March 31, 2012

Expat Homecoming in Singapore

After posting about the marvels of modern-day Singapore and offering a glimpse of the future in my previous post, I am now going to delve into the past and reminisce about our expat days there twelve years ago. I think only another expat will understand, so if you aren’t one, I won’t be offended if you skip this post.

After all, what’s there to like about pictures like this, unless you've been an expat in Singapore?

Just the name "Cold Storage" brought memories rushing back to my mind. How I had my first encounter with "this is not like home" kind of situations, the kind I now experience daily in Africa. Like when there wasn't any Nutella to be found in any of their outlets. How they'd just shrug and smile and assure you it would be back on the shelf soon. Except it wasn't, with a gaping empty section staring back at you for months, because literally the Nutella container hadn't arrived in Singapore yet and wasn't expected for another three months. Like gas bottles in a Joburg winter. And please don't tell me to get a grip because Nutella is non-essential. You have no idea what kinds of funks my family will descend into without Nutella in the house.

Parisilk is Holland Village's (and possibly all of Singapore's) most well-known and cherished electronics and appliances outlet. Yes, this little rinky-dink store front. It's special to us because we bought our first ever digital camera there, in 1998. And took our first ever digital picture with it.

First-ever digital picture in our family, Singapore, 1998
Holland Village was our regular haunt, just because it was so close to where we lived, convenient both for shopping and eating out. As soon as we entered the Shopping Centre there, it came rushing back to me: You'd happily take the escalator upstairs to explore all manner of stores, several levels up, and then you'd wonder how to get down again, because there was only the one escalator coming towards you. You'd have to pry open the door to the back stairway, shove your stroller through, and carry it back down three fllights of stairs. Let me just say that I spent much of my time in Singapore carrying strollers up and down dodgy stairwells.

We found everything virtually unchanged, except for this little gem: They've added a rooftop restaurant on top of the shopping centre, full of gorgeous orchids and offering great views of the (admittedly not so stunning) neighborhood.

I've always been fascinated by back allies such as this one

You'll laugh, but we found joy in this particular view of some HDB flats

Holland Village, Singapore

Good thing our kids didn't come with us, or we would have faced a major mutiny. And disbelief and ridicule over our weird fascination. But the two of us totally understood each other, without words. We revisited the stores inside, found the barber, the hardware store, the tailor where I had once had a dress made. The only dress I ever had custom-tailored for me, making me feel very, er, colonial. And yes, I still have that dress. 

There were tons of trinkets in this store. And we were gushing over the awesome prices, until
we realized we probably shouldn't divide everything by seven as we do in South Africa.
Singapore, it turns out, has gotten much more expensive since the late 1990s.

I used to despair about not finding things such as brooms or storage boxes when we first arrived in Singapore, until I came across stores like this one that were tiny but simply carried everything. Singapore today arguably boasts some of the best and glitziest shopping to be found anywhere, but what I loved most about our life there was the idea of the neighborhood shopping center, often just a collection of stalls on the courtyard in the middle of a bunch of HDB flats (government sponsored highrise apartment buildings) where you could eat some hawker food and do your daily shopping.

Typical wet market in Singapore

Another Singapore institution was the wet market. I loved buying my fruit and vegetables (fish, not so much) at the local wet market. I had a special deal with a woman at one particular stall: She would save all her not-so-nice looking oranges for me to use for fresh orange juice, and I would buy them at 10 for a dollar. The normal price was three for a dollar, and I remember thinking that that sounded expensive. Mind you, I have no idea what oranges cost, at home or elsewhere. But it is one of those unique habits you only develop as an expat that all of a sudden you are intensely interested in the price of everything. So I bartered and got me that deal, and we drank fresh orange juice every morning the entire time we lived in Singapore.

Beautiful children's clothes in Holland Village Shopping Centre, 2012

The children's clothes store where we used to buy matching pants and t-shirts for our boys was still the same, as evidenced by this old picture I dug up:

Zax and Jabulani, 1999

Methodically, and every once in a while hopping into a cab to escape the heat, we made our way to all the other landmarks we remembered, like Takashimaya, Emerald Hill, Mount Elizabeth Hospital, and Fort Canning Park.

