February 29, 2012

Late Night Surgery

No, we haven’t decided to sample another South African hospital. It was me, in this case, who was the surgeon, and I performed it right here at home. Without anesthesia. Unless you count the glass of wine I needed to make it through it.

The patient was Billy, who you haven’t met yet. He is the guy Sunshine has been inseparable from since birth. Billy is not his real name of course. Yes, I even give blog names to my children’s stuffed animals. You never know what evil lurks out there attacking innocent loveys who are too imprudent to hide their true identity from the blogosphere.

As you can see, Billy adorns many of Sunshine's baby pictures. But lately Billy has been in a bad way. He desperately needed to be sewn up. And to do that, he had to first be taken completely apart, more or less. The reason I had to perform the surgery in the darkest of hours was that Sunshine couldn’t possibly see what I was doing. 

It was too gory.

Billy split open and stripped of his innards

See, the problem when you’re an expat, more so than for other people, is that your family is typically spread across the globe. In the days before online ordering this meant presents would be shipped from one continent to the next for the various occasions such as birthdays and Christmas. And the arrival of new babies. So it was that Sunshine came to have Billy. He was purchased from Käthe Kruse in Germany, lovingly packed up by doting grandparents, and embarked on his journey to North Carolina. There he was rubbed and pulled and dunked into chocolate pudding and thrown up upon and dragged through the snow and sent through many many washing cycles until he was basically loved to a partial death about 4 years later. At which time a doting aunt was commissioned to please, somehow, I don’t care how you do it, procure a Billy replacement. Unbelievably, she succeeded (thanks to the branding commitment of Käthe Kruse) and we thought we were home free. Surely another four years would be ample time for Sunshine to wean herself from Billy.

We put Billy to bed one night with a big band-aid, wishing him a speedy recovery, and wouldn’t you know it, the next morning he woke up like brand-new. He was also a lot more colorful and about twice as fat, and I’m sure he had the wrong kind of smell, because four-year-old Sunshine regarded him very suspiciously for the rest of the day. But he was accepted soon enough, and this is how Billy2 came into our lives. Billy1 was put away into a big box where such things go that mothers cannot bring themselves to throw away.

Except that Käthe Kruse must be seriously going downhill. The quality of Billy2 was nowhere near the quality of Billy1, so he started showing signs of old age much earlier, even though he spent not nearly as much time in the tumble dryer. And then they discontinued the Billy line! What to do? Because in the past half year, Billy2 has gone downhill fast. The fabric was practically dissolving, stuffing was coming out everywhere, and whenever you sewed up one spot he would rip open with his guts spilling out right next to it. He looked so awful that I began to think that Billy1, tucked away in his memory box, might actually now be in better shape, comparatively. Wait a minute… Yes, you guessed it, exactly what I was thinking: Why not switch them back?

A big glass of wine helped me get through surgery

This is how I came to sit with a glass of wine – a HUGE glass of wine – one recent evening, Billy parts spread out in front of me. Billy1 unfortunately hadn’t been in very fit shape either, but patches of his skin were passable. I identified the useable parts, and then set to cutting. When Noisette came home from a late dinner and spotted me in the kitchen, he thought I was crazy. It was ten at night and I had just started.

The gory scene on our kitchen counter

Billy1 had to give an arm and a leg, in the truest sense

I am proud to say that Operation Billy succeeded. I myself had doubts about halfway through, especially since threading needles – and, trust me, there were lots of needles to be threaded – over the age of 40, already hard at the best of times, is near impossible with only lamplight to guide you. I needed several generous refills of wine to see me through, and somewhere around midnight I even had to do some touch-up work with a permanent marker on his spots to account for the different stages of fading in the fabric.

But I triumphed in the end.

At midnight I realized with horror that what I thought were polka dots were little bunny
heads, and that all the eyes and whiskers were missing on Billy1s skin (or was it
Billy2's?) so I got a thin black sharpie and started adding them back in.

Refurbished Billy, post-surgery, and slightly two-toned

The things we don't do for our children. What do you think? Sometimes I wonder who is more attached to Billy, Sunshine or me. Am I crazy to go to such lengths for a silly stuffed animal? But let’s just say he holds many special memories for me. And when you look at the final scene of the night, you will agree that it was all well worth it.

Refurbished Billy tucked back to where he belongs

Sunshine was absolutely thrilled the next day. I just have to make sure she never, ever, comes across the memory box, which is now holding a few stray arms and legs, just to be safe. She was ecstatic over Refurbished Billy.

Until she went to camp this week.

Billy back on the operating table, just two weeks post-surgery

Billy has now been issued a travel ban. Due to old age. Sunshine protested and said he wasn't old at all, but I told her that in Billy-years, he is a hundred and five.

A New Look for Joburg Expat

If you’re reading this, you will have noticed that my blog has a new look. And if you read on, you'll find out how it came about, but I suspect only fellow blogger will have any interest in that. If you're not one of them, just take the day off:-)

Redesigning your blog is always a scary prospect. Your blog almost feels like your identity, and you’re reluctant to mess with it. It’s like deciding to get all your hair chopped off, or coloring it red. But sometimes it has to be done, especially when your good friend tells you it’s time because the header belongs in a museum.

So you decide, oh well, putting a new picture in my header is way overdue, let’s do that quickly before I have to make breakfast in half an our.

Okay, well, that precisely is the problem with me. “Do it quickly” is often my thought, but then my actions don’t pay any heed to that whatsoever. Before I know it, I’ll be immersed in it knee-deep, not emerging from that particular project until weeks later. I once decided to replace the knobs on my kitchen cupboards and ended up having the entire kitchen redesigned and rebuilt.

And so it was with the new header for the blog. I didn’t have a good picture, so I decided to make a collage instead. Easy enough, I thought, with my newly acquired skills (or I should call it illusion of skills) in Photoshop, shown to me by the same friend a while ago.

About three days later I had a satisfactory header image. What happened, you see, is that I discovered all this cool stuff you can do in Photoshop. Blur edges. Improve sharpness. Fade the image. Put the imagine in the wrong place by accident and find out that it actually looks cool when the ones behind are showing through. Go online and find a website where you can download actions that do much more than fade the image. And once you're online so much looking at websites, you get new ideas from other people's blogs as to what your header should look like.The good news is, I think I now finally understand the concept of layers and layer masks. I'm sure that's got to count for something in life.

Of course I didn't stop with the header. Looking through so many pictures, I had found some that would look nice on the About Me page, so that ended up completely redone, with a new story while I was at it. Which is when I realized those nifty new pictures fading into the background wouldn't, well, fade into the background if there was an ugly frame around them, so off I went on a wild goose chase to figure out how to get rid of those and learned all about CSS sheets in the process.

My Google profile picture and story was next. Then it was on to my own domain name, something I had been thinking about for a while. The more you become entrenched with your blog, the more it becomes your trademark, and the thought of someone else snatching the name Joburg Expat for themselves was nagging at me. So I went and purchased the name. But of course purchasing is the easy part, but what the hell then? I entered precisely that into Google: "Purchased new domain name, and what the hell now?" and about half a day and many useless articles later I struck gold and was able to copy a bunch of what looked like random numbers into a form somewhere, and magically it worked. Amazing the people you trust when you go searching for solutions on the internet.

During all this I came across many Blogger help and tips sites, and of course I couldn't just get past those, oh no. While they weren't telling me how to fix the problem at hand, they WERE showing me all these other nifty tricks and gadgets, so I left them all open to get to later. At some point in time I had twenty-seven tabs open on Google Chrome. Wanting to align my Facebook and Twitter share buttons under the posts, I found a gadget that lets you float them on the side. Had to have it! From there it was on to a tabbed box to fit all that stuff I previously had in a long column down the side. Then the summarized snippets on the home page. What, the search box can be put in the header, saving space down the right? Bring it on! But in Blogger, you see, you can't simply add these gadgets willy nilly, you often have to delve deep into the HTML code of your blog to make it work. Which is a whole intriguing world of its own, one that I admit immediately had me hooked.

I learned that you have to be very careful when you change that code, or all of a sudden something that worked previously no longer does. So now your Facebook and Twitter share buttons might be lined up perfectly, but the comments box has disappeared. Which then makes you realize you need an entire document with all the tips you've learned and the links to where you've learned them, because often you will have to go back there and do it again. That's a whole new project of course. At this point I'd like to say a huge THANK YOU to GreenLava at BloggerSentral. His posts on how to program Blogger gadgets, and his timely and diligent responses in his comments section, were of huge help to me. I hope he makes plenty of money from his blog, because it is simply the best out there. If you're on Blogger, you should check it out. I no longer Google my Blogger questions, I simply head over to BloggerSentral directly.

