September 30, 2011

Expat Joys - Eating a Mango

A few days ago, I ate the very first mango of the season.

Come to think of it, it was actually still very much out of season, as I haven't seen another one for sale since then, and I seem to recall from last year that the South African mango season doesn't start until closer to December. The cold winter months of June and July seem but a distant memory now that it is practically summer again, and it is agonizing having to wait over two more  months for mangoes to make their regular appearance on store shelves and street corners.

So this one single mango was like a gift from heaven, and I savored every last bite of it. I've heard some people say - people who are much more seasoned expats than me, with many more international moves under their belts - that these mangoes here are nothing compared to the ones in Asia, but I can't imagine this to be true. South African mangoes are high on my list of expat joys. When they are in season, I keep a steady supply of them in our fruit bowl, making sure they ripen but don't ripen too much (this is an art, just as it is an art to cut up the mango once it's ready, an art I'm afraid I still haven't quite mastered, but can it ever by mastered with such an unpredictable pit?) and Jabulani and I will devour at least one a day, standing up, our mouths dripping.

My out-of-season mango, wherever it came from, was absolutely perfect.

Entire Expat Joys series:

Chocolate Mousse in Paradise

Considering I've written two chocolate-titled posts this past week, you might think I'm a chocolate addict. Which is definitely not true, though it might be true for the rest of my family.

When one thinks about Mauritius, one doesn't necessarily think about chocolate mousse. One might rather think of this:

The beach at Le Touessrok, Mauritius

Towels and cooled water are waiting for you when you swim to one of these

Except when you've been at Le Touessrok Hotel once before (we have, last December; this was our second trip). Then you will forever think back to the beautiful restaurant and the even more beautiful dessert table, and especially the corner with chocolate mousse in such abundance your eyes will water from joy. And trust me, I'm a chocolate mousse connoisseur, making a pretty good batch myself. Le Touessrok's is the absolute best, and you can go back again and again for yet another one, which is exactly what we all did every night of our stay there.

All the food at Le Touessrok is divine, but the dessert table tops it all

What I wouldn't give for one of those right now!
Beautiful setting for dinner

There are tons of other things Le Touessrok has going for it, and if you want more details, check out my review on Tripadvisor. It is by far the best hotel we've ever stayed at, with the possible exception of the Four Seasons on Maui. In fact, Mauritius is very much like Africa's Hawaii. It has the perfect climate and simply does tourism very well. You will arrive at a modern, air-conditioned airport, breeze through immigration without the long wait and exorbitant visa fees you have come to expect from other African destinations, you will be whisked to your hotel in a luxury van, and the service and food will be outstanding. No malaria pills to worry about, great weather year-round, and not all that far (5 hour flight) from Johannesburg. With all these things going for it, you really will wonder why you'd ever want to go anywhere else again for a beach vacation.

View from our rooms at Le Touessrok

Of course it'ts not cheap. But then again, all travel in Africa seems to be much more expensive than we ever imagined, so Mauritius doesn't particularly stand out (as long as you don't go there over Christmas). What we loved at Le Touessrok in particular was the excellent service - your wishes were practically read from your lips before you even uttered them, forming a striking contrast to our stay at Pemba Beach in Mozambique, where almost none of our wishes were fulfilled, even when spoken out loud several times in a row - and the fact that you're left to do whatever you want. If you want to do nothing and just read your book sitting at the pool, there will be no annoying water gym people trying to round you up. If you want to do watersports all day long, from waterskiing to parasailing and more, simply take the free hotel shuttle to Isle aux Cerfs and play there to your heart's content.

Waterskiing at Isle aux Cerfs is free for guests at Le Touessrok

Parasailing comes at an extra charge but is worth it for the view
(so I'm told - I don't do heights, remember?)

My favorite place to hang out was on a lounge chair right at the pool, even though you could argue I wouldn't have to fly all the way to Mauritius for that. Still, it's a very nice pool, and heated, so my kids didn't even have to prod too much to drag me in there.

Heated to a perfect 28 degrees Celcius
My favorite job: judging handstand competitions right from my chair

But just so you won't think I didn't move all weekend, we did have our daily afternoon tennis match (which, in an alarming new trend, Jabulani and I lost), and I was drafted successively by all four kids to play paddle ball, or whatever you call that game with the two wooden paddles that must be very annoying for everyone else not playing but forced to listen to the clack-clack until they're counting along with you.

Zax and I on our way to the new family record of 212!

Oh, and I should also mention the diving. Noisette, Zax, and Jabulani all have their open water qualification. Noisette talked Impatience into giving it a try this time around, so she got to practice in the hotel pool, which made Sunshine beg to be allowed to do it as well, even though she is only nine. In the end, you guessed it, I was also made to don the diving gear, but I can assure you, I'm even less fond of depths than heights. Though I have to admit, when I saw the first pictures made with Noisette's new underwater camera, I was a bit tempted. I'll share them with you in an upcoming post.

All in all, Mauritius was as glorious the second time around as the first, and we are pretty certain that this visit won't have been our last.

September 28, 2011


My initial impression upon moving here was that South Africa is a baking-challenged nation. Why else should it be so hard to find an ingredient as basic as the chocolate chip?

At first I thought maybe I was the challenged one. What with biscuits called scones and cookies called biscuits and pretty much everything else called pudding. Seriously, I had brought a beautiful home-baked apple galette for dessert to a friend’s house, made from a recipe I take great pride in – a buttery and incredibly flakey dough, with just the right amount of sweetness. She called me the next day and thanked me for the pudding.

But subsequent visits of baking aisles at the various grocery stores made me wonder. Maybe South Africa is baking-challenged because it has put its entire baking prowess into the production of the perfect rusk, leaving no room for anything else? You’ll find an entire aisle full of these things best eaten after dunked into your tea, similar to a biscotti in concept but sadly not in actuality.

I’ve now got “chocolate chips” permanently etched on my mental shopping list, and every once in a while I’d think I finally scored. I tried the kind from Woolworth – a store I worship – but they were more like a fine dust of grated chocolate. Definitely not the same. I found a package of what looked like large flat chocolate chips at Pick n Pay one day, but they tasted so awful I actually had to throw them away. I tried chopping up chocolate – there is a lot of good chocolate to be had here, just not in morsel-format – but if you’ve ever done that you will know that you end up with more chocolate  flying into all four corners of your kitchen than will end up anywhere near a cookie.

And if you think “what’s the big deal, just go and buy some cookies  – uhm, biscuits - then,” you’ve got it wrong. South African cookies, let’s face it, are just not very good. That’s the plain and honest truth, sorry my friends. There are lots of foods I love here – I could go on and on just about yoghurt – but cookies are not amongst them. Every once in a while, a person needs a good chocolate chip cookie (or, frankly, just a tub full of the cookie dough) when she’s had a rough day.

What I did find one day on my quest for chocolate chips was a nice looking package of baking mix. Maybe South Africans just don’t like to bake from scratch, I thought, so I gave it a try. But it was exactly as if I was baking from scratch! I was asked to add milk, and butter, and eggs, and it seems like maybe the flour and sugar as well. It was an “Emperor’s new clothes” kind of baking mix, but it seems South Africans are quite happy to go along with it.

Last week my search for the elusive chocolate chip took a turn to the serious: Sunshine, age 9, was having a market day at school and had volunteered to provide – you guessed it – chocolate chip cookies to sell. Too bad my kids never consult me before making such rash pronouncements. What now? I already told you how our ancient hand-held Braun mixer had to come to the rescue due to our transformer going up in smoke, but I still had no chocolate chips.

This is when I remembered a friend telling me about a shop called Kadies, way early into our tenure here, when I had voiced a similar complaint. Back then I couldn’t be bothered going to five different stores every time I shopped. I guess I was still determined to bend South Africa to my will. But with your pride on the line when your daughter has volunteered your baking skills, you have to make concessions. So on to Kadies I trudged (just go straight across William Nicol if you're coming out of Montecasino, and it will be down a bit on your right hand side next to a small Spar), and what a worthwhile visit I had!

Kadies at Kingfisher Shopping Centre, 011 465 5572

Kadies is nothing short of amazing. They’ve got everything you could ever imagine that is in any way connected to baking. Including chocolate chips. Not just a few bags, but an entire aisle dedicated to them – dark, white, milk, 52% cocoa, 60% cocoa, small bags, big bags, gigantic bags… You name it, they had it, and I was seriously challenged making any type of decision.