Takashimaya on Orchard Road

Crowds of chattering Filipino maids on a Sunday, bringing back fond memories of Ampy, our
maid, who was like a grandmother to our kids.
House on Emerald Hill

Singapore Botanical Gardens, a beautiful park we used to push our double stroller through

Orchids everywhere

Mount Elizabeth Hospital, where Jabulani was born

One place we hadn't managed to see when we lived there was Bunker Hill in Fort Canning Park, including the "Battle Box" where the British command made that fateful decision in February of 1942, faced with a severe shortage of water and supplies, to surrender to the Japanese - to this day the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. There's a fascinating little museum set inside the bunker where one can go through all the different rooms and watch re-enactments of the surrender conference. I stared up the escape hatch and felt myself shivering when I envisioned the feeling of doom these generals and troops must have felt, without even knowing yet what dehumanizing brutality awaited them at Changi Prison.

Escape hatch of the "Battle Box", Fort Canning Hill, Singapore

But by far the most gratifying part of our excursion into the past was visiting our hold house on Holland Grove View, which sadly looked a bit mossy and overgrown, and having a fabulous dinner with our old friends Lisa and Sanjay, who arrived in Singapore at the same time we did and are still living there. It was great to catch up with them, as if we'd last seen them just a few days ago, and, I am glad to say, they were neither mossy nor overgrown.

Our old house on Holland Grove View, 2012
Catching up with old friends

All in all, a really fun and nostalgic experience. Accompanied by some pretty delicious food.

See all posts in this series here:

Mystery Fantasy Travel Come True
Journey into the Past, and the Future
Expat Homecoming
Hotel with a View

March 29, 2012

Journey into the Past, and the Future

That’s where our mystery trip of kid-free bliss was headed to.

Singapore skyline at night as seen from Marina Bay Sands hotel

I could hardly stand the excitement. And Noisette could hardly stand the excitement of finally sharing this with me, as we were waiting – and waiting – at the Singapore Airlines check-in counter (note to self - or, rather, those who book mystery trips for me: use Internet check-in option next time). 

Two very excited travelers on their way to Singapore

Singapore, you see, is where we used to live in the past. From 1998 to 2000, to be exact. It seems like an entirely different lifetime now, and it was. The girls weren’t born yet, the boys were very little, and in twelve long years Singapore has grown into some sort of a magic place in our minds.

Marina Bay, Singapore

“Remember when…” we often say to each other, and reminisce about our golden days in Singapore. Forgetting the perpetually broken air-conditioning, the unfriendly taxi drivers, one of whom once drove over our stroller in his haste to get away, the stubborn landlady who was too stingy to have a hot water heater installed for the maid’s room, the annoying habit of contractors to show up with no tools and sending you to the basement three times in succession to produce ladder, hammer, flashlight, all while pretending to speak no English.

Peranakan Museum, Singapore

Starting with our flight, way before we even reached Singapore, I was instantly transported back to the past. If you’ve ever flown with Singapore Airlines you will know what I mean. I felt myself almost wishing I had a small baby with me, just so that I could let the flight attendant take it out of my arms, tell me not to worry and have a good night’s sleep while she attended to the child.

Boat Quay, Singapore [click on image to enlarge]

“By the way, we’ll have to check out this really cool new hotel they built that I heard about, the one with the swimming pool on the roof,” I said into Noisette’s direction while browsing the in-flight magazine.

“We’re STAYING in that hotel,” was his response.

Marina Bay Sands, our posh hotel in Singapore

Holy cow, this was really going to be some trip! Apart from the posh hotel, there were going to be so many new things to see, things that weren’t even there twelve years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures of anything other than cute baby faces back in 1998, so I can’t tell for sure, but from what I remember Marina Bay was a brackish body of water whose main attraction (at least for 2-year old eyes) was the garbage boat lazily cruising back and forth on its rounds. In the distance one could still see a few barges digging up sand and blowing it towards shore through long pipes. It was like any old harbor, complete with the smells that typically come with harbors, whereas today the bay has been sealed off and converted into a fresh-water reservoir, absolutely clean and dotted with the occasional sailboat.

