January 30, 2014

A Shout-Out to Benoni

It seems like ancient history now, but you might remember that one of the first things I did after arriving in Johannesburg with my family was to go find myself a car. Because all the other errands of getting settled in as an expat were extremely cumbersome without one. 

I did, eventually, buy one, and proceeded to write Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa about my odyssey. When I wrote it, I had no idea that this blog post would become one of the most widely-read stories on this site, with over 20,000 pageviews. If you Google "Buying a car in South Africa," you'll find me right there at the top. It has driven a lot of traffic to my site, and I like to think that I have been instrumental in helping quite a few people navigate the treacherous waters of acquiring their wheels in a new country. 

All in all, it was a blog post to be pleased with, if not particularly proud of. My writing has evolved, and I've written a lot better and more profound since then, but it adequately reflected my experiences at the time.

Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by a reader who took issue with my Tips on Buying a Car. He was being very polite, but was wondering whether I was a racist, based on a sentence about "those Indians in Benoni" and how I was advised not to trust them. 

Before I move on, this is what had happened in 2010: We had found a car on Autotrader that we liked. We wanted to buy it, but were reluctant to hand over a big wad of cash to a car dealer without getting a title, the way it works in the United States. In South Africa, the process is different. You do indeed buy the car without getting any official document other than the invoice, and then you go and register the car, where you get your certificate of registration. But we didn't know any of this at the time, and so asked our relocation agent for advice. No one at their office knew anything about the process, but eventually the owner promised she'd ask her husband and get back to us. Who was the car dealer in question, she wanted to know. We gave her the name, and when she came back to us a few days later, she was adamant that we shouldn't do business with them. They were not to be trusted, based on the part of town they were in (Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg), her husband as well as all of the office staff agreed. Even though none of them even knew how to register a car, which was our main question.

Back to a few weeks ago, and the unexpected complaint in my inbox. Of course I bristled. My defenses went up. No one likes being called a racist. So I replied, also very politely, explaining how those views reflected on my blog in the quotes of others didn't have to be my own, that I was just recording what other people said, that whitewashing such comments doesn't do anyone any good, because bringing them out in the open starts a valuable discussion, bla bla bla. I said all those things and pointed to other blog posts that would hopefully illuminate my non-racism, and he seemed very happy with all that I said in the email exchange that developed. 

But only after all of this did I truly sit down and re-read my car buying blog post. And now, with my newly sensitized eyes after our little conversation, it glared right at me: Anyone reading it would probably assume that Indian car sellers in Benoni were not to be trusted. It didn't matter that this was what colleagues and relocation experts told us, not what we were thinking ourselves. That already then I could sense some of the deep racial divides running through South African society. That when a middle-class white Afrikaans-speaking man warned us of doing business with a well-established dealership that happened to be in Benoni, it was mainly a reflection of his own fears and prejudices and nothing to be taken seriously. I remember thinking all of this at the time of writing, but I did a poor job of explaining it. And I realized now that sometimes you DO have to go back and revisit your own past on a blog. You have a ton of readers, you show up at the top of the Google results page, and you have an obligation to be fair and not hurtful. Not even with a stray comment. 

My new friend put it to me this way: I am a South African, a third generation Indian, and the owner of a few motor dealerships. Our business has grown steadily, mainly through word of mouth. The "Indian dealers in Benoni" is a very common generalization we hear all the time. Any future South African expat coming here [and reading your blog post] would immediately stay away from “Indian dealers.”

I have since amended my blog post. I didn't take out the warning uttered by our relocation agent, as that somehow seemed insincere and in a way is part of the story, but I further explained the comment and put in a link to cars for sale by Dada's Motorland, the dealership we DID end up buying our car from, in Benoni, and probably Indian-owned. We DID trust our salesman, we DID hand over the money, and we did NOT ask our relocation agent for any further advice. We were very happy with the car for the three years we had it, and the purchase was straight-forward and everyone extremely helpful.

The car that served us well through all potholes, townships, and the bush.
Proudly purchased from Dada's Motorland in Benoni near Johannesburg.

I hope this somehow makes up for it. I have trusted a lot of people in South Africa whom I was told not to trust, and I've never come to regret it. I'd also like to mention here that I have removed all links to Corporate Relocations from my site, the agent in question who made the comment to us in the first place. There were some other reasons for this is well, as I didn't feel they were sufficiently helpful to newly arrived expats, but the incident with our car dealership played a role. Relocation agents, just like me with my blog, have a responsibility to show the beauty of all the country they are representing, not just a thin wealthy suburban slice.

