April 29, 2014

Do Talk to Strangers

There is a beautiful scene at the beginning of Forrest Gump, where Forrest is reluctant to climb up the steps of the school bus on his first day of school, saying his mother told him not to talk to strangers. Then his face erupts in a smile as he comes upon the solution. He introduces himself to the bus driver, and she introduces herself back to him. Satisfied, he pronounces that now they're no longer strangers, and he goes and finds a seat.

If you never read a philosophy book in your life, you should probably watch Forrest Gump. It is chock full of brilliant quotes and wisdom for the ages.

The scene above speaks to me so well, I think, because I can speak to its truth after years of living abroad.

Back home, you tend to live in your own little world without much need to move out of your comfort zone. You have some friends you socialize with, you know where to buy milk and pump gas, and you don't have much time talking to strangers.

When you move abroad, your world is turned upside down. You know no one, you have to rebuild your life from scratch in terms of figuring out where to run your daily errands, you are in desperate need of some clothes hangers, and all of a sudden you find yourself with a lot of time, because you're not signed up for any activities yet. (And, if you're lucky, because you now have full-time domestic help.)

I can't say these street vendors in Johannesburg were not still strangers after I took this picture,
because traffic moved too fast for me to ask their names. But I did talk with them.

If "Don't Talk to Strangers" is what your mother sent you out into the world with, then "Don't Talk to Street Vendors" is what most every South African will tell you upon arrival in their country. And, especially, "Don't roll down your window!" But you also still desperately need those clothes hangers, having come up empty after countless trips to various stores, and so you do the only thing you can do: You roll down your window, and you talk to the street vendors. You discover, perhaps to your surprise, that they don't bite off your head or steal your money or cheat you, and so you just keep going on your quest to convert strangers into friends, or if not friends, then at least acquaintances that may be helpful to you in many different ways. You talk to people you would not normally have talked to back home, and you are amazed how quickly your newfound circle of friends grows. You do this until you've settled in, accumulated enough friends, and have no need to convert any more strangers.

Which is a pity. You shouldn't ever stop. Because something else has happened too, along the way, something you might not have planned on. You discover that you LIKE talking to strangers and finding out their story and telling them yours. Not only do you like it, you also become quite GOOD at it. You begin looking at other people in an entirely new light. You are CURIOUS about them. You start a conversation in the checkout lane, where in the past you might have averted your gaze, afraid to overstep some boundary. You bring people together who didn't know each other before. You become altogether HAPPIER, satisfied at the end of each day with the success of your conquests.

If you think I'm making all this up and cannot be trusted, then you might listen to the experts.

According to this recent article in the New York Times, numerous studies have proven that talking to strangers does, in fact, make you (and, incidentally, the stranger) happier. Behavioral scientists conducted experiments with random people (by bribing them with $5 Starbucks gift cards, I might add, leaving me slightly miffed that this study wasn't conducted in my area), and wherever they were - on the subway, on the street, in a waiting room - the people who made contact and engaged others around them rather than looking away reported being happier afterwards.

So, whether you're an expat or not, but especially if you're an expat, DO talk to strangers. It will make you happier, and it makes the world a happier place.

I'll now close with another Forrest Gump quote, unearthed by my friend Heather of 2Summers.net in a recent comment on her blog:

And that's all I have to say about that!

April 23, 2014

Coyote Sightings, Ungainly Outhouses, and Other First World Problems

America, 2014

We now live in a posh upscale suburban neighborhood. A gated one. Though the gate mainly serves to keep adoring fans away from Carrie Underwood and her brethren on the Nashville celebrity circuit, not so much to keep out criminals. (Turns out those already live inside our gates, see here.)

Lately our posh upscale suburban neighborhood has erupted in collective outrage, expressed in long-winded, if not always grammatically correct, discourse on our neighborly social network called Nextdoor.

It all started with reported sightings of a coyote (or perhaps several coyotes, all looking the same, no one really knows). It began as a slow trickle but quickly developed into a stream: Coyote spotted on the corner of X and Y streets, keep your pets inside, was the typical message.