Chinatown, Singapore. If there is one downside of Singapore's building boom and modernization,
it is that Chinatown has lost some of its charm. I remember many doorways with cavernous
black holes behind them where all manner of stuff was sold by wizened old bow-legged men.
Nowadays, most storefronts are covered with glass and look very respectable but also slightly
boring, like any Western shopping street. Still, I did find some pickled snakes in a jar. I didn't dare
 ask for rhino horn...

Singapore has experienced one of the world’s biggest building booms in the past decade, one that we saw the beginnings of just as we left, in the form of big cranes and construction sites everywhere. Our posh hotel, the Marina Bay Sands, was not yet built back then, in fact the very ground it is built on hadn't been around for very long either. It was the result of an aggressive land claiming effort undertaken by the Singaporean government in the 1970s, and by the time we lived there it was used as a large park to go fly your kites.

Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, Chinatown, Singapore

When I heard about the Marina Bay Sands complex - not merely a huge hotel but also an even bigger and glitzier shopping center, a casino, a promenade with boat docks, and a really cool museum reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House - I thought they must have changed their minds about the park. But it turns out the park was just a temporary measure to let the land settle, and the plans for further development were there all along, hatched most likely in the 1960s by none other than Lee Kuan Yew.

Inside of Sri Mariamman Temple [we specifically paid for the photo pass!]

Lee Kuan Yew is a living legend. In his eighties now, he has been involved in the running of Singapore his entire life (succeeded recently by his son) and has his hands in pretty much everything that is going on. Our posh hotel? Developed by Lee Kuan Yew, according to our taxi driver. [Let me just say that we had the most amazing taxi and bus drivers - one told us he had met Ronald Reagan in a business meeting back in the day when he (Reagan, not the taxi driver) was governor of California and visiting Singapore with a commerce delegation. Talk about an educated work force!].

Doorman at Raffles Hotel [who wasn't very happy about me and my camera]

Needless to say, Lee Kuan Yew must be filthy rich. But in addition he is probably the best argument in the world against democracy. That's right, I'm not kidding. I went to Singapore back then with a sense of dread, harboring visions of censored newspapers, opposition politicians languishing in jail, and some sort of police state that would forbid me to chew any gum (not that I ever chewed any gum) or punish me with a bout of caning. All this was true, mind you, and to this day Singapore isn't a real democracy as we understand it, although it has become much more open and one-party rule is on its wane [for a detailed discussion of whether or not Singapore is a democracy, my friend Google supplied this very interesting essay by one of the opposition leaders].

Raffles Hotel, Singapore [and no, I didn't drink a Singapore Sling - for the reader who likes
to keep track of my commitment to Lent]

But it is hard to find another country with quite such a success story in terms of infrastructure, education, and racial harmony, all due to the long-term vision of one man and the people he surrounded himself with. If what you find in Singapore today was achieved with something else but democracy, this "something else" at the very least deserves a serious look. I've always been a staunch believer in the dictum that the ends doesn't justify the means, but with Singapore I'm not so sure. Coming back twelve years later and seeing this hotbed of economic activity, glitz, and culture - you wouldn't believe the amount of new museums that have sprung up, as well as old buildings restored - has me convinced, more than ever, that Singapore, together with other parts of Asia, is the face of the future.

Daytime view of Singapore skyline as seen from Marina Bay

As for the promised journey into the past (my past), stay tuned for an upcoming post about the favorite expat haunts we revisited. And I think that posh hotel deserves an entire blog post of its own.

In the meantime, here is an example of our very own building boom here in South Africa:

House under construction across the street from us shortly after we moved in

Same house now, two years later, still under construction. I swear to you, there were people
working on it every single day, hammering  and banging and sawing and looking very busy.
As I said, a veritable building boom around here!

March 28, 2012

Mystery Travel Fantasy Come True

If you have kids, you’ll know that travelling with them can be a draining exercise. I’ve written about some of that in Cape Town with Kids and Family Travels. As a result, I’ve always harbored this travel fantasy: Noisette tells me that I have an hour to pack a few things, and off we fly to some undisclosed location, without a care in the world because he’s pre-arranged not only all the travel but all the babysitting as well.

Imagine how giddy I was the last few weeks leading up to just such a mystery trip. True, he told me almost a month ahead of time and I had to arrange all the babysitting and sleepovers and pre-cooked meals and after-school plans myself. But honestly, can I have a show of hands who will trust their husband to plan all of that satisfactorily? No one? I thought so. Wise as he is through many years of marriage to someone who always knows better, he left that job to me.

