Joburg Expat: August 2011

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.

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).

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.

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

Relaxing at La Gemma dell' Est

If you're going to Zanzibar, La Gemma dell' Est is definitely the place to be. If you like luxury, that is. Otherwise I'm sure there is a backpacker's inn somewhere in Stone Town. Most of you who've been reading about our travels will know that we (and even more so our kids, I often think) are total snobs when it comes to hotels. That's because we've been to Hawaii and more recently Mauritius (which I have yet to write about), and once you've been spoiled in such a paradise it is hard to ever go back to anything less exalted.

The service at La Gemma was outstanding. From the welcome drink... sundowners...

...and room service.

As I've described elsewhere, every encounter with the friendly staff was accentuated with plenty of "Hakuna Matatas" and even though it was all-inclusive, meaning you never had any bills where you might have left a tip, the staff went out of their way to see if you needed anything around the clock.

One nice feature of La Gemma is its fairly wide sandy beach. It's not actually that wide and pretty  much disappears at high tide, but from what I hear, this is the best you will find in Zanzibar, which is not known for its wide beaches. And La Gemma has made the most of this by adding an artificial beach  of sorts a bit higher up between the real beach and the pool, so that you have the feeling of sitting on the beach no matter where you are. You can face the pool in the morning and rotate your chair and gaze over the ocean in the afternoon, without ever having to move. Just make sure you don't leave the chair selection too late in the morning - there are lots of European guests who have the habit of "marking" chairs with their towels before they go to breakfast, just to secure a good spot.

Overlooking the beautiful grounds of La Gemma

There was evidence of Europeans elsewhere. We guessed from a glimpse to the right that our neighbors must be German:

The food was good, but I wouldn't say great. Once again, we've been spoiled, so it's hard to please us, but for instance the dessert buffet had no one going back for seconds, which is pretty unusual in our family. They just didn't quite know how to make cakes and chocolate mousse. The same goes for breakfast, which is my favorite  meal, and I just love fresh bread and pastries with jam and butter together with a good cappuccino. Let's just say the croissants weren't anything close to real croissants, and most of the fruit was a bit unripe. However, there was definitely enough for everyone to find something they liked. I personally kept going back for the freshly grilled fish and vegetables at dinner time. Still, the food was the one area that might make me hesitate saying we'll definitely go back a second time, though at the all-inclusive rate we got it was a fairly good deal.

A perfect spot for dinner on the beach

Regarding the weather, I'm not sure if it was just bad luck or if this is the pattern at this particular spot on Zanzibar: The days would start out beautiful, but very punctually at around 10:00,  just as you were heading to the pool with your book, dark clouds would roll in. Glancing up it always looked like they should pass any minute, but a weird duo of an offshore and Southern wind somehow kept them firmly in place until about 3:00 in the afternoon, sometimes even subjecting you to a few brief showers. If you check out the beach picture above, you'll see the cloud I'm talking about. I was never truly hot while on Zanzibar (except during our excursion to Stone Town, where we would have welcomed some clouds). In fact, I've never truly been hot since living in Africa, ironically enough. Everything turns cold here when the sun is gone, even in Zanzibar which supposedly is in the tropics.

See what I mean about that cloud? Still the brilliant white sand
and crystal blue waters were stunning

The diving was good, so the boys say, and there were the usual watersports on offer as well. You could take out sea kayaks for free, rent a catamaran or Laser, or go waterskiing or parasailing. Back in the day, Noisette and I were pretty big into windsurfing (we spent our honeymoon with two weeks of windsurfing in Maui or should I say soaking in the hot tub to soothe our sore muscles), and for some odd reason I decided this vacation that it was time to step on a board again. I talked Jabulani into trying it, so together we rented two boards and proceeded to haul up those sails. An instructor helped us at first and had Jabulani's board tied to a long rope which he could use to haul him back in, a great idea. But it would have probably been an even better idea to teach him how to turn. Instead, as he progressed getting his sail hauled up and upright and wind into it, the instructor turned him loose and when it was time to turn around, yelled "turn around" at him. Needless to say, that didn't work so well. Still, we plowed on, and I had some great runs back and forth (though no one took a picture so I can't share one with you) and memories of the olden days surging through me. There is no better feeling, in my mind, then shooting across the waves propelled by the sheer power of the wind, the sun glinting on the waves.