It was as if all of Joburg's chocolate chip supply was stored in this one single place.

Chocolate Chips to your heart's content at Kadies

It turns out there must be some pretty serious bakers out there to warrant such a store. So perhaps it’s not so much that South Africans don’t bake. It’s just that they love going from one specialty store to another to do their buying.

Kadies had baking supplies I couldn't even have dreamed up

They will also make cakes for you or let you rent the sheets/tins for baking your own

The cookies turned out great, and Market Day was a big success (with my pride intact). Here is the recipe from “How to cook everything,” one of my trusted cookbooks:

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 2 sticks (250 g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (finding the right type of brown sugar is also a bit of a challenge, but I'm sure Kadies would be the place for that as well)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups (9 oz or 255 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla exrtract
  • 2 cups chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 375 F or 175 C
  2. Use an electric mixer to cream together butter and sugars; add eggs one at a time and beat until well blended
  3. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and add them to the batter, stirring just until blended. Stir in vanilla and chocolate chips.
  4. Drop by tablespoons onto baking sheets covered with parchment (make sure you leave plenty of space around them or they will run together) and bake until lightly browned, 8-10 min. Cool 2 minutes on sheets, then transfer to rack to cool completely. Or eat them warm!

Founder's Day at Dainfern College

If I ever need reminders that choosing a South African school for our kids was the right thing to do, the recent Founder's Day ceremony at Dainfern College was the perfect occasion.

Founder's Day 2011 at Dainfern College, South Africa

Not that you should pick a school based on how good a party it can throw. But as I was sitting there in the stands (when I wasn't wandering the grounds trying to get the perfect shot of everything) next to another expat woman whose family had just arrived, I saw our school again through her eyes, jaw dropping in wonder. I noticed the sense of order in the rows and rows of identically clad children. I noticed the effort our school puts into maintaining immaculate grounds. I noticed the pride on display, not unlike what one encounters at a college football game in America. I noticed how beautifully our school choir sings, how eloquently our school leaders speak, and how much education for life is at the core of this school's principles, so much more than just a knitted-together curriculum of various subject areas. I felt gratitude for being a part of all this.

Dainfern College choir singing at Founder's Day

Founder's Day is a commemoration of a school's founding, a birthday party of sorts. There was singing, including a pretty cool rap performance, the orchestra played, many speeches were held, a "cup of learning" was passed between the grades, and of course there was a birthday cake.

Dainfern College's birthday cake is cut

The illustrious speakers, including head girl and boy for both the high and prep school

The passing of the cup

Just as everyone was beginning to nod off in the hot sun (even the most illustrious speakers cannot compete with that), we were treated to a spectacle that had not been listed on the day's program: Two airplanes appeared, roaring over the school in formation, trailed by fluffy white stripes of condensation, giving us a most impressive aerobatics performance, made even more impressive by the fact that one of the pilots is the mother of one of our students. I'm sure he never had to think long and hard on where to spend his job shadowing day!

After the ceremony finished, I spent the rest of the morning shopping at the Grade 3 Market Day, where Sunshine's chocolate chip cookies found a warm reception (stay tuned for my chocolate chip story tomorrow), and playing netball against Impatience's team, before heading home to gather the picnic blankets and chilling wine bottle to spend a most lovely evening at the outdoor family concert on the school grounds well into that night.

September 25, 2011

Blowin' in the Wind

After berating American energy consumption in one of my recent posts, I have decided to put my money where my mouth is (a little bit). I have taken to hanging the laundry up to dry.

The good news is, hanging up your laundry is allowed here. In fact, most houses already come equipped with a special contraption dedicated to that very task. So you won't have any hassles with an onerous neighborhood association that might disapprove of such a lowly display, as is entirely possible when you're living in any upscale American neighborhood.

Hanging my laundry takes just a little bit longer than putting it in the dryer and it gives me immense joy to see it dry within two hours in what has to be the world's non-humidest air (judging from the state of my skin). You basically hang up the clothes, go have some coffee, and they're ready to take down again. Not that you have to this time of year, since it never rains here from May to October (this year, the rain actually started early with an unexpected but welcome rainstorm last Tuesday, at the middle of September).

Granted, some things just have to go into the dryer (or you might as well employ a wooden board to towel yourself dry after a shower). And without domestic help and the magic of somebody ironing our clothes I probably would not last long with this new regimen, but for now this works perfectly. I wash and hang on her off days, and she irons when she comes.

Now I just have to figure out how much electricity it is that I'm not using, so that I can go and buy some skincare products from the savings.

September 23, 2011

Today is Heritage Day

On September 24, South Africans celebrate Heritage Day. It is a holiday meant to encourage everyone to remember their heritage, their culture, their traditions. Even though I'm not South African, it made me wonder: What is my heritage?

I grew up in Southern Germany, raised "schwäbisch," in other words thrifty with a terrible accent, growing up on my mom's homemade berry jam and the admonition to work hard and not impose on others. At sixteen I spent a year in the deep deep American South, having had the incredible good fortune of being accepted into the most wonderful family, and trading my Southern German accent for an equally broad and misunderstood American one. In my early twenties, together with Noisette - the other incredible good fortune of my life - I left the land of my fathers for good and set out for the New World, so to speak, but one I already knew from my high school exploits. Almost twenty years later, we are now citizens of that adopted country of ours, together with our four beautiful children, but in a twist of irony that is typical for our family we actually don't live there anymore, having been deposited on these murderous - if you believe the opinions spewing forth on the internet - shores of South Africa. And we carry around a little bit of Asia in us from our brief interlude in Singapore, from where we retain, at the very least, our fondness for spicy food and leaving our shoes at the doorstep.

So it's a bit complicated to reflect on my heritage, but I'm raising my glass to all the great places we've had the privilege to travel to and call our home, and especially the wonderful people we've met along the way.

September 22, 2011

Gardening in South Africa

One of the most annoying things about becoming an expat is having to learn certain things from scratch. Like what kind of fish to buy. Which cut of meat you need when you're looking for flank steak. And the names of the plants around you.

I thought this being spring would be a good time to tell you a little of what I've learned about gardening in South Africa. Even though I've claimed before that there are only Two Weeks of Spring, judged by temperatures, we are still at the beginning of spring when it comes to planting your garden.

First off, South Africa is a gardener's dream. It's warm most of the year, but not oppressively so, which gives you the perfect weather year-round to get out there and swing your shovel. The only snag I've found with that is that people probably think I'm weird. Labor is so cheap here, you see, that almost everyone has a gardener doing this kind of work for them. In fact, doing it yourself might somehow be viewed as taking a much-needed job away.

But I can't help myself. I love walking around the yard among all the plants, getting my hands dirty, and seeing the progress of "my babies." It's not the same as having someone else do it for you. So on my last trip around our garden and through our neighborhood I donned my camera to show you my favorites. As you can see, I love anything that flowers, so if you're looking for non-flowering plants, this might not be the right article for you. (Also, even though the heading talks about Gardening in South Africa, this is more an article about gardening in Johannesburg; if you live in Cape Town, you will be dealing with an entirely different climate, but also many other equally beautiful options.)

Bougainvillea: Both Noisette and I fell in love with Bougainvilleas in Singapore where they'd spill down from overpasses with an abundance of color that's hard to surpass. So when we got a little bit of a budget from our landlord here to improve the garden, we had a couple bougainvilleas thrown in. Unfortunately, they were planted sometime in May and promptly died when it got cold in June. But undeterred, we planted new ones in spring, and a year later they are doing fine. Here in Joburg you do have to beware of frost, which is why people cover up their sensitive plants with frost sheeting during the cold months. We have one that we planted against a wall and it survived the best of all of the, as it was protected from the cold wind.  But if you're a bit careful, all your bougainvilleas will do well and reward you with plenty of blossoms all summer long. (Full sun, drought resistant, in fact, more water will make leaves grow but will bloom better when dry, protect from frost.)

Tying rocks to the end of the shoots as weights helps your bougainvillea spill over a wall

Queen’s Wreath: At least I hope that's what this is called. There is this particular bush I see almost every day on the way to school,  and it is absolutely stunning. It is also listed as Sandpaper Vine or Petrea Volubilis. (Full sun, fast growing, easy to grow, drought resistant, can tolerate frost briefly.)

