October 31, 2013

Put Your Zebra Lederhosen On!

Once again, when October rolled around this year, we found ourselves in new surroundings, meaning we’d have to create yet another guest list for our annual Oktoberfest. 

I don’t know exactly when we started this tradition, but I remember where. It was when we lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and had little kids, probably around ten years ago. Noisette had come across a mini keg of his favorite beer, Wahrsteiner, when visiting the grocery store, and accosted me with the idea of hosting an Oktoberfest.

The spread at our Oktoberfest, perfected over the last ten years.
Our Oktoberfest invitations over the years. We've only needed three designs because
we always moved before it was time to come up with a new one.

“It can’t be that hard,” he said. “All you have to do is make some Sauerkraut and sausages, and we’ll be in business."

Never mind that I had never made Sauerkraut in my life. In fact, I had spent the better half of the first part of it hating Sauerkraut with a passion and giving it a wide berth whenever I could. It was the one food my brothers and I were allowed to skip at mealtimes. It wasn't even the smell of cabbage or the sour taste we objected to so much. It was all the other stuff that was floating around in it, one piece more fatty than the other. It was something my mother, having come of age in the years of deprivation - you might call it starvation - in postwar Germany, indulged in periodically, allowing her to reminiscence about all the foods she so powerfully craved when she couldn't have them. 

That is my only explanation. No other sane person would crave a solid hunk of fat, or a soggy slice of blood sausage.

But, I figured, it didn't have to be the authentic Sauerkraut of my youth if we were to cook it for the intended audience. In fact, I was probably well advised not to even utter the words blood and sausage anywhere near each other lest I offend the delicate American ears of our friends. Putting the menu together proved easier than I expected. I thought really long and hard if there were any other foods I hated as a kid, and came up with potato salad. Rounded out with a selection of Knockwurst and Bratwurst, or rather whatever passed for them on the shelves at our local Harris Teeter store, and Zwiebelkuchen (onion tart, which I DO like), our dinner spread looked respectable. Finding the right kind of mustard proved a bit of a mission, as well as the right kind of beer. As my Southern German family will tell you, Wahrsteiner, from the North, is completely misplaced at the Oktoberfest, which is entirely a Southern German institution. As are Bretzeln, distant and noble ancestors of the mundane American Pretzel. Paulaner or Weihenstephan (the one that’s brewed by monks), both wheat beers, are acceptable choices for an Oktoberfest, so even though the keg remained, for its pure novelty, we supplemented it with the real Hefeweizen, if only to appease our relatives back home.

The potato salad is a favorite every year. Even I like it now.
The right kind of beer!
Bretzeln from the Schwabenbutcher in Johannesburg. Read that story here.

Ever since that first one, we've tried to host an Oktoberfest each year. We've had a total of seven or eight since that fateful kickoff event in 2003 or 2004, which actually happened in November, if I recall correctly.

They've taken place in five different cities and on two different continents.

We've had guests who drank half a beer each and rushed home to their babysitters at 9:30 pm, and we've had ones who raided our entire liquor cabinet and then passed out on our sofa.

We had ones who didn't eat pork or gluten (don't move to Germany, guys!), and we had ones who licked the potato salad bowl and then took home some more.

We had people proudly arrive with their own German beer steins, and we had ones arrive in full Lederhosen regalia.

And every single time, we've had people at our Fest who we hadn't even met before, because it seems to be our fate to have to start over in a new place every few years (the good news is, you get to recycle last year's invitation design). What better way to meet your neighbors than having them over for some Jagermeister.

Especially when you encourage them to wear your country’s garb.

I'd like to say this was us, the hosts, dressed up so perfectly, but these are our neighbors
who deserve big kudos for being the life of this year's party!

What really warms my heart is how well received each and every one of our Oktoberfests has been. There's good food, to be sure, as I've fine-tuned and improved the recipes over the last decade. Even our kids can't wait for the annual cooking extravaganza to begin, though I suspect it's less the sausages and more the assortment of cakes that attracts them like flies. And there's good beer (for those who, unlike me, actually like beer), brewed according to the ancient German Reinheitsgebot handed down over the centuries. But I think the main attraction is something more. It's the promise of good companionship bridging all sorts of cultural divides, it's reaching out to your neighbors who actually might not even have met each other, it's seeing tradition transported across oceans and generations, though sometimes with an exotic twist.

My favorite exotic Oktoberfest twist is Lederhosen made from zebra skin. I'm not kidding you, they have them in Namibia. Along with the best Schweinebraten outside of Munich, I might add. If you don't believe me regarding the striped Lederhosen, read this recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Last year's Oktoberfest in Johannesburg. I don't know what they're all looking at. I really
hope it's not the dead rat our cat Maus left on the patio right before the first guests arrived.

My apple cake when the kids get to it before the party. (Actually, I think it was Noisette).
Our  Oktoberfests are often international affairs. Represented here: United States, Great
Britain, and Belgium. Not shown Singapore, Germany, The Netherlands, Egypt, South Africa.
There you go, Zebra Lederhosen! See Wall Street Journal Article here.

At this year's Oktoberfest, our next-door neighbors shamed us by arriving in perfectly matched Lederhosen and Dirndl outfits. I think it’s about high time we got ourselves some Lederhosen and a Dirndl of our own. But have you ever seen their prices? They are sinful, and that's not even counting the boob job I'd have to have before I could proudly show off a Dirndl. Maybe we should just make our own.

Come to think of it, I've got just the right material upstairs. I’ll begin sewing right away.

October 27, 2013

Relocating your Pet to South Africa

I recently saw the following question on an expat forum:
"Hello all! I've been in South Africa for 3 weeks and expect to work here for approximately 18 months on assignment. My husband will be joining me from the US in 1 month. The most difficult decision regards our dog...do we bring her or not? Has anyone heard of issues with customs? How is the process returning to the States?"
We don't have a dog. If I ever sneaked a dog into the house, under cover of night like I've practically done with the succession of cats we've had, Noisette would probably kill me. And the dog.