Fear is a powerful thing. It is usually fear that drives people to say derogatory things about others. You are afraid of that which you don't know or understand. I will never forgot the time I was in Alexandra, considered by many to be the darkest, scariest, and most dangerous place in all of Johannesburg. I was visiting a woman in her home and we somehow got to talking about Diepsloot, the township nextdoor to where most expats live and where they often volunteer. She was appalled that anyone would voluntarily go there, as it was so dangerous. Not "safe and orderly like Alexandra," as she put it. The name Diepsloot struck fear in her, because she didn't know it, just like the name Alexandra strikes fear in most people who don't know it. I've recorded the entire conversation in Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day, if you'd like to read it.

So here is my shout-out to Benoni, to all the Indians, Whites, Blacks, Coloreds, Gays, Straights, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, and all other women and men and children of every stripe or color who call it their home. I'm sure it's a lovely place, and I regret never having visited it properly (the only pictures I could find in my collection were of softball and baseball games we had there). One day I'd like to write a story about the fascinating history of Indian-South Africans, who among them count none other than the great Mahatma Gandhi (even though he didn't stay in South Africa, as we all know - but here is a good summary of his time in South Africa).

January 23, 2014

Have You Been in Prison?

One of the best stories I got out of last year's reading of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari was the one told to him by an ex-prisoner in Ethiopia. The man had spent the better part of ten years in jail as a political prisoner and his experience was both heartwarming and harrowing.

Having nothing to read, write with, or write on, he was overjoyed when one day a new prisoner appeared, carrying an undetected copy of Gone with the Wind with him. Reading it became one of his greatest joys for the next six years. Or, rather, reading it for an hour at a time for the next six years, because the other political prisoners in his section, all educated men, made dibs on it too. And so the book made its regular rounds. He eventually decided to translate it, using a smuggled pen to write it down on the backs of a total of three thousand cigarette foils over the course of two years in what I can only imagine must have been very cramped script. The foils eventually made their way out of the prison via other prisoners that were being released, and once he was a free man himself it took him another two years to gather all those scattered foil pieces again, gone (almost) with the wind as they were, and get his translation published. It is now the version read by Ethiopians.

I really like this tale. It reminds me of Nelson Mandela’s story, not so very different. How he wrote the draft of his autobiography on Robben Island, how he buried it somewhere in the garden he tended to avoid detection, and how it was eventually smuggled out to become Long Walk to Freedom.

Paul Theroux, after meeting the Ethiopian ex-prisoner, from then on decided he was going to ask everybody over the age of thirty whether they had been in prison or not. Most had. In our world, having been in prison might be a mark of shame. In Africa, having been in prison can be a badge of honor.

This made me reflect on our time in South Africa, and it made me realize that we had our own stories involving prisoners.

Zax, as part of a school trip to Franschhoek, had the opportunity to visit Victor Verster Prison (now Drakenstein Correctional Centre), the very place where Nelson Mandela spent the waning months of his incarceration. It now mainly houses youthful offenders, and Zax’s group was invited to talk to them. It made a lasting impression and we retain a pretty enamel mug, hand inscripted, as a memory in our kitchen.

Hand--painted mug from Victor Verster Prison

My other prison connection stems from my involvement with Alexandra Baseball. While I have worked with the indefatigable Tedius for years - he is the one running practices, organizing transport for Sunday games, and everything in between - he was not my first contact there. Who first opened the world of Alexandra for me was Lucky. That was his name, even though it turns out in the end he was perhaps not so lucky. Lucky was the one I had that first coffee with, who then told me he'd walked all the way to my "respectable" part of town, who I then drove back into Alexandra though I'd been warned by every South African I'd met until that point that I should never ever do just that, and who proudly showed me the place. He introduced me to Tedius and the other guys, and we took it from there. One day I asked, whatever happened to Lucky? He seemed to have gone AWOL. I got a lot of hemming and hawing but eventually was told that the other guys thought he was probably in prison somewhere in Cape Town on a drug related charge. Almost a year later he reappeared briefly, but only to disappear again, this time with a donated (by me, as it turns out) laptop in tow.

Not much honor to be found in either of those instances. Perhaps because they failed the "over 30 years old" test. But that's okay. Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners on Robben Island spread enough honor around South Africa to last a lifetime. I'll now leave you with a reminder to visit the Robben Island Museum if you ever find yourself in Cape Town. Which is, after all, the #1 travel destination for 2014, according to the New York Times.

Keep posted about my upcoming book on my author website, Melusine.

January 20, 2014

The Expat Worshipper, Part Three (Or: Bob Jones, the United States Supreme Court, and the Wizard of Oz)

I've already told you that I'm more likely to worship at a Starbucks than at a church.

The time I usually find myself most in need of a Starbucks is when going on a road trip. Before my kids can even say Are we there yet or I need to go to the bathroom, I will already have craned my neck this way and that to spot what is so ubiquitous in urban areas but woefully absent in the countryside. Which of course is what you're driving through on your typical road trip.