Queen's Wreath or Sandpaper Vine

Wild Iris: Our borders are full of them, and they are very easy maintenance. You just have to cut them back severely in the fall or early spring, and they will bloom all summer. They're a little bit what daylilies are back home, though they have those here as well. But I prefer the thick foliage of the wild irises. (Full sun, grows like a weed, perfect for perennial borders.)

Wild Iris

It's still a bit early for the wild irises so I just found this lonely blossom,
but soon there will be hundreds.

Bird of Paradise: Also called Strelitzia reginae, and I just learned that it is actually indigenous to South Africa. But I don't think they're actually made for the highveld, as mine seem to struggle with frost. They pretty much die at the onset of winter and by the time all the leaves are finally regrown, it's winter again before we get any flowers. But they are everywhere throughout the neighborhood where they seem to be doing fine, so maybe they just have to be established for several years before blooming regularly. (Full sun to partial shade, needs regular water, blooms several times a year.)

Strelitzia, also called Bird of Paradise

Red Hot Poker: These members of the lily family, also called Kniphofia or Torch lily, are stunning in large groups, such as I pass every day on my way out of our gate as seen in the picture below. (Full sun, flowers mid-summer, needs regular water but well-drained soil, mulch in winter to protect from frost.)

Red Hot Poker or Torch Lily

Bottle Brush: Also called Callistemon and native to Australia. These have been such a joy in our garden with their spectacular brush-like flowers. They are bushes that grow into trees over time, comparable to a Crape Myrtle, and they flower several times each summer. Water them well after planting, and then they should take care of themselves. We have two in pots on our patio, and two more in the flowerbed along the fence, and both are doing well. (Full sun or partial shade, occasional watering.)

Bottle Brush Bush

Rose: Good old roses - what can I say? Maybe that is why the rose is such a symbolic flower, because it can exist pretty much anywhere in the world. This is the only plant I've had in every single garden where we've lived (though perhaps with the exception of Singapore). Our roses here flower pretty much year-round, though we do cut them back pretty drastically in the winter.

Roses do very well in South Africa

Jasmine: If you're not the gardening-type but might be persuaded to plant just one single thing, I would say it has to be Jasmine. It grows like a weed (you do have to cut it back regularly where you don't want it to grow or your house will turn into Sleeping Beauty's castle), is resistant to the kind of frost we get here (just goes dormant in the winter but keeps all its waxy dark green foliage), and flowers beautifully throughout spring and most of summer. It makes for a great screen if you help it up the fence a bit (once it's found a place to wind around, it won't need any encouragement), and the scent from those little white flowers is intoxicating.

Jasmine is good at climbing and winding around fences
You can see the jasmine flowers throughout our flower bed, with a daylily in the middle

Potato bush: We have these bushes, also called Solanum, growing along our fence, and much like the Jasmine it is virtually indestructible and has pretty purple flowers all summer long. It loses its leaves in the winter but will grow very fast all summer, so you can cut it back to any shape you'd like. I prefer let it shoot through our fence however it wants.

Potato Bush

Clivia: While most of the plants I've described above need full sun or at least flower much better when exposed to lots of sunlight, I wanted a potted plant on our patio where it's shady. I had an Azalea there first but somehow killed it (a sad testament for someone who had gazillions of azaleas in her yard in North Carolina, I'm still not sure if it was too much or too little water that did it), and just bought this Clivia which seems to be doing fine and has stunning flowers.


Aloe: I'm not such a big fan of these, but they are native to Africa (particularly common in the Cape area) and seem to be doing extremely well in my garden. They actually have stunning flowers in the winter, which gives your garden a nice splash of color when most everything else is looking drab.

It's a pity I forgot to take a picture of the stunning aloe flowers during winter. Just picture
the sorry left-over stem you see as a vibrant orange torch, and about 5-6 per plant.

Agapanthus: I think this is what this border perennial is called. It is also native to South Africa and seems to do very well in our yard. It flowers only once sometime in summer but the blossoms last several weeks and look stunning, a full ball of blue on each stem, and each bush producing many of them. I also like the foliage of the plant the rest of the year, it's nice to look at as a border.

I'm sorry again for not to have a flowering Agapanthus picture for you.
I'll have to take one this summer!