Alas, no windsurfing picture, but here is one of the
many dhows sailing up and down the coast

They've made some changes to the boards from fifteen years ago,  most notably that the bigger ones used for beginners are now as wide as a boat. This greatly helps stability when hauling up the sail, but it also makes them impossible to turn when you're trying to tack. I didn't want to try and jibe (turning away from the wind) either, as that wicked wind which was blowing along the shore when standing on the beach was completely offshore once outside in the bay. So the best option was to crash, swim the sail around, and start again. You can imagine my arms were jello after just half an hour. Which was just as well since by that time Jabulani had drifted farther and farther out and from his antics I could see he was extremely frustrated. I somehow manhandled my board back to the dock, swam out to where he was sitting on his board and showering me with the vilest accusations, and manged to sail both of us back to shore (full disclosure: we were actually "rescued" when the instructor came out and met us with his motorboat, which had me a bit miffed because by now I was on a perfect course back home, but still Jabulani hopped off and preferred to go with him). I'm not too concerned that he will never try again as Jabulani of all our kids tends to forgive and forget and bounce back with renewed vigor the next time, but I admit I could have picked a better day (and maybe a better place) for his first foray into windsurfing. Still, I've caught the bug again and will definitely plan for some windsurfing next time on a windy beach.

One of our favorite spots, after the daily afternoon family tennis match, was the sunset bar built on stilts right into the ocean:

We would sip our drinks and watch a beautiful sunset, or look down to see huge fish swarms swirling below.

And we would gaze out at the calm ocean, toast each other, and say Hakuna Matata!

More on Zanzibar:

August 21, 2011

Stone Town

Every vacation we go on at least one excursion that according to our kids is incredibly stupid and unnecessary. In fact, we probably violate the Geneva Conventions with the kind of torture we inflict on them. Last time around when we were in George, our crime was The Very Boring Hike. This time, in Zanzibar, we decided to explore Stone Town.

It looked very inviting and picturesque, according to our hotel brochure, and there is only so much diving and sitting on the beach that you can do over the course of a week, so we signed up for an excursion to Stone Town on our third day. Back we went the same way we had come from the airport a few days earlier, an hour of skirting potholes, donkey carts, and bikes, with good glimpses of a world entirely different from ours. Veiled women (95% of Zanzibar is Muslim), colorful clothes hung out to dry, animal carcasses hanging in butcher shops, and most often people just sitting around. Especially the men. That is the one lasting imagine I will take from Africa with me – people sitting along the road doing nothing. Maybe they’re waiting for a taxi, or waiting for a job to come find them, or waiting for better fortune. I don’t know, but sit around they do.

August 19, 2011

Hakuna Matata

Zanzibar. Few names ring as magical and so full of mystery as Zanzibar. It makes you think of spices, Arabs, sultans, explorers, and all of 1001 Nights thrown into the lot. Noisette and I thought that while we're living reasonably close, visiting Zanzibar was too good a chance to pass up.

So off we went to this exotic land at the start of the  kids' August term break. There is a direct flight from Johannesburg to Zanzibar on 1Time, if you don't mind the rather rickety plane (before moving to Africa, I always had pity on those poor people having no other choice but to fly with such outfits as Congo Air, but let me tell you, our plane was not much above that). I've already told you about our arrival and visa odyssey, but now I'd like to talk about Zanzibar itself.

Waiting for the bus

Zanzibar bus/taxi

As always, reality puts a cold damper on your imagination. What seems incredibly exotic and vibrant and beautiful in your mind invariably suffers from the harsh realities of life, namely poverty, dirt, and a bad smell. Still, I would say that Zanzibar has a very special charm, not so much stemming from its illustrious history (more on that in my post about Stone Town) but from the friendliness of its people.

If there is one phrase that encompasses the people of Zanzibar, or the entire Swahili culture for that matter, it is Hakuna Matata. It means something close to "no worries," as immortalized in the movie The Lion King, but until now I didn't know that these words were actually spoken by real people.

Bikes are central to the Zanzibar economy

You really don't have to know much Swahili to have a conversation in Zanzibar, which would typically go something like this:

- Jambo (how are you?)
- Sijambo, wewe? (I am well, and you?)
- Sijambo. Hakuna matata

Every encounter ends with Hakuna Matata, and coupled with the brilliant smile most Zanzibaris will offer you, it really starts to seep into your psyche. There is no reason to worry! Life is great! Everything will work out!. Of course it helps when you're at a 5-star resort with free round-the-clock alcoholic drinks to your heart's content, but still. Montaigne once said that "The pleasantest things in the world are pleasant thoughts: and the great art of life is to have as many of them as possible." If anyone has taken this advice to heart, it is the people of Zanzibar, and by extension the rest of Tanzania and Kenya - which we have yet to see - as well. Hakuna Matata goes a long way towards keeping pleasant thoughts in your mind.

Local market in Zanzibar

Most of Zanzibari life revolves around the sea, coupled with some farming. The freshest fish is always on the menu, and wooden dhows gracefully glide along the coastline all day long. They are built today just as they have been built for hundreds of years and there are several dhow making centers along the Zanzibar coast where you can observe the skilled craftsmen at work on these ships.

We all loved Zanzibar, and even though our kids would argue that we could have done without the trip to Stone Town, I think that it was important for them to see such a different world and I hope it will leave an impression somewhere in the recesses of their minds.

Hakuna Matata, everyone!

More on Zanzibar: