January 31, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions about Moving to South Africa

I realized the other day that I have been terribly remiss in updating my FAQ section (found at the top of the page). Here I had been answering questions left and right posed by prospective expats, but I never actually formalized my answers for this blog.

So I thought I'd dash in and quickly update it - on the daily list I'm now writing thanks to my resolutions for 2012 it appeared as a 2-hour block - but of course I should have known that it would become a much bigger project. I'd start with one, then realize something else was missing, and then I'd want to provide links to both my own blog posts and outside sources. Needless to say, it took almost a week, especially after I had updated a big chunk and my computer froze. It turns out blog posts are updated continually in Blogger, but pages not so much.

Anyway, I won't ramble longer, just have a look at Joburg Expat's New and Improved FAQ Page. I'd love to hear your feedback, and, most importantly, let me know if I've missed anything.

January 30, 2012

Hiring Domestic Help

I was working on the FAQ section of this blog - which admittedly still leaves a few questions unanswered - and realized it needed something on domestic help. I remembered I had written an entire article about it on Expatica, so I thought I'd reproduce it for this blog for your reference:

Having domestic help, otherwise also called a maid, is the one thing you will absolutely cherish in South Africa. There is a little bit of paperwork to deal with, which, considering a government agency is involved, cannot be much fun. But I will walk you through the process, and it will be well worth it because having domestic help is simply wonderful. Just think – I’m sitting here researching and typing expat advice columns while my laundry is being ironed and my bathrooms cleaned!

Almost all well-to-do or actually what we would consider middle class South Africans employ domestic workers – housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, etc – and as an expat, so will you. In fact, you will be expected to, because this will give a valuable job to someone who most likely will support a family of eight with it. As soon as you will have moved into your house, people will come knocking at your door for jobs. This will be the one and only item on your moving-in list where things will progress swiftly, I can promise you. That is why it is best to put some thought to this topic ahead of time, because otherwise you might end up with an arrangement that doesn't actually fit with your lifestyle. Will you want someone coming in several times a week? Or will you want her to live with you full-time? In that case, she will occupy the domestic quarter, something most houses here are equipped with (if typically not very spacious), and you will also be responsible for her food. Are you looking for someone mainly to clean, or also to watch your children? Just know that whatever you hire her for, she WILL spend a fair amount of time on ironing, whether you think that’s necessary or not. It’s just the Law Of Domestic Workers.

The best way to find good domestic help is to hire someone who’s worked for another expat family before. There are agencies you can contact as well, such as Marvellous Maids, but they charge a fee for the referral. While they do perform a background check, I personally think the best background check is for you to talk with the previous employer and find out whether and why they were happy with her work. If you’re moving into the Dainfern area of Johannesburg (a prime expat location), try to get a hold of the weekly Dainfern newsletter (most estate agents will have access to that), which has an excellent classifieds section advertising domestic workers.

So you’ve found a maid – now what? Judging from my own experience, I would have just told you, wonderful, you’re all set, happily ever after. But I’ve asked around and read up on the topic, and there is a bit of legal stuff you should know about. Domestic workers are protected by law (which is a good thing) and all rules and regulations regarding domestic workers can be found on the Department of Labour website. I’d encourage you to read through the various guides, but don’t be frustrated if it seems a bit much to remember. Basically, there is a minimum wage (around ZAR 1,500 per month according to my calculations), and there are rules regarding work hours, overtime, annual leave, public holidays, pay slips, unemployment insurance, and termination. Most employers (especially us expats who typically have never had anyone working for us and are often uncomfortable with the very idea of someone serving us) would not abuse those basic rules in the first place.

Typical salaries for domestic workers range from R1500 to R3000 per month for working Mon-Fri from 8-5. What you pay might depend on the skill level, i.e. in addition to cleaning does she cook and babysit and perhaps even drive. But just think about this for a moment: R1500 is about $215. The only reason, in my mind, to NOT pay your maid at the upper salary range from the start, is to leave room for raises or the occasional help she will need when, say, a relative has died, a child gets sick, or her house is leaking. For a live-in maid you typically also provide the food, which I can tell you right now will mainly consist of mealie pap (porridge made from corn), plus furnishings for her room, and perhaps the occasional doctor’s visit, since there is no insurance to speak of.

There is, however, the UIF, South Africa’s unemployment fund. As an employer of a domestic, you have to pay 1% of his/her salary into it on a monthly basis. The employee has to make a contribution (also 1%) as well, but in most cases this is paid by the employer (since you can be almost certain it will never be paid if you don’t do it), making it a total of 2%. When you first employ a domestic, you must register him/her with the Department of Labour, which can easily be done by visiting the UIF website. You will find two forms there, the UI-8D and the UI-19. Complete both of these and fax them to the number provided, and within a week or so you will receive a uFiling number, which you can then use to set up your online account. After that, you will be notified every month when a new payment is due, and you can pay it directly via the uFiling website, or via bank transfer.

There are services that handle all domestic payroll affairs for a small fee (around R20 per month), such as UIFsolutions, and if you want to make absolutely sure everything you do is by the book, you should use such a company. But in my mind setting up a uFiling account and making your monthly payments is very easy. I have a reminder in my calendar to pay my domestic (via electronic funds transfer) and process my uFiling payment at the end of each month, and it takes less than five minutes. I also have a pre-printed payslip on file that I have her sign upon receipt of the money, just so that there is a record. She scoffed at this at first, thinking I thought her dishonest or not trusting her somehow, but I was firm and told her it was for her own benefit as well as mine.

