October 29, 2012

A Boot Camp I Love

I like to be in reasonable shape. It makes me feel good. (And, as I've recently found out, it also helps when climbing a mountain).

The problem is, what I don't actually like are gyms. It took me the longest time to figure this out. I always thought perhaps it's just a matter of finding the right gym. Like one that is practically next to your house and enormous with all the machines and TVs you could ever wish for, including a health bar with the most delicious smoothies? 

Nope, it turns out. Because I had exactly that where we lived before in Overland Park. A state of the art Lifetime Fitness colossus that was busier than an airport most mornings. 

And therein lies one of the problems. I don't like having to hunt for a parking space so I can work out. I also don't like being cooped up inside. I hate locker rooms. And  I'm also terrible at motivating myself to do hard things. What I need is a group of other like-minded people who will push me to test my limits but are also fun to be around, complete with a drill-sergeant who is tough yet charming and lovable.

In other words, I need a Boot Camp. Not just any old boot camp, mind you, but the one offered Tuesday and Thursday mornings at Dainfern College. Here is what I love about this boot camp:

  • We are outside in the crisp South African air, taking in one of the nicer views in Joburg (even if that pipe contains you-know-what). I even loved it in winter, when the freezing cold mornings necessitated many layers of clothing. You know why? Because by the time I got home to my freezing cold house I was nicely warmed up and shivered considerably less than on other days.
  • I can walk there from my house, but even if I choose to drive, it is super convenient - I can drop off the kids in the car park and continue on down to the field where there is  never a shortage of parking.
  • We do a monthly fitness test where we record our progress, which may sound bad but it is actually very motivating to see how far you've come and try to beat your own score.
  • The people are lovely (and yes, our "teacher," for lack of a better word, is indeed charming and lovable but still manages to make us do all the things she's got planned). The group changes somewhat from week to week with new comings and goings, which makes it a good venue to catch up with friends and meet new people.
  • We have VARIETY! This, to me, is the number one reason why I love this boot camp. When I was still trying to go to Lifetime Fitness regularly, I attended one of their classes, thinking the group pressure there would do the trick. But man, I don't think I ever looked at my watch so many times in such a short period my entire life! That class simply would not end. Each time it was exactly the same spiel: super-hyper Jane-Fonda-esque young thing in impossibly tight outfit hopping around in front to disco beat and chirping what no doubt she thought were motivational messages into her microphone, while rows and rows of us reflected in multiples in the surrounding mirrors were hopping along and staring at the hand of the watch overhead, willing it to move... 
  • There is plenty of space. An entire cricket field, plus an extra one. No limits to how you can spread out. What I hated at that gym was usually being boxed in between two other women (having come late - I am not known for my punctuality), lacking space, in constant danger of being whacked over the head with their kettle bell during an exercise.

Way to Wellness Bootcamp

Gillian Sieling qualified as a certified Personal Trainer through the Health and Fitness Professional Association (HFPA) in 2004, and has been passionately involved in assisting others to achieve their fitness goals ever since.
She is a competitive long distance runner competing in races such as The Two Oceans and the Comrades Marathon. She also recently competed in the South African Marathon Champs in George, on the 13th of Feb, and finished 3rd Lady Vet and 15th overall.
In 2005, Gill began one-on-one Personal training before establishing Fitness Bootcamp in Fernbrook Estate in 2007. The 100% success rate of Bootcamp, in terms of improved fitness levels and steady weight loss, has guaranteed the constant growth of the business.
Kay Hughes, Natasha Aron and Mart-Mari Lesch joined the Way to Wellness team. What a dynamic, passionate, dedicated and committed team they are!
Way to Wellness has now grown from strength to strength at the following venues:
Saint Stithians School - September 2010 
Vodacom - March 2012
Dainfern College - May 2012
The Way to Wellness team is strictly committed to enhancing the lives of those whom we train both physically and mentally. Each and every person is encouraged and enticed to reach their full potential.

Contact details:
Gillian Sieling
Email: gills@gwisa.com
Mobile: 082 389 9100
I mentioned variety. Any morning we show up at Boot Camp it's a complete surprise as to what we'll do. Except of course for the fact we'll definitely be completely out of breath at times and use the remaining breath at other times to curse yet another round of burpees - yes, that is what they're called. I've been going for several months now and haven't seen the same class twice (other than the fitness tests -those stay the same, for obvious reasons). We usually run a few rounds around the field to warm up, and then might do a number of exercises in any kind of combination, always alternating strength exercises with the stuff that gets your heart rate up. And there is never much equipment involved. It's amazing how much you can do just using your own body and nothing else. We might use the Pavilion steps to do dips, we might use jump ropes to skip (my favorite). We might use thera-bands to stretch or do push-ups with them draped behind our backs (my least favorite - push-ups are bad enough on their own and adding more weight to your back is just torture). Or we might use a deck of cards, from which you draw successive exercises according to the suit and face of the card, i.e. ten bicycle crunches for the ten of hearts, a sprint around the field for an ace, and double of everything after the first joker until you draw the second joker. Except the second joker might never come because the deck was faulty (or tampered with?) at which point you want to strangle your instructor, charming and lovable notwithstanding.

It's never monotonous, because we do different things every week, and it's just short enough (one hour) that you never have any sense of despair. You go home feeling good and are usually reminded the next day what particular part of your body was worked on. I don't know about you, but I like sore muscles. You definitely feel like you're making progress.

And you can see it in the mirror too.

I love my Boot Camp!

October 25, 2012

Tips on Selling a Car in South Africa

I'm pleased to report that I'm now qualified to write about the business of selling a car.Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa has by far been my most-Googled and most-read blog post, so I imagine the back-end of it might be interesting to some folks as well.
So the car is sold and yes, I'm pleased to have that task behind me. What I am less pleased with is that I now don't have my own wheels anymore, with over two months to go. I'm cursing the stick shift of my little rental, the fact that operating it with your left hand feels just completely wrong, and the sad reality that it almost stalls on the first incline going out of our neighborhood.

But timing has never been our family's strong suit. We always buy our houses at the peak of the bubble and sell them when recessions hit. We move to America just as it is invading other countries and the dollar is at its strongest. We leave again when the dollar has dropped to rock bottom. Not to mention that we also leave just a week before we're meant to be sworn in as new citizens. And, surely at the top of the list as far as bad timing goes, we are leaving South Africa just as the widening of William Nicol Drive is in full swing, promising what can only be improved traffic flow wherever you go when you leave your house.

I should say that selling the car would have been a lot easier if there was a Joburg Expat prequel out there somewhere telling me how it's done. Since there isn't, as of now, I will hereby rectify the situation.

It helps to take some nice pictures of  your car to upload to a used car website

First off, don't be scared of selling your car privately and let yourself be roped in to sell to a dealer at a steep  discount. I started by looking up comparable cars on www.autotrader.co.za, one of the most widely known car trading websites, and settled on an approximate value of ZAR 250,000 to 300,000 (remember, cars are expensive here in SA). I figured ZAR 285,000 would be a good amount, given that the car had a few dents, was out of warranty and had that pesky engine light blinking on the dashboard. (I have a whole other blog post to write about Audi - or all European models most likely - and their "engine-light-comes-on-as-soon-as-warranty-expired" conspiracy.)