And finally, I have to mention Jacaranda tress here. You won't be able to plant them here as they are considered invasive species (originally from South America) and there is a big push by the South African government against non-native plants, actually taking out some and not allowing the planting of others. But maybe you'll get lucky and find a house in an older neighborhood with Jacaranda-lined streets. It is a sight to behold in October/November, and there is a reason Pretoria is also called the Jacaranda City.

I'm sure some of my loyal South African readers will  have comments about what I've left out or maybe even misnamed, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes. I invite all your comments!

September 21, 2011

What is Wrong with Appliances in South Africa?

Seriously, buying a kitchen or other electrical appliance here is definitely a challenge. For one, you never know what kind of plug it's going to come with - Euro or South African? Three-prong or two-prong Euro? this makes a difference in what kind of outlet adapter you need. And the two-prong Euro plugs are sometimes flimsy, simply falling out of the outlet.

But there are quality issues as well. I have a friend who swears that European manufacturers send their B and C quality products to Africa, the ones they couldn't sell in Europe because of production defects. The following story another friend told me recently seems to underscore that point:

I have had the most interesting time buying small appliances here in South Africa. First, I purchased three clock radios for our bedrooms.  Right off I realized that one of the radios could not be tuned into any stations without huge amounts of static. Took it back for a refund.  Several days later, my daughter found that hers no longer played the radio either.  Took it back for a refund as well -- by the way, these were Phillips (usually quite a good name, I believe!)
Earlier this week, I bought an electric water kettle (Russell Hobbs) that upon first usage dripped water from the bottom.  Not just a little water -- it gushed out the bottom.  Upon its return to Checkers, the clerk shrugged and suggested that someone must have dropped the box.  So I drove to Boardmans where someone suggested I will find high quality goods and purchased a Mellerware kettle there.  Worked great the first day.  Yesterday, it wouldn't turn on. I returned it today and got a different one.  Guess what?  It doesn't work!  It won't stay on, just keeps popping off.  If I hold down the switch for 2 minutes, I can make a lovely cup of tea and deliberate my incredible string of bad luck. 
I guess I've learned my lesson -- always keep the boxes and receipts!  I found myself digging through the rubbish bin at the street to rescue the boxes from the clock radios.

Ah, again and again those pesky clock radios keep cropping up. Note to all prospective American expats in South Africa: Buy battery alarm clocks (or dual voltage iHomes, or just use your darn cellphones) and you will have taken one huge hassle off your post-arrival to-do list! 

I couldn't help but laugh out lout at the vision of this friend going through the garbage at the street. That is SO  something that happened to me regularly when we first came here. It would have fit quite nicely into my Dustbin Saga. And if you'll remember, I would have had no trouble finding receipts from three weeks back, if I had put my mind to it, because the garbage workers were on strike and there was a huge pile sitting at the bottom of our driveway!

Oh, and I'll soon join the ranks of expat appliance shoppers in Joburg. Our trusted transformer just blew up (it had suspicious smoke coming out for weeks) and now we are without a toaster, Kitchenaid, waffle iron, and panini press. Of course it gave up its struggle the day Sunshine had to  make cookies for her market day at school, but once again that old box of German appliances in our garage has come to the rescue, in the form of an ancient, and I mean ancient, hand-held Braun mixer. What a testament to Braun that it has survived Noisette's student days in the early 90s and our years in Singapore and then about 10 unused years in a bin with other similar relics of a different era. 

But we still need a new toaster. I'm already bracing myself for switches that won't work and toast flying all over my kitchen.

September 19, 2011

Where Can I Find an Alarm Clock?

Thanks to one of my new expat friends who just arrived in Joburg last week I thought of writing this post for the benefit of everyone. She sent me a somewhat urgent message, while out on errands on a Sunday, about where to go for stationary and lunchboxes and that very elusive item for newly arrived expats here, the radio alarm clock. It made me realize that while I've written about Things to Buy Before You Move to South Africa and Grocery Shopping in Johannesburg, even Searching for Applesauce in South Africa, I haven't given any tips on where to go for those first crucial items.

I well remember when I was on The First Shopping Trip myself. I was equally frustrated our first weekend here, having to buy school uniforms for four children, school supplies, food, and, yes, alarm clocks. Perhaps it is not surprising that alarm clocks should be hard to find in a country that has at least three different definitions of the word now, none of them actually meaning now. (Another very elusive item are night lights. I have to admit I never found those in South Africa, since no one had any idea what I was talking about.)