As Murphy's Law would have it, that same week I was doing all this was also when I had the best inspiration about my actual blog content in ages, possibly helped by all the coffee I was consuming to get me through those late nights (you remember Kramer in Seinfeld when he had that coffee addiction? - that's how I felt) so I had to interrupt every now and then to start another story draft.

But it's mostly done now (I'm trying hard to heed my resolution this year of "pretty good is good enough"). 
The whole venture was only possible because Noisette was travelling last weeks, and some of the kids were at camp, so no one was holding me accountable. I didn’t cook for a week, didn't leave the house, didn’t make the bed (didn’t actually USE it very much),… I was in absolute heaven!

I hope you like the outcome and aren’t mad at me for changing the way you’ve been reading Joburg Expat in the past. I also hope it hasn't gotten too slow, what with gadgets and header and all, so do let me know if there are any loading issues. Enjoy!

February 27, 2012

Good Friendship

One of the worst things about being an expat is that you always have to leave good friends behind. No matter how hard you try to stay in touch, it won't be the same as when you saw each other every day. Social media makes it easier in some ways, but harder in others, because some people are so distracted these days they don't have time to keep up with distant friendships.

It's impossible to put up pictures of everyone, but
this is one of my favorites, given to us by this great
group of friends at our going away party in Wisconsin
(which we celebrated in our empty house using moving
cartons as tables), where we only lived for one year
But since there are always two sides to a coin, one of the absolute best things about being an expat is that you always get an opportunity to make new friends. All of the people I call good friends in my life today are people I met when I was newly arrived in a new, strange, and sometimes scary place. I cannot think how much poorer I would be in the friendship department if I had never gone to these places. Every one of our stops along the way has left me with a number of good memories and a couple or so good friends whose friendship has endured between continents. Sometimes that makes our life complicated, because now we have to stop in Raleigh, Wisconsin, and Kansas on our trip to the U.S., not to mention the long overdue trip to Singapore, which barely leaves any time for another stop in Mauritius for some chocolate mousse. (If I now sound like a high-flying snob, I apologize, but boy have I been craving that chocolate mousse lately!)

What makes a friend a good friend?

One of the rarest things to find in a friend is their ability and willingness to tell you the truth. I myself often fall short in that respect, opting rather to stay on safe ground and simply share thoughts and stories. It is so  much easier. But sometimes you need to hear the truth, and a true friend is someone who won't shy away from speaking it. I've been lucky in that I've found one such friend here in South Africa. It's unlikely I would have met her under different circumstances. For one thing, we met through my blog, which is always a bit scary - what if you agree to meet and find that person incredibly boring? But in our case, it worked out. We come from very different backgrounds, but are similar in many ways. Whenever we meet, we yack away at a hundred miles an hour, and whenever we part, there are too many things left unsaid, for pure lack of space to say them in.

So I was sharing dinner with this friend the other day, and in so many words she told me that, basically, my blog design sucks. Okay, not quite like that, but I got the point that at least something had to be done about my ancient header. At first such critique invariably makes you feel defensive, angry even... but so valuable. Because of her words, and hours (and hours and hours - by now I am dreaming of HTML tags) of sleepless nights later, I'm at the brink of revealing my new blog design, and I'm completely in love with it. Would I have done it if everyone around me had simply congratulated me politely on having such a nice blog?

By the way, for fairness' sake, I also got a lot of wonderful make-me-feel-good feedback from her that night:-) I'm now taking my glass (of water, having given up wine for Lent) and toasting to Good Friendship!

And stay posted for my new design.

The Mystery of the Missing Cement Mixer

Zax and I were reminiscing the other day about Singapore. He was two years old when we lived there, and in an absolute boy's heaven. Singapore in the late 1990s was a hub of construction with cranes and other heavy machinery wherever the eye could see, the result of which is apparent in a skyline today that's very different from the one we remember. Also, the Singaporean government loved nothing more than digging up streets that were perfectly fine - more than fine, compared to South African standards! - and repaving them, at least twice a year, or at least so it seemed in our little street, Holland Grove View. A veritable gold mine of construction viewing for a little boy gazing out the front gate.