So I called a place called webuycars.co.za, an outfit unique to Gauteng and according to their website offering convenient service and handling of all paperwork right at your doorstep.

Did they say paperwork? As you must have learned from my blog, if you can ever delegate the paperwork to someone else here in SA, it's a highly attractive vision. Because paperwork = pain in the butt. Squared.

I was all ready to have someone come to my house and take the car off my hands. Except the price they offered was too low in my opinion, so I figured I’d give selling it privately a shot. Which is a good thing, or I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly how it’s done. However, I since learned that webuycars.co.za offers some specific services targeted at expats that might come in handy, especially when relocating in a hurry (more on that later).

For the moment, though, I felt like I should be in the business of selling cars for expats. It seems highly profitable. Whereas I've been giving out advice on how it’s done for free (although maybe this is a good opportunity to point out my donation page here).

Since I had plenty of time left before the end of the year, I decided to run an ad on Autotrader. That's something I definitely recommend, considering the fact that all my calls ended up coming from there. They have a nice interface with painless uploading of pics (up to 6) and easy credit card payment. And several options for ad prices, depending on whether you want a more prominent location, an additional ad in their print magazine (not necessary in my mind) and an option to keep the ad up until car is sold, for not that much more money. Cost: R550. (Alternatives to Autotrader are vehicletrader.co.za and cars.co.za.)

In addition I'd also recommend inquiring from your neighborhood association whether they run classifieds in their newsletter. The biggest such classifieds trading place is probably the Dainfern Estate newsletter. Ads are free, and you don't even necessarily have to live there. You just call and give them the text for the classifieds. Due to the high concentration of expats there, most of your items for sale will be highly sought after. In addition to my car, I had advertised for some rather old furniture, and my phone was ringing off the hook for it. In fact, I practically had to hold on to my possessions when people came to the house to look at one thing and ended up walking through every room, greedily pointing at random things they coveted. I rather felt like I was running a Pottery Barn. Hmmm, there is another business I could be in.

Back to the car. You can also contact a relocation firm such as Rockstone or Corporate Relocations, as they deal with many incoming expats and will be interested to circulate your for sale items for free. Word of mouth is your best advertising.

Okay, so much for getting your car out there. In addition of course to putting a sign in the window and perhaps advertising in the school newsletter. Or on your own blog - that came to me only as an afterthought. You can try contacting dealers, as that is surely the easiest and safest option, but again, since as an expat going back home you won't be buying any new cars from them, you'll be leaving a lot of money on the table. If they even offer to buy. One dealer flat-out told me they weren't buying any cars out of warranty. Which is kind of strange coming from a dealer who should have some faith in their own brand, don't you think? Except they probably know all about the "out-of-warranty-engine-light-coming-on-and-charging-you-R8000-for-it-to-be-turned-off-again" racket. Which could explain why they don't want to touch a car more than five years old. 

So I placed my ad with two months to go, not wanting to leave such a big ticket item till the last minute. And then waited. I got no calls at all for a whole week and was convinced the price was wrong. I was stewing over the fact that Noisette was getting the much more exciting end of the deal, going shopping for a new car while I not only had to sell this one but apparently change flat tires on it too. So while we're at it, another piece of advice: In Africa, don't go buying cars with wide rim sports tires. Get the other kind. You know, the ones with a profile.

If you are selling a car, I suggest you give it some time. Most buyers will do a lot of research, especially those looking in the upper price ranges, and it may simply take them time to evaluate everything that's out there. This happened in my case. In the end my price was probably a bit too low, considering that when calls started coming in a week later I had two guys practically slug it out imploring me alternately not to sell the car to the other. I had to make a choice, and went with the guy who a) had cash and didn't need any financing approval from the bank and b) didn't want a road worthiness test. I shudder to think how long it might take to have financing approved from a South African bank. When it's already a day's errand to buy $500 in foreign currency for your trip to Tanzania.

Although I admit the cash deal wasn't without its pitfalls. Because my buyer, when I first met him, and when he heard I was American, asked if I'd take US dollars in payment. Which he happened to have plenty of on him, due to his business as a diamond dealer in Kimberly.

I gulped. I had visions of Leonardo di Caprio, somewhere on a mountaintop in the Congo, handing over a blood-smeared diamond to him, just as he was drawing his dying breath, whispering "take good... care of this for.... me. Buy yourself... rhhhhh... A nice Audi... Q.... Q7 with it."

So the dollars were a no-go due to my queasiness vis-a-vis money laundering. We settled on an electronic funds transfer in South African Rand into my bank account, and while he got busy sorting that out, I went and had a quote done for that engine light. Did I tell you it came on the very day after my 5-year motor plan ran out? And that they couldn't find anything wrong with the car, but that to turn off the light and get the internal computer to consider it fixed, a little plastic valve would have to be replaced? And that said valve was going to cost R8,000 to put in? So, on second thought, you probably shouldn’t buy yourself an Audi or any other European car when moving to South Africa. You probably should buy a Toyota where spare parts are actually affordable.

While I was out and about, I also went to my old friends at the Randburg Licensing Office to pick up a Transfer of Ownership form. And guess what came in handy to figure out how to get there from where I was? My blog post on buying a car in South Africa, or course. It had a link to the correct place, and an address. I’ve become my own best customer, it seems. Maybe I should go and make a donation to myself real quick.

Selling the car was very easy after this (remember that I went with the buyer who had cash and didn’t insist on a roadworthiness test. If you sell a car to someone who needs financing from a bank, the bank will make you fill out some forms and have the car tested, which I imagine will add a few more days to the enterprise). The buyer made an electronic funds transfer into my account for the agreed-upon amount, and we sat down together to fill out forms and make copies.

Application for Registration on the left (buyer) and Transfer of Ownership on the right (seller)

These are the documents you need to exchange with the buyer:

  • Yellow Transfer of Ownership form to be signed by both seller and buyer (original goes to buyer, copy to seller; you can obtain the form from the nearest licensing office)
  • Blue Application for Registration of Motor Vehicle (this is completed by buyer so he can register the car and you really don’t need to do anything with it, but it makes sense to pick up both forms while you’re there and save your buyer the extra errand)
  • Current Certificate of Registration  (which you should have in your files; original needed by buyer to complete registration, copy needed by seller to deregister the car
  • Receipt for the transfer of  money (to be made out by the seller for the buyer to show at registration; I created a Word document with my address, the buyer’s address, the car details like VIN and registration number, and the sale price, which I then signed and made a copy of)
  • Copies of each other’s IDs

Once we had waited overnight for the money to clear and show up in my account, we met again, I handed over the keys, and the car was sold. Just like that.