I don’t usually get very excited about travelling anywhere until I’m actually sitting on the plane and make peace with the fact that whatever I might have forgotten to pack is now beyond my reach. And in need of a nap after listening to prolonged squabbles over who gets to sit where. But I admit that this time I was bursting with anticipation, partly due to the fact that all my friends were possibly even more curious to find out where it was I was going.

Would he take me to a wild and deserted beach?

A big, glamorous city?

Into the mountains (unlikely given his antipathy of uneven paths, but there are those mountains you can take the bus up and then coast down on a bike without ever pedaling)?

Off on some crazy adventure involving a seaplane?

Or even on an extreme sports outing such as last seen during our honeymoon?

I just hoped we weren't flying with this particular outfit:

There was nothing to do but wait for the big day. I packed my “clothes for a hot climate” and “sensible shoes” – presumably for walking, which one of my friends sincerely hoped on my behalf could be interpreted as shopping – and we dropped the kids off at all the various places they were spending the weekend. Then, finally, we were speeding towards freedom! Or, rather, the highly anticipated experience of leaving South Africa with an expired visa.

You might remember that we applied for the renewal of our South African visas a while back. A long while back.  The new visas – surprise, surprise – are still being processed in the black hole also known as the Department of Home Affairs. You might also remember that I flat-out refused to once again go through the pleasurable experience of obtaining police records from all the countries we've every lived in. I found a guy at the Department of Home Affairs who was "pretty sure" we didn't need that as long as we filed our renewal application at the same office the original petition was filed, so that is what we did. Leaving us ever so slightly nervous that things might not go smoothly. All we had was a letter from said department that our applications had been received which supposedly gets you through the checkpoints in a breeze, but we’ve lived in Africa long enough to know that breezy is not an adjective you attach to any form of officialdom associated with travel. Plus, we remembered Martina’s Story.

But we needn’t have worried. It just took a bit of standing in one line, then another line, and various officials bending over our letter in frowning concentration and shuffling back and forth to consult with other, higher-up, officials, before dispensing that wonderful all-clear in the world of international travel, the sound of a stamp banged down with force.

Nothing more between me and Paradise.

Oh, and where were we off to? Bear with me, I’ll tell you that in my next post.

Hint: These were my mystery destination choices

March 27, 2012

10 Tips on How to Write a Good Blog Post

Let me just say upfront that I don't claim to be an expert when it comes to writing blog posts. In fact, some people say the perfect blog post is between 300 and 500 words long, and you all know by now that mine are hardly ever that short. So technically I'm losing 80 percent of the typical online readers less than half-way through.

But when a friend recently wanted to know whether my blog posts were just flowing out of my pen, so to speak, or whether I had to work at them, and where I got my story ideas, I set out to write down a few bullets in reply. And of course they had morphed into another blog post before I knew it, answering her second question right there. My ideas come from everyday occurrences such as this, there is nothing magical about them. Which gets me right to the first point:

  1. You HAVE to write whenever you’re inspired.
    Every successful writer/author will say the same thing. Everyone goes through the doldrums every once in a while where nothing comes to your mind, so at those times when it does, you just know you have to seize the moment. If you’re on your way to bed and a story idea pops into your head about a boy wizard who will spend seven years at a special wizarding school and the adventures he and his friends might encounter there, well you better turn right around and head to your computer and write down whatever comes into your head. You can always sleep another night. You know how authors are always thanking their spouses and  families for being so understanding in the acknowledgements? Well. My guess is their spouses and families aren’t actually so very understanding and probably spent the good part of that author’s book being written complaining about the uninspired food being served, whipped together at the last minute, the unmade bed, and the fact that they were ALWAYS sitting at the computer, even at 2:00 at night. In reality, their spouses had no choice but to be understanding, because that’s what writers do. Arguing that you have no time at the moment and that you’ll just have to write it later, when there is more time, is the wrong approach. Later, when there is more time, the urge to write will have left you and the story is gone.

