ever been built on this scale. It is commissioned by Eskom and subcontracted to Hitachi and Allstom, who employ a series of other subcontractors. A lot of jobs are dependent on this project, as well as the other power station built in Kusile.

How does South Africa have the money for such a huge enterprise (projected at over R100 Billion)? Well - electricity rates have gone up three times in the last few years (and you'll remember that we contributed an additional R795 to Eskom) so that in the long term the plant will finance itself. The loan to finance construction is backed by the South African government, which in turn gets backing from the World Bank. You might remember there was a brief delay some time back when President Obama balked at so much World Bank involvement in yet another "dirty" technology, but it was approved in the end. My guess is if Michelle had to schedule her cooking and laundry around everyday power outages (the norm here just two years ago), she would have been on Barack's case to approve another coal plant in a hurry!

Construction at Medupi Power Station, photo couresy of Eskom

What's really cool about this plant is its dry-cooling technology (no pun intended). Turbines need to be cooled, and historically that was done using water. Which is why you often see power plants next to a lake. But water is a scarce resource (and will become much more so in the years to come), so the relatively new technology of dry cooling is the way of the future, especially in arid or semi-arid regions like South Africa.

The first boiler is scheduled to go online in 2012, but I'm not holding my breath. It's not easy to manage such a big project in the best of circumstances, and South Africa has additional challenges. I doesn't have enough of a skilled workforce, for instance. There is the culture of strikes which seriously hobble progress on the site (and elsewhere - my fingers are frozen as I'm typing this while I'm still waiting for new gas to be delivered), a history of shoddy work, even bomb threats.

Nevertheless, the work at Medupi is steadily moving forward. And so is South Africa.

Who Uses the Most Energy?

I've been wanting to write about this topic for some time and it was brought back to the front burner by the recent fuel and heating gas shortage here in South Africa that I mentioned earlier.

One of the most noticeable difference Americans who move or visit here will notice is the amount of people milling around in South Africa's streets. Many American cities seem deserted by comparison, because everyone is either indoors or in a car. You just don't see people. Here, tons of people are out and about on any given day, either because they need to get somewhere and don't have their own transport, because they're trying to sell something, or perhaps because they have a tiny house that doesn't lend itself to spending any  more time than necessary in it. If you go into a township like Alexandra, the crowds are even  more unbelievable, because everything is so packed together in the first place.

South African streets are always busy

Where am I going with this? Well - a person walking along the street pretty much uses very little energy. I sometimes shudder at the thought that more prosperity here - much needed - will lead to more cars clogging Joburg's streets. Heating or cooling a huge mansion (whether you even sit in it or not), on the other hand, uses a ton of energy. The same goes for driving a (probably not very fuel-efficient) car all by yourself. I admit I didn't go too deep with my research, but most of the numbers you will find paint the same picture: Americans are among the biggest energy consumers in the world. And not even by a small margin. I found a good chart on the World Populations Balance website (an organization informing on the dangers of overpopulation) that shows that the United States has 5% of the world's population but uses 20% of its energy. Just think about that for a moment.

Sure, most of what keeps the rest of the world from catching up is poverty, not virtue. But there are other factors as well. One is voluntary (more or less) conservation. When you're afraid your gas bottle is nearing empty and the suppliers have no stock, you will use less of it (I'm sitting in a coat typing this). When gasoline is expensive like here (about double the price in the U.S. but still cheaper than Europe) or when it simply runs out, you will drive your car less and call people to organize carpools (except you should know South Africans call them lift clubs and will stare at you in wonder if you ask about a carpool). When electricity is expensive (from personal experience, electricity prices in the U.S. were by far the lowest among all the countries we've lived in) or at risk of being cut off during peak hours, you will go through your house to turn off the lights, you will hang your laundry to dry, and you will think about how  many rooms you really need to heat. In fact, you will have built a house that is exposed towards the sun to capture heat in the winter and with plenty of windows to cool in the summer. When water is expensive, you will carefully watch your sprinkler system (or let the lawn go brown) and limit shower time.