I'm not even sure if it's the caffeine I find myself so in need of, or the sheer diversion of the one interruption that doesn't involve a toilet or a gas pump. Either way, it always works like a charm. Between the anticipation of soon getting to the Starbucks exit and the slow sipping of my grande non-fat extra foamy latte afterwards, I usually get a good two hours entertainment out of the whole spiel.

When we recently found ourselves about four hours into a nine-hour road trip to South Carolina, I felt myself growing tired. Noisette, in a move he has perfected over the years, had flown there directly due to a delayed flight returning from Germany the day before, leaving me on my own with a car full of kids and bags. This never fails to work for him when a road trip is looming. Though I had Zax and his newly-acquired drivers' license to take turns with, I wasn't much rested. Anyone who has acted as driving instructor to their teenage children will understand that rest is the very last thing you get while sitting in the passenger seat.

We were cruising across the bible belt and not a single Starbucks was forthcoming.

So consider the irony that what should come to the rescue in my hour of need was Christianity itself. Jesus is Lord, and you know it! was written on a gigantic billboard towering over everything else somewhere past Atlanta. You couldn't possibly miss it. Zax and I were both staring at it for long seconds, and I couldn't help remarking that you'd probably be hard pressed finding a sign proclaiming Mohammed is Lord in a similar fashion. No one in their right mind would voluntarily descend into that pit of vipers. Remember the controversy erupting in Dallas, or was it New York, over some advertising by an atheist group on city buses? And the more recent spat over the "assault" on Santa Claus? Somehow, this country's lauded freedom of religion always seems to be skewed in one particular direction.

I didn't have the presence of mind to take a picture of "Jesus is Lord and you know it", so I
went and found "Jesus is Real" by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr.

Though I was annoyed by the billboard, it provided salvation. The matter of biased and self-righteous Christians somehow got me thinking of Bob Jones University, perhaps because we were headed for South Carolina, and I had barely mentioned that name when Zax Googled it on his iPhone and, over the course of the next two hours, regaled me with excerpts from the Bob Jones University Rule Book, each one more unbelievable than the last. No caffeine needed.

For instance, did you know that Bob Jones does not allow any physical contact between unmarried men and women on and off campus? That wherever you go as a student, you need a chaperone? That students are only allowed to go out in groups of uneven numbers, i.e. three girls and two boys, rather than two and two? To make sure there is always one unmatched single who - I'm sure this is the intention - can act as a snitch regarding the aforementioned physical contact? That only a few elect students, after earning advanced privileges, may access open/mixed media websites, whatever that means? That everyone has to attend chapel every day of the week, in addition to also patronising all religious services at an off-campus "fundamental" church?

I am very familiar with this last rule, having myself been subjected to it once. It must have been in the mid-90s, when Noisette and I were living in Raleigh, NC. My friend Anna* from Germany, who I had played basketball with, had married an American and was now studying at Bob Jones University with him. Greenville, SC, isn't all that long a drive from Raleigh, and so one day I decided to visit her. I was aware that Anna was very religious, because her refusal to play any Sunday basketball games had always been a thorn in our coach's side. As our point guard she was our most important player, which meant we usually lost on Sundays. It never seemed to faze her, and we made our peace with it.

Stepping onto the Bob Jones campus was like traveling back in time. Or into Amish country. All the girls, including Anna, were dressed in long flowing skirts (the safe choice, given that the Rule Book section spends pages on the exact measurements of skirts and slits in skirts and cleavage-avoiding necklines). There were neither beards no horse-drawn buggies, unfortunately. Those I could have dealt with. And I would have loved to see more of the campus, but all I recall from that visit was just a very long session in church. I more or less arrived and was dragged right to the Wednesday evening service. I admired Anna's enthusiasm at the time, but now I realize it was her obedience to the Rule Book that prompted her to make me come along instead of spending a nice evening together with a glass of wine in the married student dorm. Oh wait, that would of course have been forbidden too. I think I stayed one night, but by next morning, faced with another schedule of more religious services during which once again I'd have had to endure being condemned as a terrible sinner, I decided to depart.

It wasn't really attending chapel that bothered me. I love to hear a good sermon, much like I enjoy any good speaker, and I've come away incredibly inspired from some of them. But this guy was neither good nor inspiring. More draining, if I remember correctly, going on and on about the dangers of music and dancing and having a good time. Evils lurk in having a good time, was the message.

No, what really bothered me were some of the things Anna would mention sort of on the side, revealing how much brainwashing was going on. It was really a good thing to keep the races separate on campus, she informed me, keeping away all sorts of problems that interacting with black people might create. In fact, I think she might have used the word "darkies." Not having the maturity in those days to engage in a heated debate that might endanger our friendship, I fled.