  2. Write frequently.
    That doesn’t mean you have to sit and stare at the screen every day. But practice, as with everything else, makes you better. Someone once said that you have to make 500 paintings before you can consider yourself a painter. Malcolm Gladwell said something similar in Outliers when he took a look at what made certain people so good in their respective fields. Well, the same is true for writing. Don’t be overly ambitious. If you think every story has to be perfect, it will never be written. It's the act of writing that will make you better, not turning out perfect stories every time. That's where blogging is so great. A  new story every few days, and then it's done and finished and you can move on to something else.

  3. Read frequently.
    A friend once told me she admired how disciplined I was in reading daily. Well, I wouldn’t call it discipline. To me, reading is the epitome of undiscipline – letting all the day’s chores lie and immersing myself in a good book from dawn to dusk is one of my fantasies. I'm probably the only person in the world who LOVES flying commercial, even if it's economy class. The idea of not being able to sleep and reading for hours on end is pure heaven for me. But if you’re not so inclined, you should still make a point of reading regularly. If you want to write well, you have to learn from the ones who’ve gone before you. I always love reading the author's notes in the back of books, and sometimes they're asked about their own reading habits. They always turn out to be prolific readers across many different genres. I don't think you can be a writer if you're not a reader.

  4. Keep an idea notebook.
    Thank goodness our phones are such powerful little things nowadays, keeping you from actually having to lug a notebook and pen around and attracting suspicious stares. I've always got one or two emails sitting in my inbox, written to me by myself in very rough drafts while waiting at red lights. The one good outcome of Joburg traffic with its many stops. When people ask me where I get my ideas, all I can think is "are you kidding me?" From the moment I wake up until late at night, new ideas - topics I'd like to write about as well as actual passages I've thought up - are assaulting me every minute of the day, and my biggest fear is not getting anywhere quickly enough where I can write them down before I've forgotten them.

  5. Don’t feel you have to start at the beginning.
    I often have a great story idea, in the middle of standing in line at the Telkom store, for instance. Of course this is never the entire idea, just a flash of a sentence someone might say, or perhaps even the last sentence of the story, without knowing precisely what comes before. In my early writing days I’d then come home and sit at my keyboard, and be stuck. I wouldn’t get past the first sentence, growing increasingly impatient with the frustration of not getting past this particular hurdle, when what I actually did want to write about came further along. If like me you’ve got an analytical mind and like to do things sequentially, this can be a huge hindrance to writing. By the time you finally get to the point where you had your inspiration, it might be gone, or you’ve run out of energy (or, if you're mother like me, you've been sidetracked by the huge fight that just broke out between your kids). Start in the middle or wherever you feel more inspired. We don’t live in the age of the typewriter anymore, so rearranging later is not an issue. And often the story is better anyway by starting right in the middle, without preamble.

  6. Think outside the box.
    Not every story has to be told as a regular story, as in “first this happened, then that happened.”  You would agree that starting your story with “It was gigantic. It was moist and muddy. It smelled so bad that…” is a better beginning than “last week we went to the elephant sanctuary. And then we...” When I was frustrated a while back about the idea that pageviews, in the blogging world, are so all important, the phrase "pageview is king" kept bouncing around my mind. That's how I had the idea of writing King Pageview as a fairytale instead of just going on another rant. To give you another example, one of my favorite bloggers, Rock the Kasbah, wrote an entire post the other day where every sentence started with Guess who. It is hilarious. Go on and read it. You'll love her blog. I'll wait for you.... Hey, don't get distracted by all that belly dancing, get back here to MY blog! Thank you.

  7. Come full circle with your ending and try out new techniques.
    Bill Bryson, in Notes from a Big Country is a master of good finishes. It's a collection of essays he wrote about America for a weekly column in an English newspaper (I'm convinced it would have been a blog much like mine had he written it more recently) and I just love how he jumps right into a topic, looks at it from all angles, and then sums it up, often with a clever sentence. If, on the other hand, I read something that lacks a proper ending and just sort of dwindles out, I feel very unsatisfied. Look at how newspaper columnists, for instance, end their essays, and practice different styles yourself. In fact, when I read a book like A Short History of Nearly Everything, also by Bill Bryson, I often find myself going back and re-reading sentences. They almost feel like candy on your tongue. Much like you’d practice your tennis serve again and again, repeating a good turn of phrase will commit it to your memory and you’ll be able to dig it up one day when it fits perfectly into what you’re trying to write. 