We took note. We kept our small pets inside.

But then someone felt we were not duly impressed with the repeated warnings. Do you know that where I used to live, a small child was mauled by a coyote? one woman wrote. A little dog was snatched RIGHT out of someone's arms by a coyote! another chimed in. More and more coyote sightings were posted, until it seemed like we must have hordes of them running wild on the golf course at night. Curiously, neither myself nor any of my friends have ever spotted one. But no matter, meetings must be held, so we were told, we must get rid of these beasts in our midst, something must be done, for God's sake!

Coyote in our neighborhood. This was taken several years ago in another place we lived, Overland Park, Kansas. But I hate to disappoint. The coyote is not real. After I frantically took like ten pictures of it before it moved away, I  stopped to wonder why it didn't, in fact, move away. It turned out it was a fake cutout coyote, placed there to scare off the  Canadian geese on the golf course, which of course are another whole First World Problem.

What followed then was very amusing to some, and highly offensive to others. A second faction emerged on Nextdoor, which seemed, oddly, to plead for the coyotes. Or, rather, make fun of those on the warpath against them. I say, instead of scrawny coyotes, we need to be scared of mountain lions, the real threat here. They've been known to be moving westward into our state lately, was the gist of one such post, at first glance sounding innocent enough, although the "westward" should have been a giveaway. I just saw a panther in my backyard! responded someone. I'm moving to Florida, said one guy (since debunked as a fake account), to leave you to fight the valiant fight against coyotes and communism. Moves were made to ban THAT member from our network.

All this, of course, infuriated the first faction, which was busy chatting about the merits of a new attack dog one woman was training to ward off the nightly intruders. While the second faction was worrying whether the vicious attack dog might not in fact pose a bigger risk to our children than the coyotes. I won't go into more detail, but it got outright ugly there with some name calling and airing of WAY too much personal information.

It came as a welcome reprieve when someone changed the topic with We need to talk about that ungainly outhouse someone put right by the side of a busy road in our prestigious community.

Africa, 2010

In Africa, a few years ago, we also lived in a posh upscale suburban neighborhood. Not just a gated one, but one with armed guards patrolling at night, and high voltage wires running atop the high walls encircling it. I don't remember any ungainly outhouses, though they must have existed, considering the fact that the gardeners who maintained the pristine landscaping were ferried in by the truckload each morning and taken back to their townships only late in the evening

We didn't have coyotes, but we had snakes. Occasionally, while waiting at the gate to apply your fingerprint, you'd see a picture, helpfully posted on the bulletin board, of a guard hauling away a python from someone's property. I never saw any snakes either, but a picture is better than hearsay, I suppose.

Manicured lawns, outhouses, dangerous wildlife - a scene quite similar to that above. But there was one big difference: The outrage. Or, rather, the lack thereof. The one thing you will not find often in Africa is outrage. The newly arrived Westerner may carry it in his baggage, but will soon learn to get rid of it, or go crazy. Or, as an expat just arrived in Johannesburg once confided to me: I am very Type A. I will leave this country as one cool lady or very medicated. I described this phenomenon in my earlier blog post Welcome to Type A Remedial School.

I remember the early days of settling into our new life in South Africa. I was dropping Sunshine off at school, and chatting to another mother. Our water was cut off last night, I complained, perhaps hoping she would have a remedy for this. Oh yes, she said, ours too. What's more, my kids left their faucets open, and this morning we woke up to our house being flooded. I guess the water must have come back on during the night. Our electricity got shorted and now we have no power either. It could be days before it gets fixed. And then, to my amazement, she shrugged. Welcome to Africa, she said with a smile.

This, of course, became our standard saying as well. It's as powerful as Hakuna Matata, which of course is a problem-free philosophy, if you'll remember. What perhaps helps you become so relaxed is that in Africa you are surrounded, just outside the gates of your posh suburban community, by hardship and poverty, by what seems like unbearable human suffering. Even the most self-centered person cannot gripe about a lost internet connection for too long when she's just driven through the nearby township for what was meant to be a shortcut but turned out to be a two-hour mission to ferry firewood to a woman's house, after she couldn't leave her by the side of the road under a staggering load of half a tree, with her small child strapped to her back.

