July 31, 2014

We Will No Longer Accept Money Out of Undergarments

I recently posted the following picture on my Facebook page, because I thought it was funny:

But then the post took on a life of its own. A South African living abroad took issue, thinking it might not even be from South Africa (which I admit may very well be true!) and made South Africa look bad. In response, many of my readers chimed in with their own views on such humor and whether it is demeaning or not. Most agreed that it helps, rather than hurts, to share humorous facts about a country, whether they are all that accurate or not. I for one like to draw in people with funny pictures on my Facebook page, in hopes that they then are encouraged to read the more serious stuff I've written about South Africa over the years.

More importantly, many readers chimed in with their own anecdotes, some of them involving undergarments, and some not.

One reader, an American currently living in South Africa, reported buying a newspaper just a few days before and her change being pulled out of a "Joburg bra," as she phrased it.

Another reader had spent long expat years in Mali and confessed to always keeping money in her bra. It was part of the cultural training, of sorts. She still finds it a very practical storage location when short of another place to put her cash.

Now I'm sure the sign above was probably not taking aim at bras, primarily, but OTHER undergarments. And I can see how somebody finally decided to put it up, if this was indeed a recurring issue at that store. But before we condemn people carrying stuff in their underwear, let's remember that some of these places are not sanitized Main Street USA but rather dangerous and ridden with pickpockets. Actually, those can be anywhere. When I was touring the Louvre last summer with my kids - apparently a haven for pickpockets - I confess I temporarily shoved my iPhone into an undergarment of mine while being pushed around in the throng of people wanting a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. And it was not my bra.

But lest you now accuse me of too much potty humor (guilty as charged!), here is a story that doesn't involve any undergarments at all.

One reader told me they had a handyman that worked for her family a few years back. One day, his car was stolen. Eventually after much drama he retrieved the stolen car but the tires were gone. Good employers that they were, they helped him replace the tires, after which he came up with an inventive new security system. It involved drilling a hole through his bedroom wall to the outside, and his plan was that each night he would tie one end of a string to the car parked outside, feed the string through the hole in the wall and tie the other end to his big toe. She says they worked hard to eventually talk him out of his plan and potentially losing a toe while he lay sleeping, and that thankfully to this day he still has his car AND his big toe.

With that I'll now leave you to contemplate your own stories of life in Africa or beyond. Do you have any to share? We'd love to hear them!

July 14, 2014

You Know You've Been Away from Germany for Too Long When...

  1. You are alarmed when your car turns itself off at every red light.
  2. You wonder what to do with the gigantic hotel room key. It's an actual key! With a huge weight on it!
  3. You can't manage to squeeze your car into the tiny parking space.
  4. You are annoyed when it takes your waiter 15 minutes to acknowledge that you're there even though he can perfectly well see you sitting there craning your neck.
  5. You find yourself stopping at every bakery display and salivating over the bread rolls.
  6. You have to hunt for change before you can load up your grocery cart because you don't have a Euro coin for unlocking the cart.
  7. You are startled by the demarcation line, sometimes an outright chasm, down the middle of German hotel beds and wonder if Germany's low birth rate might have something to do with that.
  8. Even though you are for energy conservation, you feel like personally taking up Sarah Palin's battle cry  (or was it Michele Bachmann?) and replacing every light bulb in the bathroom with something that actually brightens up the room immediately after you flip the switch, not five minutes later.
  9. You've gotten spoiled by softer tissue fibers (aka toilet paper) on your bare cheeks than what the Germans are prepared to offer you.
  10. You watch a movie and are appalled when Brad Pitt talks to you in a strange and not nearly sexy enough voice.
  11. It's a warm summer day and you are happy for those poor folks to finally have some nice weather but then you are startled when everyone around you complains about the heat wave and "the terrible humidity."
  12. You politely stand in line waiting at the breakfast buffet but eventually realize that you'll have to whack somebody over the head  and muscle your way to the food if you want to eat. 
  13. You get post-traumatic stress disorder after grocery shopping and running the gauntlet of the checkout line where you have to bag your own groceries at lightning speed or be ostracized by the community of German grocery shoppers and checkout clerks.
  14. You have no clue whether it's called Der, Die, or Das iPad.
  15. You see a picture of Boris Becker and wonder how you could ever have had a crush on him.

The Divide of Infertility
Ginormous room key

Mouth watering bakery display

July 6, 2014

From World Cup to World Cup: Soccer, Poverty, and Determination

Yesterday's New York Times featured an article that caught my attention. It was about villagers in the Amazon and how they struggle to play soccer during the rainy season. The fields are often flooded and some games have to be played wearing life preservers, because retrieving the ball may involve jumping into the water. Undeterred by the slippery surfaces of makeshift fields or dangerous wildlife lurking in the Amazonian waters, o jogo bonito, The Beautiful Game, goes on, especially during this exciting year when the Soccer World Cup has come to their own home country.

I expect you could easily take a very similar picture in one of Sao Paolo's favelas, but this
one was taken in the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg in 2010.

Nothing, it seems, can keep a determined kid from kicking the ball around.

This reminds me very much of South Africa in 2010. In fact, there are many parallels between the two countries and the two consecutive World Cups:

Both Brazil and South Africa are saddled with extreme divisions between the poor and the rich.

Both countries have a large population of young people, a certain vibe, a passion for football, as it is called everywhere but the United States, a flair for music and dancing.

Both have faced a lot of skepticism about their ability to pull off the miracle of getting everything ready for the World Cup, of providing the infrastructure and security necessary for such a large-scale event. In fact, Brazil's recent struggles made South Africa look positively professional in hindsight.

Both teams wear yellow jerseys that can easily be mistaken for one another.