I’m often asked whether a contract is needed for your domestic. Yes, as per the Department of Labour, a contract is required, and you will find the details on their website. But I’ve also heard of cases where the existence of a contract made it extremely difficult to terminate a maid, even when the cause was stealing. On the other hand, you have to make your UIF payments (there is a stiff penalty for failure to do so) so your domestic is already registered with the Department of Labor, and it probably makes sense to write down your basic expectations in contract form. I would just make sure to spell out reasons for termination in it. If you use an agency as mentioned above for your UIF payments, they will also provide a contract.

What you should also make sure of before you hire a domestic worker is that she is South African or, if not, in the country legally as a permanent resident with working papers. Otherwise, she might disappear one day because she has to catch a taxi to the border and renew her visa there by paying a bribe. You hear many of those storie. Make sure you spend some time interviewing her and checking her ID, and have her come work for you on a temporary basis first, to get an opportunity to watch her and specify exactly what it is you want done - and what not! The only issue we ever had was with the latter; my kids felt a bit harassed for having to keep their rooms picked up at all times of the day and when the constant chastising turned into arguments, I had to have a talk with my domestic to back off the kids and reduce vacuum cleaning to just once or twice a week!  Black South Africans are generally very kind with a great sense of humor, but they are also a proud people who want to be taken seriously. An experienced maid will have her routine and if you want things done a certain way, it is best to talk about all those upfront, or perhaps have regular meetings to address any changes.

Since you’ve probably never had the luxury of someone cleaning up after you around the clock, you actually won’t know what exactly it is you want done. And you might be uncomfortable at the very thought of someone working around you all day and another person (in addition to your kids and spouse) for you to “manage.” But having domestic help here in South Africa is also a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse into an entirely different culture and gain an appreciation for all walks of life. I’ve occasionally been on the most eye-opening expeditions to help my maid with something or other, and we often share a laugh together.

So while you’re busy packing up and filing visa applications and saying your good-byes at home, take some time to think about your future South African life with domestic help. And remember, as you're scrubbing cement-like toothpaste out of your child’s sink once again – it might be your last for a while!

Further reading:

Hiring the Right Domestic Help
The Life of a Domestic Worker

January 27, 2012

The Destructive Power of Nature

You might remember that not very long ago we stayed in a beautiful game lodge near Kruger Park, Kitara Camp. I've written about Don and Lee-Anne, the couple managing the game lodge, and what it feels like living their kind of life. And I've written about the lodge itself, the way we were spoiled there, and how we got to see our first leopard.

Well, Kitara as we know it is gone. Swept away by the surging Klaserie River during a huge rain storm just a few short weeks ago. "At some point, we watched one of the couches floating down the river," were Lee-Anne's words. The same fate must have befallen these patio chairs we so luxuriously lounged in during our lazy afternoons:

Our favorite spot in between game drives - all of it gone. See the bar in the background?

January 26, 2012

Expat Tip: How to Choose your Post Box

It just occurred to me that I should tell you more about choosing the right post box, which is one of the things you will (or, if not, should) have on your moving-in to-do list.

The reason this occurred to me now was because - what else - I was having another one of those South African "running-errands-and-not-getting-anything-checked-off-my-to-do-list" days. And it had to do with the post office.

Post boxes where we get our mail. Oh, and you could sit
on that inviting bench and watch passers-by!

For weeks leading up to today I had been toting around a little blue slip from the postal service, telling me that a package that hadn't fit into our post box was waiting at the post office to be picked up. Yep, that would be just around the right time for a Christmas present we had been waiting for, about a month late, so nothing out of the ordinary there. But which post office? This is where you realize you're living in Africa - the slip doesn't actually mention the post office. There is a stamp on it from the post office, but it's illegible.

Past experience told me it would be at the Dainfern post office, the one on Cedar Road in that crappy little shopping center that is mainly noticeable for its shuttered-up store fronts and broken window panes telling of past break-ins. Not my favorite place to be. Plus it's on "that other side" where I don't go often. The place I DO go often is where my actual post box is located, right at the entrance of our neighborhood, and, wouldn't you know it, there is even an actual post office there. However, for some reason our mail is held at the OTHER post office, NOT the one right next to the post boxes as you might think. Every day as I was getting groceries or my mail, I would eye our little post office longingly, wishing that little blue slip was theirs. But I didn't go in. I had been there too many times before and was always sent to "the other side."

Today I had finally accumulated enough errands for "the other side" to make a post office visit worthwhile. I was already in a less than stellar mood when I arrived there, because earlier the pharmacy hadn't had in stock what I needed, the bank machine had been out of order (I guess I should count myself fortunate it didn't also swallow my card as has happened before), and the sheet music I had ordered, oh, only six weeks ago, was still not in stock ("it is coming from overseas, mam" - as if that explains it all). Also, this morning Jabulani couldn't find his diving manual, after having lost his blazer yesterday and his locker key and gate access card the day before that. Somehow, when boys turn thirteen, their brain goes missing. I wonder where it goes. Wait, I don't think I want to imagine exactly where it goes. Anyway, you can perhaps understand why my typically abundant patience was wearing a bit thin around the edges.