  8. Pictures.
    Whereas I like photography, I'm not a photographer at heart. But I have come to believe those who say a good blog needs a few good pictures. I sometimes find myself writing a blog post that's not really screaming out for pictures (like this one, for instance) and then I look at my homepage afterwards and realize it looks drab with the one picture-less blog post. And everywhere it might get reposted, it looks so much more catchy with a picture attached. So, you need at least one picture. And don't even think of googling one and using that - you'll run into all sorts of copyright issues you want to stay clear of, especially once your readership starts going up. Instead, have a little fun. Stage a scene, use your kids as props, or make a stick figure drawing if need be. Trust me, you can get totally sidetracked with this. But for me, writing always comes first, so I typically start with that, then insert pictures as needed. And to cut down on the time needed for picture prep (i.e. making it the right size) I wrote a little script in Photoshop that does basic image editing for me with a simple keyboard shortcut. But it might very well work better for you the other way around, where you start with the pictures and write your story around them.

  9. Edit, edit, edit.
    People, or at least the serious and committed readers you want to attract, don’t want to stumble over hazards such as “definately” (sorry, but I have been dying to vent this pet peeve of mine, so while we're at it let me just vent on “you’re sweater” or “the cat and it’s tail," and, god forbid, a cacophony of exclamation points). Don't rely on your spellcheck. You have to read and re-read what you’ve written. If you write every day, you’ll soon develop a routine. I personally do best when I type up my story directly in the online editor, take a break by editing and importing a few pictures, then hit “preview” to read it. Invariably in preview mode I’ll immediately spot things that are wrong or don’t flow right that had escaped me previously.

  10. Schedule ahead
    One of the advantages of blogging is to be able to schedule ahead, so that when the ideas are flowing, you can write several posts and then have them trickle out into the world one by one. It also gives you a chance to go back occasionally and change things before the publishing date, or rearrange them because a better and more timely story has come along. Just don't change the order and end up telling people one day how you've given up wine for lent, and the next day about your big wine-drinking orgy, like I did the other day.

  11. Come up with a good title.
    I’m no authority on that, in that I often struggle to find good titles. In fact, I’m a sucker for anything creative in that department. Whenever a website prompts me to come up with a nickname, I break out into a cold sweat. What, a nickname for subscribing to this newspaper, perhaps even leaving comments? What would look good? What would be creative? Who should I be? And you wouldn’t believe how long I agonized over the blog names for my family. Which is why all their appeals for changes are falling on deaf ears. Sorry dude, that’s all I could come up with and I’m NOT changing it! Anyway, What I CAN tell you though is that you shouldn’t waste any time and energy trying to come up with an SEO friendly title, in hopes of perhaps attracting the odd new reader who will find you through Google. If you consistently publish good content relevant to your chosen topic, then the readers will come. It is often the title that raises people’s curiosity, the hook to reel them in with, so try and be creative. One of my other favorite blogs is “4 kids, 20 suitcases, and a beagle", and my alltime favorite post there is The Travelling Tampon. Read it, it’s hilarious. I’ve always loved that title, because it’s so creative (think of how boring “expat women and their personal hygiene troubles in foreign countries” sounds in comparison and also the shortest possible way to convey the entire message. Oh, and don’t sit there and stare at your empty blog editor, wanting to have the perfect title before you move on. Give it a working title, if you must, and then decide on the real title at the very end. I almost always change the title during the process of writing a post, sometimes even several times. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it just pops into my head.
That's it, ten orderly bullets on how to write blog posts. Oops, I actually have 11. But 10 makes for a better blog post title, so there you go.

And by the way, in case you care about these things, this article came out to 2152 words. Which means that most of you shouldn't actually be reading this anymore.

March 24, 2012

Unfinished Business

"What was the biggest challenge of moving to South Africa?"

I just completed another expat interview, and once again this question cropped up. Ha! If you've been reading this blog, you know I have LOTS to say about that. So when I went back to the early days of  my blog to read about some of my trials and tribulations at that time, I realized they all mostly come back to this: The biggest challenge of moving to South Africa is the Africa part of if - learning to live on African time.

Ironically, this is particularly hard when you're a seasoned expat. Having moved often, you have the routine of buying a car, setting up phone service, buying new appliances, and handling visa applications down pat. You come prepared with a list and are eager to check everything off of it so that you can start living your life before you are ready to leave again.