I'm not saying that it's desirable to have all these inconveniences happen to you. But they do teach you how easy it is to use less, if you just put your mind to it. Something most people (me included) are too complacent to do unless there is no other way or the price is too high. Many technological advances to increase energy efficiency are not impossible, but they have a price. A price most people are willing to pay when the price of energy goes up. Wouldn't it be better for those prices to go up now and the resulting tax revenue to be funneled back into research of alternate energy forms and efficiency improvements, rather than waiting for oil prices to go up anyway? As no doubt they will. In fact, if you calculate the impact on the environment and the cost of several resource-related wars, they already have.

Why is it so hard to explain this relationship to the average consumer? Actually, it's not just hard, it's political suicide in the American political landscape. Maybe all 18-year-old Americans should spend a mandatory year abroad, and this might change.

July 26, 2011

Time to Put My Eskom File in the Drawer

So for almost one and a half years I have been indignant.

If you search for "Eskom" on this blog, you will find all my previous Eskom posts and can chronologically follow, if you're so inclined, how I was at first ignorant, then surprised, determined, outraged, foaming at the mouth, and finally resigned at the sheer incompetence and perhaps even malevolence of this flagship of South Africa's bureaucracy.

For almost one and a half years, my Eskom file, consisting of a bunch of stapled-together invoices adorned with hand-scribbled meter readings and about a hundred reference numbers, has been sitting on my desk. As I was always told to "call back in a few days," there was never a good time to file it away. It has been staring me in the eye almost every day, with a big "unfinished business" radiating from it like a bad odor. I must admit I haven't called my friend Mr. X in a long while, resigned to the fact that we will not get our undeserved reconnection fee and interest charges back from Eskom.

But since I hated to end my story on "resigned," the file stayed in place. Until now. I am proud to inform you that "resigned" has been replaced with "elated." How so, you ask? And no, the obvious answer - "they gave us our money back" - is definitely not an option. What then could have changed my attitude?

Simple: I found someone worse off than us. Much worse. I was having coffee with a few other moms from school, and somehow the conversation turned to electric bills. One mom shared her City of Joburg odyssey with me, which sounded awfully much like my Eskom story, except it had to do with water rather than power, and a lot of it. Somehow, the City of Joburg insisted that they had two water meters at their newly built house, not one, and happily charged them vast amounts of water usage from this phantom meter. By vast amounts I mean  R200,000 ($30,000) in a single month. This is where back home in the U.S. I wouldn't worry one bit, because the amount is so ridiculous. One simple phone call should rectify the situation. But of course not here. For many months this went on, until the City of Joburg finally consented to look into it and sent an inspector. Who, lo and behold, found out that indeed there was only one meter at this house, meaning the other one must have erroneously been attached to their account. Problem solved, right? Nooooo. Because, it turns out, the City of Joburg must  use the same computer system as Eskom, a system that cannot reverse interest charges. At least that is the excuse. Just as in my case, the wrong charges were finally purged from their account, but not so the interest that had accrued over many months of non-payment (I mean, who is going to actually pay R200,000 and hope they'll get them back one day).

This family's battle over their unjustified interest charges lasted about 5 years, at which point they finally gave up and just paid them to get them off the account. The bill: R48,000. That's in the ballpark of $7,000! Their cost of doing business with the City of Joburg.

Which is why I came home that morning and immediately shoved my Eskom file into a drawer. From my calculations they still owe us R795, $115 or so. If our cost of doing business with Eskom is only $115, we'll gladly pay it.

In fact, I'd probably pay anybody $115 who can take a to-do item off my list that's been on there for 18 months!

Previous Eskom posts:

Eskom: Adding Insult to Injury

Welcome to Africa
Eskom: Absolute Power to Turn Off your Power
Eskom: How much More Absurd can it Get?
My Truce with Eskom

July 25, 2011

Joburg vs Durban?

