February 28, 2013

We Should Have Dinner Sometime

As I've observed earlier in Hello America, this is a friendly place.

Americans are incredibly welcoming towards newcomers, whether from within the country or from abroad. If you've listened to the political news coverage, you might not believe it, but what the people in Washington or in some state capitols say has usually nothing to do with the average person on the street.

The average person will give you a friendly wave. The average person might show up on your doorstep thirty minutes after you've moved in with a plate of cookies in their hands. The average person will offer to drive you around and show you the new neighborhood. The average person will let you borrow mattresses and sleeping bags to tide you over until  your container comes, even though they've just met you. The average person will be very curious to hear where you're from. And the average person will usually proudly tell you about their ancestors from Germany once they find out that's where you were born. It's a miracle that English is spoken in this country. Because I haven't met a single person here who doesn't trace their roots to some place in Germany that I have usually never heard of.

I find the question about where you are from particularly telling. When I first arrived in the United States as an exchange student, I could not believe how many people wanted to know where I came from. I  had lived in Germany for all of my sixteen years, and never once had anybody asked that question, even though I had traveled before. I had also never felt the need to ask it myself. Not that Germans are not curious about newcomers or outsiders. On the contrary. But anybody who's ever lived in a small German town will know that the preferred way of dealing with that curiosity is to observe from behind drawn curtains and speculate and draw conclusions and discuss in hushed voices, rather than, God forbid, actually ask outright.

But to Americans, where we are from is THE quintessential fact we need to know about someone, and so that's what we always ask each other, right after exchanging names. Everybody is from somewhere, and everybody has a story that's worth knowing.

The one thing though that I will give those skeptical Europeans who claim that while Americans are friendly, they are also superficial and shallow once you get past that first friendly greeting, is that you have to be quick and bold if you want to make real  friends.

What I mean is that beyond the actual place you hail from, your audience may soon  lose interest. Back in my high school exchange student days I'd get "Germany, ooooh!", followed, more often than not, by "East or West Germany?"

I never quite appreciated, in those days, the fact that any high school student would even know there were two Germanies. Instead, I was slightly offended, or at least puzzled. Who, in 1983, wouldn't know that traveling to Vicksburg, MS from East Germany would have been impossible? American high school students, that's who. Considering they were also unsure whether we had movie theaters, electricity, and indoor plumbing, I shouldn't have been surprised. The question I most commonly got was what language we spoke in Germany (hint: it is derived from the word Germany).

But I doubt I was able to educate any of my new-found friends about the subtleties of the cold war or the cultural refinement of Germans. Once it was established where I was from, everybody moved on, and that was that. I was just another student.

This is what newcomers often misunderstand. In America, like anywhere else, you have to work at making friends. Just because the store clerk had a nice conversation with you rather than shooting you an angry stare for daring to enter the premises doesn't mean you've got yourself a new friend.

Just like when people tell you that "we should  have dinner sometime" doesn't mean that you've got yourself an invitation.

This can be a bit of a pitfall when you are new to the U.S. and show up on someone's doorstep who has "invited" you to their house.

That exact thing happened to Noisette and me when we were touring the U.S. on one of those Delta standby tickets in the late eighties. We were students and had little money, so that when a relative of the host family we were staying with at the time was gushing on about how we had to "absolutely come stay with us in Florida," we took her at her word. Called from the airport, ignored the consternation on the other end, and pulled up at their mansion, I think it was in St. Petersburg. We were most decidedly not invited in, let alone offered any free lodging for the night. There we stood, looking at each other, both parties mortified at the misunderstanding. Actually, I think it was mostly Noisette and I who were mortified. As for her, she just didn't want to let us inside. So, once we got the drift, we made a hurried and embarrassed retreat, pitched our tent in Fort de Soto Park, and were invited to a beer by a complete stranger on the campsite nextdoor.

By now I've lived here long enough that I should know these subtleties, but I think I have to relearn them after our sojourn abroad. There has already been talk about "dinner sometime" and I've found  myself holding out distinct hopes of being called soon. But this is not South Africa, where you may never get called back by any contractors but will most definitely be invited in for a glass of wine when standing on someone's doorstep, even if you're meeting them for the first time.

And, more likely than not, for a lamb chop off the braai to go with your wine.

If we want a dinner invitation here anytime soon, we'll have to be the ones doing the inviting.

February 23, 2013

Traveling Premier Classe

The following is a guest post by Natalie Irwin about traveling from Johannesburg to Cape Town on the Premier Classe Train. One of the few regrets I have about our time in South Africa is that we never managed to do just that, and I was very happy to get at small glimpse of it through her story.