So here are my tips for Things to Buy Your First Week (I've tried to arrange them by topic as well as by the route you should take):

First of all, don't make this trip on a Sunday, if possible. Or get going right at 10:00 am before many stores close at 2:00 pm, if they are open at all.

Converter plugs and multi-strips: There is no doubt one of your first errands in South Africa will be to somehow get all your stuff plugged in. Once again, you best already come with converter plugs (we've fared very well with the Universal Outlet Travel Plug from Amazon), but you will probably still need some multi-strips, because South Africans insist on building houses with only two power outlets per room (and none in your bathroom). The best place for these is Builder's Warehouse, behind the McDonald's at Fourways Crossings. But make sure you take note before you go of what exactly it is you need, i.e. South African or Euro plugs, facing to which side because of wall constraints, etc. I have many of these multi-plugs sitting in a drawer because they didn't quite fit the way I had imagined.

Stationary: The best place for this is Walton's in Fourways Crossing, situated sort of behind and under Fournos Bakery if you turn right at the traffic circle next to Standard Bank. It's a bit like Office Depot. Checkers Hyper at Fourways Mall (across from Fourways Crossing on the other side of William Nicol) also has a decent stationary aisle. In fact, Checkers Hyper is the closest to a SuperTarget you will find here, so you could also go there first with your list.

Electronics: While you're already at Fourways Crossing, you can check out HiFi, Incredible Connection, or Stax. They all have large offerings of electronics. I think I was able to find a radio alarm clock at Incredible Connection, but the selection is almost nonexistent and the one model they have might not be great quality. Therefore, as I've said in my "What to buy before moving" post, I suggest getting battery operated alarms back home before moving here. You're better off with that in any case, because the power still goes off fairly regularly around here. Or get an iHome, those are usually dual voltage. When you're done at Fourways Crossings, you best go back out and up the hill past Builder's Warehouse, turn right, then left again, and this will get you in the vicinity of Pineslopes Shopping Centre, across from which you will find Hirsch's. They have a very large selection of electronics as well as appliances at good prices, so if you're strapped for time, you might just want to make one stop at Hirsch's.

I bought this deLonghi automatic coffe-
maker at Hirsch's and received good service
Appliances: If you didn't bring any transformers, you will need to buy things like toasters and hairdryers and such. If you haven't found anything at Hirsch's, the best place for this is probably Design Quarter, a shopping center with an emphasis on home furnishings. There is a very nice store there called @home that carries everything from kitchen appliances to patio furniture, but it is also very expensive. A better option would be Woolworth Home or Boardman's, both also at Design Quarter. There is also a Mr. Price Home there, which is a good inexpensive place for home furnishings. As no doubt you'll have gotten tired of all the shopping by now, stop quickly at vida e caffe and treat yourself to one of the better lattes you will find in Joburg. Oh, and I'm pretty sure you'll also need a vacuum cleaner. And I'm also sure there is no better brand than Miele. I will never go back to anything else and could probably dedicate an entire post just to the virtues of their vacuum cleaners. There is a Miele store on the road to Sandton on the left that you should definitely pay a visit to.

School uniforms: You won't need those for the American School, but if you chose Dainfern College or any of the other South African private schools, your very first trip will be to McCullagh & Bothwell to be clothed. Remember that they close at 3:00 pm on Saturdays and are closed on Sundays.

Are you already tired from reading all this? That first shopping trip is so crucial for expats, and I hope the above list will save some future shoppers time and effort, even if it probably already is too long for just one trip. Once you've got that out of the way, you might want to find out more about other shopping-related expat tips by clicking on "Shopping" in the Topics of Interest list to the right.

Oh, and one more thing: Beware of the return policy! Don't go buying the first thing you see, thinking you can always return it. I'd check out prices first or perhaps even do some homework reading reviews on Amazon, because here in South Africa, once you've bought it, you better well keep it. Most appliances and electronics have just a one-week return policy, and even then you will be grilled as to the reasons why you're returning the item, so it will be another loooooong errand. Manufacturer's warranties are typically a year but I'm sure there will be some lovely paperwork involved if you ever have a need to claim one of those!