Singapore also was - and still is -home to the world's second busiest container port. Whenever I felt Zax needed some entertainment away from home - perhaps when there was a lull in road-digging - I'd pack him up and schlepp to the harbor, where we'd sit for hours and watch the gantry cranes moving big 40-foot containers - much like the one our household goods had arrived in - this way and that. Fascinating stuff.

Anytime we left our house, even if it was just for a grocery run at the nearby Cold Storage (just saying "Cold Storage" which means grocery store makes me feel homesick for Singapore), Zax was in his element. He'd point out all the diggers and trucks he could spot from his car seat in the back, and crow their names. Except he knew these machines way before he could properly say their names, so that words like cement mixer, which is "Betonmischer" in German, came out as "Ton-mis." Of all the trucks and diggers around us, he was obsessed with the "Ton-mis" in particular.

By age three Zax was ready to relocate for the second time in his life

So a few days ago, when we were talking about Singapore and I was telling him about his "Ton-mis" infatuation, he grew reflective and said: "You know what, I haven't seen any cement mixers in a long time."

And you know what? He's absolutely right. You do not see cement mixers on South African streets, ever. How weird is that?

Upon reflection, not so weird. I think it's due to the fact that labor is very cheap and available here, and so there is no need for a machine to do the mixing, if people can do it more cheaply. I thought back to how our pool deck was retiled earlier this year, and sure enough, bags of cement were delivered, a pile of sand dumped on our driveway, and "the guys" were mixing the cement right there on our lawn. Which had a bald patch for weeks bearing testimony of the mixing taking place there.

Or could it be due to the dry climate? I remember despairing when I first tried my watercolors here in South Africa. You couldn't do any nice washes because no matter how much paint you poured on your paper, it would dry before you'd get a chance to spread it with the brush. It seems to me even a hyperventilating cement mixer would have trouble in this climate keeping the cement from drying.

So let's put another one in the "interesting but more or less useless facts about South Africa" column: No cement mixers.

Not that you really care about it one way or the other. You probably won't rush out and alter your plans about moving to South Africa because I've opened your eyes to the state of the cement mixing business down here.

But I somehow had the urge to write about it. And it might have opened the spigot to a whole new track of expat-themed posts on this blog, as you've now got me thinking back to Singapore in a whole new light.

February 24, 2012

My Mother Would have Loved Blogging

My mother died in 2003, almost nine years ago. It's been a long time, but it doesn't make it any less painful. I find  myself thinking about her often, and sometimes I have imaginary conversations with her, or I wonder what she would have thought of one thing or another. Last night, when I was working on a new blog layout way past a sensible bedtime, a random thought shot through my head:

My mother would have loved blogging.

At first I just liked the sound of that line, but the more I thought about it, the more it rang true, and I just had to make a story out of it right then and there (as, precisely, my mother would have done).

My mother and me, 1967
One indelible childhood memory is that of my mother sitting at her old, old, typewriter, hacking away, occasionally turning that wheel on the side furiously to pull in a new paper, or yanking out the current paper in disgust. That typewriter was a constant companion of hers through many years, later replaced by a computer, at first grudgingly, and then with mounting excitement about the new possibilities. Writing each other emails from afar brought the two of us closer than we had ever been before.

But writing a blog? She would have definitely struggled over the very word, blog. Anything that wasn't in her childhood Duden (German dictionary) would have raised some serious eyebrows. Bringing home new words picked up in school, like "cool," were usually met with a lot of ridicule and disdain. "A WHAT?" I can almost hear her saying if somebody had told her they were writing a blog. "That's not a word!" The same went for any music that wasn't written by either Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach. "Hott 'n Tot" she would call anything we might secretly listen to, under cover of night in our bedrooms, in a vague reference to Rock 'n Roll but really anything modern she didn't deem worthy of the word "music."

And not that she would have liked ANY blog. In fact, I'm fairly certain she would have voiced many criticisms and improvement suggestions about MY blog, had she ever gotten to see it, much as she had a habit of doing the same about MY life. If she harbored any pride of her children, she did it secretly, or perhaps when talking to others, but never to our faces. For starters, she would have scoffed at the writing being done in English rather than German, of that I am sure. Even though she was the one who instilled the love of languages in me. I have fond memories of her wandering across markets in Southern France or Italy, Assimil Language Guide in hand, and haggling for watermelons. While we'd sink into the ground from embarrassment, she'd happily stalk off to talk to strangers - who'd more often than not end up inviting us to their homes as a testament to how travel in Europe was still very much in its infancy in those years - and she'd come back, proudly touting the new word she'd just learned. And the watermelon.