Hi everyone - I was hoping for some input from you on this one. Julia, one of my American readers who is relocating to South Africa with her family, is facing a choice: Durban or Johannesburg? My first reaction was envy - what luxury to be given a choice! For us it was just "Joburg or not." But then I was thinking maybe it was easier that way. I think of all the extra research I would have immediately engaged in, and shudder.

Anyway, I was hoping you could help out with your comments. I know almost nothing about Durban, so if those of you who do could jump in with your comments, that would be great. (Of course I'm still hoping Joburg will come out well in the comparison:-). Thanks!

July 24, 2011

Great Local Blogs

As my blog is discovered by more people around Joburg, I'm also discovering their blogs in return. I can't believe I didn't find a single one of these prior to moving here, when I desperately searched for any kind of information. But maybe it's a good thing, because that is precisely why I started Joburg Expat in the first place.

Some of these blogs are very entertaining and shed  more light on life in South Africa, with words as well as pictures, so I thought I'd share some of my favorites with you, in no particular order:
In Joburg - living on the rand: I especially loved this post about the South African Postal Service, a topic you all know I've written about occasionally as well. But where I've written about things that DON'T turn up in the mail, In Joburg found amusing things that DO flutter into your mailbox.
Story of Bing: Bing is from Singapore, the other country I've lived in as an expat, and she sees the world through a similar lens as I do. In fact, we've explored a few places together. But her photography (and her cooking!) are a hundred times better than mine.
2summers: Just like me, this is another American expat and writer in Joburg. And like Bing, she's also a member of the Joburg Photowalkers, a group I'd like to join but just can't seem to find the time for. Very artsy, and great writing.
Elliott and His Sisters: An entertaining account of life in South Africa from the perspective of an American married to a South African with three little children. Not strictly a local blog as she lives in Umhlanga Rocks, Kwa-Zulu Natal, which is actually a tropical paradise on the coast near Durban which our family has yet to check out.
janeyfromjoburg: I just came across this great Joburg blog about the writer's "love affair with Joburg." Wonderful writing and insights. I loved the post about Parkhurst's sidewalk cafe culture and the in-depth information on Soweto.
nothing to do in Joburg besides: Another well-written collection of interesting and eclectic Joburg stories and happenings. I loved this post about cappuccino art - makes me want to go out again and do my own cappuccino research!
Joburg Tour Guide: This lady is an archeologist and passionate Joburg lover who offers inner city tours and more. Another good place for information on places you might otherwise not know about.
Funky Doodle Donkey: Written by a Dutch expat who probably doesn't even remember where she is from, she's lived in so many places. Lots of stories and musings about life as an expat, travel, and life in general.

And here some not so local but nevertheless very readable expat blogs:
Life in the Expat Lane: Written by a Dutch/American with wonderful tales from pretty much everywhere around the globe, about pretty much every expat "situation" you can imagine, most recently from Moldavia.
I was an expat wife: Reflections of a Canadian about her former expat life in France and Singapore. Excellent writing that often has me laughing out loud and rereading sentences for their beautiful flow.

Take a peek at some of these - I guarantee you'll gain a better understanding of this great city of Johannesburg and expat life in general. Enjoy!

    July 22, 2011

    Germany Squaring Off Against South Africa

    I have to say, after a year in South Africa where “just now” could be anytime between this afternoon and next month, I sometimes long for German-style efficiency. A place where rumor has it they announce 2-minute power outages on the radio ahead of time. For weeks before the event.

    This just goes to show that reputations don’t always reflect the truth. For instance, you would totally expect your bags to get lost in an African airport, right? But every single time we’ve arrived at O.R. Tambo International (or when visitors have arrived) the luggage was there promptly.

