Joburg Expat: March 2014

March 28, 2014

I Published My First Travel Memoir!

I've been accused of being too chatty, so I will suppress my natural urge to go on gushing about how nice it feels to have published my first book. Here it is, and below you can start reading right away:



Prologue


September 2009

It’s a cold and windy day in Overland Park, Kansas. I’m sitting at my computer, not sure what to think.

Do we stay where we are, or do we move our family of six to Johannesburg, South Africa? It would be yet another continent to add to our list of places to call home. It would be exciting. And it would give the kids an opportunity to go to school in a new country, something they haven’t experienced yet.

In addition, it would allow me to upgrade my job description to “expat wife” – an idea that seems vastly more alluring than my daily housewife drudgery of cooking, overseeing homework, and splitting up sibling squabbles.

But we’ve only been in Kansas for three years, after a period of frequent moves all over the country, and aren’t particularly stir-crazy. The kids are happy in their various schools, I’ve got the sports scene figured out, we have an orthodontist and a hairdresser we like – in short, our life is one big, comfortable routine.

What’s more, I’ve just shut the lid of my laptop in disgust. I was looking at some web pages in an effort to find out more about life in South Africa, and I’m utterly discouraged by what I’ve seen. If I am to believe what is posted in one expat forum after another, South Africa – and the city of Johannesburg in particular – is a cesspit of crime. If we are so foolish as to move there, I have read, we’ll be carjacked and possibly murdered before we even make it from the airport to our house. We’ll have fingers chopped off to get to our jewelry, we’ll be accosted by gun-wielding thugs when we retrieve money from an ATM, and we’ll have rocks thrown into our windshields when waiting at a red light while criminals make off with our cell-phones. If we survive all of this, we’ll probably die in a car wreck because everyone is advised to “never stop at a red light.”

Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to move to such a dangerous place? It sure seems like it. All of our friends and relatives apparently agree. “Johannesburg? You must be out of your mind,” is one of the milder reactions we’ve gotten when cautiously floating the idea in recent weeks. Just going there by ourselves, is the consensus, would be foolish enough. But taking our children to the world’s murder capital, a label that the city of Johannesburg – unfairly or not – has been stuck with since the downfall of the apartheid regime, is tantamount to gross negligence, if not worse. “Don’t go,” we’re hearing from all sides.

Perhaps it’s because I hate being told what I can’t do. Or perhaps a life of moves, first without children and then with them, has programmed my inner clock to once again become impatient for a change of scenery, routines be damned. What if there is another side to life in Africa, one that I’ll have to dig deeper to understand?

I’m struck by a sudden thought, and I open my computer once again. As expected, Googling “Kilimanjaro” yields an entirely more promising collection of links than “Expat in Johannesburg,” and before long I’m completely hooked.

A seed has been planted.

Part I – The Planning


“Nowadays, when all the world is on the move, and all sorts of traveling requisites are at the traveler’s command, the difficulty is not so much to know what to take as what to omit.”

– Dr. Hans Meyer, first to summit Mount Kilimanjaro


To Climb or Not to Climb Kilimanjaro


December 2011

We did move to South Africa in early 2010, arriving quite safely at our house that first day, fingers and windshields intact. Without waiting for a new routine to settle into, we embarked on a whirlwind of travel and adventure, fueled in equal measure by the knowledge that any expat assignment eventually ends and must be exploited, and by the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings. By now almost two years have passed, and the snows of Kilimanjaro are looming as distant as ever, even though I’ve been harboring the secret idea of climbing to Africa’s roof from the moment I stepped onto its shores.

I can’t tell you what drove me to read up on the ins and outs of climbing Kilimanjaro before we even settled on a South African school to send our children to. I’m not a mountain climber. I’m not particularly outdoorsy. I don’t even like going for walks all that much and would rather sit at my computer with a steaming cup of coffee. Klaus, my husband, often raves about the “fresh air” in an attempt to lure me and the kids – who are often as firmly glued to their electronic devices as I am to mine – out into the great outdoors. But you know what? I vastly prefer warm air over fresh air.

I’m rather a couch potato, if I’m completely honest. I do like the odd adventure, but mainly for the purpose of writing about it afterwards. While I’m living it, I usually can’t wait to get it behind me already so that I can take my shower and start my story, which invariably is funnier in hindsight than while it’s happening.

I’m not one to make bucket lists, either. I do like to make lists, but they are of the mundane variety: “Make dentist appointment,” “Repair sprinkler head,” and, lately, “Figure out how the hell to kill the mole that’s destroying our lawn.” If I did make any bucket lists, climbing a mountain is possibly the last thing I’d put on there. I’m terrified of heights, and I might even be more terrified of being cold, both of which are hard to avoid when you go mountain-climbing.