Alas, it's not meant to be here in South Africa. You are doomed to a perpetual moving-in list which, if anything, seems to grow over the years instead of being completed. Every little errand you might have done in an hour in your previous life takes on a life of its own, and by the time it finally does get crossed off your list, two new ones - power cut off, water leak - have sprung up.

Here is an example of one such little errand: I've been toting around two letters in my purse for the better part of a week. They weren't addressed to us, but rather someone else, and I wanted to give them back to the postal service so the rightful owner might have a chance to receive them. It's such a happy event when something actually makes it all the way to your mailbox, even a bill, so I couldn't bring myself to deprive another person of this rare privilege by just ignoring the whole thing.

Back home, I would have just scribbled "wrong recipient" or something on them and put them back in my mailbox, and bingo, done. 2 minutes. But did I tell you our house has no mailbox here? All we have is a PO box at a shopping center, and I can tell you I'm very certain that putting a letter back into it with instructions to redeliver would not work.

So I was carrying the letters around with me with the good intention of bringing them to the post office when I was shopping in the vicinity. Which I was today. So to the post office I went, feeling very good about getting this done, when what should greet me at the entrance:

I rattled the door, but no luck. Closed. Even though it was still Saturday morning. I had already turned and walked away, when the thought hit me: How can a mailbox be out of order? I mean, it's just a box with a slit, and the slit was very much still present behind the taped-on sign. The only way it can be out of order is if whoever usually empties is no longer feels like emptying it. So I went back and took the picture.

Once again, at least a story to spin out of yet another piece of unfinished business. And I have a feeling the South African Postal Service's goal of becoming a top ten postal service in the world has just disappeared beyond the horizon.

Please excuse me now while I tape an "out of order" sign onto the kitchen trash.

March 23, 2012

Opening a Bank Account in South Africa

*** Make sure you read the updates marked with * and explained at the bottom. ***

I was trying to come up with a snazzy title for this one but there is just no way around telling it as it is. There is nothing exciting about having to open a bank account in a new country. Neither is there much humor in it, though I always find it rewarding to go look for it anyway. Humor is so much better to stomach than hassle.

Anyway, a reader asked if it's possible to open a South African bank account as a foreigner (yes it is!) so I thought I should make a blog post out of it. While I've written about going to the bank (where readers have left some instructive comments), I've never actually told you about opening an account.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that our bank account was already opened when I moved here, waiting for me to start spending which, trust me, I already knew how to do well. It's one of the few things Noisette got accomplished in the weeks he was here prior to the rest of us, much like I expected a shiny new car in my garage upon my arrival. Alas, the car was not to be, as you well know.

Anyway, opening a bank account is definitely your first order of business. I know other expats who manage to live here without one, but transferring money all the time is a huge hassle and not worth it, in my mind. A lot of the other things you will want to get, like a mobile phone contract, an internet connection, and yes, a car, will require you to have a bank account, or at least it will make things easier.

But which bank to pick? South Africa's four largest banks are ABSA, FNB, Standard Bank, and Nedbank. Their services are all similar, and you will have to get used to the fact that they will all charge you fees for just about everything. To deposit money. To withdraw money. Maintenance fees. Foreign exchange fees. If you want to research all of their fees to make sure you get the best deal, feel free. I personally think it's a good idea to pick a bank that has a branch fairly close to your home, and ATMs in places that are safe and that you frequent often, like your closest shopping centre. A reader of mine recommended Investec for their excellent customer service and reasonable monthly fees, so that's also worth a try.

It's possible to open your bank account from abroad, I think, but I'm sure it'll be easier to do in person as soon as you've arrived. Just as long as you're prepared to plan enough time for it. Remember, you are now on African time and things don't get simply checked off your list just because you're willing it to be so. The best way to avoid numerous trips is to come armed with, well, everything you can think of. This is what I would bring:

  • Proof of identity (passport, including visa/work permit)
  • Proof of residency (i.e. utility bill, but if you have just moved here a copy of your lease agreement is best; and yes, bring the entire agreement)
  • Bank draft or cash in South African Rand (ZAR) to put a starting deposit into your account; having a minimum balance may reduce your monthly service fees
  • Statement or reference from your existing bank
  • Letter from your employer stating your monthly salary

I'm not saying you will  need all of these, but it's entirely possible you do, so if it's not too much hassle, save yourself an extra trip by having everything handy.