Moving your Pet to South Africa? This is what you need to know:

  • Import Permits are available at the Department of Agriculture  for a fee of ZAR120 
  • Veterinary Health Certificate must be signed and stamped by a government approved veterinarian in the exporting country.
  • Cats are generally quarantine free
  • Dogs from some countries are subject to a 14-day quarantine
  • Dogs subject to quarantine need a signed indemnity form
  • Dogs are also subject to a series of tests for certain diseases
  • Dogs and cats need to have a rabies vaccination
  • Dogs and cats need to be microchipped
  • Any animal imported into South Africa must arrive via one of the major airport's cargo terminals; animals subject to quarantine can only arrive via OR Tambo or Cape Town International
Check Moving to South Africa with your Pet for more details!
What we did have, prior to moving to South Africa, was a bunny by name of Oreo. Huge and black and white and also pretty dumb, if you ask me. Since I could only find information about dog and cat relocation but nothing about rabbits, it was decided that he was best left behind with another loving family. Or wait - he actually might have gotten left behind because he had the nasty habit of peeing all over the carpet when he was excited, which he was every time he spotted one of us, even if we kept him in his cage. I might not have mentioned that tidbit of information to the loving family. Maybe they are not quite so loving anymore.

So I'm not the best person to ask when it comes to the very important question on how to best get your pet from the United States - or pretty much anywhere else - to South Africa. And yet it crops up every so often on my blog and elsewhere, so that I wanted to provide some answers.

I decided to ask a few friends and fellow expats their advice.

I got a lot of responses. A ton of responses! I think I got more responses than on any other topic combined in the history of my blog. Pets, it seems, are dear to the expat's heart, possibly dearer than her children. Every expat I know seems to have brought a pet with them. And every one of them has a story to tell. (And, I might add, every one of them seems to have jeopardized their retirement nest egg by paying for Fido's travels.)

I decided to go ahead and collect the relevant excerpts from all these stories and print them here for you. Maybe hearing personal accounts (and hopefully some success stories) is what people appreciate most. Or maybe I just didn't feel like wading through all the information and shortening it into a reasonably sized blog post.

Darlene wrote:
"We brought our two dachshunds in March when we moved to Joburg from NJ. We hired a pet relocation company to help with all the paperwork and processes. It is a very expensive proposition. It went very smoothly but I do not know if it would be worth it for a short term move." 

Also check out Darlene's entertaining blog post about her dogs Lou and Serge's experience.

Beth said:
"$5k EACH direction....and then inevitably when they travel, they must pay to kennel. Most relocation services fly them through Amsterdam. For an added fee, you can have them groomed and cleaned before arriving to your home. I love a spa day right after that trip, so I'm sure dogs do too."
Hmmm. If I did survive getting a dog without Noisette killing me and I did convince him that the dog must now be relocated for a small fortune, I know for certain that he would belatedly kill me when finding out I had splurged for a dog spa day to make little Fufu feel better after his flight.

"It's complicated! And expensive. It cost more for us to bring our dog than our three kids combined. The required tests cost about $1200, the flight from MIA to DC was $300, then DC to Joburg was about $800. Also, you have to send or take paperwork to a USDA Office. SAA is the only carrier allowed to bring dogs in and the dog has to be examined by a state vet so you have to watch the timing of the flight arrival -- if its after 4:00, SARS wont be open to sign off nor will the vet be able to see the dog. It's also traumatic -- our dog has never quite been the same. Personally, if its only for 18 months, I'd try to find a nice friend or relative to take care of their dog."

"I agree with Stephanie, very expensive for a short term assignment and preferable to find someone to take care of your pet. If you do decide to bring your pet, our research found that if your pet arrived in Joburg by Tuesday, goes straight to quarantine, the state vet only takes blood for tests on Wednesday and if all clear they can be out of quarantine by Friday or you have to wait for the next Wednesday. To return to USA, there are a few pet relocators in Joburg. The one we liked the best was Aeropets. Mikki and her colleagues were very helpful and gave us lots of information."

"We brought our West Highland Terrier, Chipper, to Johannesburg in 2010. We used Animal Land Pet Movers. They have 6 offices worldwide - Atlanta, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Hong Kong and Johannesburg! Chipper flew from Charlotte to Atlanta (where he was met by an employee of Animal Land Pet Movers). He played in the office that day before his evening flight to Amsterdam (where there is a dog hotel) and then he made his way to Johannesburg. I loved working with Animal Land Pet Movers. I handled the shots and some paperwork but they booked the flight and sent me all of the necessary documents that Chipper needed. They walked me through everything. I would not attempt to move a pet to South Africa without the use of a company. Animal Land Pet Movers was able to secure all of the paperwork from the Dept. of Agriculture on the SA side. I can't even imagine trying to do that from the US. You definitely need someone on the ground in SA helping you. It was the best decision we ever made to bring him along. He was great company for the boys when we first got here. No funny story or harrowing experience - other than my dog has been to Amsterdam and we still have not made it there!

This picture was taken right before we handed him over in the US.  Inside his crate were 2 water bowls attached to the front gate with frozen water in them, a blanket that he slept on every night, a t-shirt of one of the boys and a Dry Fur Pad to absorb anything. When Chipper got to Amsterdam anything that was soiled was thrown out and replaced with dry newspaper. Chipper came through all the way to Johannesburg with flying colors and was delivered straight to our house!

Kathryn (who still had the paperwork from her move in 2011) wrote:
"YIKES - Was it ever expensive! Two years ago it cost US$3,250 with Air Animal Pet Movers. I recall having to get a vet to examine and fill out a bunch of forms but the Air Animal people supplied all that. The vet in our area was very familiar with the process because a lot of people move overseas with our employer. I can recommend asking for a vet with some knowledge of the process."

"Not sure if you have already discovered this one, but the size of the dog crate vs the size of the airplane cargo hatch is a potential gotcha that was a surprise to me. My bigger dog was only around 65 lbs, and for the crate that met the airline requirements there was only one Delta airlines flight per week from Kansas City to Atlanta that had a big enough door. I am not making this up. Delta Airlines was very helpful at providing the information when I was working out the booking arrangements, but it did change my overall plan by a couple of days. For people that live in a smaller city with fewer flights or only smaller flights this could be a problem."