September 17, 2011

How You can Help Alexandra Baseball

I've told you about what we've accomplished so far with Alexandra Baseball, which mainly meant getting more equipment. I've also written about the upcoming Funfest in Alexandra where we'll use the bulk of this equipment for the first time to give a lot more kids exposure to the sport. If the day is a success, then many more kids will sign on for league play in the upcoming season, and several schools will start fielding their own teams. And guess what that means? We'll need more equipment!

In my last post I appealed to prospective expats moving to South Africa to help with transporting equipment we've already collected. But what if you're just a reader of this blog and not moving to South Africa? If you would like to help with our effort, this is what you can do:
  • Collect used baseball equipment by contacting your local high school or baseball club; you could hand out fliers and get the entire school involved, or better yet, let your kids do a "Baseball for Africa" drive, which I think would make a wonderful outreach project. Just think of how many people you know who have their garage full of unused sports gear. All of which would be put to very good use here in Africa. When you're finished with your collection drive, all you need is a place to keep it for us until I can have it shipped to where the next expat container is leaving. I've included a sample donor letter below, which you're welcome to use as is or modify according to your needs. I can also provide more pictures.
  • Play it Again Sports often has very inexpensive used clothing and equipment on offer, and you might be able to negotiate a special deal with them, in case you'd like to help but don't want to get involved in a donation drive.
  • If you don't have access to baseball gear but would like to be involved, consider making a donation to Alexandra Baseball. Any funds we raise in this way will be used for shipping expenses, team transport, and field improvements.

And finally, it always helps to spread the word. Become a fan of our Facebook page if you haven't done so yet. If you just forward this article to your kids' baseball or soccer team or some of your friends and colleagues, post it on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else may be out there which I - perennial late adopter that I am - don't even know about, more people will read about it and perhaps be moved to help.

Tedius asked me to put a special request in here for what we most urgently need: fielding and catcher's gloves for left handers (meaning the ones that fit onto your right hand, just to be precise) of all sizes big and small, and pants for age 16 and above.

This concludes my mini-series about township baseball in Johannesburg and the different ways to become involved. To read more, click on the "Alexandra Baseball" link under "Topics of Interest" on the right.



Baseball in Africa Needs Your Help!

Having moved to South Africa last year with our family of six, the one thing I didn’t expect to find here was baseball. Our boys, ages 12 and 14, had been avid baseball players before but we were resigned to the fact that it would have to be cricket (cricket!) from now on (let me just say that we are still struggling to understand why it is necessary to have matches last 5 days). However, I was all the more surprised to find that there is a growing baseball movement in South Africa, and not just as a pastime but also a model of social change. One such example is the Alexandra Baseball Association. 

Alexandra is a township in Johannesburg, and one of the most destitute and crime-ridden environments you can grow up in. In fact, I was warned never to set foot there, but I’m glad I did and consider myself fortunate to have met the founders and coaches of Alexandra Baseball. They have passion for what they’re trying to build and work hard, without any compensation. In fact, what little they earn with odd jobs, they pour into their baseball program to provide transport and meals for the kids in their care. Going to practice every day after school keeps the kids out of trouble and stirs dreams in some to perhaps one day make it to the Major Leagues.

 But the challenges are daunting. Their home field has no fence or backstop, no bases and no pitcher’s mound, which forces the team to travel across town to other clubs all season. The biggest need by far is that of more and better equipment, which is where YOU come in. We need your old mitts, bats, helmets, cleats, pants, belts, even socks and balls, catcher’s equipment, discarded team jerseys (an entire team’s old jerseys would be great), and any training equipment such as batting sticks, tees, or videos.

For further information please visit my blog at, where you can also make a donation, or leave a comment for me so I can contact you. But mostly it is your used equipment that we need, because even with money it is hard to find baseball gear in South Africa.

You CAN make a difference! Please help these young boys fulfill their dreams. Thank you.


More on Alexandra Baseball:

What we've accomplished so far: From Garage to Outfield - A Second Life for Used Baseball Equipment in Africa

How you can help...

...if you live in Joburg: A Call to all Local Bloggers and Photographers!
...if you live in the United States and are moving to South Africa: Got Container Space?
...if you live anywhere else in the world: Become a fan of the Alexandra Baseball Facebook page to help spread the word.