There really used to be a ban on interracial dating at Bob Jones University. Guess when it was lifted? In the year 2000. Thirteen measly years ago. And only because a campus visit by George Bush as a presidential candidate caused a media uproar the university found too tough to stand up against. But it had successfully stood up to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1983 ruled in an 8-1 decision that religious institutions such as Bob Jones could very well be stripped of their tax-exempt status as nonprofits if they engaged in racially discriminatory practices. They were ruled against, but that didn't keep them from sticking to their guns. Screw the tax exemption, and screw the consequences. Incidentally, the lone dissenter in the ruling, meaning he sided with Bob Jones, was William Rehnquist the former chief justice, who was succeeded by John Roberts, the current chief justice.

If you're thinking about attending Bob Jones University and enjoy the occasional relaxing moment with only the Playlist on your iPod to keep you company, think again. Chances are very very high that none of what you have on there is permissible as per the Rule Book. I'm afraid Rock, Pop, Country (Country, for crying out loud!), Jazz, Electronic/Techno, and Rap/Hip Hop are all verboten for their failure to glorify God sufficiently, even when they are set to Christian lyrics. Which is why for good measure headphones are verboten too, unless used in a study lounge for academic purposes. (I killed at least twenty good miles of road trip trying to think of a song I know that doesn't fall into any of those categories; this being the Christmas season, I came up with Silent Night.)

And then, briefly: "In a related area, dancing is not permitted." That's it. Not even any further elaboration or staggered privileges for, say, upperclassmen or engaged couples. While we are at it, forget any magazines like Esquire or People. And any stray clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch. They are blacklisted, not just by genre but specifically by name. The funny thing is, Benetton makes no appearance on the no-no clothing list, by virtue of being European and therefore, perhaps, too far away from the would-be-censors' imaginations. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. I just hope they never Google "suggestive Benetton ads," like I just did. Or maybe that is precisely a Bob Jones University Rule Book author's favorite passtime, who knows?

By now you're probably thinking, I get the Bob Jones part, and I get the United States Supreme Court part, but how the hell does she bring the Wizard of Oz into this? Well, it's easy. Because what else do you think is banned in the Bob Jones Rule Book? You got it, movies. But, mind you, not all movies. While you're not permitted to watch any movie on campus (except in class, where a faculty or staff member is present and objectionable elements - I'm thinking the dinosaurs in Ice Age, for example - can be discussed), you are indeed permitted to watch a movie in a private home. As long as it's a G-rated movie. Even the girls, who've enjoyed their fair share of G-rated movies in their time and are better at self-censoring than either Noisette or I can ever aim for (let's just say we have, ahem, suggested films like Hangover III and We are the Millers as a family movie in the past, prompting the girls to get up and leave, disgusted about 10 minutes in), well even the girls were incensed about the prospect of a life without PG-rated movies. And they are not anywhere close to college age yet.

Of all the rules Zax and I plowed through that day, we found what we called the Wizard-of-Oz-rule the most ridiculous of all. There is no way, in my mind, that even at this very moment not a good portion of Bob Jones students are breaking that precise rule. And not out of any un-Christian thoughts, but out of pure curiosity. It makes me think of one of my favorite books from a few decades ago, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco (which also comes as a movie with Sean Connery, an R-rated one to be sure), a tale of love and murder and power and knowledge woven around a set of forbidden books.It takes place in the Middle Ages aka known as The Good Old Days according to Bob Jones, Sr.

If you are looking for any further reading on the topic, you can just search Amazon.com for Bob Jones University Press Christian textbooks. The reviewers there will save you the trouble of actually having to open one of those to find out if the Ku Klux Klan was really as evil as it's made out to be in most mainstream history books, or if it wasn't rather a much-needed and benevolent organization we should all be grateful for.

I crossed paths with Anna one more time before we finally drifted out of each other's lives. That time she came to visit a friend in Raleigh and made a stop at our house on the way there, her now 4-year old son in tow, who was exactly the same age as Zax. I just so happened to have Zax's birthday party going on that day and offered to let her son stay at our house while she visited the friend. She seemed glad to get away, but not before sharing her parenting philosophy with me: "We believe in corporal punishment," she informed me. "We're not afraid to beat our kids to show them the right way." And it worked like a charm. The minute she was gone, this boy proceeded to beat up Zax and the other kids. It was probably the first day in his life that he was introduced to the concept of a timeout.

In the end, I'm not entirely sure why Bob Jones University even bothers with the Rule Book. "Because God inspired the Bible, it contains no errors and can be trusted to provide infallible guidance" is how the whole thing more or less begins. Why not just look up the chapter on interracial dating and R-rated movies right at the source? Are they afraid the bible might be just a bit contradictory were you to try and follow it word for word?

The ultimate authority on that, of course, is AJ Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically. But I have a feeling he might also be blacklisted in the Bob Jones University Rule Book, because I remember laughing out loud more than once when reading his great work. Which probably means that he was using foul language.

* As for most people appearing on my blog, including stuffed animals, this name is an alias.