First World Problems

I suppose you've deduced that I've sided with faction number two re the coyote debate. Not that I spend much time on the neighborhood social network, but we've shared some good glasses of wine with our friends making fun of the coyote scare. Particularly the tongue-in-cheek reference to "coyotes and communism" made me laugh. I love our pet as much as the next person loves theirs, but honestly, I'd also love to spot the occasional coyote after being spoiled by amazing wild animal sightings throughout our life in South Africa.

In our South African neighborhood, the coyotes would have been accepted with a shrug. Much like some of the petty theft going on was accepted with a shrug. They are hungry, after all, and they need to eat. Perhaps someone would have come up with a photo competition for best coyote picture, but I doubt we'd have had a meeting convened. For a leopard perhaps, but even then my bet is on the photo competition.

To me, the coyotes are a typical First World Problem, or at least the excessive outrage over them. Before the coyote outrage, our neighborhood had been overcome with theft outrage in a series of messages complaining about the spate of break-ins and stolen laptops. Now theft is an actual problem, I don't deny it. But it turned out in our case they were not technically "break-ins," as the police informed us in response to the outrage, because in all cases the car doors were left unlocked. I remember thinking at the time, who in their right mind leaves a laptop in an unlocked car overnight? Tell that to someone in Africa and they'll laugh their head off. Incidentally, the reason we park our cars in front of our houses is that we cannot maneuver our big SUVs into our garages, which by covenant have to be tucked on the side of the house so as to avoid the ungainly garage doors facing the road.

Not being able to park in your garage because when building your house you were so greedy for 5000+ square feet that you didn't leave enough room in front of the garage to reverse your car = a real First World Problem.

I'm not the only one making fun of people with FWP, as it is also called. Watch the video below, and you'll laugh. Watch the one after that, and maybe you'll feel ashamed.

Got any First World Problems?

April 15, 2014


One of the chapters I had the most fun writing for Kilimanjaro Diaries was the one I named Peequality: The Last Frontier of Women's Equality. In it you'll learn of a series of contraptions, each one niftier than the last, which are supposed to help women on the go who, how shall I put it... have to go. And who for whatever reason don't have the time or patience or privacy to squat the old-fashioned way. A perfect tool to take with you when you go mountain-climbing.

Never having tested a Female Urination Device, I had to fill in with some other toilet imagery.
Isn't this the most beautiful toilet in the world? As seen (and, full disclosure: used) in Namibia
along the Orange River in August 2012. Which is another story that might be made into a book.

Except I never field-tested any of them. Although I'm a prolific reader, I never really spend much time reading about any upcoming travel destinations. I just pack and go and watch, and then, once my interest is awakened, I do the research afterwards. So it was with the Shewee and its brethren (or should I say sisters), all equally clever-named.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is that I was reminded of the many uses of a Female Urination Device (yep, that's what they're called) when at the doctor's office last week, locked in a bathroom and armed with a cup in which to deposit a urine sample, and once again pissed off - no pun intended, honestly - about the unfairness of the limitations of the female anatomy when it comes to peeing with good aim.

"Wouldn't it be nice," I thought while staring the inevitable in the face, "if I now had that Sheewee to help me perform this task without getting urine all over my fingers?"

But the reason I don't carry one with me in my purse - together with the other 83 items typically found in there - is that I could never have made up my mind as to which one to get.

Go ahead, read for yourself from the following excerpt from my book, Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, and you might agree.

Peequality: The Last Frontier of Women’s Equality

May 2012, three and a half months to go

I’ve just gotten an email from my friend Sharon, who will also be one of the climbers in our group, giving us tips from a female friend of hers who just came back from Kili. Getting such tips from someone who just returned is always the most welcome information, because you figure, the fresher the better.