Andy (who is a South African veterinarian) had good advice on relocating pets to other countries from South Africa:
"In general the most important thing when traveling with pets is to make sure all vaccinations are up to date. Especially rabies. All animals must also be microchipped. Health certificates are usually issued by the vet at least 10 days before travelling (each country has different times) and then the forms are issued to the state vet who has to sign it off.

Going to most of the EU countries requires an up to date rabies, microchip and then rabies antibody titre blood tests. If this is all in order they have to wait 3 months and then can travel. No quarantining is needed. If vaccines are not up to date then they have to be given the rabies vaccine and then wait one month and then bloods drawn and then the 3 month wait as normal. If no microchip is done or their bloods are below required levels, the whole process has to be repeated.

Going to Australia requires 7 months quarantine. There are 3 quarantine stations in JHB. Keringa Kennels and Paws Resort are the two best although the latter is much friendlier with no bookings for visiting hours. At least 30 days of the quarantine needs to be done in Australia. Their facilities are small and quite poor. They have stations in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. VERY EXPENSIVE too. The flight to Melbourne is long and via Dubai and the pets are left in crates for up to two days. The quarantine stations in SA are amazing and will do all the paperwork for you, including permits, making correct size crates for pets, etc. There quotes are competitive but as you can imagine the overall cost can become prohibitive. All sorts of blood work is done at the stations and microchipping is also needed. If your pet is older than 8 years of age, some blood and urine work is needed before kenneling.

Going to New Zealand requires only 3 months quarantine, also at the above kennels. Their blood work is more extensive but will be covered by staff.

Going to USA or Canada is the simplest. I think it is just a matter of getting on a plane with valid vaccines and microchip.

All in all the valid rabies vaccine and the microchip are the most important things to have at hand to make the movement speedy."

I also contacted several pet relocation services to see if they could quote me a price for the purposes of this blogpost. Only one of them answered - Aeropets - and quoted me ZAR3,675 for my fictitious dog.

Here is what Vernon from Aeropets had to say:

Please find attached herewith our quotation to “import” your dog into South Africa, as well as the South African Health Clearance Certificate which must be completed by your local vet and endorsed by the state vet. Please note that the Health Certificate is only valid for 10 days. Unfortunately this does not include ticket and freight costs. The quote I have sent you is just to bring your pet into South Africa. With pets the ticket bookings and freight arrangements have to be originated at source. I would suggest you contact www.PetRelocation.com to assist you with the export part.

No quarantine for pets from the USA
Vaccination booklet showing that the last rabies inoculation is not older than 1 year but not less than 30 days at time of travel
Health Clearance Certificate
State vet endorsement
Import permit

I hope all of this has been helpful. As you can see, moving your pet to South Africa (and elsewhere) is not really a problem, but it requires a good amount of legwork, not to mention a stately amount of cash. The better you're prepared and do your research, the better you can keep your costs down. Make sure you study the insert above right and read Moving to South Africa with your Pet if you want to do it on your own. But hiring a pet relocation agency might give you more peace of mind.

Pet relocation agencies:

Thanks again to all my friends who so graciously contributed to this article!

October 23, 2013

The Big Dream: A Theater for Alexandra

Alexandra, if you'll remember, is the place I was warned to never set foot in. "Don't ever take this exit," were pretty much the first words of Noisette's driver G to us when we first arrived in Johanneburg and he was driving us to our new home from the airport. 

As you'll also remember, I totally ignored G's advice. Mainly because I hate when people tell me what I can't do. But that didn't keep me from being scared to death when I did make that first foray into Johannesburg's oldest and most notorious township. It did indeed look totally scary. A shantytown, crisscrossed by narrow winding alleys, building rubble piled up on corners, washing hanging on lines in grassless back yards, barefoot children scampering in the dust among a few goats, shady characters milling about and staring at me and, I imagined, my shiny car in a malevolent and greedy manner. 

Fast forward to three years later, and I'm now bringing you a story about a theater production in Alexandra. Yes, theater, of all things. Something you associate with culture and education and leisure - all attributes that don't usually make a place like Alexandra pop into your mind. 

From "Paradise Lost," a Ntshieng Mokgoro production. Photo by Manuela Accarpio.
"Paradise Lost." Photo by Manuela Accarpio

The thing is, Alexandra hasn't really changed in three years. It has just changed in my perception. It's amazing how powerfully your preconceptions can alter what you think of as reality. What looked scary that first day became vibrant. What looked disorderly became lovable. What looked shady became interesting. And what looked malevolent became welcoming.

Of course Alexandra, viewed through my newfound perception, would be the perfect place for theater. Would hunger for it, actually. As fellow blogger 2Summers has pointed out (and where I first read about this story), it is a community of about 180,000 people, squeezed into an impossibly small area right next to one of Johannesburg's richest suburbs, and it has been around for almost exactly 100 years. It has history and traditions. It has people with enormous talent and ambition who have stories to tell. Amazing stories and sad stories and terrifying stories, because real life in a township supplies an abundance of them.

One such person with talent and a story to tell is Ntshieng Mokgoro, founder of Olive Tree Theatre
Production. In 2009, Ntshieng was the first black woman to win the Standard Bank Young Artists Award for Drama and she now organizes theater workshops for women in Alexandra. Her idea is that theater can do great things - help people to feel better, save hearts from dryness,tell stories that can incrementally change our world, or our perspective at least. One thing that sets Ntshieng apart is that she prefers to complete a play with the insights and experiences of the audience so that the play "becomes a living, breathing, evolving piece." I wish I could see this. To me, this is the essence of Africa. The idea of people being in it together, the spirit of Ubuntu, the meshing of an individual's ambition with the community and them feeding off of each other. When Ntshieng received her drama award, she said: "The award belongs to the community, it is just that it is through me." What amazing grace and wisdom for this child of Alexandra.