    Where it didn’t arrive promptly, however, was in Hannover, Germany, on our recent trip. It took about 45 minutes for four of our five suitcases to trundle in at baggage claim in Hannover, but number five was nowhere to be seen. It took another 30 minutes to report this and then it took two days to have it delivered. Then, in Frankfurt, the luggage did arrive very promptly, but that wasn’t any help, because then there was no rental car. At least not one that fit five people and five suitcases, including a big crate. Even though we had requested just such a car. We were told to “wait for 15 minutes” but this turned out into 45 minutes. I was briefly wondering if we hadn’t accidentally returned to South Africa.

    Efficiency: South Africa 1 – Germany 0

    On other fronts, things were more as expected. Something else I had been looking forward to was summer weather. We had been freezing our behinds off during winter in Johannesburg for more than a month, so July in the Northern hemisphere sounded divine. Except I should have known better. We were in Hannover for 2 days before the sun even made an appearance. 14 degrees without sun and a wet drizzle instead sounds awfully close to the definition of winter, doesn’t it? By my calculations, we missed at least 20 hours of sunshine in those two days. The boys claimed that they loved this German weather, nice and cool and more humid than Joburg, but I am writing this blog and get to give out the grades, so:

    Weather: South Africa 1 – Germany 0

    The one thing you would NOT necessarily come to Germany for is humor, but again my prejudices were upended. I switched on the TV in our hotel room and was surprised to find Comedy Central. That is probably the single biggest thing I miss in South Africa. I've tried watching Jon Stewart online, but the internet is too slow. The comedy at places like Parker’s Comedy Club at Montecasino is great, but Multichoice’s TV programming is not. So I inhaled about 2 hours worth of sit-coms, until I got tired of listening to what was undoubtedly American slang translated into High German (I was constantly translating in my mind what each line might have been in English, because it just sounded too weird in German). Still, I have to say,

    TV Programming: Germany 1 – South Africa 0

    How did this get to be an international contest? I really didn't have that in mind when I started this post, but now I might as well keep going. Let’s talk about the people. If there is one thing that Germans love to do, it is criticizing others. Especially if you didn’t ask their opinion. We were standing on the side of a street, waiting to cross. There was a traffic light – robot – with a button for pedestrians to press. Which we did, except the entire light wasn’t functioning, neither for the cars nor for the pedestrians. When I saw that nothing was happening with the button pressed, I took the smaller kids by my hands and we all made a dash for it after the last car had passed. In a nasty tone, the elderly gentleman waiting at the light with us called behind me: “Crossing the road without waiting for green in front of kids, what mother would do that?” We didn’t wait to see what happened to him, but I’m sure he is standing there still, waiting for the light to turn green. He should read up on Dr. Seuss and the Zax story.

    It doesn’t take long for me to feel nervous and defensive when I’m in Germany. You always wonder what you might be doing wrong and are waiting to be reprimanded. That must be the effect of my German upbringing, but the kids are much more carefree. Jabulani, as is his nature, was happily walking through town greeting everyone with a friendly “Guten Tag,” only to attract the most malevolent stares. You just don’t greet people you don’t know. It is very suspicious. Whereas in South Africa, it would be rather rude NOT to greet people you pass. It made for a very entertaining game to keep doing it anyway.

    At the Lufthansa check-in counter in Hannover, I was chastised that I hadn’t removed the old tag off of one suitcase. Which is actually unusual, as I love nothing more than tearing those away as soon as I arrive. But this was the suitcase that hadn’t, actually, arrived together with us, remember? I refrained from pointing this out and reprimanding the lady for reprimanding me, however. In defense of Lufthansa, I have to say that their overall service was excellent and the flight attendants very friendly and great with the kids. Oh oh oh, and then in Stuttgart checking in on our way home, the attendant asked me if all those kids were mine, and then looked me up and down and complimented me on my slim figure. But despite all flattery, overall,

    Friendliness: South Africa 1 – Germany 0

    I think the above might also be the result of an aging German population. When you come from South Africa, which is such a vibrant and youthful country, it is very noticeable how many old people there are in Germany.