Pencil study of my mother by me,
a few years back
But back to the blog. I think she would have liked HER blog. She wasn't one of those set-in-their-way conservative people but rather embraced the concept of lifelong learning. I will never forget when she decided to try waterskiing for the very first time in her sixties, leaving my dad to shake his head at the craziness of such an idea. Something tells me she would have been curious and overcome her distaste for a made-up imported word, and she might have tried herself at creating a blog, had she lived into the times when those things really took off.

Because she had LOTS to say. She was interested in everything (except cooking; and, I often felt, us kids). I can just see the tags lined up down the side of my mother's blog: Politics, Parenting, Genealogy, Healthcare, Economics, Medicine, Early Childhood Education, Literature, Botany, Geology, the Environment... Neat labels would have lent her thoughts order and structure, which in some ways eluded her most of her life. Or maybe she would have left them in a cloud.

Not that she would have rambled. She was definitely a writer, a good one at that. My brother recently unearthed (and typed up, thankfully - as all doctors, my mother had the most terrible handwriting) some diaries she'd penned during our summer vacations, and I treasure few things more dearly than learning snippets about my childhood through them (even though I often don't come across in such a very good light, little Miss Whiny-pants) and peeking into her mind. What better than a blog as a one-stop instant outlet to all her thoughts and insights? What I wouldn't give to have that now.

Because my mother was also our family history's keeper. She could sit for hours and listen to the umpteenth retelling of my grandfather's wartime (both WWI and II) stories, when I was far too young and snotty to have patience for any of that. How I wish I had more of those stories now. I do have some of them, in various forms, ranging from typed-up letters from the Western Front to a collection of her own childhood memories retrieved from her computer (also a painstaking effort because she never got the concept of subdirectory trees - we'd often get calls for "Help, I lost my story somewhere on my computer!"). Just thinking about those letters makes me want to start a whole new Wartime Memories blog.

My mother would have also loved  the instant publishing aspect of blogging. A brilliant mind, she never had much taste or ability for marketing. She was the only doctor I know who managed to not make much of a living from her profession. Some of her best essays are never-published letters to the editor, although a good number of them did make it into our local paper and occasionally the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Being able to just hit "Publish" and know that a number of people would now read what she wrote, would have been very satisfying for her.

This is how I remember my mother
Like me, she would be struck by an idea and had to bring it to paper. She even enrolled in a creative writing course once. I remember one of the childhood stories she wrote as an assignment, and it was riveting, having me yearning for more when it ended. In fact it inspired me to make similar forays into my own past, a great exercise for any writer. Which in turn inspired her to to give me a book on creative writing which I still turn to every now and then. Writing could have been one passion we had in common.

Perhaps she would also have loved the concept of followers. An automatic audience, people who were interested in what she had to say, yet didn't even know her. I like to think that she would have been above the rest of us and not checked frantically if any new followers emerged or subscriptions materialized or how many pageviews she got yesterday. But I can't be sure.

What I am quite sure of is that my mother would have loved blogging. It would have been a great outlet throughout her life and especially in her retirement, first from being a doctor and then from her political career.

But she died too young.

I miss you, Mama!

Time is Money. Or is it?

Time is money.

We've all said it. It's a universal truth. But is it really?

After I wrote a recent blog post about bad customer service here in South Africa, and how it's so much better elsewhere, I got to thinking. What is the root cause for such bad service? Years of isolation from the outside world during the apartheid years, leaving South Africa behind in a fast-paced and competitive world?

I think not. It's been over 15 years. Plenty of time to realize that in other places people actually do call back when they promise to call you "just now." Plus, there was no apartheid (although one could argue other forms of oppression) in the rest of Africa, where the service is often just as bad (or worse, prompting us to practically kiss the South African ground at OR Tambo upon our return from Mozambique).

The problem, in my mind, is that the old adage "time is money" is, in fact, not a universal truth. It is true in most Western countries, where people work themselves into a frenetic pace and overschedule their kids, but time does not seem to come at a premium in South Africa. It is something everybody seems to have plenty of. You just have to drive through the African countryside to see that. People waiting patiently for their taxi to arrive. People crossing the road at snail's pace. People sitting at the side of the road doing nothing. Yes, I"m speaking of the country's poor, and perhaps it is unfair to claim they have plenty of time when indeed they must be struggling. But also in less-impoverished circles will you find that in general, South Africans don't ever seem to be in much of a rush.