Ntshieng Mokgoro. Photo by Manuela Accarpio

I came across Ntshieng's story via a fellow expat, Manuela Accarpio. Much like I discovered Alexandra Baseball while more or less aimlessly surfing the web, Manuela was looking for events to participate in that celebrated Alexandra's centenary last year, but she didn't find much. "Alex always seems to me to be the forgotten township," she told me. "Most South Africans had no idea Alex was 100." Luckily she did eventually find an article about Ntshieng and, on a whim, decided to call her. Moved by her story, she set out to meet her in person and, on another whim, invited her neighbor Kerryn Irvin to come along. A mutual relationship evolved, and with Kerryn's help Olive Tree Theatre Prodcuction became an NGO - no small feat, I can assure you, having tried and failed to guide my baseball club through the same exasperating procedure fraught with the worst of South African bureaucracy. They started thinking about a Womens Theatre Festival to give new emerging female South African directors a chance to show their plays, and this festival became reality and is happening this coming weekend! It's from October 25-27 in the Yarona Building near the Pan African Shopping Mall (a building I have often used as landmark when meeting up with my friends in Alex because, as they'll readily tell you, I never quite learned to navigate it on my own) and tickets can be purchased for R60 at the door. More details here.

If this sounds pretty professional to you, it should. It's amazing what these women have put together by the sheer force of their will. And yet, as you can imagine, it has been an uphill struggle, and still is. For instance, the one thing Alexandra doesn't have is a proper theater. In terms of an actual building that people can go to and purchase tickets for sale at a ticket window. That has a stage with a curtain and seats for the audience and restrooms and such basic things you take for granted having grown up in the lap of luxury. Or what seems like the lap of luxury to an Alexandra resident when really it was just an average middle class upbringing in a Western country. 

Kerryn and Ntshieng at a recent rehearsal. Photo by Manuela Accarpio

The good news is, good theater doesn't need a fancy building. All it needs is people who have a story to tell. "There might not be a building," says Manuela. "But there is theater. Theater can be anyplace where there is an actor and an audience, even in a soap shop!" Indeed, that is where Ntshieng and the other women have been rehearsing, squeezed between floor polish and household cleaner and pausing every time a customer comes in to buy something.

I hope you can make time this weekend to go and see what has sprung up from the confines of a soap shop and the mind of an amazing woman. I promise you that you'll be entertained and moved, and in addition you'll be helping a dream come true. Ntshieng's and Kerryn's and Manuela's big dream of a theater, a proper theater as I just described it. A theater for Alex, for the entire community. 

If you help spread this story far and wide, I'm sure this dream will come true one day. 


"I love theater. I live for theater. This is my passion." Watch this interview of Ntshieng Mokgoro and let yourself be inspired by her story:

October 21, 2013

Safari Lite: Cradle Nature Walk

This is almost ancient history, but I have a story to tell about one of Johannesburg's lesser-known attractions.

It was during those last frantic days of my life in South Africa at the end of last year. I was trying to soak up as much of Africa as I could, revisiting the places I knew I'd miss, giving last tips to all the parking guards I'd come to know so well, buying up every piece of craft I laid my eyes on, and organizing what seemed like one good-bye party after another. As you might imagine, I was a bit harried, what with having to also organize the packing up of our house, picking up medical records all over town, and selling my car - all without a husband who typically abandons me at times like these claiming to be working his new job when we all know he just wants to escape the mayhem.

In any case, I was thrilled when my good friend Dory - you might remember her from my Kilimanjaro Diaries, and I'd also like to give her credit for some of the pictures in this post - informed me that she had organized an outing with friends for me. She didn't tell me anything else, except to bring good shoes, a camera, and an appetite. That sounded just like the kind of enjoyable day that I sorely needed to take a break from everything, and I was thoroughly looking forward to it. Although I did harbor a sliver of worry in the recesses of my brain, because the last time Dory had talked me into something I ended up in a 97 km bike race that left me wishing for a butt transplant afterwards.

The day came, and I was picked up at my house on a bright sunny morning - nothing unusual in Johannesburg where all mornings are sunny and bright. We made the rounds to collect a few more friends and off I was chauffeured across the beautiful countryside adjoining Joburg's Northern suburbs, the same countryside I had ridden through training for that cursed bike race with Dory Sunday after Sunday a few weeks prior.

Our destination was Cradle Nature Reserve. Joburgers might know it's there, but I had never heard of it, even though it wasn't much more than half an hour from our house. The thing is, there is a lot of stuff out there. What's known as the Cradle of Humankind is brimming with hotels, inns, restaurants, B&Bs, and small safari parks, all set in the most picturesque landscape you can imagine. If it was somewhere in the middle of nowhere I'm sure people would travel very far to see its beauty, but sitting right next to Johannesburg and Pretoria, that whole area has an almost neglected feel to it. Though it does seem to be the number one destination for the wedding industry.

Getting ready for our hike in front of Cradle Restaurant - you can see a glimpse of the
 view through the door in the background.

What's nice about the Cradle Nature Reserve is that you can do walking safaris there. No noisy game drive vehicles, no instructions to keep windows rolled up at all costs - just nature pure on a beautiful day far from the hustle and exhaust fumes of Johannesburg.

Upon arrival we were met by Vic, who was going to be our guide for the day. At first I was a bit put off by his detailed instructions about everything and repeated questions if we thought we'd be okay - he must have regarded our group of five women as some sissies from the big city who couldn't be trusted to put a foot in front of the other, and I had to resist the urge to tell him that Dory and I had just come back from a week of climbing Africa's highest mountain - but I did warm up to him as he got on with his tour and showed us all sorts of interesting things.

Vic inducting us into the vagaries of a nature walk

Here is some of what we learned that day:

The cabbage or Kiepersol tree (Cussonia) belongs to the larger family that also includes Ginseng and ivy and is related to such common herbs as parsley. It has many uses, from its edible leaves to treat indigestion to its soft wood reportedly used to make brake blocks for ox wagons, as well as its succulent roots that may or may not work to treat malaria.