    Germany definitely beats out South Africa in terms of grocery shopping. In fact, I think Germany beats out the entire world in terms of competitive prices. The stores were open at 7:00 am and in some places didn't close until nearly midnight (this wasn't the case when I grew up there and restrictive laws  made it an absolute circus when everybody filed into town during the few hours the stores were allowed to be open). We had an absolute blast at the Milka outlet store where you could buy a four-pack of 300g chocolate bars for €5.99 (just to compare, my favorite Lindt chocolate bars of 100g each cost ZAR50 at Woolworth's, which makes it over ten times more expensive than those Milka's). Needless to say, we almost filled an entire extra suitcase with these bars, including - you guessed it - Noisette for Noisette.

    Food shopping: Germany 1 - South Africa 0

    One last thing I have to say: Nothing beats driving on the Autobahn (when traffic permits) at 220 km/h, which is only possible because those roads are impeccable. So,

    Roads: Germany 1 – South Africa 0

    Finally, the two countries are not so different after all, as I found out when browsing and comparing some pictures I took:



    Old cars


    July 20, 2011

    Is Dainfern Safe?

    As I mentioned earlier, our neighborhood was broken into the other day. According to the bulletin that was immediately posted by our security office, this was one in a string of similar break-ins throughout the Dainfern area (which makes you feel slightly better, somehow). Apparently the thieves knew where exactly the perimeter camera was knocked out due to a storm (corruption IS indeed a problem here), pried off the wall brackets holding the high-voltage wires and squeezed through underneath. Then, so the story goes, they succeeded in getting into a house, tying up the owner, and making off with a few items like cellphones. Incredibly, they got away. The tied-up homeowner was able to call for help and a neighbor untied him and called security, but by that time the attackers had left.

    July 19, 2011

    The Very Boring Hike

    When you’ve done a canopy tour, a bungy jump, and a whale watching tour in the space of just three days, it is very hard to come up with something else which will excite six kids (our own four and two visitors). It is also hard to come up with more money to keep paying for these excursions, so for Day Four during our recent stay in Wilderness on the Garden Route I came up with the glorious idea of going on a hike. Noisette likes hikes and this was Father’s Day, so I thought it would be more fun than spending our last day simply hanging out on the beach as originally planned. Up the hill right behind Wilderness there is a spot where the paragliders take off from, and nearby there is a place called “Map of Africa,” about which I knew absolutely nothing but it sounded promising. Plus there had to be a view from up high.

    Well – the entire way up the hill I got an earful of complaints from the usual suspects – Zax and Impatience (who keep wondering why I won’t change their blog names) – on how this was the absolute worst idea anyone could ever come up with, and why couldn’t we be normal like other families, yada yada yada. Please note how no one mentioned normal families when we did fun stuff. Even Sunshine chimed in this time, which I should have known because walking is not her strong suit. Especially uphill.

    And uphill it was. A very steep road, unfortunately also frequented by many cars going at top speed. The only thing that saved me from open rebellion was a pasture with horses about halfway up, whom we spent some time feeding and patting. When our path took us straight through a township, even Noisette had a  mutinous look in his eyes and grumbled about my lack of wisdom (I refrained from pointing out that he was the one who insisted that everyone come along – my plan was for voluntary participation, which I admit would  have resulted in me walking all by myself). It was actually quite funny, as we attracted quite a few stares from the boys playing soccer on the dirt road and the women carrying water buckets on their heads. White people don’t normally walk through a township. Actually, white people don’t normally walk, period.

    If I’ve learned one thing as a mom (and wife) it is to remain cheerful during occasions such as these instead of expecting some – any – kind of understanding. So just imagine, for a moment, a woman striding up the mountain (without socks – I had to cede those to Zax who had tried the lack of his as a ploy to disqualify from the hike) singing full-force, followed by a troop of grouchy kids with murderous looks on their faces, only keeping up because they need to unload all their bickering and sulking onto this lady's ears…

    That was pretty much our day. The Map of Africa was cute (a river carving its path in the shape of the Southern tip of Africa) but, as the kids correctly pointed out, just as easily reached by car. The paragliders were absent that day, so not even any excitement by proxy. But we saw a big grasshopper! 