This is a fact that I've generally been very happy with. People will spend an entire morning with you over coffee, you feel less rushed, there is always someone willing to help you when in need, and the kids have much less homework and more free time than ever before. Basically, living here has taught me that most things are not THAT important, no matter how it seems at first. And, as a writer, I"m generally grateful for the constant supply of stories that make you shake your head in disbelief.

And yet. I DO miss Western-style efficiency. Is it possible to have that, IN ADDITION to our relaxed lifestyle here? Or are the two mutually exclusive and South Africa today is already the best compromise we can hope to find? Will more efficiency and better service come at a huge cost, is the price we pay for them that we'll someday sit around, nostalgically longing for those "good ole days" in South Africa when the pace was still so nice and slow?

I honestly don't know. It seems like this is a question almost going to the core of  the human condition, coming up again and again as we search for the meaning of life.

There you have it. I've managed to get to philosophy from plaintiveness.

What do you think?

February 22, 2012

What's a Ballbox?

This question was something I puzzled over all day yesterday.

Jabulani, in his typical 13-year old morning funk, had thrown a "Mom, I REALLY need a ballbox" at me before rushing out the door. Newly in high school with all its added demands and responsibilities, he has been slightly stressed lately. There hasn't been a day yet in this school year that he hasn't lost or forgotten something. I frequently get calls to bring something or other to school or pick him up at the gate because he lost his pass. I have purchased more locker locks to supply my kids with than the Fort Knox purchasing department, a fact that is supported by a whole drawer of unmatched keys. (I can understand how one looses the key to a lock, but the lock itself? Trust me, it happens in our family). Most often, Jabulani's stress is expressed by blaming the lack of proper equipment, as in "Mom, I told you a million times I need a new calculator but you never buy it."

So it was yesterday morning. Dear Jabulani was in a bad mood, I could see, and couldn't be bothered to tell me what a ballbox is. Oh no, that would be asking too much. If I so much as verify a point to make sure I've understood something correctly, all I get in response is exasperated sighing and eye-rolling.

Not wanting to be blamed again for motherly shortcomings in the purchasing department, and since I was heading out the door anyway, I thought I'd at least try to get this ballbox. The conversation had vaguely touched on his cricket practice, so I figured Sportsman's Warehouse would be a good start. I'm a regular customer there. How hard could it be to find some box or other to carry cricket balls in?

It turns out not very hard, for once, and Sportsman's Warehouse was indeed the right address. When I approached a sales clerk with my request, he led me past rows and rows of cricket helmets, bats, and leg guards, and past the balls as well, until we stood before a display of... athletic cups! Ever descriptive, South Africans call these things ballbox. I guess it IS after all a box to put your balls in. Just a different pair of balls.

Never mind that we already have a collection of fine athletic cups such as this one, tailored to fit in a pair of sliding shorts:

It turns out the sliding shorts are "so not cool" and a South African athletic cup such as this one was needed:

So now we've all learned what a ballbox is, adding yet another term to our South Africa dictionary right after "We will give you a tinkle".

And we've also learned an important fact about the male South African anatomy, or perhaps rather about the male South African psyche.

South African "ballbox" on left vs American "cup"
on right, both youth size.

They like to think they have huge balls!

February 21, 2012

...And Yet Another Thrilling Book to Read

I thought I was done with my mini-series of books about Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, but I was wrong. There is one more (or perhaps the only one, if you haven't read the others) you should read: We Are All Zimbabweans Now.

I was intrigued even before I started, when I read the blurb on the back about the author, James Kilgore.
It turns out that while he lived in Zimbabwe (originally he's an American) he did so as a fugitive from the law, and was eventually extradited back to the United States, where he served over six years in prison. That is where he wrote this book (his first). I was immediately sold, as I have a fascination with people who write books while in prison. Perhaps because it is a testament to the power of redemption, but also in part because prison seems such an ideal setup for a writer. Okay, I can now hear you all accosting me for having said that, and I don't in any way mean to belittle what it means being imprisoned. But just think about it from a practical point of view. Lots of time. A very regular daily routine. No responsibilities for others. No grocery shopping. No cooking. Definitely no class mom duties. Did I mention lots of time?