And in both countries you see, again and again, people rising to the top of their game against all odds. Kids from the slums who have everything stacked against them - no facilities, no access to professional coaches, no transportation, often not enough food - manage to somehow excel in their sport, armed with pure determination and grit and perhaps a nothing-to-lose attitude.

South Africa never made it out of the group stage four years ago, so there is one glaring difference to Brazil, whose team is in the semi-finals with a good chance to take the trophy. (Although this writer here is hoping for them to lose their very next game.) But those kids near Manaus sliding around an old barge converted into a soccer field very much reminded me of my Alexandra Baseball team a few years back. One time I arrived in Alexandra (always a bit nervous on account of the high crime rate and the multiple warnings to never set foot there as a white person) with a trunkful of baseball equipment imported from the United States. We dumped it all out onto the red clay near the house - some would call it a shack - of one of the coaches. A few kids were there, hovering excitedly, eyes eagerly on the bonanza in front of them but patiently waiting their turn to touch a glove, try on a jersey. Before I knew it, a pickup game had started and balls were flying through the streets of Alexandra, right then and there, no field necessary.

I suppose broken windows aren't a concern where many are already broken.

But more than that it was the pure joy of the game that fueled these kids.

The excitement of new (or rather sort of old, to be honest) equipment arriving in Alexandra;
I love how everyone ambled over to check it out, even the dog.

The joy of the game, wherever you happen to be.

Another time we were walking through a township near Cape Town. A hike gone a little awry due to my poor planning. I was trailed by my four grumbling kids and two visiting boys from Germany, slightly less grumbling out of politeness but nonetheless not very happy to be walking when one could have driven instead, or better yet, been treated to another exciting bungy jumping adventure or some such thing. All around us were the local kids kicking a soccer ball, or what passed for one: A wadded-up clump of newspaper taped together into something resembling a ball. They'd probably never heard of a bungy jump or known anyone who owned a car, and yet they seemed so happy trailing along behind us, almost mocking us with their playfulness. And of course they were very good.

If you love what you do you can do great things. How many of our own privileged kids with every toy at their disposal can summon that same kind of love for simply throwing or kicking the ball? I do wonder if my own kids will ever develop that same kind of passion for anything in life. For their sake I hope that they do.

I hope that Africa has taught them that.

I'm now going to veer away from soccer even though that's what I started out with. But if you love the spirit of the World Cup, if you love the game of baseball, or if you'd simply like to be involved in something very special, check out what we've done with Alexandra Baseball in South Africa. You can also Like their Facebook page here.

And if you feel like it, make a small donation below towards much-needed equipment and transport expenses. 98% of all donations (can't get around the PayPal fee) go directly into a fund managed by Natalie and Andy Irwin, who so graciously and competently took over the Alexandra Baseball project after my departure.

July 1, 2014

Joburg Expat, The Book, and Why I'm Dragging You Up a Mountain Instead

"I love reading your blog, when will you write 'Joburg Expat The Book'?" is a questions I've gotten more than once over the years.

Now I have written and published my first book, and it has nothing to do with being an expat or living in Johannesburg, seeing as its main action takes you to almost 4,000 kilometers from there. And somehow this makes me feel like I've betrayed my readers in some way.


...versus Kilimanjaro

So why choose Kilimanjaro over Joburg?

I think it's a combination of things:

  1. Write what you know. Every author will tell you this, and it's true. You're at your best when you write about the things you know. This doesn't mean all your work has to be non-fiction. The world would be a sad place if every author did that. But it means you have to write about the things that are true for you, that engage you emotionally, that you feel passionate about. And the best time to write about them is when you feel most deeply about them and can give the most feeling to your words. Kilimanjaro just happened onto my life when it did and left a deep emotional impact, and I felt like I had to seize the chance to write about it or it would slip away.

  2. Perhaps I'm a bit lazy. Honestly, if you have a choice between writing a book about 7 days and one about 3 years, which one do you pick? Although Kilimanjaro Diaries ended up spanning about 7 months rather than days, that is still a lot more manageable than 3 entire years jam-packed with tales about traffic cops, African time, and ballboxes. I chose what seemed to be the easier route. Though in the end, all books are a lot of work, regardless, I can promise you that much.

  3. I'm also a bit of a perfectionist. Getting 'Joburg Expat The Book' just right - starting with finding a better title than 'Joburg Expat The Book' (I wage epic battles with titles, see Title-Gate) - seems like a monumental task, and not just because of the time it would span. In fact, I might even limit the story to a year, since books with titles like 'A Year in the City of Crime' seem to be in fashion. There you go, there is a title that would capture readers. Anyway, the reason that book sounds really daunting to me is that the topic is so dear to my heart. Don't get me wrong, Mount Kilimanjaro is also important to me, but I spent a week of my life there, not three years. And Joburg Expat, the blog, has been at the center of my life for so long, I'm a bit scared of screwing it up by not doing it justice in a book. You might consider Kilimanjaro Diaries a trial run of sorts, a rehearsal for the big stage.

  4. Maybe it's none of these things. Maybe it was pure chance, and the fact that I was sitting in a hotel room on Grand Cayman last summer with an itch to write, a bad Internet connection keeping me away from my blog and Facebook, and just happening upon a backup of my Kili blog posts. Sometimes the best projects get started at the spur of the moment.

I promise you that 'Joburg Expat The Book' is a project postponed, not canceled, and still very much on my mind. It may have to compete with "Safari in Botswana and What it Taught me about Sex Education" and "Double-Buckled in the Middle of Nowhere: Tales from a Road Trip Through Namibia" for the Book #2 slot, but I will get around to it.

Just as soon as I've sold a few more copies of Kilimanjaro Diaries. After all, I am a (sometimes starving) writer.