As soon as the kids are off to school, I pour myself a cup of tea and read through everything with rapt attention. The friend’s advice is mainly about making sure our sleeping bags are warm enough and how to best pack our clothes, which is nothing much new to me. But then she writes this: “For the ladies she recommends getting the travel rest stop urination bags as a better option to the ‘Shewee’.”

I’ve never heard of a Shewee but it doesn’t require all that much imagination to guess what she together with wee does. I am immediately intrigued. It must be a device similar to the “Urinelle” that I stumbled across online a few weeks ago. I’ve been watching and re-watching the Brazilian promotional video ever since then, and I’ve shared it with all my friends. I’ve practically become addicted to it. It’s a fascinating concept and the advertisement is hilarious, featuring a woman contorting herself in all sorts of ways to avoid touching a succession of dirty toilet seats, dramatic music building in the background with each new attempt, until the Urinelle practically comes riding to the rescue in shining armor to save the day, allowing the (very hot) woman to stand right next to some guy at the urinal and pee through a long hose, the front end discreetly tucked under her skirt. I think it ends with the guy fainting. Go on, watch it on YouTube, I know you want to!

I thought this was just an off-the-wall joke product when I got the link in an email from a Brazilian relative, but apparently the Urinelle has got competition. Perhaps these things do have merit. I recall more than one occasion when my dear husband has found it amusing to snap pictures of my bare bottom, the few times I’ve found myself out in the woods with my pants around my ankles. Intrigued by this whole new market of products I’m not sure what to call, I drop everything I’ve been doing and set out to conduct more research. I can’t find the “travel rest stop urination bags” (don’t ask what I do find for that search term – there is an entire world out there revolving around “travel rest stop” and “urination” that I’m not sure I want to learn more about), so I go on to the Shewee, “the original female urine device since 1999,” even if that’s the one not recommended by Sharon’s friend. It looks like a stunted funnel and can be had, for only $15.97, with an “extension pipe” that is “great for extra reach when aiming into a Peebol.”

Of course, only a woman could be enticed to spend money on a device to improve her aim into the bowl because her original device leaves something to be desired. If only men could be made to carry extension pipes around with them, then toilets the world over would be a happier place.

The Shewee website is full of other intriguing nuggets of wisdom. “Stand up and take control” is the company slogan. Pretty good marketing, if you ask me. The device itself comes in three different colors: one for “the outdoor girl who just likes to get on with the guys on whatever adventure or challenge is set” (green); one for “the ladies who just love to shout about Shewee and are proud to be who they are” (pink); and one for “the more discreet lady who simply wants to stay clean and hydrated in her day to day life whether she’s driving for work or a shopping trip only offers dirty public toilets” (white).

How to pick the right one? Those are entirely too many choices for me right there. I can’t even choose between two scents of dishwashing liquid on a grocery shelf in under ten minutes. But I don’t think I could go for white. I mean, that woman who can’t manage to use the toilet before driving to work so that she won’t have to go while driving to work – where the hell does she work, Antarctica? Or else she has an extremely small bladder. I know I don’t want to be that kind of woman. But do I want to shout out proudly about Shewee by going pink? More importantly, who would I shout it out proudly to? I wouldn’t want to be fumbling around my crotch and somehow attaching some plastic device in plain view of anybody else. Nothing left but going with army green and “getting on with the guys,” especially since we are indeed going on an adventure. I make a mental note to check with Mike and the three other men in our group if purchasing a green Shewee and joining them for a communal pee would fall into the “getting on with them” category. I don’t think I should mention it to the younger set of guys, namely the three teenage boys, or I’ll run the risk that Max will never talk to me again.

Come to think of it, I would suggest the Shewee people add a glow-in-the-dark version to the selection. For when you step out of your tent at night and want to pee against the tent while standing up, without having to don a headlamp to make sure you don’t accidentally have the spout feeding into your pant leg.

Now I’m on a roll. What else is out there, I wonder?

