September 30, 2014

Test: In Which Country is Mount Kilimanjaro? And Other Trivia.

You don't have to have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to be able to answer a bit of trivia about it. You don't even have to have read Kilimanjaro Diaries, though it does help a great deal. You will be an instant teacher's pet if you have.

For instance, do you know how many attempts the first man to summit Kili undertook? What the record for its fastest ascent is? What the sign on top says (or does not say)? Who Johannes Rebmann was?

To find out, and to learn some fun facts, take the Kilimanjaro Quiz here:

It won't take more than a few minutes, and you'll have fun with it, I promise! Make sure you read the instructions on how to participate and qualify to win prizes.

Hint: Look inside Kilimanjaro Diaries for some of the answers!

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

September 25, 2014

Africa Bookshelf: Little Bee

Creating an “Africa bookshelf” was one of the first things I did when starting my blog back in 2010. Leading up to and throughout our expat assignment in Johannesburg, I took great joy in learning more about this continent I knew so little about, by way of the works of some great storytellers. Among the highlights I count Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Botswana), Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), and the two South Africa classics Cry the Beloved Country and The Power of One. And, in the travel literature department, Dark Star Safari (a cross-section of Africa).

My Africa bookshelf. Spilled onto the floor. Wish the pile was 3 times bigger!

Unfortunately my Africa reading has slowed down considerably since moving away, which is why I was particularly pleased to have Little Bee fall into my lap, quite unexpectedly, by stumbling across it at the library. (The library, by the way, is one of the joys of having moved back to the United States. I do NOT miss the library in Johannesburg.)

The setting of Little Bee is mostly England, but the narrator is a Nigerian girl, who in several flashbacks takes you back to her childhood in Nigeria as she tells her harrowing story. Despite of this, I wouldn’t necessarily call this book harrowing. There are flashes of humor in it, the characters are exquisitely drawn, and despite everything that happens, there is a hopeful note in it, one of survival and love and sacrifice.

Little Bee, the girl, starts her narrative in a bleak immigration detention center somewhere in England, just as she is about to be let out of there in what turns out to be a mistake by the authorities. Aware of her illegal status, she turns to the only people she knows in all of England, and through what unfolds from there we find out how she is linked to that family by a hair-raising incident that happened in their past. The author does an excellent job of feeding us bits and pieces of that story, alternating past and present and throwing in new twists along the way.

I like how the story is alternately told by Little Bee and Sarah, the English woman whose life becomes more and more entangled with Little Bee’s and whose son, Charlie, is what ultimately binds the two together. Sarah’s voice is just as strong as Little Bee’s, and even though she’s led a rather privileged and comfortable life, she has her own demons and memories to battle with. How they overlap with the Nigerian part of the narrative is revealed in a superb piece of storytelling.

I was drawn into the story from the very first page.
“Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl,” 
begins the book.
“A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind. When it feels warm and secure it will turn around and smile at you, the way my big sister Nkiruka used to smile at the men in our village in the short summer after she was a girl but before she was really a woman, and certainly before the evening my mother took her to a quiet place for a serious talk.” 
In this brief description, we get a big dose of foreshadowing, or rather flashback, about the narrator’s prior life. We can sense the danger, especially to girls who are just turning into women, and we can foresee some form of tragedy concerning Little Bee’s sister Nkiruka.

One of my favorite recurring phrases is when Little Bee begins a sentence with
If I was telling this story to the girls from my village back home…” 
Invariably, this brings out some cultural chasm between rural Africa and the Western world, like when she tries to explain modern kitchen appliances, or why some Western women let themselves be pictured naked on magazine covers. There are many such comparisons and invariably they bring a smile to your face, even though the story overall is not a happy one.

Another line that stayed with me long until after I finished the book was this one:
“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.” 
Again, appearing early in the book, this contains a large clue about just how dark and haunted Little Bee’s past must be, but it also gives a hint as to her character’s strength and will to survive.