I didn't take a picture of the cabbage tree but these are some of the blue wildebeest we saw

The rocky ground in the area consists of a lot of dolomite which is a very good conductor of lightning. Not too long before our walk, Vic told us, several dead rhino were found in the spot we were standing on that moment, including a young. "You're going to like this story," Vic said. I had trouble imagining how yet another dead rhino story was going to be likable in any way, and it really wasn't. It's just that the only explanation they came up with afterwards, seeing as the rhinos were completely unblemished, was that they were struck by lightning all at once. I guess them dying without any of the agony and bleeding and starving rhinos are usually exposed to when their horns are cut off was a bright spot in an otherwise harrowing African saga of death and despair.

This is what I mean about the beautiful countryside so close to a big city

Great to be out and about with good friends

Black jack (Bidens pilosa) is a ground covering herb that is useful as a natural insect repellent. Apparently it is also used to treat malaria (which, I can't help but think, you wouldn't have gotten if the insect repellent part had worked better).

Black jack

The thorn of another plant, the looks and name of which I promptly forgot, lends itself superbly as a natural-grown toothpick, the veracity of which I proceeded to confirm by giving my teeth a thorough cleaning during the rest of our walk.

Dental hygiene in the bush

The bark of the white stinkwood (Celtis) tree often plays host to the larvae of the Celtis leaf beetle, which show ups as large and rather creepy looking black patterns on the tree trunk. I think there was also a story about those patches always being on a certain side of the tree so that you could potentially use them to navigate should you have gotten lost and forgotten your iPhone at home, but I admit I do not remember the specifics. I was probably checking my iPhone at the time.

Yep, there it is, checking the iPhone. Shame on me!

The blue wildebeests we saw were not indigenous to South Africa. But like all wildebeests they were walking while nodding their heads, and the reason for this is that they are trying to get rid of the blowflies in their nasal cavities.

Ugh. I'll take leaf beetle larvae over blowflies any day, because I once read a murder mystery featuring Edgar Allan Poe and blowflies that could kill and then eat people. Just the kind of thing you'd connect with Edgar Allan Poe, in my opinion. It was just a book of fiction but it didn't leave me very kindly disposed towards blowflies.

Celtis leaf beetle larvae on a white stinkwood tree

Impala antelopes can delay their fetus from growing for up to three months if there is no rain to sustain the herd. Livingstone eland - which are the largest antelopes to be found in Africa - can't delay the fetus for three months but instead hide their newborns for three months from everybody else, even other eland. Waterbuck - the ones with the toilet-seat shaped marks on their backsides - taste bad and are therefore left alone by crocodiles, which is a good thing because they live so close to the water that they'd be in serious trouble otherwise. Which brings me to crocodiles, who we were surprised to learn - beyond the fact that they are picky eaters, that is - lay their eggs into the sandbank above the river, and if the temperature is above 24 degrees the babies turn into males, whereas anything below that makes them female.

Huh! I'm sure all of this will come in handy some day when playing a trivia game with friends and I can blurt out all these obscure facts I learned from African game rangers in the course of three years.

The best picture I could get of the eland

The best part of the day, of course, was a fabulous lunch afterwards back at the lodge and restaurant. Its terrace can easily boast one of the best views in Johannesburg, and the food was excellent. Thanks to Dory and my other friends once again for treating me to such a special day!

Oh, and no complaints from any body parts afterwards, especially not my tender backside.

More Information:

Cradle Nature Reserve
Kromdraai Rd
011 659 1622
Hours: 8am-10pm
Chalets available for rent

Nearby attractions: Maropeng Visitor Centre and Sterkfontein Caves, Balloon Safari

This article is part of Joburg Expat's What to do in Joburg series. You might also like:

October 17, 2013

10 Things all Expats Should Know about Moving

Moving is hard. Moving abroad sounds even harder. But with the right point of view it doesn't have to be quite as hard as you think. If we can't change reality, we can change our thoughts about it. Here, then, are some of these thoughts when it comes to moving your family to distant shores:

  1. It takes time. 
    You're really not at home in a new place until you've hung your pictures. And found an orthodontist. And made your first friends. And accidentally wrecked the trailer of the one friend you've barely just met. All of which might very well take the better part of a year, so give it some time.

  2. It gets worse before it gets better.
    Change is hard and unsettling. When I look back on our previous moves, they had some low points that I don't want to relive. Not necessarily right as we were setting out or even right as we got there, but more like three or four weeks into our new lives, when the full force of how everything has changed hits you and leaves you depressed. But more often than not there are great things waiting for you on the other side, if you can only drag yourself there. Usually that requires keeping an open mind. In all our moves (seven of them, I just counted) we always felt very fortunate to get to live in the places we moved to, once we had actually lived there. The price we had to pay for it was having to leave it all behind. I still say it was worth it every time. 

  3. Keep your notes.
    As I said, I've done this seven times. I've written seven lists, and I've thrown out all seven. Because there is nothing more gratifying when you finally get settled in a new place than throwing out that vile to-do list you've come to hate so much, but which of course has all the valuable reminders on it that might come in handy next time. Which is why I've now published the mother of all moving checklists on my blog, so that I will forever have my notes with me.

  4. The mechanics of moving abroad gets easier with practice, but not the heartbreak.
    Don't expect it to get any easier just because you've done it before. No move is really the same as the last one, and even if you arm yourself with a handy-dandy list and become a ticking-off-boxes dynamo, you cannot really arm yourself against the heartbreak of leaving a home and friends behind. All you can do is remember that these friends you are now leaving were once the friends you still didn't know while grieving for the previous group, and that surely a future group of friends is waiting for you already if you are willing to turn your eyes forward.

  5. Focus on the good parts.
    There is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Each country has some great things going for it, and some pretty bad things too. And it is totally within your power to decide which of these you're going to focus on. Let me tell you, training your mind to focus on the good ones will make you a happier person. Marvel at those, and enjoy them. Should you be moving to South Africa, you probably shouldn't focus on crime or bureaucracy, but stick to the great weather, travel, domestic help, sunrises, full-service gas stations, fresh mangoes and Cape berries, and the smiling people. 