Another note on selling privately: One thing you will be warned about in South Africa is offering test drives for your car. People might pretend to be interested in your car, only to take it for a spin, force you out at gunpoint, and drive off into the sunset. It’s all happened before, I suppose, and I admit I was a bit nervous about this part, considering Noisette was off somewhere else buying new fancy cars instead of helping me with this one. My plan was to ask a male friend of  ours to come with me if the need for a test drive arose, but when it did it was a weekday morning and everyone was at work. So I asked the manager at the estate security office if he wouldn't mind coming along and he was happy to oblige, but in the end it wasn't needed because the buyer was happy to stay inside the estate, where I figured we were safe enough. 

I’m just telling you these things so you can plan accordingly, should you ever want to sell your car.

Once the car is sold, you have one other errand on your list: Change of ownership notification. In anticipation of our move I actually made a list of places to revisit before we leave. For Nostalgia's sake. Let's just say I didn't include the Randburg licensing office on that list. But that is exactly where I was told I had to go to notify the powers that be of the new ownership status of my car. So that I'm not liable for any traffic violations by the new owner. (Not that I feel very liable, quite frankly, for my OWN traffic violations, at this point, with an impressive pile of speeding tickets piling up on my desk.)

Remember how I told you not to worry about the queue at the licensing office, because it is only for people renewing their driver’s license and such? Well. It turns out "and such" includes the small matter of changing ownership of cars.

I had committed the cardinal sin of squeezing this errand in between my morning coffee and Sunshine's orthodontist appointment. Have I not learned anything yet about life in South Africa? An errand at an official agency takes a whole morning at best and more realistically three separate trips. But I was feeling a bit cocky, considering my expert standing consulting fellow expats, and so I violated my own rule. And paid by arriving at the licensing office, getting all my documents stamped at the help desk, and being sent to a long queue where the gentleman I zeroed in on somewhere in the middle informed me he had already been waiting an hour and was planning for at least another one. I didn’t even give it a try.

Thus I felt somewhat chastened before my second attempt a few days later.  My problem, you see, is that I'm not technically the owner of the car I just sold. I'm only the spouse, as you might remember, which here in South Africa doesn't count for much. And you'll also remember that when I bought the car Noisette had to show up in person for the traffic register number and registration. 

Well, guess who is now not here to show up in person?

So I was feeling rather exposed wandering into the licensing office the second time this week, carrying a certified copy of Noisette's passport that our school's commissioner of oaths was kind enough to sign even though the original was missing. I was fully anticipating this becoming a big headache involving repeated visits and all sorts of forms and stamps, and this time I had armed myself with my Kindle and an endless supply of reading material.

But of course as these things go, I could barely get through three articles in the New York Times before I was called to a window. I showed all my documents, including the copy of the buyer’s ID which had not been on the official list I had researched but which living in South Africa for a few years had given me enough savvy to bring anyway, was handed an “Acknowledgement of Receipt of Notice IRO Motor Vehicle" (Yikes, what a mouthful - but wait for the Afrikaans version: "Erkenning van Ontvangs van Kennisgewing TOV Motorvoertuig"), and walked out of there not fifteen minutes later.

This is what you get after applying for change of ownership for your car

These are the documents needed to complete the change of ownership for your car (or feel free to look at the requirements on the official SA Government Services website):

  • Copy of yellow Transfer of Ownership form signed by both seller and buyer
  • ID/Passport of seller (or certified copy if he is not present)
  • Copy of ID of buyer (they DID ask for it)
  • Your own passport/ID
  • Copy of Certificate of Registration (the one you handed the buyer the original of)
  • Traffic Register Number certificate
  • Copy of receipt for transfer of  money (the one you made for the buyer; it’s not technically required but can’t hurt to bring)
  • Your foreign driver's license (not sure on that one either but better be safe)
  • Lock of hair of your firstborn son  (sorry, I couldn't resist)

That’s it. You've  now successfully sold your car. Don't forget to cancel your insurance and tracking service as well, as it’s no longer needed.

And make sure you've given the seller the spare keys, service book, and, most importantly, the tire lock nut, should your car come with one! Or somebody will someday stand on a lonely stretch of road with his car jacked up cursing you to smithereens.

More car-related posts on Joburg Expat:

Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa
Tips on Selling a Car in South Africa
Expat Tip: Always Keep a Tire Lock Nut in your Car
Should I Get a South African Driver's License?
Six Things to Know about Renewing your Vehicle License Disk
Finding a Good Car Insurance
Getting Your Car Serviced in South Africa

October 23, 2012

The Mom Who Knows Things

Apparently I have a reputation. I'll now pause briefly to clear your brain of all the seedy thoughts that word surely triggered. Not that kind of a reputation. (At least I hope).

A friend of mine recently confided in me the following: Her daughter, when seeking information about some school event, and not happy with the answers she (my friend) was supplying, simply turned around and said: "You know what, I'll just call Impatience's mom. She'll know what's happening at school. She is a mom who knows things."

I am pausing again briefly for Noisette to close his mouth, which by now is probably hanging near the floor. He claims I never know anything and am terribly forgetful. His evidence is that I once sent him to the wrong soccer field on a freezing Sunday morning, when somehow all my color-coded calendars had let me down. Or maybe he is simply still jealous from the time our neighbors' little boy in Singapore proudly announced to our kids that "my dad can MEND things" when we were admiring some space ship contraption he had fashioned out of cardboard boxes. No one has ever said that about Noisette. Perhaps because he is never here when things happen where his mending skills might be needed.

In any case, I have to say I felt mighty pleased to suddenly be The Mom Who Knows Things. In the world of kids, that's a huge compliment. Especially for someone  like me who is so NOT your typical school mom. You know, the kind of mom who gets excited about the Christmas party months in advance and comes up with five different ideas for the tabletop decorations and proceeds to hold three meetings to discuss them. Tabletop decorations are the very last thing on Earth I voluntarily wrack my brain about (and have never understood the need for) and these types of meetings make me physically ill. Unless we meet over coffee but then I'd rather discuss people's travel plans through Africa. Or recount my affair with Richard at Eskom. Or something entirely useless. Like the hour-long debate we had going up Kilimanjaro whether an egg would be suited well to withstand a vacuum or not.

So initially I was very proud of my new Mom Who Knows Things status, but now I feel like I'm under a lot of pressure. The Mom Who Knows Things is expected to have all answers at the ready. Like what day we're changing form winter to summer uniform. Whether school ends early after market day. What time swim team trials are held. And whether the school cap must be worn for that. Can I just say that I usually have no clue what's going on. I do try to read the school newsletter but never seem to get to it until AFTER the event. Have I mentioned my color-coded Outlook calendar? I do spend quite a bit of time updating it, but with four kids there is just no way to keep up.

I wonder how I got this reputation? I should probably actually credit Impatience, who is a real planner and the only one in our family who seems to remember just about everything. The folders in her backpack are color-coded and arranged in the order of her classes that day. Never mind that her room resembles a war zone. Her school life is nearly always in perfect order. Maybe her friend just assumed it must be coming from me. Or maybe this friend's mom is even worse of a planner than I am, setting the bar rather low.