What’s out there is a surprisingly large variety, catering to every buyer group and subgroup imaginable. There seems to be something on offer for everyone. Everyone that is, as long as she’s a woman. The basic flaw with this entire product line, you see, is that it services only half the population. A good marketer would expand their target audience.

This is where the “pStyle” comes in. “The pStyle is a device that allows women and trans men to pee standing up without undressing” proclaims the pStyle website. Without taking any stand here – no pun intended – you do wonder how many transgender customers that gets them. If you used to have a perfectly fine and easy-to-operate device attached to your body to pee standing up, and then you have that device surgically removed, and then you go out looking for products that might allow you to pee standing up, are you out of your fucking mind?


Enough for today. I hope you've enjoyed this little preview.
Want the whole story? Buy the book:

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

April 10, 2014

All Roads Lead to Alexandra: The Story of a Globetrotting Baseball Bag, Part Two

In my previous post, I told you some stories about the circuitous travels of baseball equipment from American outfields into the heart of one of the poorest African townships. The longest and most circuitous route yet was traveled by the last batch I sent, the one that arrived in Johannesburg just a few weeks ago.

I'll tell you that story in a minute, but I'd like to make another point first: Yes, we've gotten quite a bit of used equipment over the years, but we need a lot MORE! When I write these baseball updates, I do it to galvanize you (yes, YOU!) to become involved, to help us in our efforts to equip these kids. I also do it with an eye on making our existing donors feel good, to let them see the smiling faces as a thank you for their wonderful efforts. But when you see pictures of piles of equipment on the Alexandra baseball field, it might be tempting to think that we must now have more than enough.

Well, we don't.

We have to outfit 75 players, and due to recent successes that number is growing. Cleats and pants are the hardest to keep enough of. Some of them they grow out of in the course of one season. Some of them are the wrong sizes to begin with (we have to take what we get, and it always amazes me how well the coaches manage the process of matching everyone up with a decent pair). And some of the pants, already worn thin when we get them, simply get torn to pieces from sliding (due to some of the most aggressive base running I have seen in youth baseball!).

I mentioned recent successes. Just two years ago, we had 6 players qualifying for the IRT (now called NBC), South Africa's big annual baseball tournament. This year, we have 20, and they all need to be outfitted with a new kit. We are very proud of everyone for working so hard, but it means that our equipment and clothing needs have never been greater. Particularly, we need white baseball pants, cleats, gloves, bats, socks, belts and balls.

And now for the promised story:

It was again the tireless Heidi Rozman doggedly pursuing Kettle Moraine High School's baseball coaches throughout the summer of 2013 for yet another round of equipment, and it was also she who came up with the brilliant plan of how to get it to me in Nashville, where we now live, so that my son (you've come to know him on this blog as Jabulani) could take some of it with him on his Christmas trip to Johannesburg. She had learned that Mary Anne Zupan, the former music teacher of our kids at Wales Elementary School, was heading to a music conference at Opryland in October of last year, and recruited her for the task of delivering to me what had once again accumulated in her garage. When I drove up to meet Mary Anne at her hotel to receive it, I was humbled - her car was tiny, and other than a small personal bag with her own stuff, it was crammed to the roof with bags bursting with catcher's gear, helmets, jerseys, and pants.

It was lovely to meet up with Mary Anne again. She is one of my favorite music teachers (I actually worship almost all music teachers!) and I credit her with being instrumental - no pun intended - in getting my kids to to dedicate part of their busy days to playing instruments and singing, and bringing the joy of music into their lives. We had a great deal to talk about, and we wouldn't have had the opportunity to catch up if it hadn't been for Alexandra Baseball far far away in Africa.

I proceeded to stuff some of what she brought into a gigantic duffel bag, right up to Delta Airlines' weight limit of 50 lbs, and some more into another bag next to Jabulani's few t-shirts and shorts, and sent it on with him in early December, nervous that he'd be stopped at customs (there is a stiff import duty on bringing used clothing into South Africa). But all went well. The amazing Natalie Irwin handled it on the Johannesburg end, and they all had a great day bringing it out to Alexandra, all amidst the funeral proceedings for Nelson Mandela that were going on in Johannesburg precisely at that time. The highlight for Jabulani? He was asked to autograph a baseball for Michael Lebepe, a young man I hope will have a bright future signing his own autographs very soon, having been selected to represent the South African national team as the first player from Alexandra.