All in all, a gem of a book, one of my favorite reads this year.

Check out the Afrika Bookshelf for my entire list of Africa book recommendations.

September 21, 2014

Good News: It's All Done Online! Bad News: They Were Offline.

I recently came across this line in a reader comment:

Good news: You no longer need to fill in a form. It's all done online! Bad news: they were offline.

We were talking about the new South African travel guidelines which now require parents traveling with children to carry a long-form birth certificate with them, or they won't be allowed to travel into or out of South Africa. This reader had gone to apply for said form, while also applying for a new passport, and was pleased to find out that you no longer needed to fill in a form (I think for the passport). It was now all done online! But alas, at the moment the system was offline!

This deadpan comment had me laughing so hard I choked on my coffee. Those two little sentences, like nothing else, epitomize the South African bureaucrazy I so came to loathe during our three expat years. (And yeah, I made a typo, but then decided to leave it, because crazy, right?)

And which, to be fair, gave me so much material to write about. Just search for "Eskom" on my blog and you'll get the picture.

In a way, it's typical of the developing world. Some cumbersome and old-fashioned technologies get leapfrogged and in some cases you get to mobile phones, phone banking, and online forms more quickly than elsewhere. I still miss the ease with which I conducted all our banking in South Africa, transferring funds via EFT without a hitch, and I can't believe I'm back to writing physical checks again now that we're back in the United States, where the checkbook-printing lobby must be uncannily powerful. I just mention that in the spirit of fairness.

But all this leapfrogging doesn't help when there is no guarantee that the new technology actually works or is even understood, and more often than not you're back to square one. I still remember the many trips it took for me to renew the license disk on my car, because at every post office I visited the system was down "at the moment." At one of them, it had been down for over a year.

So, if you're an expat new to South Africa, don't get your hopes up at the promise of something being available online. It might very well float around the Internet somewhere, but if you can't actually connect to it (or, I might add, only do so very slowly at about one megabit per second when you are, in fact, connected), it's back to standing in line at the post office. Or the licensing department. Or Home Affairs. And we all know what that is like.

You'll have to bring a really good book and some strong coffee to brave that.

"A mouse has cut the wire, good-bye!" is what immediately came
to mind when I started writing this post, and I dug out the source
in a box in the basement containing old childrens' books. I'm very
pleased I found it so quickly. An uncluttered basement = expat bonus!

By the way, I'd like to end this with another piece of good news: Those new South African travel guidelines requiring parents traveling with children to carry a long-form birth certificate with them starting October 2014? As seems to be the pattern with controversial new laws floated by the South African government, they have been postponed until June 2015, in the face of enormous pushback as well as an overwhelmed Home Affairs department (though, let's face it, they are ALWAYS overwhelmed, aren't they?). Anyway, everyone can breathe again. Until June at least.

September 15, 2014

How Do I Obtain or Renew a Study Permit for a South African School?

I was astounded how much discussion my recent blog post about the scarcity of space at Johannesburg private schools spurred. While I was aware that this was beginning to pose a problem for expats in South Africa, I didn't know how dire the situation had already become.

But it also prompted questions of a more technical nature concerning attendance at South African schools, and I'd like to highlight one such question from my Facebook Page and some answers here. 


Does anyone have any experience of what is needed in terms of visas for children? We are trying to make our way to SA from the UK on a three year visa for voluntary/charitable work (a saga in itself) and I have been told by the embassy in London that our children need to have study visas issued here in the UK before we travel. Anyone know anything about this at all? 

The SHORT ANSWER is this: After enrolling your child in the school, the school will issue a letter to you that confirms that the child is enrolled, and the duration of the term. You will then submit this letter together with your other documents to Home Affairs to obtain the study permits, which are linked to the overall work permit allowing you or your spouse to work in South Africa.