In fact, I can come up with a million other reasons why not to climb Kilimanjaro. I might get sick, for instance. I’m not a hypochondriac, but the ways you could possibly get sick on Mount Kilimanjaro, a little bit of research will tell you, are mind-boggling. Apart from the dreaded altitude sickness forcing many a traveler to a premature descent (or killing those who don’t have the good sense to turn around), there are a myriad other illnesses that could make life miserable for you on the mountain. If you don’t get attacked by a vicious stomach ailment from contaminated water, get an infected blister on your heel, or suffer from a broken bone after tumbling down a deep scree slope, you might still succumb to illness after your trip when malaria – only a threat during the two nights at the base hotel but that might be all it takes – catches up with you when you think you’re safely home again.

I’m also not really looking for any more excitement in my life. From that fateful day we decided to ignore all the warnings and give South Africa a try, we’ve embraced being expats and taking in as much of the country as we possibly can. It’s so easy to get sucked in by the demands of everyday life, wherever you might live, and totally forget that you are in the most exotic place you’ve ever been, but probably not for much longer. We know this from experience. South Africa isn’t the first expat assignment for our family, you see. When the boys were little, at the end of the last century (I love being able to say that!), we lived in Singapore for a few years. Incidentally, this was also the beginning of my housewife existence, as it was Klaus’ job that took us there, not mine. As soon as we arrived I took on my new role with a vengeance and with as much drive as I had previously mustered for marketing plans and team-building exercises. I got so busy instituting nap regimens, sticker charts, and potty-training routines, let alone trying to convince “no English lah” repairmen to fix our air conditioning, that I almost forgot there was a tantalizing and exotic world out there to be explored. We did venture to some normally faraway places like New Zealand and Indonesia, but in retrospect not nearly enough of them. We departed, pregnant with our third child and full of regrets about countries not visited.

So far we’ve more than made up for it here, exploring not only South Africa, which by itself already offers a lifetime of interesting vacation spots, but also even more exotic locales such as Victoria Falls, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, and Zanzibar. We’ve been kissed by elephants, petted a cheetah, dived with great white sharks, held a newborn lion, hurled ourselves off bridges and out of airplanes (okay, not all of us), swum in the Okavango, and paddled down the Zambezi. We’ve gotten as much adventure out of this life as one possibly can.

Surely I, a housewife and mother of four children with more than enough on my plate, do not need to go scale one of the major mountains in the world?

And yet, that is precisely what I want to do. My gut tells me that if I leave Africa without at least trying to see the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I’ll feel incomplete. And it’s not because of some yearning to add another exotic destination to the list. All I can think is that deep within me I must have a longing to do something meaningful, something to break up the years between child-bearing and retirement, to scale something of magnitude. But not too much magnitude, mind you, and if you think about it, Mount Kilimanjaro is the perfect candidate for just such a mid-magnitude type of endeavor.

It’s high – high enough to make for some labored breathing up top, if you even make it that far – but not prohibitively high. It’s the highest mountain on an entire continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world, rendering your feat just a little bit more special. And consider the latitude. If I am to have any chance of not freezing to death on a mountain’s summit, the only one in the world sitting smack on the equator is the obvious choice.

Or maybe Ernest Hemingway is to blame, although I’ve never been a big fan of his writing. Who doesn’t equate “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” with sweeping African savannah, camps in the bush, and servants aplenty to obey your every command and guide you on the right path while carrying your gun?

I admit it’s this last image that sealed the deal for me: the prospect of someone else lugging not my gun, but my sleeping bag and wet wipes and water bottles together with tents and a mountain of food for seven days, while I leisurely stroll behind.

Okay, not so leisurely, it turns out. But you get the picture.

Where else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship?


To continue, download 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 from the Amazon.com Kindle store. 

Also available in other countries on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.in, Amazon.fr, Amazon.es, Amazon.it, Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.com.br, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.mx, and Amazon.com.au.

March 26, 2014

Kilimanjaro Diaries Available on Kindle Bookshelf Soon!

Finally, FINALLY, I'm approaching the finish line. I knew that book publishing would be a humongous chore, but it was an even bigger chore. A lot of nitpicky formatting work, like getting a numbered list converted to Kindle format (full disclosure: it didn't). But also a lot of agonizing decision making, like which font size should the subtitles be?

Oh the joy of being so close to hitting that "publish" button. I can't wait and my fingers are itchy, but I wanted to give you all a heads-up so you'll have the benefit of a little anticipation before 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 goes live on Amazon.com.

Stay tuned!




Nowhere else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship.