So do you know what the lady at the post office told me when I gave her the little blue slip? Not right away though, only after rummaging in the back for ages? "So sorry, we don't use these slips any longer, this must be from the other post office, the one on the other side." What? This IS "the other side!" I wanted to yell at her. Apparently, what happened is that they changed the postal codes, unbeknownst to anyone and most certainly not communicated in any way, so that now my little oh so convenient post office on OUR side actually IS the one holding our mail, which is how it should have been all along. I also found out that I've been using the wrong postal code for ages. Apparently there is one for our street address and a different one for our post box, and I had been using neither one of those. But I think I'll have to ask at least two more people before I settle on any one of them.

They DID have my package at our little post office, which by no means I could be sure of, so all was well in the end. I jut couldn't believe I had been passing within mere feet from my package for weeks!

So, for the promised tip on mailboxes:

  • Select one at a place that is safe, and a place you go to every day. If it's too far out of your way, you end up never checking it, which is actually just as well because not much mail seems to arrive here in the first place.
  • Don't assume the post office next to your post box is the one associated with it. Make sure you find out which post code is associated with both your street address and your post box, it might make the mail get there faster (though faster is a relative term, plus I sometimes doubt the postal codes are even used here in South Africa, because every postal employee you ask about your post code tells you a different answer).
  • Apply for it early and renew it on time when you get the notice. You don't want to lose a convenient post box once you have it.
  • Don't actually change your official address to your South African post box. It's fine for local mail (and I suppose Christmas cards, if you're okay with them getting here around February) but if possible keep an overseas address for all your "home" mail, especially financial statements and such. You don't want to get that call from your bank asking you if it's okay to transfer $10,000 to Nigeria.
For more information on postal matters, check out:

January 24, 2012

This is Africa: How a Half-Day Errand Became a Month-Long Quest in Joburg And What I Learned from Nelson Mandela

This is Africa. Have I said that before? Actually, I've once been chastised by a reader for saying that (when complaining about inefficiency), because by extension I'm saying that all Africans are inefficient when of course there is no such thing as one type of "African." But then again there are many things I love about Africa that I have raved about on this blog, and no one so far is complaining about my undifferentiated praise of Africa. So as long as I have "This is Africa" kind of days, I will keep saying it, thank you very much. Plus, it also makes for such good writing material.

So the errand I was so frustrated about yesterday started out with a Christmas present over a month ago. I wanted to get these canvas prints made for Noisette:

To go on this spot on the wall next to my insurmountable picture hanging project from a while ago, if you'll remember:

When you read the chronology of what was to follow, perhaps you'll agree with me that this project was a wee bit agonizing.

Dec 10: Emailed the pictures to QPhoto, an outfit I'd been very happy with previously, mainly for their prompt service. I mailed them to the same person I had spoken with before, and asked for the same size prints mounted in the same style. Then I left for our vacation at Island Water Villas, looking forward to the prints being done when we got back.

Dec 15: Received a voice message, asking all sorts of questions about size and style, exactly all the things I'd already specified, but still pleased that they seemed to be on top of things by calling me. I should mention here that in order to receive said message and make any outbound phone calls, my phone and I had to go on a hike up this hill behind our house, the only place near us with a cell phone signal:

I made about five trips up the hill, but to no avail. QPhoto could not be reached again.

Dec 19: Back home, contacted QPhoto again and actually reached someone, who promised she'd send me an invoice with the exact price so that I could make a deposit, after which the prints would be made. However, they wouldn't be ready before Christmas, plus they could no longer be picked up at Design Quarter (close to here) but at their new location at Mandela Square (far from here).

Dec 27: No longer in a hurry because Christmas had come and go, I followed up once again to request the invoice. Made payment. Waited. Was very tempted to check "QPhoto" off my to-do list but knew better and left it on.

Jan 5: Called again to check status. Confusion over who was in charge, but promise to call me back "now now." Waited in vain.

Jan 12: Found QPhoto still on my to-do list, called again, and lo and behold was told the prints were done and sent to Mandela Square. Asked when they were sent and was told "today," so decided to give it a few more days.

Jan 13: Called Mandela Square location whether my prints had arrived but they hadn't. Called QPhoto main line again and they now said the prints were "just now" being finished, to be sent the very next day.

Jan 18: Was in the vicinity anyway so called Mandela Square again and was told that yes, my two prints were ready for pickup. Drove there, had trouble finding parking, and squeezed into a semi-legal spot:

Took the elevator up to the 4th floor of the West Tower as instructed, and followed the signs:

Holy cow, how many more corners could I possibly  have to turn in this labyrinth of the West Tower? When I finally did find QPhoto, you will have already guessed what happened next: They DIDN'T have my prints. "We only have two prints for Tina, not for Sine - so sorry, you sounded like Tina on the phone."

I think in my old life in the U.S. I would have been ready to strangle someone at this point. But This is Africa. Everything ended fine. The lady was very friendly and offered to have her driver deliver the prints right to my house as soon as she got them from the QPhoto head office. I was genuinely happy at such great service. I wasn't even very upset about the time I had wasted. When in Africa, one learns to accept fate and let bygones be bygones. On the way back to the parking garage I discovered this really cool coffee place with a beautiful view over Mandela Square:

And I got to take this picture - something I'd been meaning to post on this blog - of one of Joburg's (or, rather, Sandton's) icons, the statue of Nelson Mandela:

And then it hit me: If Nelson Mandela could sit in prison for 27 years and not be mad at anyone afterwards, surely I should be able to chase after QPhoto for a month and not be mad at anyone afterwards.

I felt nothing but serenity the rest of the day.