Even though we've lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for two and a half years, we had never managed to visit Cape Town. I guess we were waiting for the right time but finally realized that if we didn't want to miss out on Cape Town altogether, we had to just go.

So, this Christmas break, we were boarding a train.

Yes, a train. Friends of ours had recommended taking the Premier Classe Train to Cape Town and then flying back. I have only slept on a train once in my life and I thought this would be a great opportunity for my children to have that experience.

The slogan of Premier Classe is "A journey that will live in your memory long after the trip has ended." Interesting slogan, because it can go either way. Bad memory or great experience.

We had a bit of both.

I had made our reservations in October last year, and since then the website has been greatly improved. It appears you are now able to make your reservations online where previously it was all handled through a series of emails. If you read the comments on Tripadvisor, most people complained about this process, so well done on the improvement, Premier Classe!

At R2,500 one way per person, the cost of the trip is expensive, but we felt like the experience of sleeping on a train and seeing the countryside of South Africa was well worth the price.

We had arranged a driver from our house in Johannesburg to Park Station with Avis Point to Point. Once we arrived at Park Station, the driver walked us to the Premier Classe Train Lounge which was very nice of her. The Lounge is not difficult to find but not obvious either if you are not familiar with the train station.  We all settled onto some cushy sofas and took advantage of the complimentary refreshments: Iced tea (or what an American would call iced tea, because in typical South African fashion it lacked the ice), water, cakes, sandwiches, and chips.

arriving at Park Station
on board

A little before 3:00 pm there was an announcement that we could board the train. After boarding and dropping our hand luggage in cabins 9A and 9B, we were to head to the dining cars for a complimentary send off drink.

The cabins are a throw back to old time train travel, in a good way. There were two "couches" facing each other that obviously would later get reconfigured as beds. Our children LOVED having their own compartment. There was a shared toilet for your car and a shower. There were also bathrobes, slippers, and towels in the room.

Shortly after 3:00 pm the train started to slowly pull out of Park Station. We made our way to the dining car, where my husband and I had champagne while the boys had some sort of juice along with biltong, nuts and Pringles. The conductor came by and explained that the train was completely full and therefore there were going to be two seatings for dinner that night, as well as breakfast and lunch the next day. We picked the later dinner at 8:30 pm so that we could really enjoy the ride.

The train was very long. There were sleeper compartments in the front, then a dining car, bar car, kitchen, another dining car, more sleeper compartments, a smoking car, and then the car carriers. You can bring your car on the train for an extra fee, which works well if you are driving instead of flying back to Johannesburg.

I'd be lying if I told you now that the view was terrific. From Park Station to the outskirts of Joburg, the view is not exactly scenic. As a matter of fact, it is really gross with tons and tons of trash - a familiar sight in Joburg, unfortunately. But, as soon as you get out of the city, the scenery changes and is simply beautiful. We sat there in our cabin sipping a glass of wine - we had purchased a bottle from the dining car - watching the South African countryside flying by through the open window, while the boys played games in their cabin and occasionally popped over for a game of Yahtzee. It was a great moment of relaxing family time, and some of us were already disappointed we weren't going to take the train both ways. We weren't even bothered by the fact that our air conditioning wasn't working well, as the night air was lovely.

By the time we arrived for dinner, the dining car had been magically transformed with the addition of table cloths and cutlery, and we enjoyed a nice leisurely meal. Even though there was no menu choice, both our kids cleaned their plates, always a litmus test when it comes to family travel. By the time we got back to our cabins, it was 10:30 pm, and time to sleep.

The boys absolutely loved that their rooms had been turned down. I am sure they felt like they were on the Hogwarts Express. My husband would want me to add here that the beds are not designed for tall people. He is 5'11'' and his feet were at the end of the bed with no room to spare. If you are over 6 feet tall, this might be uncomfortable.

As for sleeping on the train?

The brochure that I had picked up in the lounge at Park Station described sleeping on the train in this fashion: "The lights of sleepy towns twinkle upon the horizon and then retreat softly into the night as your journey passes them by, peaceful and sedate, waiting for the first rays of dawn".

Well. That is not exactly how it played out for us.

At about 3:00 am I woke up because I felt like the train was going incredibly fast. My husband was awake too and said he felt the same way. We didn't know if this was normal. You do, after all, have to go downhill from Johannesburg to Cape Town at some point. But at a clip like this? The train finally stopped and we dozed back off. A little while later the train was trying to start again, jolting us with the most incredible jerks accompanied with the sound of nails going down a chalkboard. Pretty much the opposite of peaceful and sedate, if you ask me. This jerking went on throughout the early morning and it was impossible to sleep. There we go, we thought, this is Africa. It would have been dangerous to have tried to walk down the corridor as you would have been sent flying. There was no announcement that anything was wrong, so when things had calmed down we decided to make our way to breakfast at 8:30 am. Just as we sat down to eat we arrived in the town of Beaufort West. (Beaufort West happens to be the hometown of Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world's first human heart transplant). It was then that the conductor made an announcement that the locomotive was broken and that we needed to get a new one and that we would be 80 minutes late arriving into Cape Town.