This realization convinces housewife, mother of four, and expat blogger Eva Melusine Thieme that her idea to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as the crowning achievement of her three years in Africa isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it has all the trappings of a dream vacation: no cooking, no fighting kids, no class parties to be organized, and an army of porters to lug everything up the mountain.

But she soon finds out that the list of challenges and discomforts associated with scaling Kilimanjaro is long: sub-zero temperatures, blistered feet, long drop toilets (of which, you may learn, the drops are not nearly as long as they have once been, if you get the drift!), and the ever-threatening altitude sickness no one can quite escape from. Her climb turns into the greatest challenge she has ever faced, and ultimately she must make a fateful decision on that mountain, one that will have her question the meaning of life, identity, and family.

Part guide book, part travel memoir, part history lesson, this story has something for everyone – the seasoned hiker, the aspiring Kilimanjaro trekker, the armchair traveler, the housewife and mother. You will find yourself smile and at times laugh out loud as Thieme takes you on her journey up the slopes of Kilimanjaro together with her teenage son and a group of opinionated South African friends. From planning the trip to shopping for supplies to trudging uphill wishing with all her heart for an ice cold sip of water untainted by chlorination tablets, you will follow the author step by step on her quest to stand on the summit of Kilimanjaro or at least have a memorable time trying.

Warning: You might be determined to climb Mount Kilimanjaro yourself after reading this book!

March 24, 2014

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

It's not just the destination, it's the journey.

I've said this about my Kilimanjaro Climb*, and the same is true for how we've been able to get baseball equipment from the United States into the hands of underprivileged kids in South Africa.

Sure, if we had a lot of money, it would be easy as pie: gather donations, or even buy second hand equipment, and hire someone to fill out all the paperwork and ship it to Johannesburg. Done and dusted, destination reached.

But then there wouldn't be a story to tell.

One of the baseball collections for Alexandra Baseball, this one
assembled by Pitch in for Baseball, a U.S. based nonprofit.

The first one begins with my friend Heidi Rozman in Waukesha, Wisconsin. We only lived there for one year from 2006-2007 (more precisely, it felt like one long winter), but were blessed with the most wonderful neighbors, Heidi among them. When years later she learned of my involvement with the Alexandra Baseball
club after our family had moved first to Kansas and then to South Africa, she took it upon herself to reach out to the local high school (Kettle Moraine High School) and ask them for discarded equipment and uniforms. She drove back and forth to collect it all and stored it in her garage until such time as a viable path across the Atlantic presented itself.

It did soon enough, in the form of the Graham family from very near Waukesha, right in Heidi's backyard, who was in the process of moving their household to Johannesburg. How more perfect could it be? They met, exchanged the stuff, and a few months later it arrived at my doorstep in Dainfern Valley, together with at least 200 jumbo muffin cup liners I seem to have also requested "from America." I also made a good new friend in Pam Graham, who cooks the best German food and has wonderful stories to tell.

As new equipment was constantly pouring in thanks to Heidi's tireless efforts, we soon needed a new shipping plan. It emerged in the form of the Doty family of Houston, also with ample container space for baseball gear. (Or it might have been the Doty's first and then the Graham's - don't hold me to exact dates.) Julie Graf, my former Waukesha neighbor on the other side from the Rozman's, pitched in by having it shipped to Houston, and once again, a few months later, I found myself the recipient of not only the needed bats and helmets, but also two huge jars of Mexican chili powder and a bag of Starbucks beans I also seem to have requested in exchange for information on life in Johannesburg. And, as before, a good new friend, Paige Doty, entered my Dainfern circle.


Do you get the idea? My life has been incredibly enriched by all these machinations, a win-win situation all around. It's the incredible journey of all this baseball gear, and all the people who've met each other because of it, that makes me grateful I set foot into Alexandra that fateful day in 2010, even though it scared the living crap out of me (I had been told to never ever go there, if I loved my life).

I won't go into the details of all of the other tales of pants and mitts and baseballs and cleats reaching me in a similar fashion, because there are too many of them. You can read some of them here and here and here.

But there is one last story of the globetrotting baseball bag to share, the one with the most circuitous route to date. Stay tuned to hear it in my next post!


* Just a few more days until 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 is available for download on your Kindle.

March 6, 2014

Title-Gate

The good news is, my book about my Kilimanjaro adventure is coming out soon.

The bad news is, I can't decide on the frikkin' (as co-climber Mike would phrase it) title! I've been agonizing longer about that title than my daughter does about deciding what to order in a restaurant. Before she gets the chicken nuggets.

I'm pretty sure I'll also end up with the chicken nuggets choice of book titles. Kilimanjaro Diaries is what I've been calling it all along, and there's a good chance I'll stick with that. Not all that creative, but safe.