Okay, so I've pretty much just bashed Bob Jones University in this post and nothing much else. Not a very Christian thing to do. And also not a lot of differentiated thinking going on. But really, this just started out as a blog post about a road trip. I don't have a beef with Christianity itself. Just with hypocrites. And I'm sure every religion has its fair share of those. Just like every religion has its share of saintly people. Speaking of saintly people and to end this article on a positive note, I just finished David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell and the chapter about the Huguenot pastor André Trocmé and how he put his life on the line in a French village during WWII to protect Jewish refugees brought tears to my eyes.

Expat Worshipper Series:

The Expat Worshipper
The Expat Worshipper, Part Two (Or: A Christian-Owned Business)
The Expat Worshipper, Part Three (Or: Bob Jones, the United States Supreme Court, and the Wizard of Oz)

January 16, 2014

A Book, a Countdown, and the Launch of a New Website

So I've written my Kilimanjaro book. I've also hired an editor, gotten the ball rolling on cover design, and educated myself on the intricacies of self-publishing. Then there was a two-week Christmas "break" (ha!), which I emerged from with the realization that I absolutely had to finally bite the bullet, pick a publication date, and launch my author website.

Which I just did. Kilimanjaro Diaries - only the working title for now, and  yes, you may mail in your suggestions - will be on the shelves in March 2014. I will now refrain from a long list of qualifiers and ifs and buts and just hope that 31 days in March are enough of a buffer to prevent me from looking like an idiot. Let the countdown begin: 60 days until publication!

As promised, I have also launched my author website, Melusine. (If you're wondering about the name, read this earlier story.) It will be my new home for all things book, writing, and self-publishing. I'm planning to post new entries once a week detailing how the book came about, what I've learned about writing, and how my new self-publishing enterprise is working out. I hope you'll go and visit and Bookmark and Subscribe and Like and Follow so that you'll be kept informed about this (at least for me) exciting journey of my first book. Rest assured, however, that I won't likely miss many opportunities to tell you about my book right here as well, or wherever else you might run into me. My guess is that by March you'll be so tired of hearing about my book that you'll go ahead and buy it just so that I'll be happy and shut up.

I've also given all my online sites a brush-up to make sure they look professional and are all linked with each other, as counseled in my new bible, Self-Printed: The Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing (I've become quite a disciple of Catherine Ryan Howard). I've debated about the virtues of adding a new Facebook page but can't decide whether it should be about me as an author or about the book itself, and so I've done what I always do when faced with intractable decisions: I've decided to wait.

In any event, between keeping up with Joburg Expat, Melusine, the new Twitter project I just started, and rewriting Kilimanjaro Diaries when it comes back from the editor next week, I'll probably have my hands full. Neglecting Facebook for a while might not be an altogether bad strategy.

See you around!

January 13, 2014

#ExpatTip of the Day on Twitter

I was going through my old blog posts and realized I have 62 of them tagged as Expat Tips (not counting all the answers in my FAQ section). That's more than in any of the other categories on Joburg Expat, like Schools, Travel, Crime and Security, or Health. It's even more than I wrote under Bureaucracy, which is saying a lot because that one includes Eskom.

Everyone knows I've had a lot to say about Eskom.

I've always thought I should be doing something special with those expat tips, because surely there are other people out there in the process of moving countries (not just to South Africa) who might benefit from this collective, hard-earned, wisdom. Or maybe I just have an urge to tell other people what to do.

Then I was reading an article in the New York Times about how Twitter has become very popular among the religious community, because inspirational messages and bible verses are so well-made for a 140 character  broadcast. And this is when it hit me: expat-tip-of-the-day broadcasts on Twitter! Now, never fear, I won't go off sprouting Philippians and Matthew to you now (did I even say those right?) but I won't put it beyond me to mix the mundane (do your own monthly electricity meter readings) with the occasional inspirational (sit down, relax, read a book, pictures can be hung tomorrow, hakuna matata!).

So, starting today, I will be broadcasting an #ExpatTip of the day on Twitter and see how far into the year I get with that. Some of these tips will be South Africa specific, and some of them apply more or less universally all over the world. All of them, rest assured, are Joburg Expat battle tested, meaning there is a very good reason I am giving that particular advice. Possibly because I didn't follow it myself.

I'm also very happy to take your suggestions. What are YOUR expat tips you feel are most important to impart to your fellow expats? Leave a comment right here, post a tip to my Facebook page, or send me a note through my contact page. I'm hoping to receive lots of input and make this a worthwhile resource for other expats. Please chime in!

Here is the first gratuitous #ExpatTip of the day: #ExpatTip 1:  Make a spreadsheet of family passport numbers and expiration dates; schedule expiration dates in your calendar.

If you want to keep up with more #ExpatTips of the day, make sure you follow me on Twitter.