But now that I'm The Mom Who Knows Things I'm stuck with the label. This became evident last week when another friend wanted to know whether it was civvies day at the school the next day. Civvies day is when the kids don't have to wear school uniforms, quite the event. But as much as it's fun to don your fancy clothes, or at least some plain jeans for a change, no one wants to be the one in the wrong gear, the one who didn't get the memo. We all knew that the high school had a "proudly South African" day planned that day, where students are allowed to wear their favorite team jersey (except a jersey here is a sweater so I'm not actually sure what the name for a team jersey would be). But what was the prep school doing? There hadn't been any newsletter or SMS alerts, so everyone was asking everyone else, and it somehow all ended up firmly in my court the night before.

Far from living up to my reputation, I had to ask my daughter. The one who usually knows things. So the daughter confidently said yes, they did have a proudly South African day tomorrow. So I told my friend that yes, send your child in civvies tomorrow. Unbeknownst to me, this missive was handed on down the chain to everyone else who wanted to know, so that the next day quite a few girls were heading to school in their shorts and rugby shirts. Except that same morning my daughter was not nearly as sure about it as she'd been the night before, and there were big screams and tears over what to wear.

It must have been something like ten kids who showed up in the wrong clothes. Because there was no civvies day.

The moral is, don't trust The Mom Who Knows Things. She knows nothing. She might be able to learn new stuff, occasionally, and she's been known to get busy for hours trying to solve the Grade 10 math problem that came up in an exam and flummoxed everybody, getting herself sidetracked from all cooking and blogging for an entire day scribbling diagrams and equations on her sticky notes, determined to get the answer at all costs. But don't ask her what's going on at school.

I guess my reputation took a dent that civvies day which is just as well because I am, in fact, The Mom Who Has No Clue. I already feel like a burden has been taken off my back.

October 19, 2012


When you're an expat, getting the word that it’s time to move back home sucks.

It sucks because it never comes at the right time. Maybe there never is the right time,  just as there never is the right time to become an expat in the first place. In theory everyone agrees that they want to move back at some point in time, and everyone has a long list of things they’re missing, but when the actual announcement comes, no one is ready.

Not ready to leave the newly found friends.

Not ready to deal with all that work moving entails. 

Not ready to leave this country one has barely scratched the surface of.

Not ready to make a fresh start.

Not ready to find a new hairdresser.

Not ready to pump their own gas again.

It might be easier if you’re moving back to where you came from. Although I’m not even sure about that. Then your time away would be seen by everyone as a brief interlude, an extended vacation of sorts, and everybody would expect you to take it up where you left it, while in reality you’ve all changed over the last few years. New interests, new friends, new perspectives, a whole new world out there that only you seem able to see.

And the fact that you're calling it tomahto sauce and  not ketchup.

Well, we're not going back to where we came from. But go from here is what we must do. In just a few short months.

Sure it will be nice to find all those long-lost friends again. Like high-speed internet. A toasty warm house in winter without worry about the electricity bill. Humidity as relief for your parched-out African skin. A waste disposal in your sink magically whisking away anything nasty. A Starbucks on every corner. John Stewart on Comedy Central. Public libraries with a drive-through window and a selection of titles from after 1974. Cheap gas. A big car. Round-the-clock shopping. Amazon.com.

But my guess is that the honeymoon with them will wear off quickly, and that with each one of them you welcome back into your life, something else will slip from it that you only now realize has come to mean so much to you abroad. 

The smiles you were greeted with by everybody you came across. The car guards in the parking lot waving at you to make themselves seen, lest you forget the R2 coin before you leave. The hoarse cry of the Hadedas each morning, which you swore upon your arrival sounded like a pig being slaughtered. The relentless sun, of course. The street vendors at the intersection trying to get you to roll down your window. The glory of words like Lekker and Kak and Eish! and all the other South Africanisms. The beautiful sunrises and skies. People with names like Lucky and Innocent and Precious. The stunning landscapes on an African road trip. The music. The kids in Diepsloot. The glamour of an expat wife life. Leopards, elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, hippos, impalas, weaver birds, dung beetles - all the animals I guess except perhaps Parktown Prawns. The magic of Mount Kilimanjaro. Mangoes, cape berries, avocados, haloumi cheese, and pretty much everything at Woolies. The best Chardonnay in the world. And yes, even cricket

Well, I suppose the best Chardonnay in the world is one thing we will be able to take with us. Or smuggle with us, more likely, because alcohol is forbidden in the container.

But most everything else we've come to love in South Africa we’ll only be able to take with us in our hearts and our memories.

Saying goodbye to Africa from the very top. Photo: Martin B.

October 16, 2012

Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Seven: Down, Down, Down, and Straight to the Bar

Barafu Camp to Mweka Camp to Machame Gate, Sep 7 and Sep 8, 2012
Distance: 12-13 km, 6-7 hours to Mweka Camp and 10 km, 3 hours to Machame Gate
Elevation: 1600 m descent from Barafu to Mweka Camp at 3000 m and 1200 m descent from Mweka Camp to Machame Gate at 1800 m.  

Descending Kili: One minute you're next to a glacier, and the  next you're in the rainforest. 
Technically, this diary entry begins on the morning of Day six. I had left off with having come back to Barafu Camp early on September 7th after reaching the summit after a long and grueling climb the previous night, but our day wasn't nearly over by then. The longest part of it was still to come.

We rested at Barafu Camp for a few hours, had lunch there one last time, and once we had summoned enough energy to pack up our belongings set off down the mountain to Mweka Camp, another 13 km or so and six or seven hours of walking, perhaps more. I wasn't looking at my watch. Granted, it was all downhill and therefore not nearly as strenuous as what we had done in the early morning, but it was just a lot of walking in a 24-hour period where we had almost gotten no sleep at all. The night at Mweka camp felt positively tropical, it was so warm in comparison to what we'd endured the last few days. I remember pulling the hood of my sleeping bag tight out of pure habit and waking up sometime in the middle of the night soaked in sweat from all the trapped heat.

Or maybe waking up in the middle of the night had become a habit of itself.

The only time we encountered fresh snow during the entire week. Photo: Martin B.

Beginning our descent from Barafu. Photo: Martin B.

Zax in good spirits again and posing on a "Kili ambulance"
One last glorious look at the mountain before it was enveloped in clouds again
Chilling out with - gasp! - beers and cokes at Mweka Camp

The next morning we rose early, said good-bye to our tents, were treated to another serenade of the "Kili Song" by all the porters and guides, and began the last descent to the park gate. Even though it was a relatively short hike, as opposed to everything we'd done before, it wasn't easy to negotiate. A previous rain had rendered the path extremely muddy, and staying upright and avoiding the indignity of a soggy bottom proved quite the challenge. I also have to say that after all the care I took with double layers of socks and such, I did end up getting a blister on my toe - from it ramming into the front of the boot repeatedly during our descent. Can I also tell you again that renting or buying hiking poles is absolutely essential, in my opinion, especially for going downhill.