I was a little disappointed and worried that we might be late for our dinner plans in Camps Bay that night. Amazingly, not one person on the train was upset. People all picked up their cell phones and called loved ones or work colleagues and just said we were delayed, and then carried on calmly as before. This is Africa, too.

Beautiful views of the Karoo...
...and the wine country.

Once we got the new locomotive, the ride was totally different and a lot closer to what the brochure promised. Absolutely smooth. We enjoyed the view of the Karoo and a delicious lunch of hake while the wine country passed by our window, and arrived in Cape Town just a little over an hour behind schedule.

We had arranged for Avis to meet us with a rental car at the train station, which I would highly recommend to future travelers. It made for a smooth transition to the exploration of Cape Town and surroundings, where, funnily, we kept bumping into parties we had seen on the train - a family on Table Mountain and a couple on the same ferry as us to Robben Island.

Overall, I wish our night had been a bit smoother and less scary, but after we got the new locomotive we had an amazing trip into Cape Town. Our family played cards, read, played on iPads, and talked. There were a few people travelling alone, and several travelers were always in the bar car, if you had wanted to meet new people. We totally enjoyed the experience of unhurried luxury of a bygone era. I would take the train to Cape Town again if I had the time and did not have any pressing engagements.

Traveling Premier Classe was an experience in every way for our family. And, of course, we finally made it to Cape Town!

According to Natalie, a Joburg Expat blog post wouldn't be
complete without mention of a toilet (ahem!) so here it is.

Travel Tips

The Premier Classe train leaves Johannesburg Park Station every Thursday and Sunday at 3:00 pm and arrives at the Cape Town Train Station at 4:15 pm the next day.

Make your reservations online at www.premierclasse.co.za.

The cost for the train is currently R2500 per person one way. Children ages 0-2 travel for free, 3-9 years old travel for half price and children over the age of 10 pay the full fare.

Arrange for private transport to Park Station, or alternatively take the Gautrain.

Check in more than an hour before departure at the Premier Classe Lounge for good seating in the waiting area as it fills up quickly. The lounge is located downstairs and to the left.

Cabin doors lock from the inside. In addition, there are two security guards on the train. You do not get the sense that locking the doors is necessary.

The wine selection in the dining car is limited but fairly priced. I suppose you could have brought beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks on the train with you if you had wanted to.

You are not given a choice for dinner but are able to specify ahead of time if you need a vegetarian option.

If you are renting a car in Cape Town, make sure you have it waiting for you at the train station.

The comments on Tripadvisor at the moment are not the most flattering, but fairly accurate.

Natalie Irwin is an American expat living in Johannesburg with her family of four and enjoys all that South African life has to offer.

February 18, 2013

South African House versus American House

In our South African house, I was puzzled to find no door bell.
In our American house, I am puzzled to find no toilet roll holder.

In our South African house, all the towel bars were loose and rattled.
In our American house, there are no towel bars.

In our South African house, it took five weeks (I checked my first blog entry) to get Telkom to install our ADSL line and get us connected to the internet.
In our American house, the cable guy (not Larry) came on the second day and installed cable TV and an internet connection.

In our South African house, I was overjoyed to have internet after such a long time, even if it was very slow.
In our American house, I am pissed off that the internet is so slow and intermittent, when all I dreamed about for three years was fast internet. (Comcast = my new Telkom, I can feel it in my bones!)

At our South African house, an empty garage greeted me, setting me off on a month-long adventure to buy a car.
At our American house, a brand-new minivan awaited me (thank you Noisette!), though not in the garage, because it is full of stuff.

In our South African house, the cars only fit narrowly through the garage doors.
In our American house the driveway is angled towards the garage so stupidly that some cars (i.e. my car) don't fit into the garage at all. Even after it has been emptied of stuff.

In our South African house, I needed an extension cord for the vacuum cleaner to reach all corners of some rooms, electric toothbrushes had to be charged in the bedroom, and each outlet was occupied by a towering construction of adapters and extension strips.
In our American house, there are 22 power outlets in the kitchen alone, four or more on each wall. More importantly, there are power outlets in each bathroom. And the appliances you buy in the store will actually plug directly into the outlet, without any adapters. (Goodbye, extension cords and power strips and adapters!)