  6. Just one of the great things South Africa has going for it.

  7. Even the bad parts can have their charm.
  8. I reflected on this phenomenon when writing a previous post, How to Be a Successful Expat. So you've been a good expat and focused on the good parts, and you've resisted all attempts to dwell on any inefficiencies in your host country. But now you're moving away. All of a sudden, the idea that someone will actually call you back when they tell you to; that all the traffic lights are working at any given time; that your trash always disappears according to a well-oiled pickup schedule; and that you never once have to fret over having to cook your dinner without power and/or water - all these scenarios now become so immensely desirable in your mind that when you finally get to a place where they play out just like you imagined, you are inevitably disappointed. "That's all there is to this?" you might ask. It's one of the great lessons of expat life. There is only a very thin line between bad and charming.

  9. The kids are resilient.
    Most of us expats spend inordinate amounts of time worrying over the well-being of our children, wondering if we've made the right school choice and how traumatic a move might be at this particular point in their lives. And then we're surprised that it is our children who can teach us a thing or two about embracing change. Maybe this is true precisely because children have an innate ability to take life as it is and focus on the good parts. They are better than us at seeing the potential, the excitement of the new, making friends, and not mourning the past. Although they don't talk about their emotions as much, so it's sometimes hard to tell. I'm sure they do go through a grieving process like everyone else, often without us knowing. But as they usually aren't the ones making the decisions, they spend a hell of a lot less time second-guessing themselves.In the end, having learned and lived abroad is a huge bonus in any child's life. Just don't expect them to thank you for it right as you announce the next move to them.

  10. Write about it.
    I can trace my obsession with writing back to our first expat assignment in Singapore. There were so many things baffling me day to day that I felt compelled to literally write home about it. Not only will a written record of your adventures abroad make you happy one day in the distant future, the process of writing also goes a long way towards healing. If moving is hard, then writing about it makes it better. No wonder there are so many expat blogs out there. A blog to an expat is like the jelly on a peanut butter sandwich. And there is another benefit to starting a blog: it will force you, or at least nudge you, to go out and explore your new world, so that you can report about it to your readers. Even if your readers are two sets of grandparents and a handful of aunts and uncles. Which gets me to the next point:

  11. Do lots of stuff and go exploring.
    When you've just moved, you have a strong urge to get your house in order and discard all those annoying boxes. Your instinct is to burrow down and peck away at it like a maniac and only emerge to the light of day when it is finally done. At least that's usually me. Unfortunately, my kids do not share even a shred of my sense of order. They happily wade through a sea of clothes and toys on their way to bed every night, and even if I pile folded laundry knee-high in their doorway in hopes that they might in fact take note and put it away in their closets, they will find a way to carefully step over it for weeks. And they will come to resent your constant pleas for order and will bluntly tell you that "if you hadn't made us move, we wouldn't have to clean it all up now." You can't deny a certain logic in this argument. Rather than make everybody angry, it's much better to go out and explore and let the kids see what's on offer and feel like life in your new place is exciting. Even if it may sometimes be the last thing you want to do. Some of your best memories will come from those first few outings. 

  12. Go exploring with your kids.

  13. Invite people over for dinner. Instead of waiting for others to welcome you to the neighborhood or taking their friendly utterances of "We should have dinner sometime" as an excuse to wait for an invitation, you should be the one doing the inviting. There is no quicker way to get to know people than inviting them into your home. And there is no quicker way to making friends than being able to "select" them from the pool of people you've gotten to know, even if that sounds callous. And there is no quicker way to be happy in a new place than to finding friends. The only problem with this strategy is that you do indeed have to somewhat clean up your act and make your home presentable, lest your potential new friends turn away in disgust. You'll somehow have to balance number 9 with number 10. It helps when you move to a country with abundant domestic help. If not, you'll have to do like I did and pull a couple of midnight shifts sorting your stuff and tell yourself that you can always sleep another time. Or, even better, don't have so much stuff in the first place. Which gets me to gratuitous point number 11:

  14. Reduce your baggage.
    As I said previously in Seven Times and Counting, maybe the most important skill in life is to learn how to get rid of all the baggage you accumulate over the years so that you can get back to that spring in your step from your youth. Sometimes it seems to me that I spent the first half of my life accumulating stuff and that I'm busy spending the second part getting rid of it all again. The older I get, the more it seems like the days when I had nothing were the happiest of all. 

What are your words of expat wisdom?

October 13, 2013

South Africa: All You Need to Know about Banking, Shopping, Healthcare, and More

One of the motivations for starting Joburg Expat was that I wanted to help those of you who came behind me with the long and often complicated process of settling in. I wanted to answer all of your questions and spare you some of the inefficiencies I had to endure. 
In the end, my blog took on a life of its own and veered more towards the hilarious recounting of my day-to-day adventures, the almost philosophical reflections about South Africa and its people and life in general, especially as a parent, and a whole host of other stuff that popped into my head. Especially when it came to toilet humor. As a result, even though I've tried to keep it organized, the basic how-to aspect might have gotten lost at times. Whether you're in the process of planning an expat assignment in South Africa or have just landed with 20 bags, 3 kids, and a dog, you probably have a million specific questions about the things that need to be done in the next few months.
The good news is, I've been answering precisely those questions in a series of articles I wrote for Expat Quotes, a website focused on services for expats around the world. It covers a wide range of countries and topics, allowing you to easily find what you need to know. Below I've listed excerpts from my most recent Expat Quotes contributions including links to the full articles. I hope you find them useful.

Opening a Bank Account
It is a question many an expat has asked when moving to a new country. Do I have to open a new bank account or can I somehow manage with the one I have in my home country?
To some extent, the answer will depend on how you receive your income. Some multinational companies pay their employees entirely in their home countries, some companies pay everything in the host country’s currency, and some allow you to divide up your income between both according to an agreed-upon ratioRead more...
Standard Bank Internet Banking

To the surprise of many newly arrived visitors and expats, South Africa is a very Westernized country - at least on the surface. This will become evident when you turn your attention to (almost) the first task at hand upon arrival - shopping. Most likely you will find yourself with rather more choices than you bargained for. Read more...