The question, at this point, lies with the subtitle. Every non-fiction book out there has a subtitle, and for good reason: you need to give your readers an inkling what it's about. And not just in terms of content. You also make them a promise of what to expect, a preview into your style perhaps, a dangling of the fruit, an answer to the question: Will I be entertained by this? That is all any reader cares about.

Against the advice of some people (you'll get 50 different opinions and no real answer!), I decided to ask some readers for title feedback in this blog post on my author website, and also on Facebook, by posting the cover with its working title, Kilimanjaro Diaries: The Housewife Guide to Climbing Africa’s Highest Peak. I did get back 50 different opinions and no real answer, but I also learned something else: the word "housewife" seems to stir a firestorm of emotions in people. Some folks (okay, men) are sure that outing yourself as a housewife strips you of all credibility as an author, dooming your book. Some folks think it is demeaning (especially, it seems, the folks who have no problem with you performing those "demeaning" tasks housewives typically perform - I won't name any names), and some (but fewer) folks think using the word in conjunction with Kilimanjaro is funny.

It caused such a debate that instead of abandoning the housewife, I felt like doubling down on her. I felt like the honor of all housewives the world over might be at stake. I felt like throwing down the gauntlet, with a title like Kilimanjaro Diaries: Housewives Can't Go Mountain Climbing. 

But having already opened that can of worms, I decided it wouldn't hurt to ask you for feedback one more time. Here I give you the three titles I've winnowed my considerable list down to:


Pole Pole 
Memoirs of a Housewife on Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro Diaries 
Or, how I spent a week trudging uphill, drinking crappy water, and making bad jokes while having the time of my life

Kilimanjaro Diaries 
Walk Slowly, Bring Wet Wipes, and Other Survival Tips


To go with this cover, for those of you who haven't seen it yet:



I kind of like #2, but I know my cover artist, Nicole, will hate it. Where to put all those extra words? Isn't that what the inside of the book is for? I can already feel her accusing stare.

Tell me what you think. This is the last time I'll ask. All editing is done, and the book is going into production tomorrow. (Ha, how lofty that sounds! I'll write another blog post about what, exactly, that entails, but I can already tell you that it will involve some housewife duties.) 

Please comment below. Don't hold back. The housewives can take it.

The Right Papers

Apartheid is a word you will have heard almost immediately upon moving to South Africa, or perhaps even earlier. It is of Afrikaans origin and means, roughly, the separation and classification of people according to race. It's a term inextricably linked with South Africa's fascinating history. I've talked a little bit about Apartheid before:

I've told you about the Apartheid Museum. It's the best place, should you find yourself in Johannesburg, to learn more about it.

I've told you about the history of Apartheid and how, in its day, it led to such strange concepts as the term Honorary White for American black dignitaries visiting the country. 

I've told you about Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela spent a good portion of his life languishing in prison as a result of his acts of defiance and sabotage in opposition to the policy of Apartheid.

But what I haven't talked much about is what life during Apartheid times (from 1948 until 1990) was like. How difficult it was for non-whites. How the Group Areas Act forbid you to own property in most of the desirable areas of town. How there were pass laws that made it a crime to be caught outside of your designated area at the wrong time. How almost every facet of your life was dictated by the color of your skin. 

I couldn't really tell you much about any of this, because I wasn't there to witness it. That's why I was so happy to recently come across a book that does just that. It is called The Right Papers, by Nico Bester. It is a collection of short stories that are all set in the time of Apartheid, all of them interconnected with each other in a clever way. They feature everyday people from all stations of life, of various racial backgrounds, and from all corners of South Africa, who sometimes resort to extraordinary actions to adapt to life under such arbitrary rules. From the Coloured woman who obtains a forged birth certificate for her son so that he can "pass" as white and go to a better school, to the impoverished weed-smuggling wife in a township near Durban, all of the actors in these vignettes about ordinary life in 1970s and 80s South Africa are so real and believable, you might think you could have known them yourself.

You might think that these stories are bleak, but they are not. In fact, I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times. I was reminded of Roald Dahl and his plot twists that often end in the macabre. Yes, there is human tragedy, fueled by the suspicion and fear Apartheid stirred in people, but there is so much more in this book. The relationships between the people in these stories are beautifully described, and the character development is exquisite. I also enjoyed the lively dialog, peppered with some wonderful Afrikaans phrases.

The Right Papers is not a condemnation of Apartheid, even though it will give you more than a glimpse into what living under its yoke was like. It is a celebration of everyday people, of the stubborn striving for daily survival, of the ingenuity of regular people in the face of insurmountable obstacles. And it is yet another wonderful snapshot of life in Africa.