January 9, 2014

Dewees Island: Safari on the Beach

Ever since moving back to the United States, our travel schedule has slowed waaaay down. Partly due to the fact that we couldn't very well financially sustain the frenzy, but also because there seemed to be no place to go that could even come close to what we'd seen and done in Africa. I mean, how can you top silently gliding into the sunrise on a mokoro, a type of dugout canoe, expertly steered by your Tswana guide who is setting out to spot the rare Pel's Fishing Owl native to the Okavango Delta? What can be more memorable than waiting submerged in a cage tied to the side of a boat in the freezing Atlantic near Cape Town, teeth, chattering, waiting for the Great White Shark to make another turn to pass right in front of your face?

And yet, we may just have hit on the perfect American equivalent to our beloved safaris, featuring all the elements of our forays into the bush: A remote location, endless drives on bumpy paths, an abundance of wildlife, cheeky tree-dwellers stealing your food, and gorgeous sunsets.

It was all put together rather hurriedly. Christmas vacation had rolled around and we were faced with two weeks of kids housebound, when Noisette became slightly panicky: How to survive without going somewhere to get out of the house? Which was when I remembered that my friend Judy, who lives on Dewees Island near Charleston, SC with her family, had invited us repeatedly to come visit over the course of last year. As it's a 9-hour drive to get there from Tennessee, I hadn't paid all that much attention, but considering that the nearest Gulf Coast beaches are seven hours away from us, it seemed entirely feasible. And when it turned out our longtime friends from North Carolina were going to spend a few days there over New Year's, a plan was hatched for us to join in the fun. The house was already full of company, but since Judy very conveniently is also the owner of Dewees Island Real Estate, we were booked into Marshview Cottage more or less within the blink of an eye and hardly any effort on my part at all. A dream vacation if there ever was one - you might remember my perfectionist tendencies usually have me exhaustively analyzing and comparing vacation destinations for months.

Dewees Island marshes
Banoka Bush Camp, Botswana, April 2012
Dewees Island turtle show and tell
Kitara Camp, South Africa, New Year's 2011/2012
Dewees Island bald eagle on osprey platform
Savuti Camp, Botswana, April 2012
Alligator skeleton at Dewees Island Nature Center
Elephant skull, Banoka Bush Camp, Botswana, April 2012
Unseasonal rainfall on Dewees Island
Unseasonal rainfall in Waterberg, South Africa, Easter 2010
Sunrise on Dewees Island; photo credit: J. Fairchild
Sunset on Zambezi, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, March 2011

I was immediately struck by the similarities between Dewees and some of our African safari destinations. As you can see above, the parallels to some of the pictures I dug up from my archives are striking. Of course I cheated a bit by not digging up any lion, hippo, leopard, zebra, or giraffe pictures, which I would have been hard pressed to hunt for on a South Carolina barrier island, private or otherwise. But you get the idea.

Much like when you arrive at a game lodge in the bush, you are instantly transported into another world when arriving on Dewees Island. It's not the fact that it is remote - it really isn't, you can easily leave your house, catch the ferry to Isle of Palms and make your way to downtown Charleston in less than an hour - but that life there is much more laid back.

First of all, there are no cars. No maneuvering out of parking spaces, no traffic, no traffic lights. Just a sandy path through moss-hung trees and a golf cart awaiting you at the dock. By the time you arrive, chances are you'll already have watched a beautiful sunset over the marsh or had some dolphins swim alongside the ferry, so that you'll feel like you've left your busy life far behind, ready to operate on Island Time.

Island Time means you might start your day on your porch sipping tea and taking in the view. If you're a birder you'll be thrilled. From egrets to herons and pelicans and even a rare nesting bald eagle on an osprey platform, you will have more than enough to train your binoculars on. I admit that in our case the porch sitting part lasted not more than two seconds, because an unusual cold spell, even for winter, had us all bundled up in down coats with our ears falling off. But I already can't wait to return in the spring or summer for some balmy evenings listening to a cacophony of crickets all around.

We took the kids to the nature center next to the ferry dock and learned all sorts of things from our realtor-cum-nature-guide, Judy. We looked at shells of lobsters and horseshoe crabs and learned that they shed their shells as they grow, leaving behind a succession of outgrown ones much like a Russian nesting doll. We heard about the Red Knot, a tiny bird that makes the long journey from Patagonia to the Arctic twice a year and chooses this precise location for its midway stop while feasting on horseshoe crab eggs, leaving them much decimated in numbers. We took a good look at Bucky the alligator or rather its skeleton and were sort of glad that this time of year alligators are hibernating.

We were advised to never leave any food outside or screen doors open. Apparently, racoons are to Dewees what baboons are to Africa, and memories of our last run-in with those guys involving apples and ceiling fans were enough to make us slavishly follow Judy's advice. In an interesting aside, racoons, together with rats, bobcats, and deer, are among the animals that survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, because they can all swim. Squirrels do not, which is why you won't find them on Dewees.