What else to tell you about the descent? There isn't much left to say. Getting off of Kilimanjaro is a feat accomplished much quicker than going up. Some of us more or less flew down on wings we did not know we had, gaining energy with every oxygen-loaded breath we inhaled, and some of us took a bit longer, slowed down by a few uncooperative knees. The scenery was flying by like in a fast-forwarded movie, so that one minute you found yourself sliding down a field of scree where nothing grows, and the next you were surrounded by dense and foggy rain forest. You know you came through all of this in reverse just days ago, and yet you are now for the first time actually seeing it, where before all you had your gaze fixed on was about a square meter of ground in front of you (or often the garden trowel dangling from the backpack in front, giving you endless hours of contemplation where it might have been and what it might or might not have touched).

Filthy and happy after a loooong day's hike. Photo: Zax

These hands need some washing. Photo: Zax
That was just after the first rinse

Down, down, down you go, and when you think there can't be any more mountain left, you go down some more. You finally have the conversations you couldn't have before when you were always gasping for breath, and you cannot wait to get back to the hotel to finally have that long-awaited shower, as well as even simpler long-awaited pleasures such as getting to the toilet at night without any pesky zippers standing between you and a good dump, and sitting on said toilet separated from the rest of the world by solid walls rather than thin canvas that might blow away any moment; and, while we're at it, sitting on your seat with the comforting knowledge that it is affixed to the ground in a level position in no immediate danger of toppling over with you on it.

Holy cow, I never thought I could write so much about toilets as in this series of Kili posts.

In any case, as much as you look forward to the comforts of civilization, each step that takes you closer makes you sadder. Because you realize that something very special is coming to an end. It feels a little bit like coming home from your first teenage class trip: You've grown very close to your group, you break out in giggles at the mere mention of a shared memory, and you think all the food tasted fantastic no matter what they served you. You've spent a week on one long amazing high and then you go home filthy, happy, and sad all at the same time, quite sure that people who didn't have the experience will never understand.

At Mweka Camp setting off for the last leg to the park gate

What the path looked like that last day. Photo: Martin B.
No African excursion would be complete without a bumpy truck ride home. Photo: Martin B.

But you're not quite there yet. Because which good hiking trip ends without a few cold drinks afterwards?

It is said that you can easily distinguish South Africans from Americans when returning from their Kili climb. While the former will always head straight to the bar for a round of ice cold Kilimanjaro beers, the latter go straight to the shower. It must be a testament to my having one foot firmly planted on each continent that I found myself literally standing at a crossroads in the path, once back at our hotel, being called in one direction by my American son Zax who was desperate to get a room, and accordingly a shower, and from the other direction to come have my first beer out in the courtyard with the rest of our crew. I literally stood there rooted to the spot for a few long moments, not knowing what to do. In the end, Zax got the shower and I the beer, followed by many glasses of wine and, as the night progressed, champagne. I was perfectly happy to sit there for hours in my filthy outfit, feet finally freed from boots for the first time in seven days. So it seems I'm well on my way to becoming a true South African at heart, just as we are getting ready to leave again. It is the story of our lives that we are forever leaving places right at the moment we've fallen in love with them and thinking of putting down roots.

Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.
Figuring out the tip schedule for the porters and guides was quite the exercise and one I can highly recommend having completed before too many beers have been consumed. I can also advise you, should you contemplate a Kili climb, to bring about twice as many US dollars than you originally calculated so meticulously, because you will happily spend a small fortune on "Just Done Kili" t-shirts and other mementos you will probably never look at again, you might need some extra cash to pay some ridiculous departure fees at the airport that no one told you about, and you will want to be very generous to the people who have so little yet gave so freely of everything they have to ensure your well-being that week. Just remember: some of them might even have carried you down a mountain on their backs.

Well, I didn't. Bring enough US dollars, I mean. So because I don't plan these things as well as I should, as Noisette would be quick to tell you, I found  myself squeezed into the backseat of Hillary's car bumping through dusty Moshi post our first round of beers in search of an ATM, along with the other two group members who were similarly short of cash (and similarly lacking in foresight). Amazingly, the first machine we stopped at happily spit out hundreds of thousands of Tanzanian shillings for all our various cards, and then it willingly gave some more after we'd reached the transaction limit. I was a bit suspicious of what kind of fees might materialize on our next bank statement but nothing was going to detract from our happiness that day. The money was duly brought back to the Fat Controller, who did all the counting, and then handed over to Goddy, along with a tip schedule, so that  he could give everybody their fair share. We were then given our certificates, took some pictures with the guys shaking our hands, and then they took their leave from us, after many rounds of well-wishing in every direction. It wasn't quite as hard to say good-bye to Goddy as I  had imagined, because due to a fortunate coincidence he had been invited to travel to South Africa the following month, an event he couldn't help grinning about from ear to ear. We knew we'd see him there again, even if it was to be a very different environment.

It felt weird not to be walking, for a change, when heading into dusty Moshi. Photo: Martin B.
Back at Springlands Hotel: Plenty of cold drinks to go around while tips are handed out
I think Hillary felt like a big brother to Zax

Now there really isn't much left to say, because my tale and therefore my Kili adventure is coming to an end. And probably also due to the fact that my memory is a bit hazy from that point forward. We ended up getting pretty drunk, deriving a lot of enjoyment from laughing about the same jokes over and over again, and, in a sudden spurt of creativity, coming up with all the blog names I've been using for this series. They had to practically kick us out of our chairs when the place closed down for the night, and then there were a few hiccups when we wanted to settle our bills and the credit card machine wasn't working. But somehow it all got settled to everyone's satisfaction and we staggered to our rooms to fall into bed and a very exhausted sleep.

Oh, and that shower did indeed feel wonderful. I almost cried when I rubbed the first drop of shampoo into my hair. Okay, rather a whole bottle. And I most definitely cried when it was time to brush it, it was so unruly.

As I am writing these last few lines of my Kili diary, I am sad all over again. I was reliving every moment on the mountain by writing about it, and I admit I was deliberately stringing you along so that I could indulge in it a little bit longer, and linger once again on those moments of happiness. It wasn't truly over while I was still writing about it. I've still got one or two blog posts coming, about the lessons learned on the mountain and the inevitable tips and tricks for future climbers (Joburg Expat is all about dishing out unsolicited advice, after all), but today's post concludes my diary.
The people without whom it wouldn't have been possible. From left to right: Naiman, Goddy, Hillary,
and Monday
Hillary has since been offered a job in Dubai, training and working in IT. We wish him luck!

Godlisten Mkonyi, our guide, protector, and friend. You can inquire about bookings directly  with
him at www.africamovingrocks.com

I still stand by what I said earlier, which is that everyone should climb Kili at least once in their lives. It is an incredible personal journey, both physically and spiritually, and it will forever be a cherished part of your life. However, I must warn you: The hardest thing about climbing Kilimanjaro is not the night you scale the summit. It is coming home and returning to your prior, rather ordinary, life. Just as much as climbing high is inevitably followed by descending low, the emotional high that climbing Kili gives most people is almost always followed by a state of near-depression. I know that I'm not the only one who feels that way.