We Are All Zimbabweans Now, unlike Mukiwa or When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, is a work of fiction. It's a good story, starting innocently enough with an American graduate student sets off for Zimbabwe in 1982 full of euphoria to write a thesis about Mugabe's new government and his promise of reconciliation. But things become complicated quickly. He falls in love with a woman who is an ex-guerrilla fighter and somehow connected to a man whose murder he is trying to investigate. He realizes he is being closely watched by intelligence agents as he discovers more and more lies and cover-ups about the bush war that swept Mugabe to power. He also finds evidence of human rights violations in Matabeleland, perpetrated by Zimbabwe's own army, and must finally square his admiration for Mugabe with the fact that something is seriously wrong with the government he built.

I found the ending a bit disappointing but all in all it's a good story, one that lets you peek into Zimbabwe in the early 80s, how Mugabe managed to hoodwink most of the West into believing he was great, how African politics is even murkier than the usual morass of politics, how it is impossible to know whom to trust, and how the choice between right and wrong is not always an easy one.

Me? Getting into a Balloon?

You know me. I hate heights. Just thinking of that bungy jump Zax did still makes me feel weak in the knees.

So, as you can imagine, when the prospect of a family balloon safari came up in early 2010, right after we'd moved to South Africa, I wasn't terribly enthusiastic.

But since I"m often accused of not feeling terribly enthusiastic about proposed activities, and since it seems my enthusiasm is somehow always integral to the whole venture, I swallowed down my fear and feigned enthusiasm. Which is how we came to get up really early the morning after our visit at Maropeng, while we were already out that way near Krugersdorp, to embark on our balloon ride.

It was very cold. And, contrary to what I thought, if indeed I had actually thought about it, you don't just drive up, step onto the balloon, and up you soar. No, there is the small matter of inflating the balloon first. Signing indemnity forms. Waiting around and blowing into your hands. If not genuine enthusiasm, I had by now developed a definite urge to get going, reasoning that higher up the sunrise would be happening earlier, making me warm. Once again my fear of cold conquering all other fears.

Huddled together waiting for our ride. It's cold on the Highveld on a May morning.

A very welcome sunrise

I must tell you, if you're thinking of doing a balloon safari, that the word "safari" is a bit of a boast. If you're wanting to see animals, you're much better off doing so from a game drive vehicle. When you're in a balloon, the few animals you might see are very far down and look tiny, plus the balloon isn't actually going to go where the animals might be. It's going to go where your driver (or are they called captain?) can reasonably steer it while making sure it goes somewhere in the vicinity of the desired landing site. In fact, the whole aim, from the moment you leave the ground for a balloon ride, is to work towards landing it again.

Do you see the tiny antilopes down below? At least I think they were antilopes...

Animals or not, I did enjoy the ride. Once I loosened my white-knuckled grip on the nearest rope, that is. The views were spectacular. Up above...

...and down below.

I wasn't the only one with a height problem, it turns out. Looking around frantically because I couldn't see Jabulani, I found him at my feet. That's the spot I'm going to claim next time!

Sunshine could barely peek over the edge of the basket, while Impatience and Zax got happier the higher we soared. Zax found particular joy in leaning over the edge and watching my reaction. I think it has something to do with being a mother, but watching my kids get close to a precipice is even worse than getting close myself. Much worse.

I was happiest when we got close to the ground, trying to catch a better drift of wind. Except sometimes we scraped over the trees.

What's really amazing about a balloon ride is how calm it is up there. You'd think it would be a windy affair, but since you're actually moving exactly as fast as the wind, there is no wind to feel or hear. Everything is peaceful and quiet.

And yet, I was very glad when we touched down for the final time. Happy to have all my goslings on dry land again, so to speak, and happy to tuck into the bush breakfast awaiting us right there.

Booking information

Though not strictly necessary, as it's only about 45 minutes from the Northern Suburbs, we spent the night at a hotel in the Muldersdrift area so that we didn't have to get up quite so early. And it's a really nice area, with plenty of gorgeous country estates. We had dinner right next door at Carnivore Restaurant, a very memorable experience and one I can highly recommend. The original Carnivore is in Nairobi, Kenya, and this one is similarly decorated with statues of Maasai warriors, giving it a very African feel. As the name suggests, it is a heaven for meat lovers with lots of unusual game on the menu, served the same way as in a Brazilian churrascaria.