Jan 19: The pictures were indeed delivered. The driver insisted I check them before he left, and wouldn't you know it, they were not quite what I had ordered, the frame being deeper and the sides printed black instead of white. He offered to take them back to have them redone. I could see it all unraveling yet another time, like in the movie Groundhog Day. No thanks, I informed him politely, I'll keep them.

But now I regret that the picture sourcing project is finished. Because what will be next?

The insurmountable picture hanging project, of course!

January 22, 2012

South Africa SO Needs a Pottery Barn!

I get a lot of feedback from readers who love my stories about a) being stopped by the police and b) shopping. How is it that such mundane topics can stir so much interest?

Since I can't really control the police thing - it happens all by itself without my aid plenty of times, trust me - I'll focus on the shopping today. Or the lack thereof, depending on how you look at it.

Well, remember how I resolved to get more organized this year? What I meant then was time management, but what sent me shopping yesterday was organizing my physical space. I hate when things don't have a home, or when they do have a home but the kids insist on putting it somewhere else. One such thing at our house is the pile of musical notes crowding the top of the piano and pretty much the area of a squash court around the piano. Everybody has different pieces from different books to practice, and no one can ever find anything.

Well, there is a perfect wall space next to the piano, where one of these things would fit very nicely:

Unfortunately, it's already in use elsewhere in our house. I'm pretty sure it's from Pottery Barn Kids. Have I already told you how much I miss Amazon.com? Only a half a million times? Well, I miss Pottery Barn almost as much. Although I shouldn't even give them a plug here, because if you're in South Africa, you will note that their website is blocked for us. You can't even look at their stuff without the hassle of a proxy server.

So back to local shopping. Meaning my problem already starts with: What do you call this thing? Officially I think it's a library rack. I'm now envisioning going into one of Joburg's furniture stores asking "Do you have any library racks?" Nope, that's not going to get anywhere, don't even have to try it. I'd meet blank stares followed by "So sorry, we're out of stock at the moment." I've already tried that adventure with night lights and such.

I've so far been to Look and Listen (good place for CD and DVD storage solutions, but no library racks) and Plasticland (good place for plastic storage containers but nothing in the form of racks, although I'd be perfectly happy with a plastic one). And my next step would have been to approach my Zimbabwean friends at the street corner with some cash to buy wood and hopefully make me something to spec, much in the way I solved my shoe storage problem when we first got here.

But, as so often in Africa, an easier solution offered itself over coffee with some friends. One of them was busy explaining her new business, a website geared towards the interior decorating market modeled after Restoration Hardware, and when I asked her about library racks, she not only immediately understood what I meant but a few hours later had found something similar from one of her suppliers:

I'm not sure if the width will work and if that ledge is high enough to keep the notes from falling off, but I am thrilled just to have found a new source of this type of furniture. She sent me some other cool storage solutions as well:

I would have killed for that entryway coat rack when we first moved here. It's got four of each, and I have four kids - how perfect would that have been?

Needless to say, I'm now a big fan of her website, which is called Net Decor. It's pretty much the first of its kind, as the online market is still very much in its infancy in South Africa. Net Decor is still in the process of growing to a full range of products, but go check it out, I'm sure you'll love what's there.

January 20, 2012

It's Not Stealing - You Don't Need All That Oil in Your Engine Anyway!

I've told you before about getting your car serviced in South Africa and the need to remove all your valuables from your car before dropping it off, but recently I encountered a whole new dimension to this.

We were driving back from the Kruger Park, through beautiful landscapes on roads winding up and down mountains, along more than one steep rock face that had me wondering when was the last time (or, more pressingly, when would be the next time) that those huge boulders littering the side of the road had come hurtling down the mountain. There was no safety net whatsoever.

But my concern over the boulders soon faded when something beeped, and a warning message to check oil levels appeared on the dashboard. As luck would have it, this was Noisette's car, but Noisette was not actually in the car. This is the pattern in our family when it comes to any kind of emergency, like snakes in the garage or squirrels in the chimney or all thirteen smoke alarms going off at two a.m.  Noisette has a knack for disappearing when the going gets rough or when there is blood involved (or dirty diapers or vomit, for that matter, but that is another story).

Luckily this wasn't a real crisis. After all, the car was running just fine. It was probably just all that going up and down that made the oil level fluctuate. But we stopped at the next garage (gas station, if you're American) just in case, and indeed the oil level turned out to be at the minimum. I didn't think twice about why this might be, but as usually happens here in Africa, another customer ambled over to find out what was going on and offer his advice. Which was this: "A new car like this, especially a Mercedes, should never be out of oil if you've been servicing it regularly - someone's been skimping you on the oil at the dealership."


You see, that's where South Africa gets you again and again. You think you've been living here long enough to know what to expect, but your thinking doesn't even go into some directions that it should be going. I would never even think someone at the car dealership could siphon off oil on the side to sell it later, but now that I have this image in my head, it makes perfect sense. Most people won't know that oil is missing until much later, and then they'll just assume it's time for more oil. So it's really just such a little thing, why not do it? The fact that's it dishonest doesn't seem to bother people, and getting caught for it is highly unlikely. You could always explain it away with sloppiness, which god knows you can find plenty of in South Africa.