You will find yourself sitting on that airplane home, exhausted and yet unable to sleep for all the emotions swirling around inside of you.

You will wake up in the middle of the night for days, disoriented and reminiscent of your tent, in some weird way.

You will sit at your desk for weeks staring into space, not capable to wrap your head around the ordinary business of daily life, dreaming instead of distant snow-covered peaks and randomly smiling at the memory of a shared joke on the mountain.

You will feel like this can't be it, that your life isn't worth living unless you find another mountain to scale.

You will feel closer to fellow Kili climbers, even the ones you've never met, than your friends and family, and you'll be surfing the internet for other people's Kili stories for the temporary relief they provide from your sense of loss.

You will replay the Kili song video again and again and have tears in your eyes every time.

It will take time to get through that phase, and it's not always easy.

And yet I wouldn't have wanted to miss it for the world. For climbing high and falling low and picking yourself up again to look for the next peak makes your life worth living.


Read the entire Kili Diary series:
Kilimanjaro - The Most Incredible Experience
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day One: Pole Pole
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Two: TeeTee the Toilet Tent
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Three: The First Big Test
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Four: Barranco Disco
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Five: Tent with a View
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Six: Lonely on the Roof of Africa


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

October 11, 2012

Joburg, Capital of Crime. Excuse me, Kindness.

Once you've got a reputation, it's so incredibly hard to get rid of it. So it is for Johannesburg, our home for the last two and a half years. It's been stuck with the "World's Crime Capital" label ever since the post-Apartheid years of the early 1990s, when indeed horrible things did happen here in Joburg and other parts of  South Africa. And I won't claim it's the safest place in the world now, but it's nothing close to what some internet pundits (most likely typing away from their misery in London, where they escaped to get away from here, sitting in a drafty house during what passes for an English summer trying to justify their reasons for leaving) will make you believe.

View of Joburg from Carlton Centre. Photo: Zax

The 2010 Soccer World Cup has done a lot to enhance Joburg's reputation. And, I sometimes like to think, the collective effort of some expat bloggers has done its little share too. Worth mentioning here are Heather at 2Summers and Bing at Story of Bing. Forgive me if I've left out anyone.

And still people new to South Africa or those still mulling over the prospect of moving here typically are, to the last person, utterly afraid. How dangerous is it is the question I get asked most on my blog by such people. No one first asks about the weather, or the people, or the travel opportunities. Everyone expects security and safety to be the number one issue of life in Johannesburg.

I've told the story before, as recounted to me by an acquaintance: An expat new to Joburg gets lost in Alexandra. He has a flat tire, sees two black men approaching his window, and thinks he's doomed, waiting for the assault. But instead the men, with hand gestures, signal that they can help and end up changing the tire for him, making sure he gets back to his family safely and conveniently.

One of my earlier tire repair episodes, Oct 2010. A small army to my rescue!

My own story from today isn't nearly as dramatic, but it has a similarly happy ending.

I was in the school car park this morning when a guy approached my window. If you'll remember, I'm a bit wary of guys who approach my window. Not because of safety concerns, mind you. It's just that I don't need any more cowboy hats. I rolled it down eventually, thinking he wanted money, but he just pointed to the back of my car and asked whether I knew I had a flat tire.

I did not know. And indeed it was flat, upon closer inspection. I should have expected it, actually, due to the never failing workings of Murphy's Law. As I've told you, since Noisette has been traveling, I've had more than a fair share of things break around the house and beyond. It was just a matter if time before the tires were up again. I do have a special relationship with those tires, you know!

In any case, I think the guy wanted to help and earn a tip, but I didn't get the hint. This would be a good time to check out that roadside assistance plan provided by our insurance, I thought. We've lived here for two and a half years and believe it or not, I had never used it before.

I called the number and worked through a bad connection and even worse English to try and convey my predicament. When it was finally understood, I was told to wait for a callback in 20 minutes.

This is the point where back home I already would have been tense. No, excuse me, that would have been even earlier, when the tire dared to cross my plans for a nice coffee morning with a friend. Or rather a reader of my blog I actually hadn't met yet but am sure will become a friend. What inconvenience to have my schedule messed up like that!

In my old days I would have sat there fuming, drumming my fingers on the dashboard, calling the insurance people back and demanding to speak to a supervisor. Here? I was pretty sure I wouldn't hear back, and it didn't faze me one bit. I must say being in the school carpark made it easier, because I can walk home from there. Though wouldn't you know it, a friend offered to drive me instead. Because people in Joburg are kind.

Yep, yet another tire change, this one ca. 2011

I called my coffee date and advised her of the potentially changed plans. It didn't faze her one bit either.

Coming home I came upon Jabulani, who I only then remembered had stayed home that morning not feeling well, and a plan started to form. Seeing as he was happily watching TV, always a sign that the sickness doesn't seem to be too deadly, I asked him to come help me change the tire. Jabulani and Zax, you see, became experts at this in about four hours during our Namibia trip in August, when no less than four tires got busted all on the same stretch of gravel road. I have yet to write about that story. Who better to help me change this tire than the freshly trained young mechanic, I thought.

To get back to the school, we had to walk. Through the fingerprint-powered security gate. Except guess what didn't work? The fingerprinting machine. But the thing is, this also came as no surprise. I've lived in Africa long enough to have learned that you often have to work your way through problems in stages. Kind of like Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea, taking almost a year to raise money and buy supplies to build his first school in Pakistan, only to get there and realize there was no bridge over the river he had to haul the materials over. Obviously, a bridge would first have to be built, so back he went to start from scratch.

We were standing at the gate waiting for the security guard to come and let us through. Who of course was taking his time. But we were having a nice mother-son chat. If you don't expect much, you are not disappointed. I know to some of you this will sound like a defeatist attitude. The reason perhaps that Africa lags behind the rest of the world. No one holds it accountable and so it doesn't deliver. Some of that is true, but in so many ways the world has much to learn from Africa, not the other way around. You can bookmark that, it's true.

Like in terms of kindness. When we got back to the school and started unpacking the spare wheel from the boot, a guy (not the same as before) materialized almost instantly. He was a bus driver from a visiting school with nothing to do, so he came and helped. Jabulani was almost disappointed that he was deprived of this job, but it was kind of nice to have someone do the heavy lifting.

Thanks to my lessons learned from previous experience, the tire lock nut was quickly located and the spare wheel put on without a hitch. The only snag was that it wasn't inflated. What? What kind of use is a spare wheel if it's just as flat as the tire that it's replacing?

You tell me where to find the tire pump in this mess? Though I'm sure it is perfectly explained,
via a tidy pictogram no one can understand, somewhere in my 550 pages of owner's manual.