All  of this came out of that 50 lbs bag. The t-shirts were remnants of old stock of spirit shirts
at our local elementary school, and the pair of gold cleats on the left were outgrown by
Jabulani, complete with an autograph from Matthew Booth of the South African national
soccer team. I hope they went to a soccer fan who appreciates them! Photo: Natalie Irwin

It's definitely the first autograph my son has ever been asked to give. Photo: Natalie Irwin

The story isn't quite done yet. Jabulani's 50 lbs of gear hardly scratched the surface of what had been in Mary Anne's car, and I will be forever grateful to Lotte Sorenson, who reached out to me just in the nick of time before her container left Connecticut for Johannesburg, where she and her husband had decided to set down roots after a long career on the expat circuit. Or I should say Noisette, my husband, is eternally grateful, as he was starting to wonder how long his garage space would be encroached upon by all that gear. I bought the two biggest boxes I could find at Office Depot, managed to squeeze everything into them, and shipped it off to Lotte's hotel, miraculously and with the help of the steadfast US Postal Service getting it to her just after New Year's and the day before the container was set to be sealed. It arrived in Joburg about a month ago in March 2014, and as always Natalie Irwin made sure it made its way to Alexandra Baseball.

From Wisconsin to Nashville to Connecticut to Johannesburg - not the most direct path, but an interesting one.

What came out of the Sorensen's container and temporarily
into the Irwin's house before being taken to Alexandra.

These are the stories that make me miss Africa. Don't you want to be part of the next one?

Which brings me to one last point: Yes, we do need more equipment. But we also have other expenses. It may not be your thing to hound high school coaches for pants and bats, but you can still help. I mentioned the IRT/NBC tournament, which this year is held in Durban starting April 30th. We have 18 players and 3 coaches who have to come up with ZAR3,892 (about $400) each to participate, a next to impossible sum for any family living in Alexandra. Thanks to the incredible generosity of our donors, with one family paying for the entire trip for one child, we've been able to cover part of that, but more is needed. Please consider donating to our tournament fund here (or contact me if you prefer a payment by check):

To conclude this two-post series, Natalie and I would like to recognize all the people and organizations who've supported Alexandra Baseball in one way or another. If I've left anyone out, I apologize. Special thanks, in no particular order, go to:

Heidi Rozman
Julie Graf
Ian and Pam Graham
The Doty Family
Chet Chetwynd
Tim Bruggemann
The Fairchild Family
The Hofheinz Family
Eddie Orizzi
The Perrin Family
Louis Bolling
Karen Lim
Mary Anne Zupan
Lotte Sorensen
Kettle Moraine High School
Dilworth Little League Baseball
The American Society of South Africa
Pitch in for Baseball
Rosann and David Whitten
Lawson Ricketts and Nick Geimer 
Peggy and Chuck Ricketts 
Dennis and Barbara Geimer
Gary and Dorene Wilson
Fleet and Dennis Roberts 
Razor and Leann Shines 
Trent Beck and Laurie Kimball
Joe and Cindy Erwin
Standard Bank
Rich and Tracey Campbell
Mike Samuelson
The Day Family
Brooke Boone and friends
John and Dianne Lucht
Bryant and Elizabeth Jones
Kristy Thomson and Daniel Lucht
The Andry Family
Sean Taylor
Rusty Jones
Cathy DeLange and Tourvest Duty Free, a division of Tourvest Holdings
Wayne Vincent
Trey Wimmer
Matt Hodgood
Mickey Weston
All the 65-plus donors who donated funds for the first Pitch In For Baseball shipment and subsequent fundraisers

And, most of all, the Irwin Family - Andy, Natalie, Peter, and John - for their tireless and continued efforts to keep the dream of Alexandra Baseball alive.