    Thankfully, Noisette and Zax went to get the car while we fed some more horses, and we did get in another few hours at the beach – with pizza –  before having to catch our flight back to Joburg. There even was some skinny dipping, as witnessed here from very far away:

    By the way, Jabulani – who had also not wanted to go – later told me that he enjoyed the hike, and that he wanted to go hiking again soon, which we did shortly thereafter in Germany:

    So I enter our Very Boring Hike as exhibit for my case that parenting is all about starting tiny seeds. There is no instant success, no 100% conversion rate. If you look to be praised for your work or want to see results immediately, you should never become a parent. Parenting is all about realistic expectations. Frankly, one out of four is a pretty good percentage for our family. In fact, getting everybody to come along was a huge success in itself!

    And the view was indeed beautiful. Of the mountains...

    ...and the sea.

    July 17, 2011

    Happy Birthday Madiba!

    Photo from an
    exhibit in the
    Apartheid Museum
    Nelson Mandela is turning 93 today, and along with all the other well-wishers here in South Africa I'd like to say "Happy Birthday!"

    I've briefly mentioned Nelson Mandela and his extraordinary life before, like in Cape Town with Kids: Robben Island and A Trip Back into South Africa's History. But I haven't dedicated an entire post just to him, which is way overdue. I was going to do so when I finish A Long Walk to Freedom but unfortunately this is also proving to be "A Long Slug to the Last Page" for me, so his birthday arrived first to force my hand.

    To be honest, when we first set foot in South Africa, I didn't even know Nelson Mandela was still alive. I'd always been interested in the history of South Africa and probably knew more about it than the average American (admittedly my knowledge was gained not by poring over historical records but rather inhaling books such as The Power of One) but still, that whole transition from apartheid to democracy was always a bit fuzzy to me.

    What I've learned since then, more than anything else, is that Nelson Mandela is beloved to all South Africans. Black, colored, Indian, white, whatever you may call yourself, if you live in South Africa, you idolize Nelson Mandela. His large bronze statue on Mandela Square is probably one of the most-photographed attractions in Johannesburg. The best way to understand this love is to watch the movie Invictus, if you haven't seen it yet.

    Today - July 18th - South African school kids of every color and background will dedicate volunteer and outreach activities to the spirit of Nelson Mandela's message, and all of South Africa will once again stop and think about his huge accomplishments to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy, at a time when this was far from being assured. His insistence on reconciliation and forgiveness - an almost superhuman feat if you consider his 27 years behind bars - was instrumental in saving South Africa from civil war in the early 1990s. Sure, others had a hand in it as well, namely Frederik Willem de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with him for their joint and tireless work towards peace. But more so than anyone else, I can thank Nelson Mandela for the chance of even living in South Africa today.

    Me on Mandela Square during our look-see trip 2009

    More reading on Nelson Mandela: How I spent Mandela Day

    July 16, 2011

    Whale Watching in Knysna

    I had promised you the third installment in my Wilderness series, which was our whale watching tour departing from Knsysna.

    As I've mentioned before, this involved me going through gigantic waves in a small boat, which I had vowed never to do again after some friends took us through an inlet somewhere on the North Carolina coast and I was convinced we weren't going to make it. We did indeed have to turn around that time but thankfully we didn't capsize.

    July 15, 2011

    Fuel Shortage in Joburg

    Empty gas bottles
    This post will be a rather long-winded way to give you yet another expat tip. One thing about living in Johannesburg that I find very curious, if not irritating, is that every winter there is a shortage of just about everything you need to stay warm. I should have seen this coming when the frost sheeting for the plants - for Pete's sake - was sold out early on. Then it was the beanie hats for school at McCullagh & Bothwell. Now it is propane gas.