We learned about the turtle program on Dewees, which is an effort to protect Loggerhead turtle nesting grounds during the summer months. We learned about a variety of seashells while Sunshine was busy collecting the biggest and most beautiful ones she has ever seen. And we learned a little bit of the history of the island. We learned all of this while Judy tirelessly drove us all over the island, not in an open Landrover but rather in a golf cart, and she might be driving us still had we not eventually bailed due to the rapidly dropping temperatures.

The newly-minted Dewees polar bears (and dogs), January 1, 2014

We even went to the beach, in the dead of winter, to have a polar bear swim. Although when I say "we" what I really mean is that some crazy people dove into the freezing ocean while I, sensibly, opted to take their picture. In hindsight their choice of day wasn't altogether bad, as the temperature dropped from about 15 degrees Celsius that day to below freezing the next in what was the first sign of a record breaking deep freeze all over the United States. Normally, or so I'm told, Dewees has the mildest of winters, as evidenced by a very balmy 27 degrees Celsius at Christmas just a few weeks earlier.

That's the kind of weather I'm hoping for the next time we are there.

If you're interested in finding out more about Dewees Island, check out this guide Judy wrote: Inspired by Nature: Dewees Island.

Contact details:
Dewees Real Estate
Phone: 843-882-5052

I am currently writing a book about my Kilimanjaro adventure, if you are interested to learn more please visit my author website to keep posted about the publishing schedule and further details. 

January 6, 2014

Culture Shock Circa 1986: From Fishhead to Communist

Culture Shock is to an expat what Athlete's Foot is to the swimmer. It comes with the territory.

I've written about it as seen by an eleven year old expat kid who thinks she's South African, even though she is American by birth and has German parents. I've written about it as seen by a South African expat living in Germany who commits the glaring faux pas of going grocery shopping in her bare feet. And I've written about it as seen by a 16-year old foreign exchange student/expat in America in 1983, confronted with cordless phones and big screen TVs for the first time in her life.

But what I haven't told you yet is the intra-country culture shock story. The one featuring no expat whatsoever.

You don't have to go abroad to experience culture shock. You really just have to travel, say, seven hours on the Autobahn from the North of Germany to the Southern lands of Swabia or Bavaria. Somewhere along the way you'll cross over the Weisswurschtläquator (white sausage equator, South Africans might recognize it as a relative of the Boerewors Curtain, the way I understand it) into Süddeutschland. And, unbeknownst to you, that will change you from a perfectly normal person into a Fischkopf (again, South Africans, remember Pisskop or PK from The Power of One? Yeah, it's like that), a label you will henceforth be stuck with for the rest of your life. You will try in vain to explain that you live nowhere near the coast where, yes, fishing might be engaged in by some people, but this will matter little to your new Southern German friends, to whom the coast starts directly north of Frankfurt and anyone and anything from "up there" is highly suspect.

You will feel like you've entered an alien land. A common written language might unite you, but when people open their mouths, you will just stand there helplessly staring at them and wondering what on Earth they're saying. For fear of embarrassment, you will pretend you understand the jokes they are telling and laugh at all the inappropriate times. And you will just nod a friendly nod when the butcher chats away with you and asks you a bunch of questions, one of which sounds like do you want some filet mignon? but must have really meant do you have a dog? because when you come home your girlfriend chastises you for having bought nothing but bones.

Wanting to make a good impression on her, the new girlfriend - because, in spite of her broad dialect, she must be quite the looker - you decide to visit her at her family's weekend getaway. Which is clearly a mistake when you find yourself utterly lost on a winding road in the mountains and stop to ask a stooped toothless old man for directions. You might as well have driven to Italy for all you understand, and after lots of arm flailing and nodding and smiling you take off again, without a clue where to turn in those pre-GPS olden days of the late 1980s. You arrive terribly late and then have to bite your tongue so as not to complain about the language problem, because there is pride in those Schwaben and you better not make fun of their accents. Instead you swallow obediently what looks like calf's brains, and what you will thankfully only learn much later actually WAS calf's brains.

You will find a place to live, which won't be that easy, because everyone is moving South to where all the jobs are, and to get the apartment you've set your eyes on you have to enlist your parents who seem to make a good impression on the landlord during the 2-hour cross-examination regarding all your virtues and habits. Unfortunately your own impression does not live up to this high standard, mainly because you fail to understand the workings of an as-of-yet unheard-of phenomenon called Kehrwoche (sweeping week) whereby each party in the apartment complex you are part of is assigned a week where they have to clean the common areas according to a very strict schedule everyone but you seems to comprehend. Which apparently includes climbing into the communal trash can and scrubbing it from top to bottom. And which also includes opening your door at random times to the landlord's 90-year-old mother who is coming for an apartment Inspektion, sweeping her fingers along every conceivable surface and clicking her tongue disapprovingly.