Hotel: Misty Hills Country Hotel
Balloon Safari: Airventures
Dinner: Carnivore

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

February 19, 2012

Back to the Cradle

I've been wanting to tell you about the Cradle of Humankind for ages. Considering that we visited it for the first time in early 2010, almost two years ago. The cradle of our South Africa adventure, if you will.

It was May of 2010 when we set off for one of our first outings in South Africa, a balloon safari. More on that later. Johannesburg was gripped by World Cup fever and I remember this because we lost one of our Germany flags when Impatience opened the window while we were driving. Big drama.

Noisette, the kids, and our World-Cup-ready car; can't believe this was almost 2 years ago!

Our first stop was the Maropeng Visitor Centre, about an hour away from Johannesburg towards the Northwest. It doesn't look like all that much when you approach it, sitting there in the middle of nowhere or so it seems. Just a large mound of dirt.

Somehow reminds me of the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk

But from its backside, it turns out to be an impressive building of a rather interesting architecture.

Not sure what it reminds me of from this side

It's a bit hard to explain what exactly Maropeng is, so you best look at the pictures below to get an impression. I'd say it most closely resembles a hands-on museum (don't expect too much) or  maybe a mini (emphasis on mini) Epcot Center. That's because you get to ride through the history of the world, in a boat of sorts, past icebergs and fires.

Boat ride through the bowels of Maropeng Visitor  Centre

The boat ride doesn't last terribly long and that's the end of Epcot-esque educational rides at Maropeng. From then on out you're on foot, exploring and looking at displays at your own pace (I'd say a total of two hours is about adequate if you're planning your visit).

Lots of information about the different hominids (I hope that's the right term -
as you can see, I'm just throwing words around; I always have trouble actually
remembering stuff I learn in museums; should probably ask my kids)

Reminds you of "Night at the Museum," doesn't it?

My favorite part of Maropeng was the terrace in the back where one can sit and sip cappuccinos while taking in the most magnificent view in Gauteng.

One of my favorite pictures of the kids and me, taken at Maropeng in 2010

Not far from Maropeng you will find the Sterkfontein Caves, site of one of the greatest finds in the history of excavation, the near complete skull of one of our human ancestors, Mrs. Ples, as she has since become known. I find it mind-boggling that that skull is over 2 million years old. And that they actually have a way of measuring that.

The caves are quite spectacular in their own right, with plenty of stalactites and stalagmites (don't ask me which one is which). The whole area is called the Cradle of Humankind because it's one of the richest sites in the world in terms of early hominid finds.

Sterkfontain Caves
Statue of Dr. Robert Broom

While you're already out there, it's definitely worth visiting the caves as well as the visitor centre, and you get a discount when purchasing a combo ticket. Just make sure you break it up with a nice big lunch on the Maropeng terrace, or otherwise you will saddle yourself with some whiny kids.

So much for the educational side of our trip. Stay tuned for the fun part, our balloon safari over that beautiful landscape above, which we embarked on the following day.

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

February 17, 2012

Horses, Horses, and More Horses

When you've got nothing going on in your life but a horse show, you take pictures of horses.

Brown horses.

White horses.

Brown and White horses.

Little horses.

Pretty horses.

Jumping horses.

Bucking horses.

Peeing-when-performing horses.

Sleepy horses.

Sleepy dogs on horses.

Kissing horses.

Loved horses.

Horses' heads.

And horses' butts.

You take pictures of all things horse, because there is nothing else to do, and what with over 1000 horses present, there is plenty of material. Can I just say that it's not easy taking horse pictures, or at least pictures of horses with riders on them. Horses are more often than not dark, whereas the rider is typically framed by a bright sky. I was constantly fiddling with the exposure settings. Then again, I had nothing much else to do.

This was our first horse show, and a good harbinger of things to come. Apparently, what you do most of during a horse show is wait. If you're not walking from one end of the place to the other, because of course your two kids' events are spread out to the farthest possible reaches. 

We didn't win anything that day. Not that I'd even have known where to find out if we won anything. But everybody stayed on top of their horse, which I count as a success. No one got kicked by a horse. And there were only a few tears, because Impatience had practiced for the wrong dressage test, but she got over it. And good old Sparky behaved himself reasonably well, only bucking once or twice and peeing when walking up to the judges.

We should have gotten an award for most spirited horse.