In our South African house, coming home from the grocery store always precipitated a delicate game of "rearrange the fridge" to try and fit everything in.
In our American house, $400 worth of groceries can easily be put away without even making a dent. In our American house, there are already way too many groceries.

In our South African house, there was a small washing machine and hundreds of meters of clothesline. And a maid.
In our American house, there are two washers and two dryers that my kids can comfortably play hide-and-seek in. And I'm the maid.

At our South African house, me might have had a shit pipe flowing practically over our heads, but it is safe to say we never once, in three years, had a clogged toilet.
In our American house, the first toilet was clogged on the fourth day and we've already stocked up on all sorts of heavy-duty unclogging equipment.

At our South African house, we had the screech of the hadeda waking us up early in the morning.
At our American house, we have the wail of the tornado siren waking us up in the middle of the night.

At our South African house, we had a constant cloud of smoke from grass fires engulfing us every winter, but we slept in peace (until the cry of the hadeda).
At our American house, we have no smoke whatsoever but thirteen smoke detectors on high and unreachable ceilings, one of which is apparently faulty and makes the other twelve shriek at irregular intervals (but preferably at two in the morning).

In our South African  house, we had ants.
In our American house, we have dust bunnies.

At our South African house, we sometimes had Parktown Prawns and algae in the pool.
At our American house, we have no pool at all.

In our South African house, we had walls of titanium that made picture-hanging into a major construction project and left your walls looking like you survived the siege of Stalingrad.
In our American house, we have drywall that makes picture hanging a charm (you barely even need a hammer) but you might find a hole in it after your kids have had a minor altercation involving slight shoving.

Forget cultural differences - I have enough on my hands with the house!

February 12, 2013

From Barefoot Shopping to Having an Affair

What do barefoot shopping and having an affair in South Africa have in common?

Seeking advice on either of them will lead you to my blog.

You may not know this as a reader of blogs. But if you're also a writer of blogs, you will nod knowingly when I tell you that we can sometimes be a bit, uh, obsessive about our blog statistics.

You power on your computer in the morning and the first thing you check is how many page views you've had yesterday. You then go and check your emails and after answering a few of them you figure it might be time to start doing something productive. Like actually writing a blog post. Let alone the other fifteen things you should really be doing instead of writing a blog. But while you contemplate what's next, you quickly check your page views again. If somehow in the process you get roped over to Facebook, forget it. You will not accomplish anything else for the day.

There are great tools out there that can not only tell you the number of page views but pretty much everything about the readers of your blog. Which stories they liked reading the most this week. Which country they are from (or, perhaps, pretend they're from). Which operating system they are using. Whether they had pasta or salad for lunch. Their bra size.

Okay, so I got a bit carried away there. But you get my drift.

Normally, I just want to know the page views and that's that. I really don't care who you are, as long as you come visit. Unless of course you leave a nice comment and then I'll leave a nice comment back.

But sometimes it can be fun to dig a bit deeper into Google Analytics (or whatever tool you're using) for some pure enjoyment. And to find out interesting facts.

Like, did you know there is an operating system called Ubuntu? I had no idea. But apparently, 36 visitors of my blog, so far, have their devices running on it.

Also, either there'll soon be a huge influx of Ukrainians descending upon South Africa, or maybe they just love reading about expat life in Johannesburg for no reason perhaps because the weather there is better than at home (or because they are accused of just as much crime). In any case, tons of Ukrainians are reading my blog. They just made it into the top ten countries (South Africa, some time ago, surpassed the United States, followed by the UK, Germany, Canada, and Australia).

The true giggle, however, can be had when you delve a bit deeper and read the actual phrases people type into Google (or Bing, or whatever else it is, which you can also learn from your analytics software) to find you. Or, rather, not to find you specifically, but it is you they end up finding, through the mysteries of the Google algorithm.

It is a very diverse group of people, let me tell you. Whether they typed "barefoot shopping" or "american apple cake" or "have an affair south africa,", they all landed on my blog. As were "pay traffic fines south africa," "cheetah legs," and "kilimanjaro potty." The potty person spent 18 seconds on my blog. Whereas the one searching for "kilimanjaro toilets" stayed for 5 minutes and 29 seconds.

Some of them cannot be repeated in polite company, such as "joburg f#@* stories." That person hardly spent any time on my blog at all, I'm glad to report.

While we're on that track, the longest somebody who didn't already know my blog stayed and read on was one and a half hours, having looked for "how to do foreign eft." Whereas "xpat massage" held the record of shortest stay. Maybe I should start offering massages.