I've now developed a certain routine with Fourways Audi, the dealership I take my own car to (by virtue of being closest). I go there about once every few months because oil is leaking from my engine (get the irony - Noisette's car is missing oil but not leaking, my car is leaking oil but not missing any...). Whenever the patch in my garage gets too big, it's time to make another appointment. I drink my cappuccino there, get my ride home, enjoy my day without having to do any errands, and get picked up again in the afternoon, at which point I'm told that "It's definitely been fixed this time, somebody didn't screw the oil plug in correctly last time." Except next time it might be "Somebody screwed the oil plug in too tightly last time, breaking the seal" or "They put in too much oil last time, causing an overflow." The last time I was there to have the wheels re-balanced (the need for which arises from driving against curbs, something I've become quite the expert at), I found out at the end of the day that the rebalancing machine was broken and likely would remain so for the next three months. By now I don't even bother to gasp at the idea of something being broken for three months.

But this is sunny Africa, and there is always an upside to everything. No one cleans my car so well as the guys at Fourways Audi, every time I leave my car with them. And so far it's been absolutely free. Provided I don't leave any valuables in there.

My sparkling clean car after yet another service

They clean everything, inside and out. And they clean "out" everything:-)

January 18, 2012

We Are Rich!

Who knew that we'd have to come to Africa to finally be rich. And I don't mean just normal rich, I mean super rich. Fifty trillion dollars and counting. You know how they keep talking about the super-rich in the U.S., the 1% of the population who have like 20% of the wealth? Well, I bet you they don't have fifty trillion dollars like we do.

That must make us something like the 0.01%. The 0.01% who are actually dumb enough to pay 5 Euros for a pile of worthless bills. But I love the feeling to have handled that much money just once in my life. I mean, did you see how many zeroes that is? I don't think I've ever seen a number that big in print, anywhere.

Read any book about Zimbabwe, and you will learn that the above bill was not an unusual sight just a few years ago. It might have bought you a drink at some point in time, but only if you were quick enough to spend it before it was even more worthless. People would walk around with briefcases full of money and use entire stacks of bills with rubber bands around them to pay for simple transactions. I think their reserve bank took it up to the 100 trillion dollar note before the cost of the paper it was printed on became prohibitive and the entire currency was scrapped. If you travel to Zimbabwe nowadays, you have to bring US dollars or Euros, even Rands.

If you look at these bills closely, you will see that their issue dates just span a few short months. Some actually have expiration dates on them. Imagine having to look at your dollars, to see if any of them don't expire anytime soon, like that gallon of milk you've had in the fridge too long. Whoopsie, guess I've gotta throw that one out!

History always repeats itself. I remember my grandmother telling stories of pushing wheelbarrows full of cash at the end of each week after payday, rushing to the bakery to get a loaf of bread while it was still only a million mark. If you waited too long, you'd only get a half a loaf of bread because the price had gone up. This, of course, was during the Weimar Republic, a dark chapter in Germany's history but not nearly as dark as what was to follow.

That is what it has come to in Zimbabwe today.

My Resolutions for 2012

Yes, yes, it's already far into January. But considering the fact that I'm just now receiving the bulk of Christmas cards, you can't really say that I'm behind in terms of New Year's resolutions. Remember, we operate on African time here.

But now that I'm done looking back at the old year, and the kids are back in school (yay!), it is indeed high time I thought about 2012. What I really need is a resolution.

I'm not good at making resolutions, and even worse at working on them. But I just read an article that said people who make resolutions have a far higher chance of achieving their goals than people who don't, especially when making them in public. So I hate to bore you but you will have to serve as "the public" for my resolutions for 2012.

Never fear, I will keep them easy (the article also said not to set the goals too high). One fun one and one not-so-fun one. Here goes for the not-so-fun one:

1) Get organized

Yeah I know, I say that every year and it seems all I'm achieving is getting less organized, not more. Have I mentioned that we keep moving every two years? Doesn't 'make things easier in the organization department. Anyway, I decided another list is in order, which I've taped to my desk and displayed for you here. Sorry to those folks who are waiting for emails or wanting to have coffee. I might have to make some exceptions. And I know Noisette will suggest I add "cook dinner" and "tidy up house."

Have I bored you to death already? Well, here is the fun one:

2) Become a travel agent

No, not for real, what I mean is embrace being the full-time family travel agent I have already become anyway. All I have to do is quit complaining about packing and cheerfully set to planning how we can spend the kids' college funds on trips this year to a) the Orange River (border to Namibia) for rafting, b) Botswana, c) Franschhoek (a repeat, we need more wine!), d) the Seychelles (or we'd settle for a repeat of Mauritius and some more chocolate moussse), e) Kilimanjaro (to climb - Zax now says he's definitely in, though Noisette is out), and finally f) the U.S. (the kids' request). Stay tuned. My reward for all that planning will be to have more stuff to write about.

January 16, 2012

The Elephant Whisperer

I know exactly what you're now saying. How on Earth can she be reviewing yet another book? Which presumably she has actually read? (yes, I do read all of them). If you're not asking, I'm sure Noisette is. How on Earth can she have time to read when she always claims she's so busy there is no time to put dinner on the table? Well. Most of my reading and writing occurs (or doesn't occur, because I'm too tired) after I'm done doing all the unseen and uncelebrated and unappreciated things one does when one has four kids (but not always cooking a proper dinner, it's true).

I really did get a lot of reading done over the holidays, because that's pretty much the only thing you can squeeze in with a perpetually full house, and I've also given up on the New York Times for the moment, so I don't know what's going on in U.S. politics. Not that I'm missing anything, I'm told. Judging by the stack of books by my bed, however, you wouldn't know that I'm making any kind of progress. It just keeps growing!