Most South Africans consider their public healthcare system a disgrace. In theory, everyone has access to state hospitals and health centers for emergencies and routine doctor’s visits as well as the dispensation of medicine, all for free or a relatively small fee. But due to understaffing, a shortage of skills, a lack of supplies, and frequent strikes, service is often bad and unreliable. Read more...

Going to the Doctor 
Unlike the majority of South Africans, most expats living in South Africa are fortunate enough to be able to afford private healthcare. This means you are more or less free to select your doctor of choice. Read more...

Choosing the Right School
Many expats automatically look at enrolling their children in an international school, because that is the thing expats do. But South Africa also has a number of excellent private schools on offer that are well worth looking into. Which school you end up choosing for your child in South Africa will depend on several factors. Read more...

International & Private Schools in South Africa
Below you will find a list of the most popular schools for expat children in South Africa, giving you a brief description of each school, contact details, and tuition rates. Unless otherwise noted, each school offers a K-12 education, culminating either in an International Baccalaureate, a South African matriculation, or another high school diploma based on which country's curriculum that specific school follows. A few schools offer bilingual education but at most schools the language of instruction is English.

I hope you have found some answers to your questions. There is more on the Expat Quotes website and I hope you'll explore it further. I've also written similar how-to articles for the websites Expat Arrivals and Expatica. Good luck with your expat assignment!

October 9, 2013

Seven Times... And Counting?

When a friend recently stressed out over a looming relocation, I wanted to offer some comfort. "Trust me," I said, "it just takes a little bit of time and you'll feel better. I know, because I've done this a few times."

And then I asked myself the obvious question: how many times?

I came up with seven, even though in my mind it seemed like it should be even more. Number One was my move from Germany to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1991, traveling with all my earthly possessions, which were one suitcase and one bicycle. I was actually going to move to Charlottesville, Virginia, just two weeks earlier, but some maneuvering by my then boyfriend and now husband had me end up at UNC instead of UVA, and we ended up staying in North Carolina through a business school graduation, a wedding, a honeymoon, a new job, the purchase of our first house, and the birth of our first child.

Number Two was when we packed up all our belongings, which by then had grown to take up two thirds of a forty-foot container, as well as our one-year old son, and moved everything to Singapore. The added "hardship" in that case was having to sell a house (and a boat), which we'd never done before, and being dropped into a country we had never even seen. Also, having to push a baby stroller around and convincing taxi drivers to stop for a woman with stroller. And then understanding the taxi driver grumbling in a totally foreign language called Singlish.

The excitement of moving when you're young (1997)

All packed up and ready to be shipped to Singapore (1997)

You'd think Number Three would have been straightforward as it was the same in reverse, going back to Raleigh, North Carolina, but by then our container was pretty much full of stuff and we had grown to a family of four, with a fifth member on the way. Maybe moving during Y2K (you guys actually remember that?) was a bad omen. Our computers came through fine, but my kidneys almost didn't. I'm just glad I survived a bad bout of the flu on some godforsaken island in the Maldives where you had to take a boat to see a doctor. I've never since then been able to look at pictures of the Maldives and think paradise. Hell, more likely.

Number Four started a trend of smaller hops for our family which by this time had grown to six. Smaller in distance, but not in spirit. Going from North Carolina to Waukesha, Wisconsin, feels like going from the tropics to Antarctica. Except our Antarctica featured really nice neighbors, you do have to give Wisconsin that. Nevertheless, Number Five had us fleeing after just a year to settle in the center of the Universe, pardon me, the United States. Overland Park, Kansas, is about as landlocked as you can get, but they pair this with a dusty wind, a handful of tornadoes and a few blizzards just to brighten up your day. Good thing there were some nice neighbors there too.

Mental note: Don't move during a Kansas winter (2010)

Number Six was another biggie, sending us to the most dangerous place on Earth aka Johannesburg, South Africa, if you were to believe everything you read online. Which was just as well because we figured in Singapore we'd already lived in the safest. Our container, by the way, at this time still somehow held most of our belongings without bursting out of its seams, although we did have to leave some stuff behind. Which weighed not nearly as heavy as what we left behind three years later when Number Seven, moving back to the States, came up. That would be our hearts. They've somewhat mended again here in Brentwood, Tennessee, which is a lovely place, but it just goes to show that it doesn't get any easier the more often you do it. That last move might actually have been our hardest yet.

Packing up in South Africa (2012)

Arriving in Tennessee (2013)

Conversely, the first move was probably the easiest. Perhaps that's because we look back into the past with rose-tinted glasses. Or perhaps because back then we were young and nothing was hard. Or perhaps because you literally traveled with less baggage. Maybe the most important skill in life is to learn how to get rid of all the baggage you accumulate over the years so that you can get back to that spring in your step from your youth.

You really do get tired of all the packing and unpacking, but who knows, maybe one day we'll hit the big "Surprise Me" button again and move to distant shores.

October 1, 2013

The South African Teenager vs the American Teenager

Not much in today's world is more universally reviled or at least complained about. Almost everyone who has one usually agrees that they are a pain. It's the one topic Bashar al-Assad and President Obama would likely find much in common about. Even though Assad doesn't quite have one yet.

I'm talking about teenagers of course.

Which is why I recently wrote Ode to Teenagers, just to buck the trend. And while I was writing it, it occurred to me that there are some small but meaningful differences between South African teenagers and American ones, so I thought I"d try to highlight them in another USA vs SA standoff (see USA versus South Africa for a quality of life comparison, and South African House versus American House for a bit of silliness). Just to preempt any howls of protest, please know that I'm mostly comparing white privileged suburban teenagers, because that's the world I live in.

People in the American South are often lauded for their friendliness. And it's true, compared to most of the rest of the world, Americans, and especially those of Southern heritage, are very friendly and polite. And kids are generally also raised to be polite and respectful of their elders. There is nothing like returning form a trip to continental Europe (where "please" and "thank you" are entirely optional and "queuing" is a quaint concept you've once heard about in English class) to remind you of this truth. But nothing, in my mind, compares to the South African private-school bred teenager (the promoters of the Johannesburg's Rand Club might get a secret thrill from the fact that I used the word "bred" here).