Predictably, people searching for 'joburg expat blog" end up staying forever, reading twenty-five pages and more, whereas the guy wondering "why do weavers destroy their nests" only stayed on for one. As did "african subways." I'm curious if he had any luck elsewhere. I can't think of an African city that actually has a subway.

The topics people are most interested in are "private schools in johannesburg," "buying a car in south africa," "opening a bank account," and "renewing license disk." And of course those vital questions about Amazon, Starbucks, Kindle, iPhone, and Netflix in South Africa. I'm glad I've become such a how-to resource and I hope people realize what a luxury it is to not only get advice but also some gratuitous humor in the bargain.

I also get the existential type questions, like "should i move to durban." I have no idea! But I'd love to tell you anyway. I'd also like to talk with all the people wondering about "joburg crime" and "how bad is south africa." I'd tell them how terrible it is indeed and to please stay away. Let's keep all those negative folks somewhere else (okay, in England, if you must know).

Some people don't seem to put very much thought in their queries. Like the person typing "does africa have a post office" (no, the mail in africa gets hand-carried by messengers on elephants), or the one simply writing "bird." I'm quite honored that such a vague term would have ended up with me but wonder once again what the hell Google is thinking.

But I"m not complaining. Google is often my friend when I'm in a tight spot. Today I wanted to make chili for dinner, and needed my recipe. The print version of that is still stuck with U.S. Customs and Border Control in Charleston. Not that they confiscated the chili recipe (at least I hope not), but that is where our container was last seen at, presumably with all the cookbooks still safely inside it (and hopefully some cases of Chardonnay). I remembered I had blogged about it once, so I typed "mexicans on boats" into Google, the words I remembered from the title I had given the blog post, and voila, there was my recipe. Except I then remembered I also had no chili powder in the house, which is in just a tiny way a more or less central ingredient to cooking chili, so I had to shelve the project. Maybe one day Google can spit out the actual chili powder for me as well.

I just wish people could at least spell. Though it doesn't seem to matter. "jo berg expat" still gets you to the right place, apparently.

Oh, and you'll also find me if you type in "now now just now."

Which reminds me, I've got to go. Please excuse me while I check my page views now now. I will be back for more just now.

King Pageview rules

February 10, 2013

Some Like it Hot

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

In Johannesburg, not only flying ants but also their wingless brethren are a nuisance.

As in other countries, our ants love to keep aphids as pets, and these little suckers ruin your plants. Not good. Ants also love to raid your kitchen and your cat food. Not good either. They build their nests underneath the skirting in your living room. You guessed it, not good.

But the ants in Joburg are also true South Africans: they like it hot.

That’s something I discovered one sunny morning. I couldn't hear the familiar sound of the irrigation system and did what you usually do in Joburg when things aren't working: I checked the fuse box in case the power went out. But everything there seemed ok. When I checked the irrigation system control box, however, it was perfectly clear that it was completely dead. No digits flashing, no green lights, not even red lights, nothing.

Then I did what I also usually do in these situations: I tried not to scream from frustration.

Because getting stuff around the house fixed is always a mission in South Africa. I ended up spending the better of the next two days tramping from shop to shop until I finally found someone who assured me he could get my irrigation system going again. He opened the control box to try and fix the problem, but instead of reaching for a screwdriver, he just muttered “Ants.” And showed me the inside of the box: It was completely black, obviously blown up.

It turns out that we had been quite lucky to escape without a fire in or around our house.

You would think these teeny-weeny little ants can't possibly do much harm, but they can, and do.

As the nice guy who sold me a new control box explained to me, ants like to stay in dry and warm places. These boxes are perfect for them, because they have a power connection and are therefore quite warm, and they are protected by a nice plastic cover that is nevertheless easy to be entered if you are an ant. While making themselves at home in my sheltered control box, the ant colony damaged its electrical “content” and caused a short-circuit fault that ultimately made the whole thing burn on the inside.

So irrigation systems are a perfect place for an ants’ nest – until they blow up, of course. As is your doorbell. And your intercom. And your pool pump. And your fuse box. And even your electricity meter. [Note by editor: I shudder to think how I would have explained that to Eskom to keep them from turning off our power - "But Sir, it was the ants' fault..."].

I love animals, I really do. Ever since my teenage years I have been donating to save wildlife and nature reserves. But I draw the line at tiny crawlies wanting to share my living space and even damaging it in the process.

I declared war.

First I went for the “natural” remedies that have been passed down for centuries, apparently, like lavender (ants are not supposed to like the scent) or baby powder (ants are not supposed to be able to traverse it). But it seems that our ants are hardy ants and not to be deterred by any of it these wimpy measures. 