    Remember how I raved about my little gas heater for the kitchen? Well - it won't run without gas, will it? I was lucky in that our bottle ran empty early enough so that I could get a  new one when they still had them. Little did I know I should have bought about ten of them to have extras and to supply desperate friends. By now, you won't find any gas anywhere in Joburg. If someone does, please let me know!

    July 14, 2011

    The Bloukrans Bungy Jump

    I thought hard about the right title for this post. Most appropriately I'd call it "the near-heart-attack incident" but I didn't want to alarm you. However, that is precisely how it felt. I'm not sure how I got pulled into letting my child fling himself off a bridge - the world's highest bungy bridge at that - with me watching the whole thing (I was and still am very sure that I myself will never ever get pulled into doing it myself, but watching is bad enough).

    What happened is that we drove over that bridge several times getting from Wilderness to Tsitsikamma and back. Zax was immediately intrigued. Sometimes I suspect he says he wants to do these things because he believes we will never let him. When we had nothing else planned the next day and offered to take him there, he was almost taken aback. I saw him swallow hard in the backseat a couple of times as we were approaching.

    Here it is:

     And here are some facts about it:

    A 100% safety record - duh! I wonder if they'd get any customers if they put "99% safety record" on there?

    Noisette volunteered to walk the bridge with the boys (our German exchange student was also going to jump) which left me with the job of watching and chronicling from a safe distance. Here is what they had to brave to get to the launching point:

    Catwalk under the bridge
    Just a few flimsy barriers between bridge and nothingness

    To make sure the right rope is selected, the jumpers are weighed and labeled. It was all very professional. Though I later learned that while this particular bridge has a 100% safety record, there was an incident some time ago somewhere in Nelspruit where a jumper died because the rope was too long. I'm VERY glad I didn't have that tidbit of information ahead of time, or I simply wouldn't have allowed it.

    The escort (execution style) to the edge

    Then it all happened very fast. He was escorted to the edge of the bridge, there was a quick countdown, and then... bungeeeeeeee! They would have had to push me off that bridge, that's for sure. But our son took the plunge quite voluntarily and beautifully:

    The ride back up

    I was very proud but had tears streaming down my face. They were a mixture of pride (of his courage), compassion (for his undoubtedly weak knees), and fear (that this could all be trusted). I'm afraid my pictures weren't all that great, because I couldn't see properly through the blur. But thank goodness there is always the inevitable R200 souvernir DVD.

    If you can stomach it, watch below. I've seen it about fifty times (took me that often to get it right, Windows Movie Maker is not my friend, and why are there fifty thousand different video formats out there, none of them compatible with each other?) and I still get weak knees when I watch it.

    July 12, 2011

    Family Travels

    I’ve often told Noisette that my ultimate dream vacation would be the one where he tells me the two of us are leaving for the airport in one hour, that babysitting is all arranged, and to bring absolutely nothing as we will just buy whatever we need when we get there, wherever it is.

    Alas, we live in the real world, where our vacations look more like this: About a week before we leave, Noisette asks me if I have packed yet. No kidding! About two days before departure, I print my color-coded 367-item packing list, just to appease him and be able to say “I’ve started packing” without lying. When I do start packing the day before we leave, I’m always determined to work extra hard to show that it can be done. But yikes! I now find myself with about seventeen additional crucial projects that absolutely have to be finished before I go, or the world will come to a standstill. They usually involve having to print something on our inkjet, which will usually go into those funky spooling modes where the job won’t print but can’t be deleted either, or at the least a cartridge will have to be replaced. In addition, the kids will have seventeen projects each that also have to be finished. Which is usually the point where Noisette casually remarks that this is precisely why I should start packing earlier.