But who needs to worry about details like that when you live in a city like Joburg, where kind people are all around you. Just as we were bent over the tire scratching our heads about what to do, another acquaintance of mine pulled in the carpark. Why not hop into her car, she offered, take the tire with us to have it fixed, and bring it back? That way we wouldn't have to worry about the spare wheel.

Sounded great but rather inconvenient to my friend, don't you think? Didn't she have other places to be and other things to do?

If she did, she didn't show it. We happily accepted, hopped in, and drove off to the little place not far down the road where sadly I'm already a rather well-known customer. The tire was whisked off our hands to be examined in the shop, while the three of us sat around a table in the sunshine and sipped cokes from the butchery next door, having a lovely conversation. So I didn't even have to miss my coffee morning, you see. It was just with a different friend. And it was also a bit too short, because the tire was repaired all too quickly and loaded back into the car before we had even had a chance to finish our drinks. What did I owe, I wanted to know, purse in hand. Oh nothing, said the owner. I know you'll come back here to buy new tires eventually.

I'll put this one down as kindness as well, although he probably had a point with his prediction and was merely a good businessman.

Back to the school carpark, where our friendly bus driver was already ambling over to now help finish the job. The thing is, I had already given him his tip, and he could have just stayed away. But by now he'd developed a genuine interest in this project and wanted to see it through. That is Africa for you.

Jacking up the car was Jabulani's handiwork, before the friendly bus driver took over

And who else should have arrived by now? The roadside assistance service of course. Obviously they were too late and I told them so, but they did prove to be useful in that they pointed out that my car had an air pump stashed somewhere in the nether regions of my boot, for the very purpose of inflating the spare wheel via the cigarette lighter. Because the spare wheel can only be stowed in a deflated state, you see. German engineering, is all I can say. Although you are allowed to point out that I should have known this, given my previous exposure to tire-related mishaps with this particular car.

It was a win-win situation for everyone, I'd like to think. I got my problem solved and spent a nice morning with Jabulani, away from the TV. The bus driver earned a tip which he happily went and spent on lunch at our tuck shop. The towing service was able to charge the insurance without actually having to do any work, and Star Butchery sold a few more Cokes that day.

And all of it because people were kind.

I'd actually like to run an experiment one day, to test my theory: I bet you it's virtually impossible to break down with your car in any corner of Africa without someone coming to your rescue, unasked. I'm absolutely convinced you could try as hard as you wanted, you wouldn't succeed in being left to deal alone with your problem. It just would never happen. There would always be someone taking an interest and wanting to help. Can you say that about the rest of the world? I know I'm often accused of being too harsh on my fellow-Germans, but I tried to picture the same situation happening in Germany, and all I could think of was being chased away from the spot I was trying to change the tire because it was "verboten" to park there.

Joburg, above all, should be known all over the world for its kind people, not its crime. For every smash-and-grab you hear about, there are probably ten stories just like this one today.

Let's toast to the World's Capital of Kindness. Come visit Joburg and collect your share of kindness today.

It's not just kind. It's also quite beautiful,  don't you think? Photo: Zax.
And once you're there, click here for all the great things you can DO in Joburg.

October 9, 2012

The Husband Travels and the Squirrels Are Moving In

What is the one thing a husband is useful having around the house for? I mean the truly most important thing?

To fix things that aren't working, of course. And possibly to deal with any wildlife in the house.

Leave it to my husband to have an uncanny sixth sense enabling him to disappear anytime disaster is imminent, leaving me to deal alone with whatever situation arises. And arise they do, those situations, trust me.

Noisette has been on an overseas assignment and I was sitting with the girls this evening, reading to them before bedtime, when I heard a loud gushing noise just outside the window. "That's odd," I thought, "it can't be raining again?" We'd already had some unseasonable rains this past week, but today had been a perfectly clear day, without a cloud to be seen. And indeed it only seemed to be raining in one particular spot, down the roof and along the wall, landing in a big puddle next to the house. Plus it was steaming hot rain, from the looks of it.

There was nothing to be done but find a flashlight and investigate. In  my pajamas of course, as these things always happen at rather inopportune moments. And, like I said, with Noisette one big ocean and seven hours of time difference away. Might I just add that asking him for advice via SMS did not yield the desired answers. Up I clambered into the attic, where I couldn't find anything unusual. Down again and around the house, to see if maybe the solar heating panels were leaking. But it turns out they are on the other side of the roof, slanting the wrong way. Back upstairs and to an outside balcony with a  ladder, to peek onto the roof where the waterfall seemed to be originating from. And there it was - a pipe, coming from the water heater (geyser for South Africans) from what it looked like, releasing a huge gusher of boiling water right onto the roof of the balcony, where it had formed a pond that overflowed down the side of the house.

It could be worse, I guess. It could be flowing down the inside of the house. Either way, a job for the plumber tomorrow morning.Who I'm sure will arrive just now. Or now now, if I'm lucky.

We've also had a faucet fall off, a leaking pool pump, and a broken irrigation pipe, all during the same trip. I wonder what other water damage is in store?

And did I tell you I had another flat tire? And while I was busy changing it with Jabulani (who has a ton of experience in that department from our Namibia trip, a whole other story I have yet to tell), my fingers black with grime, I get an SMS from said husband - he of the unhelpful SMSs - asking which of the two new cars he's looking at he should buy. Let's just say I should not repeat the words I muttered under my breath.

But it could have been worse. At least this time I had the tire lock nut with the spare wheel, where it belongs.

For the record, we also had one of the TVs break. The one the kids have their xBox and Wii hooked up to. It just refuses to turn on. But for once, this does not distress me at all. I do not feel compelled to have it fixed or replaced, possibly ever, and it feels oddly liberating.

All this has not been my only brush with a husband-travels-disaster-strikes event by any means. There was the time, early in our marriage, when we lived in a quaint house in the woods in North Carolina. It was a lovely house, and the loveliest feature of it was a wood-burning stove with an angled pipe running from floor to ceiling and out the roof. Except somebody had forgotten to put some kind of guard rail onto the chimney, so that squirrels had a habit of falling into it. Which of course they preferred to do whenever Noisette was on a three-week business trip to Mexico. You could hear them scrambling around in that pipe, which had a kink right in the middle from where they'd try to get back up, in vain. It wasn't really so bad as long as you could hear them, but much worse once you no longer did.

Because who wants a dead squirrel hovering somewhere above their head?

Living room in our first house in Raleigh, ca 1994. See the stove pipe with the kink?

Same house from the outside with chimney top left. But really I'm just including this picture
to show off the very cool car Noisette drove at the time. A 1968 Pontiac Catalina. It comfor-
tably seated four adults next to each other on the front seat, which was a bench. Will have
to come up with a blog post on that story sometime...

So the squirrel had to come out, was what I decided after a few long days of agonizing contemplation. I came up with the glorious idea of lighting a fire under it. Surely a fire - a very little fire, mind you - would spur the squirrel into action and release unknown energy stores for it to gather all its strength and somehow climb back out the top. Right?