So I stocked up on the lethal stuff and I'm happy to tell you it works. I recommend Doom “Multi-Insects” (broadband), Bygon “3-in-1-action” (for crevices and holes), Effekto AnTrap “Ant Bait” (for kitchen and anywhere else you don’t want to spray), and ant powder for the garden.

[Note by editor: You can also try to hire a pest control service, such as Rentokil, for complete peace of mind (but a rather steep price. Good luck battling your South African ants!]

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.infoGuide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.

February 7, 2013

Natural Disaster, Part II (Or: Tornadoes and the shame of being found dead in your basement with a bike helmet on)

As I was telling you in my previous post, we recently found ourselves huddled under blankets in our basement at 3:30 in the morning, just three weeks after our move back to the United States.

A "safe" country, right? I mean, we were coming from South Africa, of all places. Johannesburg, specifically. Which, prior to moving there three years ago, we had been told was most likely the most dangerous place on Earth.

The scene on our deck after Hurricane Fran in 1996

No one tells you that about Brentwood, Tennessee.

"What the hell," I had said in our Brentwood house at 2:30 a.m. when I sat up in bed, having been roused by the most horrible wailing noise rising to a deafening crescendo every few seconds and then receding again. It took me a while to realize that it was not, in fact, an ambulance driving around in circles.

"Yeah I know," said Noisette, sitting up next to me. "What is this?

It was a tornado warning siren. Accompanied by huge gusts of wind rattling our windowpanes it sounded pretty scary. And we were more than miffed, I tell you, that no one had informed us that we had moved to tornado country, again.

Then we did what everyone does in case of an emergency.

We turned on the TV.

If there is one thing Americans are particularly good at, it is to collect an enormous amount of data, beef it up with lots of fancy charts and terms and ratios, and throw it all back at you on TV with two guys chatting in the background incessantly.

So it is for baseball, and so it is for The Weather Channel.

We were captivated. There was a scary red jaggedy line bisecting the map on the screen, and it was inexorably moving towards the general area where we live. Every once in a while the screen would go black and an otherwordly cracking voice would issue a tornado warning in an eerie monotone. Then the weather chart would come back on and there would be more data, interspersed with scary images of trees toppling onto cars in downtown Nashville.

The problem was that even with all this information and preparedness, we weren't sure as to what to do. Or, I should say, we knew exactly what we should do (after all, we've lived in Kansas before), but we were oh so reluctant to do it.

The TV, you see, is in our bedroom. As are the nice cushy bed and warm blanket. Our basement, in contrast, is very empty. And cold.

The thought of rousing four sleeping children and ferrying them to the safety of the basement to sit around and shiver was not very inviting. Plus the TV was so fascinating.

So we made pacts. "When they show our actual town, we'll make a move," we pledged. Then when it appeared on the map, we amended it to "When they actually say the words 'take shelter immediately' we'll make a move."

In the end, all it took was one gigantic blow to our bedroom window to make us jump up and scurry out, shooting off in different directions to collect the kids. I grabbed my computer and a bunch of pillows and blankets, and stumbled downstairs where we all reassembled in the media room that is indeed built like a bunker.

"Who's hungry?" was my first question. My idea was to run back upstairs and find yogurt and chips and perhaps ice cream to make this one fun slumber party.

See, that's what I do. Up at night because of a tornado? Find a way to make it fun. Being asked to move across the world for your husband's job? Find a way to make it fun.

But Noisette had other ideas.

"Are you crazy?" were his words. "We need to SLEEP!"

So everyone duly rolled themselves in their blankets and pretended to sleep. I tried to follow the storm's progress on my computer, but it turns out the keys make a clicking noise that prevents my dear husband from pretending to sleep. Plus the online coverage wasn't nearly as good as that on TV.

It was Zax who eventually saved us by getting up and saying "this is stupid" and checking the time. By then the warning had expired, and everything seemed quiet outside, so we all made our way back to the comfort of our beds. Zax accosted me first thing next morning.

"Why did you make us go to the basement? No one goes to their basement when there is a tornado warning and there isn't even a tornado!"

Leave it to my teenager to worry only about what other people do. I refrained from engaging in an argument about his skewed logic. And it turns out he's not alone in this. A friend told me her husband drew the line at putting on a bike helmet (apparently another tornado precaution I have not heard of before). Being found dead in your basement bath with a bike helmet on in his eyes must be much, much worse than dying in a tornado.

After our little basement interlude (the only casualty was a letter Sunshine meant to send to a friend in South Africa and had deposited in our mailbox to be picked up by the postman - it would be found days later, mud-soaked, somewhere else in our yard) I decided I much prefer hurricanes to tornadoes. Because you get days and days of warning about those, and you'll know ahead of time whether you're in one's path or not (meaning you can heat up and stock the basement well in advance).