    Leaving the house is a race against the clock, every time. If Noisette wants to go at 8:30, he will want to leave on the spot, even though he has already built in extra time. Trust me, you don’t want to be the last one in the garage! In the kids’ frenzy to oblige, we’ve had the occasional unflushed toilet greeting us after a week’s vacation – not so very pleasant. Amazingly, we usually succeed in pulling it off and get to the airport on time (not without lots of griping, mind you), where the check-in procedure beckons. Noisette invariably tenses up as soon as we approach the counter. This is typically the moment our kids choose to tell me their life stories, all four at the same time, and I get so busy answering them all that the bags don’t get hustled onto the belt quickly enough, winding Noisette up even tighter.

    Thank goodness there is the security check to look forward to. All the way there, I’m bombarded with things like “when will we get there” and “are we flying business class” and “why do we have to take our shoes off?” and “I can’t wait for the pins in my arm to set off the alarm.” All this wondering, but no one ever really ponders the important questions, like what to put in their backpacks, or, more precisely, what NOT to put there. Let’s just say we’ve left so many scissors at airport security that they could outfit an entire elementary school class. And even odder items have attracted attention, like the light-up bouncy ball Sunshine had stuffed in her backpack after a birthday party. The electronics in it aroused suspicion and the thing had to undergo an explosives test before we could move on.

    On to the gate, and almost there. Except, we always fail to foresee the inevitable squabble over who gets to sit where. There are six people with very specific requirements: One absolutely needs an aisle seat, one must sit next to mom, a third one must NOT sit next to her brother, a fourth hasn’t gotten the window seat three times in a row. It’s pretty much a logistical impossibility to accommodate everyone, which means we usually have to trade concessions now against future promises, which basically just perpetuates the problem.

    Needless to say, once we finally sit in our seats, I go straight for the Chardonnay, and then a refill. After the second glass I close my eyes and imagine, in vivid colors, that dream vacation of mine. If I’m not distracted by the apple juice that just got spilled over my lap, that is…

    July 11, 2011

    Canopy Tour

    Although I'm terribly afraid of heights, I've always been intrigued by these canopy tours where you glide through the treetops on a series of ziplines. They're very popular here in South Africa. In fact, there is a place not too far from Joburg in the Magaliesberg that offers them.

    But the one we did was the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour, about a 2-hour drive from Wilderness, where we recently spent a long weekend.

    Will you just look at that flimsy platform, and how high it is off the ground? I'm telling you, I was a nervous wreck. However, the professionalism with which the tour was conducted did inspire some level of trust.

    There was always a guide on the platform you departed from as well as on the next one you were heading to. When you got there, the first order of business was to unclip you from the zipline and hook you onto a steel rope that was wound around the tree, so that you were hooked into something at all times. Still, it looked like a long way down from there! Oddly enough, I only get jittery when I'm standing on something tall. When I'm hanging from a rope and swinging in space, I don't mind.

    We spent a lot of time being briefed on where to put our hands. You get these leather gloves, one of them with a big extra flap for additional padding. That's the one you break with, by pressing down on the rope. But NOT IN FRONT OF THE PULLEY! Yes, I can see how that would be a problem.

    Our romantic weekend for two turned into an adrenalin-fest for eight!

    And it wouldn't have been a truly African experience if we didn't have to ride at least briefly in a game drive vehicle, or rather bounce up and down in one during the short ride to our first tree.

    Sunshine always stretched her arms and legs full out every time, making me extra nervous, although of course the pulley is what holds you up, and there is also a safety cord. But since she is so small, Sunshine didn't need to use her hands to break - she already came up short as it was and had to be pulled up to the platform.

    I had no choice but to trust this construction
    Yep, that's me happy to be moving along like a sack of flour

    Ready to launch...

    ...and Whoooopiiiiieeee!
    All in all great fun for the family. My family had extra fun, because for some added entertainment all they had to do is step close to the edge of the platform and lean over so that I would scream. It worked every single time, and so they did it on every single tree (there were ten of them)!

    But little did I know how benign a measly platform in a tree is compared to the Bloukrans Bungy Bridge. Stay tuned!