However, as with every bureaucracy-related issue in South Africa, there are usually many answers, depending who you ask. The best advice usually comes from those who have recently dealt with the same issue, so I thought I'd post all the READER COMMENTS below:

You do need to have a confirmed school place and a letter from the school before you can apply for the study permit. My son didn't have a study permit when we arrived and has just applied for one as he was offered a school place. If you don't have a study permit, I think you need an 'accompanying' visa ( don't remember the terminology).
Yes, the school will issue a letter for the study permit. When our son started at AISJ in Jan '12, he did it on the basis of the study permit application filed in Joburg. We submitted the permit to the school in due course. More recently new children starting Grade 0 (local ovt school like Dainfern College )are given letters a couple of mths before the start of school. While my children received theirs before school started, I know of several who again started based on a copy of application given long processing times. While my son came on an 'accompanying permit', his current renewed visa has the school name and 'accompanying father' status on it. With rules becoming stricter by the day, its a good idea to contact relevant authorities just to be on the safe side.
This may be more than you want to know. We have just gone through the process to renew our boys' study permits. We are Americans, have been in South Africa 4 years and still under my husband's work permit. Our children are now 12 and 15 years old. The boys' study permits expire in December and we submitted the paperwork in July. Here is what we had to submit: a certified copy of our marriage certificate, certified copies of their unabridged birth certificates (which only means the parents names are on the birth certificates too in addition to the regular information), completed and signed medical certificates (a South African form is required), completed and signed radiological report if your child is over 12 years old (again another South African form), 3 months bank statements, proof of medical aid and a letter from their school. We were also told this time the school letter had to include the following information: the school has a vacancy and the pupil is not displacing a South African citizen, the student complies with the language requirements of the school and their academic record is acceptable, the school fees have been paid and that the school will keep the Department of Home Affairs informed if the pupil discontinues studying at that school. I hope this helps. Good luck on the move from the UK to South will love it here!

It seems like the requirements are getting stricter and that what used to be a simple letter has become slightly more intricate, but otherwise the procedure is still the same.

The other part of the question is whether the study permits have to be issued by the embassy in your home country, or whether they can be obtained when in South Africa. In our days (2010-2012), we were able to enter the country on 3-month visitor visas while waiting for the study (and spouse) permits to be issued by Home Affairs. To make sure, I looked up the language on the Department of Home Affairs website:

Study permits must be applied for at any regional office of the Department of Home Affairs near the educational institution you will be studying at or at the nearest South African embassy, mission or consulate abroad... Study permits are valid for the duration of the course for which they are issued, alternatively 36 months for school and 24 months for other institutions.

This seems to confirm that it is possible to obtain the study permit once you are in South Africa. It might help to print out the respective language and bring it with you to show to immigration officers upon entry. At least that's what always worked for me during traffic stops, a whole other adventure. It could be that technically your children won't be allowed to study without the actual permit, meaning they'd have to wait with attending school until the permits are issued, but we've found that the school will be happy to let the children start if they know you'll eventually submit the correct documents for their files. Again, this might have gotten a bit stricter, but I doubt it: Once a school has enrolled your children, it will want to have them, including the school fees!

For your reference, check out the Home Affairs website with the complete listing of requirements for every type of temporary residence permit.

And now, getting back to the scarcity of available private school slots, apparently Johannesburg does not stand alone. Here the comment from Joyanne West, a private school headmaster in Cape Town in response to my article:

May I add that this situation is even worse in Cape Town where there are even fewer private schools. I had 140 applicants for 40 places....the first child was registered on the day of her birth and the 140th child was registered in her 3rd month! Parents from JBurg arrive in CT and cannot believe that there literally are NO spots available.

The only bright spot? Durban. Apparently, school space is not an issue there yet. And with its tropical climate and beautiful beaches, what's not to like about Colorful Durban?

Even though it pains me to say so in my role as the Joburg Expat: If you're an expat mulling over an assignment in South Africa, and if there is a choice of location, give Durban some serious consideration.