Oh, and make sure you put everyone's name on the account who will be using it. South African banks don't offer joint accounts, so as a spouse I'm forever relegated to a somewhat lesser status than Noisette when it comes to money issues. It is very important you at least get your name on there. And remember how you spelled it (initials or full first name etc) because if you then later have your cable TV turned off because your monthly auto pay (also called stop order) didn't go through you'll know it's because the spelling didn't match.

While you're there, let them also set up and explain their internet banking in every detail. You will use that a ton. In fact, most every transaction in South Africa, whether it's making a deposit on your first safari or paying the kids' piano lessons, occurs via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). Once you get that going it's a breeze to use, but I remember it took quite some time to set up, what with all the passwords you need to register it. Also think about what kind of SMS alert you want. And to whose phone. I can assure you what you DON'T want is an SMS to your husband every time you make a purchase. It took me quite some time to get THAT fixed!

What you should come home with after setting up your account is three cards: A debit card, which you'll use to get cash at the ATM and pay most of your in-store purchases, a credit card which comes in handy for online purchases, just as long as you set it up for something called 3D-Secure Checkout (another instance where you have to make sure the spelling of your name is exactly as the bank has listed it, trust me, I know these things), and a garage card. That last one is for paying for gas at the pump, because gas stations don't accept regular debit or credit cards.*

Another thing worth pondering: South Africa has in place something very few countries still use that is called Exchange Control Regulations, meaning there is no free flow of money in and out of the country. The Reserve Bank of South Africa, believe it or not, oversees all capital in- and outflows. Which goes a long way to explaining why I had to have fifteen forms stamped and show all sorts of identification when I simply wanted to get some U.S. dollars the other day. Another errand NOT done quickly. What this also means is that any incoming foreign exchange funds will be scrutinized and you will have to explain yourself. I get an email from our bank every time we get any healthcare reimbursements from the U.S. asking me to explain what it is. Think about that before setting up your salary arrangements with your employer. It might be easier to be paid in local currency from a domestic bank.

Oh, and I can think of another banking-related issue: When you move, don't give your home bank your  new South African address to forward mail to. Keep an address in your home country for that purpose, and set up some kind of arrangement to have a mail pouch shipped to your front door periodically via Fedex or DHL. The South African Postal Service cannot be trusted, and they seem to have an especially keen eye for foreign credit and bank card replacements sent in the mail. I can guarantee you that if you have your foreign card sent to you through the mail that it will not get here. What will get here, however, is a puzzled query from your home bank if you REALLY want $30,000 transferred to some bank in Nigeria. If you're lucky.

Have I forgotten anything? I think that's it. Happy banking, everyone.

* UPDATE 5/2015: Garage cards are no longer issued or required in South Africa.

March 22, 2012

Cut the Bun Already!

Everything is perfect. It's a Saturday night. The gin tonics are poured. The afternoon thunderstorm has passed and delicious smells are wafting from the grill.

"Honey, can you bring the buns?"

KABOOOOM! (That was me, crashing back down onto the floor of reality). Because what have I just realized? The bloody buns aren't cut! And I will now have to cut the buns while the hamburgers are perfectly ready at this very moment, and Noisette will be yelling where the hell are the buns, and I will try and get them cut quickly, and I will smush them because they are nice and soft as they're supposed to be, just not cut. And I will be even later because I will get out the camera to take pictures of these un-cut buns as a testament to how South Africans just can't be trusted with a decent hamburger. And I will have to Google if smush is actually a word.

They totally look like they're pre-cut. It fools me every single time!

And this is what they look afterwards. Smushed. Squished. Whatever the word is.

South Africa: Please cut your hamburger buns! And please don't put Boerewors spice into pre-made patties. I doesn't belong there. And please don't smother a burger in cheese sauce just because someone asks for a cheeseburger.

Saturday night burgers have become an institution at our  house. I make some really mean patties, and Noisette gets all the praise for grilling them to perfection. Almost perfection. They're always a bit overdone, on account of having to wait for the buns to be cut already.