Well, my fire from a balled-up newspaper did indeed spur the squirrel into action. Except not in the desired direction. The panicky squirrel, driven out of its pipe by the smoke, showed plenty of resolve to escape, and, smart as squirrels are, decided the quickest way out was down. Just imagine the scene: Me, poised in front of the wood-burning stove, matches in hand, nursing the flame. The squirrel, coming down at top speed, dropping onto the flames, yelling "yikes" because he burned his feet, and jumping out of the stove with a giant leap. Where do you think it landed? That's right, square in the middle of my chest. To this day I can feel its tiny claws digging into my t-shirt and see the look of horror in its eyes at being so close-up to another pair of eyes, staring back at it with more or less the same amount of panic. There we both sat, too stunned to utter a word. The scene from Dr. Seuss's The Pale Green Pants comes to mind. Until the squirrel gathered its senses and ran down my lap and out the door, never to be seen again and probably to this day telling its grandchildren about the time he escaped the great big fire by tackling a human.

Then there was the time, much later and in a different house, when I discovered I had mice in the kitchen. To tell you the truth, I'm not much bothered by mice. I find them rather cute. Much cuter than the Parktown Prawns I've had to deal with here in Johannesburg (also when Noisette was absent, I might add). But it did bother me that this mouse kept going at the cereal in the pantry, leaving little trails of tell-tale mouse droppings every morning. I consulted with the pest control guy, and, because I can't kill anything, we decided on some new method of catching mice, which in principle sounded all very good and well, and which he dropped off at my house that very afternoon. It was a piece of sticky cardboard smelling very strongly of bacon, and all I had to do, he instructed me, was put it in the pantry at night. Without fail, I'd have caught the mouse by morning, case solved.

He was right and the mouse was indeed caught, looking up at  me with big eyes early the next morning from its perch on the cardboard, which it had proceeded to chew off on one corner. But what he had failed to tell me was what the hell I was supposed to do with a mouse glued to a piece of cardboard in my kitchen? At 6:00 am?

The solution, intelligently enough, was supplied by the piece of cardboard itself. It had instructions printed on the back. Mind you, it would have been much smarter to read those prior to setting the mouse trap, not afterwards, when doing so resulted in quite a bit of juggling and squealing and guessing (because half the instructions were chewed off). But I managed to deduce that both cardboard and mouse had to be removed to a location at least two miles away, lest the mouse came running right back home, and that a stream of vegetable oil would do the trick of unglueing its feet.

I'm quite pleased for even finding this 2003 picture. Let alone having taken it in the first place.
I must have known a picture of a mouse on the passenger seat would come in handy one day.

I felt rather like a criminal driving through our neighborhood in the early morning light, still in my pajamas, mouse safely tucked on the seat next to me, together with the jar of olive oil. Because who wants to now have a mouse in their yard? I could practically feel the neighbors' eyes boring into me, following my every move. If anybody did see me that morning, I suppose they thought I was completely bonkers. But I did manage to discard the mouse in some deep grass, and I'm happy to report that the oil indeed worked like a charm. I suppose that's useful information to you, dear reader, in the event you ever find yourself glued to something you can't get off of.

Another time, by then in Kansas, Noisette had literally just left that evening on some boondoggle (perhaps to investigate living in South Africa, now that I think about it) when I was woken at 2:00 am by the most unearthly shrill noise. It was a smoke alarm going off. Now I don't know about you, but I am not very sensible when it comes to alarms. I don't care what they are supposed to tell you, my only instinct is to want to turn them off, presto. There could be a guy standing there with a gun breaking into the house, there could be a raging fire, but the one thing I really want to do with every fiber of my being is to TURN THE DAMN THING OFF.

How do you turn off a smoke alarm you've never paid much attention to before, which in fact you didn't even know existed? I'm sure there is a perfectly reasonable way to do it, if you thought about it calmly, but you employ anything but clear thinking when your house is ringing with the slaughter of thirty pigs, or so it sounds. So you find a tall barstool, clamber on it, and rip the offending thing from the ceiling. It continues screaming at you, so you rip out the battery, and you breathe a sigh of relief because now peace is restored, save a feeble beeping sound every thirty seconds. Unbelievably, the kids have slept through it. You have just gone back to bed and tucked the covers around you, and then it starts up somewhere else in the house. Our smoke alarms, I am to learn later, are all hooked up to each other in a very foolproof sort of way. Should one fail, the next one goes off, ensuring that you will wake up in time to escape the fire.

But there is no escaping these damn alarms. Whenever I rip out one, another one starts up from a different room, and the game begins anew. There is no telling which one it is that's faulty, so I only get to rest, breathing heavily, after the very last one is left dangling from the ceiling. Our house has thirteen smoke alarms, I learn that long night. I also learn that while three of my children will eventually wake up and complain about the noise, one of them will sleep right through it all, including me jumping up and down on his bed to kill the alarm wailing right over his head.

Oh but to have a husband around just once when these things happen, so that he can deal with them!

Except when you get your wish, and he is indeed home the day you find a giant black snake on your threshold, he is of no help whatsoever. I should have known, from the way he freaks out about spiders in our bedroom, that a snake would end up squarely on my shoulders, quite literally.

At first it was just laying draped along the threshold to the house. A big rat snake, from the looks of it, and quite harmless. But I really didn't want for it to stay there, much like the squirrel in the chimney. Because what if it disappeared? Where would it have gone to then? This was the threshold leading into our garage, and I could just see the kids sauntering to school in the morning or digging out their roller skates from a dark corner, and coming across this thing. Not a happy thought.

I didn't have a picture of the rat snake, so I'm using this one instead, taken a few years earlier.
It's a copperhead (that one is poisonous), found at the same house directly under the fence
where the kids always hung their wet swimsuits. I admit I called the neighbor to dispose of
 that one (after first having donned boots and a shovel but couldn't bring myself to bring
down the shovel decisively).

Noisette, not happy to be roused from the Sunday funny pages, was scratching his head. "Maybe we could use the BBQ tongs to grab it?" he volunteered.

I knew right then that I'd have to go this alone. Whenever my husband uses the word "we" around the house, what he really means is "you." As in "We really should spend more time in the yard weeding." Or actually, all he has to say is "We've let the house get rather messy lately" for me to spring into action. Must be my eagerness to please, or my competitive nature, but I always oblige by getting really busy, only to usually elicit a "Whoa, what happened to you, some kind of nesting instinct?"

And seriously, BBQ tongs? Might as well light another fire for all the good that would do.

I'm proud to say I conquered the snake that day. I donned the heavy leather fireplace mitts, grabbed the snake around its neck just like you've read in every snake story you've ever come across, ignored the fact that it immediately coiled itself around my arm and up towards my neck, and ran down the stairs and outside with it, flinging it into the bushes in a beautiful high arch. I might have screamed a little bit while I was doing the flinging.

I wonder if the squirrels and the mice and the snakes in a quiet Raleigh cul-de-sac ever talk to each other, exchanging stories about crazy humans.