September 10, 2014

A First World Problem: We Have No Time

I keep a file on my computer of miscellaneous pictures from our Joburg days. The other day, feeling nostalgic, I felt compelled to post this one on Facebook:

The caption read, Another thing I miss about #Joburg: Skoobs, a cappuccino served in a real mug (most often served with a pretty design on top), and people who have time to share said cappuccino. Come to think of it, that's the thing I miss most - people who have time.

The post went on to outperform all my other recent posts. Don't you love how Facebook screws you and tells you that for $10 it will show this post to all the people who like your page? Well, didn't those people hit LIKE for my page precisely because they WANT to see such posts? Why should I have to pay to reach them? But I guess you can't argue with a free service. Plus, how Facebooks is screwing us wasn't really what I wanted to write about...

The reason the post did so well was because a lot of people responded, mostly other former expat spouses like myself who are nostalgic for the long and leisurely coffee mornings while living in South Africa. Some argued that it was a matter of having domestic help and therefore time for such extravagant pleasures, and there is some truth in that.

But I think there is a bigger underlying theme: As a general rule, people in Africa have more time than people in the Western world. Which is why people in the Western world fall in love with Africa the minute they step on its shores. 

If you think about it, many of our First World Problems (or FWP) have to do with a lack of time. And, as the term suggests, most are self-imposed. It's easy to laugh about them, as in my recent post about coyote sightings and ungainly outhouses, or in this recent article about back to school shopping in the 1970s versus today. I just about cracked up at this opening paragraph:

Back to School, 2014:

1. Take five deep breaths and say a positive affirmation. School begins in two weeks. It is the middle of July. Don’t worry, you still have time to order BPA-free bento boxes and authentic Indian tiffins made with special stainless steel that did not involve any child-labor, sweat shops or animal cruelty. Remember, you have Amazon Prime. You can get the free two day shipping and you will have plenty of time to read reviews and make this very important decision because your kids are in summer “camp” which is actually just another word for school in the summer because OH MY GOD you were so tired that day you had to have them home all day with you and you couldn't go to your restorative flow class at yoga. And that was also the day something went terribly wrong with the homemade glitter cloud dough recipe that was supposed to go in their sensory bin and the very same day that they were out of soy milk at Starbucks and you had to immediately email corporate to let them know that duh, they should actually be selling almond milk and/ or coconut milk. Get with it Starbucks. Soy is so 90s. Ugh, but you digress. The tiffin. The bento boxes…

Go on, read the entire article, you'll laugh out loud. If you're a parent to school-age children, you'll totally see yourself in the 2014 version of it.

But it's not really a laughing matter, is it? Never since the beginning of time have we had so many gadgets at our disposal as today, gadgets for our entertainment but also our convenience that are meant to make our lives easier. And yet all they seem to do is make them more complicated. Just reading the above had me feeling out of breath:

The urgent need to research everything to death
The feeling that another parent is going to trump you with more research and better stuff
The idea that if we don't explore all the options we somehow fail our children
The rushing around to buy the perfect props for our kids
The obsessive need to then instantly communicate our trials and accomplishments with the world via Facebook and Instagram and God knows what else that thankfully isn't on my radar yet

About two years ago, in People who have Time and People who Don't, I wrote this:
Americans are busy. We have no time to spare. We fill every minute of our day with activity, and when that turns out not to be enough we find ways that allow us to do ten activities at once. We complain that we never have any time, and yet when we are faced with the prospect of an empty stretch of half a morning, we sign up for yoga lessons..

While on some level we all know this, and admit that overscheduling ourselves and our children isn't in anyone's best interest, we struggle to change our lives.

Until we arrive in Africa and have our eyes opened.

From all my conversations with returning expats, the biggest concern by far is not how their children will catch up in school or whether they'll make new friends or what the new job is going to be like. It is whether they can resist being sucked back into the rat race.

How can we live in the First World and have time?