While at times the American politeness I see here in some teenagers can come across as a bit stilted if not to say phony, there is almost never anything phony in the way South African teenagers interact with adults. It's perhaps a remnant of that English boarding school aura of rules and respect. Or the habit of Afrikaans-speaking kids to call their elders Oom and Tannie (uncle and aunt). Or based on old African tribal traditions. Probably it's a combination of all three. I've had South African boys lift their hats to me in greeting. Hats! When I had delivered one of my batches of baseball equipment to the Alexandra kids sometime in 2011, they surprised me by stepping forward, one by one, and delivering speeches of thanks. Speeches! I don't think I was a particularly rebellious kid, but I would have rather died than giving a speech to an adult when I was that age. Edge: South Africa.

This is going to be a tricky one. In some ways, American teenagers are not independent at all. Their hands are held pretty much all the way from Kindergarten to high school graduation. Their parents sign them up for things, and then they proceed to drive them to the things they signed them up for. The word "playdate" is mainly an American invention. Their days are long and structured. At school, teachers tell them exactly what is going to be on the test, and hand out study guides with practice questions. They also tell them exactly which notebook they have to use, what color it should be, if the lines in it should be wide or college ruled, and what, precisely, to write into it every day. South African high school and even elementary school students, in comparison, are pretty much left to their own devices. They sign themselves into extracurricular activities and they choose the method of note-taking they bloody well like, including none at all. How they prepare for an exam is their own choice. Except the one choice all American kids are given in abundance, which is multiple choice. South African teenagers don't have that choice, mostly.

I mentioned being driven around: Of course this drastically changes by the time American teenagers reach the ages of 15 or 16 (or in some states 17) when all of a sudden they're let loose on the world (after first being let loose on their poor mothers) as newly-minted drivers. Driving their own car and the responsibility that comes with it is certainly a big step towards independence. But really what it is is a huge privilege. You don't see American teenagers riding their bikes to school very often, especially not on open roads. If they were truly hankering for independence, especially those who couldn't afford a car, wouldn't they hop on their bikes or even walk rather than be ferried to their doorstep via bus? In South Africa, underprivileged kids who are so lucky to receive a scholarship to a private school are often seen navigating the treacherous roads in even more treacherous minibus taxis, often leaving their homes before 5 am and returning after dark. Mainly because they have no choice. Nothing like necessity to foster early independence.

Independence: A teenager's first car

At age 13, a lot of South African kids (boys more so than girls), at least those born into privilege, are sent to boarding schools, often those of their fathers and mothers, and often far away. It's not like that really gives you a lot of independence, because at boarding school any minute of your life is pretty much regulated, but it pretty much puts a stop to your parents middling in your life. Goodbye helicopter mom!

The one thing South African teenagers pretty much don't experience (again, just speaking about the ones growing up in financially secure environments) is work. As in a job. It's not so much because they don't want to work, but because of the dismal state of education and unemployment. All the unskilled or low-skilled jobs teenagers typically perform in the United States like wiping tables or manning fast-food joints or even babysitting are sorely needed for the scores of unskilled and low-skilled South Africans desperate for even the lowest income, and strong affirmative action legislation makes it pretty much impossible for a white kid to get a job. There are lots of outreach opportunities in surrounding townships, and plenty of South African teenagers work very hard at those, but they don't get to experience making money. Or paying taxes. Which, to the shock of one particular American teenager I won't mention here, are actually deducted from your paycheck, even if you're still a kid. Edge: Undecided.

Neatness: You would think that having a maid pick up after you from the day you were born makes you a total slob. But curiously, there may be evidence to the contrary. I've spoken with several South African mothers with older children, and the consensus seems to be that those kids who've never known anything but a very tidy room actually grow so fond of that status quo that once they live on their own they magically do learn to tidy up and keep a clean house. But that's mostly after they're teenagers. While they are teenagers, all teenagers are slobs. I do know, using a sample size of three teenagers, that they have been slobs in either place. It's just that here in the U.S. it is visible because this maid, yours truly, doesn't do a very good job of picking up after them. Edge: Even.

Knowledge of other places: I've never met anyone anywhere who was less informed about the rest of the world or even their own country than the average American teenager. The only person who typically knows even less than the average American teenager is the average American adult. Especially those adults participating in "Are you smarter than a fifth grader," of which for some reason we were just watching all the reruns.
The typical conversation my kids have had to endure here goes like this:
"OMG you sound funny, where do you come from?"
"South Africa."
"Which country in South Africa?"
"South Africa IS a country."
"Oh... Can you say something in African?"
Edge: The rest of the world over USA.

Self confidence: I've also never met anyone quite so able to confidently talk (and as a result promote themselves) as the average American teenager, even if they don't know squat. Don't underestimate the power of talking a good game. And being able to speak truth to power. When we first got to South Africa, one of our kids got into some hot water for "talking back to the teacher." Turns out the teacher had insisted that the USA had 52 states, not 50. How many states the United States has is pretty much the ONE thing your typical American teenager DOES know. And he will not shy away from telling his teacher. Even if the teacher then tells him he is the most arrogant boy he's ever met in his whole life. Edge: USA.

Passport endowment: The average American teenager has zero passports. Because he hasn't actually ever left the country. He thinks he's left the country, but that was a trip to Hawaii. Which if you remember is one of the 50 states. Or 52. Whatever. Whereas the average South African teenager has three passports and counting. Not that he could ever live anywhere but South Africa. Because he really doesn't want to clean up after himself. But ever since birth his parents have spent every spare minute of their lives to find some old Irish great-grandmother in the family tree and to subsequently pester the Irish consulate until they've handed out honorary citizenship. And they've already ferried all their money to Australia which will give citizenship to anyone who shows up with money. The only country South Africans don't want to become citizens of is Zimbabwe, because Robert Mugabe is even worse than Jacob Zuma. He wouldn't even let you get away with making a painting of his dick and displaying it in public. Which in South Africa you still totally can. Edge: Robert Mugabe.

Have I forgotten anything? What's your take on expat teenagers?