January 14, 2012

South Africa's Great Shame

After finishing yet another one of Peter Godwin's excellent books, The Fear, I cannot help but think that South Africa and its ANC leadership - just having celebrated themselves jubilantly during the ANC 100-year birthday festivities in Bloemfontein - has much to answer for. Granted, they cannot be blamed for the existence of Robert Mugabe, nor for his increasingly lunatic and megalomaniac behavior, but they could have wielded their considerable influence on this continent to much more effect.

What's happened in Zimbabwe over the last thirty years is a shame.
It used to be one of Africa's most affluent countries, with the highest literacy rate and a vibrant agriculture sector that was the envy of the world. And there was so much hope. Hope among both blacks and whites for their new country after the end of white minority rule and civil war in 1980. The Fear and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun are well-written books chronicling the slow and steady erosion of this hope during Zimbabwe's subsequent decline, leaving only hardship, misery, and, well, fear. The Fear in particular is not an easy book to stomach. The atrocities Godwin describes are horrific, and there are too many to count. Each time you think it can't get worse, but it does. And there is really no end in sight.

It all started with the massacres in Matabeleland, engineered by Mugabe and his henchmen to take out the entire leadership of an opposing faction. Then the same tactics were used against Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change when they were perceived as a new threat. There were beatings, kidnappings, burnings, torture, and worse, while most of the white-owned farms were being seized and let go to waste, their owners chased away or arrested.

As a result, Zimbabwe has experienced a torrential brain drain, leaving the country even more depleted. Whoever can manage leaves the country and tries to make a new life somewhere else in the ever expanding diaspora, typically distinguishing themselves with their excellent education and work ethic. And yet there are those who choose to stay and soldier on, despite the destitute conditions and the personal risk they are running of falling afoul of the state, just by exercising their right to vote or perhaps simply by being members of a rival tribe.

And where has South Africa been for all of this? How could these former freedom fighters, struggling for decades for their rights against a repressive regime, forget their own history to such an extent that they don't recognize another people's plight right next door? Do they really kid themselves into believing that this is different, because it's a black dictator and not a white-run government that is guilty of too many human rights abuses to keep count?

More than any other country, South Africa has the standing to be a moral beacon for the rest of Africa.  More than anyone else, its leaders should know that fighting against injustices in one's country only ever has a chance if the outside world is not only aware, but presses forward with sanctions and other political and economic tools. If South Africa had recognized the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe for what they were, a thorough repudiation of its leadership, despite severe repression and torture of opposition candidates and voters, it might have forced out Mugabe and his generals, instead of half-heartedly brokering a power-sharing deal that almost had no chance from the very beginning. To this day, the violence toward anyone associated with Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC continues, public figures are arrested and purged and voters intimidated or worse, all against the backdrop of a bankrupt country run by thugs only interested in their own enrichment.

Short of forcing regime change, South Africa might at least have pressed for the banning of diamonds from Zimbabwe, which have become almost the sole income of Mugabe's military junta. It might have recognized that siding with Gaddafi was the wrong thing to do in Lybia. It might have recognized the plight of the Tibetan people by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit last year. But in all these cases, it chose expedience over doing what was right. And, for all I know, I might even violate the new secrecy bill writing about these very things.

As most of you will know, I have come to love this country more than most any other place on Earth. But this moral failure is a dark blotch on my image of it.

Shame on you, South Africa.

January 12, 2012

Do You Have Any Other Shopping to Do While Waiting?

As I've told you before, going shopping is always a bigger errand here in South Africa than you will expect. Or I guess I should put this in relative terms and qualify it with "when coming from America, or possibly Europe." If you're coming from, I don't now, Ghana, you might find South African shopping a breeze.

Anyway, I was on another one of my typical South African shopping outings the other day, and about halfway through I couldn't decide whether to laugh out loud or find a place to sit and write it all down, because I had lost track about what it was I had set out to do.

The only thing I really needed was malaria tablets for our trip to Klaserie Game Reserve. I had called ahead at the doctor's office, which is located in Broadacres Shopping Centre, and the prescriptions were ready to be picked up. So I went there first, not without grabbing my grocery list, as the Superspar is right next door to the doctor's, and there is always something I like to get at Superspar. Plus the repair slip for Jabulani's remote controlled helicopter (which is in a perpetual state of broken-ness, not surprising if you've ever seen him fly it) because the repair shop for THAT is behind the Spar.

The doctor, of course, didn't have the prescription ready, so I sat down to wait. Nothing unexpected here. I briefly considered passing the time in the pharmacy next door, but given the fact that I needed my prescription for the pharmacy, I chose to wait, then went to the pharmacy.

South African pharmacies, on a normal day, will actually surprise you if you're coming from the U.S. They usually fill your prescriptions right then and there. But there is something about malaria scripts, especially if you bring them for six people, that overwhelms even the best pharmacist around here, what with having to figure out the number of days and then the number of tablets for different age kids needing different dosages. Never mind that the doctor typically does all of the hard math required and all the pharmacist has to do is count up to 36 or something like that. Just trust me when I say it's best to budget plenty of time for that particular errand should you ever have a need for it.

Which is why, as expected, I found myself tapping my foot faster and faster standing at the counter waiting for those pills at Clicks. The clerk, noticing my impatience - which is rare, because people here are typically so patient, they don't know what impatience is - politely asked: "Do you have any other shopping to do while you wait?"

So I decided to go to the helicopter place to pick up the helicopter. Except when I got there, there was no record of it anywhere on their pile of - admittedly disorganized - repair slips, and the old man who handles repairs and who I had dropped it off with, had stepped out. "Could you do any other shopping around here first and come back in twenty minutes?" was the advice I got.