A perfectly normal kid from Northern Germany...

...turned into a fishhead upon arrival in the  South.

You barely escape from being kicked out over the next three years, mainly because your girlfriend, being Southern born and bred, has a better grasp of Kehrwoche, even though her occasional bouts of spending the night are watched with deep suspicion through slanted shades, and even with deeper suspicion the fact that no one rises the next morning until 11:00 am, a time of day by which a good Swabian will already have swept the entire sidewalk, biked to the store and back, and cooked dinner. And observed what their neighbor has been up to. Which frustratingly has been nothing at all.

When you move out when you've completed your studies, another Inspektion will follow and your landlord will almost have a heart attack in horror of what he sees, even though your girlfriend has scrubbed the place once more from top to bottom and you are leaving behind some nice custom furniture. But,  lo and behold, there are water stains on the fixtures in the shower, which the landlord, no doubt aided by his 90-year old mother and her laser vision, has zeroed in on and wastes no time to point out. You consider being nice but years of Kehrwoche-related reprimands and public shamings have rendered you a tad fed up and so you shrug your shoulders and tell him to send you the bill to America, where you will henceforth live. You turn and make your final exit from a place, it must be said, you were happy to call your home, but that you have also paid good money for, when you hear him hurl his final insult after you: "You are all nothing but a bunch of communists! Yes, that's what you are!"

But clearly this outburst does not provide enough satisfaction to Scrooge McCarthy the Landlord, so he immediately sets to work with his screwdriver and painstakingly removes the offending shower fixtures, stuffs them into a padded envelope, and sends them post haste to the parents who all those years ago so beguilingly - and apparently misleadingly - advertised the tenant-worthy virtues of their son, with a scribbled note which he is sure will solicit sympathetic outrage from said parents saying something to the effect of: This is how YOUR son the slob and communist left behind his apartment.

On the plus side, you can now consider yourself graduated summa cum laude from Culture Shock 101.

The above events are entirely based on a true story. Noisette was 21 years old when first being inducted into the secrets of Kehrwoche and proper shower-scrubbing, and over 25 years later he still struggles to take out the trash or change the toilet paper. He remains a proud Fischkopf, though it must be said that he came to appreciate the balmy weather of Southern Germany as well as the more than cozy Besenwirtschaften, family establishments where you can rub shoulders with total strangers while drinking freshly-made wine, and has never had the urge to return to his Northern place of birth. The Landlord subsequently considered a new career with the Stasi in East Germany to utilize his fine-honed neighbor-spying and terrorizing techniques, but sadly the fall of the Berlin wall put a quick end to his ambitions. The apartment was never rented out again because no one could figure out how to turn on the shower.

Speaking of Culture Shock, you might also like: You expect ME to do THAT?

January 1, 2014

2013 By the Numbers

It's late in the day on January 1st 2014, and I find myself with absolutely no New Year's resolutions. Other than perhaps finishing this blog post in the next three hours so that it will actually appear on January 1st.

Instead of looking at the new year and setting all sorts of goals, I thought it might be more fun to look back at the old one and come up with some statistics for you. So here I give you my life over the last year by the numbers, in descending order:

155,588: Number of words written not counting emails or post-it notes
6,565: Number of miles traveled by road trip on U.S. soil
3,300: Number of kilometers traveled by rail in Europe
1,881: Number of page views of my most-read blog post on Joburg Expat (Of Guns, Manhunts, and Other American Pursuits)
1,556: Number of pictures taken (way down from our African travel days)
350: Number of gigabites we used the one month we maxed out our limit
300: Number of days Jabulani was playing xBox
195: Number of countries where Joburg Expat was being read
175: Number of golf balls collected in our yard
150: Minutes spent taking cover during tornado alerts in our basement aka Jabulani's xBox den
143: Number of orders placed on Amazon.com
132: Weight in pounds of baseball equipment sent off to Africa
100: Percentage of correlation between items six and seven
80: Number of blog posts published
58: Number of hours spent in passenger seat pressing an imaginary brake acting as driving instructor
45: Number of carpenter bees exterminated by way of a badminton racket
12: Price in dollars of a bagel in Switzerland
10: Number of wonderful new friends made in Brentwood
7: Number of Female Urination Devices researched (but not tested) in the interest of a good story
5: Number of different pest control guys assigned to our house, one of whom instructed me in the art of killing a person with my bare hands
3: Number of car accidents the new car (which we got in September) has been in
2: Number of tow trucks used
1: Number of books written
0: Number of Christmas cards that arrived in South Africa in less than 16 days; also, number of traffic lights we encountered not working

I'll leave you with all this mostly useless information. If I had kept better count of toilets unclogged, loads of laundry washed, orthodontist visits made, and polite reminders issued to children to clean up their rooms, it might have been even longer. Those would have probably added up to about one bazillion.

Happy 2014 to all of you!