Although I think my memory must be clouding up, because in the immediate aftermath of the last hurricane we lived through, I didn't think they were preferable to anything at all.

It was the year 1996, the first week of September, and we had just brought our first baby home from the hospital a week earlier.

Back in those days, hurricane tracking was actually not nearly as fine-tuned as it is now (don't I sound terribly old when I say "back in those days"?). There had been talk of a hurricane looming in the Atlantic and perhaps heading for Charleston, but that is a pretty commonplace summertime occurrence if you live in the Southeastern United States, and we didn't make much of it. No hurricane really ever comes as far inland as Raleigh, was the conventional wisdom. We went to bed, watching Friends, most likely (that's how old we are), and when the power went off shortly after 9:00 pm we simply went to sleep.

When we woke up at 2:00 in the morning with a jolt, something seemed wrong. It was pitch dark and the wind was howling outside.

"There is something in front of our window," I said to Noisette. "Something that doesn't belong there."

The altered view from our bedroom window

It was one of two massive trees that crashed onto our house that night, along with another thirty-four or so downed pine trees littering the yard. But we didn't know that then. All we knew was we had a baby to protect, so we grabbed him out of his crib, ran downstairs, and spent the rest of the night huddled on a mattress as far as possible from any windows.

All we had to get news from the outside world was a tiny battery-powered radio, which we sat glued to for the rest of the night while the crack of trees being snapped in half like matchsticks could be heard all around us. Just as the announcer told us that "the eye of the hurricane is now directly over Raleigh," everything fell utterly silent for a few long minutes, then started up again with renewed mayhem. My lasting memory of it all is the humongous power of nature that you never think is possible until you've seen it. The amount of space a tree can be made to move back and forth by a hurricane is unbelievable. And the noise is deafening.

We woke up the next morning to the most desolate scene of destruction I had ever witnessed. There were trees and branches strewn everywhere, and there was a large crack in our roof. None of our neighbors had fared any better. All of Raleigh looked the same, with power lines down everywhere and debris scattered about. Neat piles of wood dotting the residential curbs would only emerge later and were a part of the cityscape for months, with the constant buzzing of chain-saws as a backtrack. All told, the damages caused by Hurricane Fran amounted to $2.4 billion in North Carolina alone.

It took a crane to get those off again

I love  how that bird feeder narrowly survived, untouched.

It took seven long days for us to get the power back. At least we didn't get any flooding or contaminated water like people in low-lying areas. My parents, who were visiting at the time to help with the baby but had missed the hurricane due to a short excursion into the mountains, came back, took one look at the situation, and departed. They had come for a new baby and not for a long bout of yard cleanup, was probably their thinking. "Ridiculous," were my mother's parting words. "Even after bombings during World War II in Germany we got our power back within a few hours, at most a day."

Somehow, we made do, cooking and heating water on our gas grill and taking cold showers. The heat was unbearable, and yet somehow Zax protested bitterly when we gave him his first bath ever in cold water. I spent my entire three months of maternity leave with a routine of nurse, put baby to bed, run to the yard to haul wood until baby cries again...

Zax blissfully ignorant of the destruction all around

But it's one thing to lose power when it is unbearably hot. It's entirely another story when you lose power while it is unbearably cold.

There was another baby in the house by the winter of 2002, this time our fourth one, when an ice storm felled half the trees in our yard yet again (this was a different house, but also in Raleigh). We couldn't even get out the first day, until a friendly neighbor liberated us with his chain-saw. And then we sat and shivered. Our fireplace wasn't nearly adequate to heat even the tiniest area to bearable temperatures, and I was truly worried about Sunshine, who wasn't even crawling yet at the time, packing her in snowsuits and smothering her with blankets.

After three days of misery, I was ready to move out. Noisette, mind you, was happily departing for work and a heated office every morning and probably actually welcomed the cold nights he so professes help his sleeping. We are forever battling over the thermostat control.

pine trees snapped like match sticks by the heavy ice

I packed everyone into the minivan and started driving, with no particular plan other than trying to stay warm. I left messages on friends' answering machines who had equally abandoned their houses, and eventually pulled up at a McDonald's that was open for business, because Impatience had to use the potty.

I remember it very clearly. We were all squeezed into the stall - the kids were still little and I couldn't leave them at a table on their own - and Impatience, who had been clutching DeeDee, her white teddy bear, throughout the entire ordeal, temporarily released her grip and the bear went flying into the toilet.

Yes, I tell you, right into the toilet.