You might also like: The Unannounced Playdate

September 4, 2014

Expat 2.0: Remake, Refurbish, Improve

I recently came across an article which, on the surface, had nothing much to do with expats. Rather, it was about philosophy. However, as I've found is so often the case, life as an expat provides the perfect backdrop to the philosophical viewpoint discussed.

Every philosopher, so The Wisdom of the Exile went, could benefit from being sent into some form of exile at least once in their lives. They should be "exiled, displaced, deported - that should be part of their training... For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas."

Substitute "person" for philosopher, and "expat assignment" for exile, and there you have what has become my firm belief: Having lived as an expat at least once in your life will make you a more well-rounded person. Of this I have no doubt. To become such a person, you have to have an open mind. And to have an open mind, you have to be shown, again and again, that your preconceived notions about places and races and cultures are probably wrong. Or if not completely wrong, so at least very incomplete.

When you first arrive abroad and don't have the first clue as to how things work, you have to rely on helpful people around you to show you the ropes. You immediately accept that they know more than you, no matter what their level of education might be, and that you best listen and learn. If you don't, you probably won't have an enjoyable expat experience. You learn that what you thought you knew wasn't even close to being enough, you learn to be humble and listen, you learn to go with the flow and accept imperfection, you learn to find beauty in unexpected places.

If you never leave home, you "envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what's under your nose... Because everything has become so evident, you've stopped seeing anything." I'd say that is particularly true to those of us who've grown up in a comfortable Western middle class life. What an awakening it is when you first go out into the world and realize how pampered you've been, and how petty your First World Problems seem by comparison. But it works the other way too. Upon returning to the U.S. from South Africa, I noticed bits and pieces of American culture that never really stood out to me before, just because I hadn't been surrounded with them for a while. Had I not written about them quickly, while they were still fresh, they soon would have faded back into the commonplace.

"As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways." Don't you think that's a beautiful sentence? This is what being an expat blogger comes down to: Essentially, you're retelling the same story in many different ways. The story is always about life, love, failure, perseverance, betrayal, and redemption. And expat life provides a treasure trove of different hooks into that same story, new paths springing up in front of you with each move you undertake. Without being uprooted from your old world and dumped into a new one, more or less stripped naked to the core, you might never get the chance to get to that new level of seeing things.

When you go abroad, you also get a tiny chance to reinvent yourself. Because nobody knows you there, nobody has pegged you to be anything other than what they see as they're getting to know you. "Selves can be re-made from scratch, reassembled and refurbished." Don't you love the idea of Refurbished You, You 2.0, or The Story of You 2nd Edition? As scary as it seems, as inconvenient as it appears, getting a chance to remake yourself into something new and better should be appreciated for the incredible gift it truly is.

When you remake yourself, just be sure to fit the pieces together correctly.

Quite apart from all this philosophy talk, and even if you have no desire to become a better person, never leaving home would be terribly boring, don't you think? It would be like being stuck at Level One of a video game, completing the same tasks over and over without any challenge. Of course no one lives their life like that. There are plenty of challenges along the way, no matter whether you leave or stay put. I don't want to belittle the rocky road many people find themselves on. But becoming an expat has a way of speeding up your life, of making it more flavorful, of helping you evolve faster, and of perhaps making some challenges go away altogether - if only because you find yourself redefining what constitutes a challenge and what doesn't.

And finally, as for that "increasingly thicker veil of familiarity" you might eventually suffocate under if you always stay in the same place - the same can be said of an increasingly thicker pile of "stuff." Most of my friends groan about garages and attics that have to be uncluttered from years of unfettered accumulation. They turn green with envy when I tell them I have none of that. "Exiles travel light," and so do expats. Part of it is necessity - you are forced to purge or your container won't close - but another part is the realization that stuff is not all that important.

We don't need stuff, we need friends. And memories.

So, even if it might not have made me into a better person, I can definitively say that my expat life so far has given me an uncluttered garage, plus friends and memories for a lifetime.