Since I hadn't spent enough time yet for the pharmacy to come through, I decided to get a few groceries in the meantime. It was two days until Christmas, and I needed a nice roast, which was a perfect project for the Spar butchery. My problem with roasts here is that while they might have the same cuts of meat I am familiar with, they most definitely don't call them the same. A beef tenderloin or filet mignon is just "fillet," pronounced the same way as "millet." Somehow that always turns me off the filet right there. And what I wanted that day was chuck roast, perfect for slow-roasting in your oven all day. Never mind that your kitchen is about a hundred degrees already at Christmastime in South Africa, and that running your oven for four hours nonstop is really the last thing you want to do. I half-heartedly browsed the roast selection but of course nothing looked remotely like chuck roast, so I asked. We don't have that, was the answer. But after living here for two years I  have learned that you need to ask at least three people before giving up, so I pushed on and struck gold in that I caught a glimpse of the head butcher rushing past. If you see someone rushing in South Africa, you can always assume that they are competent. Competent people have a purpose, and people with a purpose move fast.

The head butcher was a grizzled but sprightly man, who was delighted to discuss meats with me. I described what I wanted, and his face lit up. "I haven't had anybody ask me for a chuck roast in seven years!" he exclaimed, but assured me it could be done, and with a cheerful "Why don't you do some other shopping in the meantime while we get it ready for you" he rushed off. I feebly called "But THIS is ALREADY my other shopping" after him, but he was already gone, blood-splattered apron and all.

At this point I was starting to panic. I was facing the prospect of returning home with NOTHING checked off on my list, because I started running out of time. This is my worst nightmare. I live by making lists and checking things off of them, and the more frazzled I get, the more I want to write down to-dos. I think the need for that exponentially increases with each child you bear. If I had had any more babies, I'm sure I'd put "go to toilet" on a daily list.

My whole ordeal that day reminded me of a nursery rhyme of sorts we learned as kids in Germany, called "Der Bauer schickt den Jockel aus." It's about the farmer sending out Jockel to cut the oats. Jockel doesn't want to cut the oats and doesn't return, so the farmer sends out the stable boy to find Jockel, so Jockel can cut the oats. The stable boy of course remains at large as well, so the farmer, growing increasingly desperate, keeps sending out messengers from the ox to the witch and the executioner (seems like German nursery rhymes are just as bloody as English ones) to bring back the previous envoy, all the way back to Jockel. That's how I felt, except I was the one being sent places: From the pharmacy to the remote control place to the butcher and on and on, making my eventual path back more and more difficult to remember, which of course is the whole point of those stories.

I honestly can't recall in which order I wrapped up all my loose ends but I did get a lot of walking done that day. Somehow, the helicopter was found, which is a miracle, because even the old man was overwhelmed when looking at all his shelves with countless helicopters in different states of disassembly. At Clicks, all 120 malaria pills were eventually counted, although I had to go back yet another time to get the actual receipts with the correct names on them for reimbursement purposes, making me spend more money on unneeded drugstore items just to pass the time while waiting yet again.

And the roast ended up truly delicious. That alone was worth the entire day.

January 10, 2012

Stalking the Elusive Leopard

At the end of my interview with Donovan and Leanne at Kitara Camp, I promised you an update on whether we finally found our leopard, so here it comes.

We were full of expectations as we set off in the direction of Kruger Park shortly before the New Year. As anyone will tell you, Kruger Park is THE place to see leopards. I'm not sure why this is true. And technically, we weren't actually going to Kruger Park. Kitara Camp is in Klaserie Nature Reserve, which is a private game reserve next to Timbavati and Kruger Park. Kruger Park, of course, is huge. In fact, it's the same size as all of Israel. But even Klaserie is impressive in size at 60,000 hectares, which tells me absolutely nothing because I've never mastered the art of area measurements, but it's similar in size to Madikwe Game Reserve, which I know is huge because we've driven through it. Or rather through parts of it.

The cool thing about Klaserie is that nothing is fenced in. It just sits there adjacent to Kruger Park (which also isn't fenced in) and so every living thing wandering around Kruger Park is perfectly at leisure to saunter on over to Klaserie Game Reserve. Somehow this makes viewing the animals extra special. Only when you know there is no fence do you truly appreciate the enormity of what you get to see. In Madikwe, we used to drive along the fence to see if we could find a pack of wild dogs (who like to hunt their prey for miles and miles and often end up cornering it at the fence). I don't know about you, but that man-made fence right there, and the implication that nothing keeps the game reserve managers from stocking all the animals they want, definitely put a tamper on my enthusiasm.

Well, in Klaserie everything you see there is truly wild. Not that it makes a difference for leopards whether there is a fence or not. They can climb anything and no fence will keep them in. Which is another reason why leopards are so extra special and by far the hardest of the Big Five to spot.

By day two and our third game drive (you typically get one morning - EARLY morning - and evening game drive for each night you stay), we had seen three of the Big Five. One fleeting rhino, which I didn't bother to take a picture of, many elephants, and lots and lots of buffaloes (which you'll remember we spent considerable time in pursuit of a year ago).

This reminds me of those unsmiling family portraits of the olden days

We also spotted the usual suspects - plenty of antelopes, zebras, giraffes, and birds...

Grey Louries posing for us

Impalas on the run (yes I know, not the pinnacle of skillful photography but I love this pic)

A pair of hornbills

More family portraits - almost as if WE were the attraction the animals were staring at
Giraffe chewing on... a bone! It's not often you get to see that

Wildebeest family - I really have to turn some of these into sepia and
compare them to my ancestors! An idea for another blog post already...