There was a second of stunned silence as we all stood around and contemplated the situation. Then the wailing started. And for once, I didn't have the capacity to console or come up with a plan. Instead, I joined Impatience in her misery and started crying. There was no home to go back to, let alone a washing machine and dryer for DeeDee, the hotels were already booked by people who were quicker to decide, and standing in a fast food joint about to have to reach into a toilet felt like absolute rock bottom to me.

I can't remember how exactly DeeDee made it  back into the fold of our family - I'm sure I suppressed that memory - but as usual the answer to all troubles lay in the power of friendship. One of my messages from earlier was picked up by friends who were heading back into town because their power had just come back on, and we all ended up spending a few fun nights at their house.

So far it has all ended well, but I can tell you this: I am sick and tired of hauling debris from fallen trees. I never once had to do that in South Africa. The only trees I hauled there were to provide firewood to township women, a much more gratifying activity.

Hauling firewood through Diepsloot
What were your encounters with natural disasters, on either side of the Atlantic? Please share the story.

February 4, 2013

Natural Disaster

You know one wonderful quality South Africa has that often gets lost amidst the collective angst about crime?

It is a country almost entirely devoid of natural disasters.

Note that I said "almost," before you start trembling with indignation about my demeaning your disastrous-ness in any way (I already created an uproar by recently demeaning your toilet-plunger prowess).

Thinking it a good idea to supplement my personal observation with some data, I Googled the matter, and of course found lots and lots of natural disasters afflicting South Africa.

There are the floods, of course. Something we actually witnessed ourselves, if not first-hand, but 2-weeks-removed-from-first-hand. The beautiful camp we had stayed at over New Year's of 2011/2012, Kitara, was literally swept away just after we had been there. It's taken a full year to rebuild it, in time for this New Year's, giving you an idea how complete the destruction was. Floods during the rainy season are definitely a big part of life in South Africa, as much as drought is the rest of the time.

Photo of pool deck at Kitara Jan 2012 courtesy of Klaserie Camps. Go to their website to see
how it's been rebuilt and how you can make a booking. It's a beautiful corner of the world. 

Then there is the lightning. You'll have heard it said that death by lightning rates are high in South Africa, particularly in the Highveld region, and if you've witnessed any of the frequent summer storms in Gauteng you'll agree that the lightning there is particularly scary. To combat the risk of disappearing for three days onto one of my internet binges and reading every online study discussing the merits of such claims, I didn't delve any further to provide a definitive answer.

I don't think, though, that moving to Johannesburg will put you at a particularly high risk of being struck by lighting. Which is not true for your computer and TV; they WILL be struck for sure if you don't run to unplug everything at the first sign of a dark cloud. But that is another matter.

One of my favorite pictures among the ones I took in South Africa. Because that was
before my photography class and learning about keeping the lens open and all such
tricks. I simply pressed the shutter at the right moment. Taken in front of our house.

What else? Fire. We should know. We played with it (though not intentionally). As in any place exposed to prolonged droughts, South Africa suffers wildfires quite frequently. Though they are often man-made. People in townships are at particular risk due to unattended kerosene stoves during long winter nights.

Then there is another disaster-in-waiting that so far has gotten little attention: The groundwater poisoning, particularly in the area around Johannesburg, due to years and years of mining and a build-up of toxic water underground, the level of which is apparently rising year-to-year at an alarming rate. If you live in Dainfern under that shit-pipe, you could literally face a situation where you simultaneously get squeezed by toxic waste from above and below.

Maybe it's a good thing we got out in time.

AIDS, of course, is still one of the biggest disasters looming over South Africa, despite several years of significant progress.

And I'm sure you could somehow bring locust plagues and rinderpest into this discussion if you really wanted to go to town.

But despite all of this, and especially if you are living in a proper house with the benefit of some education, you'll be safer from natural disasters in South Africa than just about anywhere else in the world. Earthquakes are practically unheard of, as are hurricanes (though there are instances of reported tornadoes), and the coastline along the Indian ocean is entirely protected from tsunamis (as witnessed in 2004) by the shelter provided by Madagascar.

If my sample size of one is anything to go by (it usually is, on this blog), then natural disasters play a much bigger part in the life of the average U.S. resident compared to his or her South African counterpart.

I was reminded of this just three weeks into our new life in Tennessee, when we found ourselves huddled under blankets in the basement at 3:30 a.m., listening to the eerie wail of a tornado siren in the distance and torrential rain and wind gusts taking turns on our windows.

But seeing as this blog post is already rather long, THAT story (and the actual point of this post - forgive me for always getting side-tracked) will have to wait until the next one.

To be continued...