Who can ask for more?

Also check out:
Being an Expat Means...
The Expat Toilet
How to Be a Successful Expat

We don't need stuff, we need friends. Especially BFFs. (drawing by Sunshine)

Seychelles Mama

September 1, 2014

The Last Word

The Problem with you, Mom, is that you always have to have the last word.

Excuse me? A teenager was accusing ME of having the last word, when there isn't a teenager in this family, or possibly the entire world, who doesn't ALWAYS have the last word?

I was sitting at the dinner table, surrounded by four glowering children, stunned at my recent and utter defeat at the hands of those very same children. I had lost this skirmish, I felt, if not the entire battle, with regards to giving my children helpful advice about their future life. I suck at debating and they had thoroughly trounced me.

The argument had started, ironically, with a discussion about debate as an extracurricular activity I felt it was important for them to engage in, so as to hone their debating skills should they ever need them in real life. One of them, I think it was Sunshine, mentioned they were going to sign up for book club after school, and instead of telling her how happy that made me and then shutting my mouth, I just couldn't help myself. I HAD to throw in a helpful reminder, otherwise known as nagging, to all the other kids.

I turned to my high school senior:

It's not too late for you to do some charity work or outreach, I let him know, ever so helpfully. For the college application, you know, which by the way you REALLY have to start working on this weekend.


I couldn't stop.

I know you still have a few years, I said to the sophomore, and this would be a good time to start. I just saw an invitation to debate camp in the school newsletter.

More silence.

I really should have stopped there. There was no chance they didn't properly hear me and I had made my point. I could still shut my mouth and exit gracefully. But a little devil on my shoulder possessed me and I was going for the Holy Grail of motherhood, even though we mothers all know that it is absolutely and without question impossible to ever reach it. By this of course I mean two simple words: "Yes, Mother."

I addressed my 8th grader: You're not in high school yet, but this is a good time to start thinking about what extracurriculars you might pick when you are.

Nothing more, and you'd think she would have by now learned to take the cue from her brothers and respond to this with silence as well. But no. She is too much like me for that, and totally rose to the bait.

I'LL NEVER DO A STUPID OUTREACH THING JUST BECAUSE YOU SAY SO! DO YOU HEAR, NEVER! IT ISN'T ANY FUN! (Yes, she said it in all caps, just like that; except the word FUN was in even more all caps than the rest.)

Of course I couldn't let that stand on so many levels starting at Stupid and ending at Not Fun, let alone the yelling, and so a vicious debate ensued, with all three teenagers raining their arguments on me, one of which was the aforementioned admonishment about me having to have the last word, and therefore it all being my fault, delivered in a dead calm voice by Number Two.

What hurt so much was that he was absolutely right. My kids had made me look bad, and they knew that I knew. They had also shown me that debate, in fact, might not be the extracurricular activity they need any more practice in. They are plenty proficient.

Oh the times when my children were not yet debating me into the ground and consented instead
to be lined up in personalized bins for the Christmas photo shoot! Come to think of it, perhaps
the recent spate in debates about everything is a direct payback for silly photo shoots in their past.

I did indeed get the last words that day. I'm not proud of them. They were, shouted over my back as I was running out of the house: One day I will leave for WEEKS at a time and then you can see how you will get everything done by yourself. See how much FUN that is!

Like I said, I was not proud of them. My mother regularly said similar things to me and my brothers when we were growing up, and if there was one mistake of hers I had vowed I was never going to repeat, it was that one.

But what do you know, maybe it's not such a big mistake.

I returned that night (from Parent Night at school, I might add, so not anything really fun for me either), and I've never encountered such solicitous and helpful children. The dishwasher was emptied for me, someone offered to help me put new sheets on a bed, and somebody else grated cheese for dinner without prompting. I'm tempted to have the last word more often.

Maybe it can be my new Friday night routine.

What was your lowest parenting moment? Do share!