...took our own family portrait...

Well, almost family

...and had some other cool sightings:

But WHERE was the leopard? We were bouncing along a dried riverbed that evening, happily discussing the incredible buffalo water- and mud bath we had just witnessed, when the conversation, inevitably, veered once again to the leopard. "Well, it could be right there behind a tree and we'd never know it," was Noisette's analysis.

I swear it was right at that moment that we heard a rustling on our right, and one of the kids shouted "something's there!" We looked, but all we could see was a blur disappearing fast into the dense brush.This is where it comes in handy to have a guide. First, to tell you where to look, and second, to tell you what it is you are seeing (or not really seeing, in my case). Just go and try for yourself:

Would you have looked twice at the spot under that tree?

I don't blame you if you didn't see a thing. But it's there, slightly to the left of the middle of the picture. And yes, it's a leopard. A she-leopard, so we're informed, though how this can possibly be gathered from such scant evidence is beyond me. Then again, much of what these trackers and game drivers know and see is incomprehensible. Noisette was the one with the 400-lens that afternoon, so he managed to get a better record of our brief leopard fame. Sorry folks, that's the best we could do!

Darkness falls quickly in Africa, so what looks like a perfectly fine late
afternoon shotabove needed a powerful flash just moments later

Still, we're absolutely elated we got to see this rarest of predators. Or if not rare, extremely skilled at staying hidden. Interestingly, we didn't see any lions at all this time around, when before, in Madikwe, they could easily be spotted just lying by the road, full-bellied and lazy and without a care in the world.

But that's just what's beautiful every single time you go into the bush. You never know what you're going to see, and there is always something new to learn.

More pics - click on slide show to see larger images

January 8, 2012

Safari in the Bedroom

No no, don't imagine anything naughty going on. I know you did. But I just wanted to give you an update on my Christmas-gift-for-Noisette project, which if you remember involved some last minute heroics on my part pulling it all off. I got the elephant done in the nick of time, rushed it off to the picture framing place (which only had a few frames to select from because anything more fancy was only available in the new year), and miraculously got it back on Christmas Eve.

I always feel slightly guilty giving gifts that then require a massive amount of work on behalf of the gift receiver (see The Insurmountable Picture Hanging Project, though in that case I, the gift giver, was the one wielding the drill) but Noisette didn't complain, and the pictures are now hung on the big wall next to our bed, filling it perfectly, exactly where I had envisioned them.

I've now got my safari in the bedroom. Maybe the gift was more for myself than anybody else?

If you're interested, many of these drawings and other paintings of mine can be ordered from Imagekind.

January 7, 2012

Ordering from Amazon in South Africa

*** Amended 5-2-2016: Please view the more up-to-date blog post Ordering From Amazon in South Africa, Take Two ***

Amazon Prime Video sign-up
Too bad we don't live in Brazil. I would have loved to title a post Amazon in the Amazon. But nevertheless the question beckons: How do you order from Amazon when you live in South Africa, which might as well be some piranha-infested creek up the Amazon, as far as the ease of online ordering is concerned?

Okay, I'm exaggerating again, lest a South African reader might be offended. But the big, big problem about living here is that there is no Amazon.co.za. There are other companies that claim to deliver the same services, like Kalahari.com, but that one is a far cry from the real deal. I've given up looking for stuff there. Then there are other websites advertising their competence in sourcing any actual Amazon.com product for you, like wantitall.co.za or have2have.co.za. I have to admit I haven't tried any of them, but I have my doubts.

The best course of action, in my mind, is to go ahead and order directly from Amazon, if you can stomach the suspense of whether your package will make it all the way here through the vagaries of the South African Postal Service. You might want to make sure SAPO is not on strike before you order. Or bypass the postal service altogether by using express shipping such as offered by Stackry (see above). To order from Amazon, you have two options: Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk. [Update: I've been told by readers in South Africa that Amazon.com delivers to South Africa via courier now, meaning it is speedy and safe.]

The latter, in the past, has offered free "Super Saver Delivery on Selected Items to Selected International Destinations," so keep your eyes open for any similar recurring deals, especially around holiday time.

The one Amazon product you should absolutely invest in while living in South Africa is a Kindle, because books are really expensive here. Our kids, as of this Christmas, now all have their own Kindles, and the amount of reading being done has at least tripled (okay, not really an argument for saving money, but when it comes to reading, I am being irrational, as Noisette will affirm).

I'm not sure whether the UK or the USA makes more sense in terms of Amazon deliveries and Kindle book purchases. Check out their international shipping pages at Amazon.co.uk International Deliveries and Amazon.com Shipping Rates to Africa. You'll just have to look at both of them and decide. The one thing that speaks for the UK is that in case you buy any electronics, they will have the right voltage and maybe a plug that fits. I'm saying maybe because it seems like no matter what, we have about fifteen plug adapters coming out of any single outlet in our house.

The best path to salvation, of course, is this: Shortly after moving to South Africa, you start a blog. You give plenty of good advice about expat life in Joburg, so that pretty soon all Americans moving to South Africa follow your blog. They will be very grateful, and they will gladly offer you any shipping space they have available in their containers when moving here. This will enable you to take advantage of FREE Super Saver Shipping within the U.S. just like you're used to. It will lag behind the speed of 2-day shipping just a tad (about two months and 28 days, to be precise), but who cares when you live on African Time?


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