July 28, 2015

It's Like Camping Without the Hassle

I recently came across an article on Jozi Kids called "100 Benefits of Load-Shedding."

One hundred? Okay Jozi Kids, I think you might have gone just a tad overboard. There are not even one hundred benefits of Nutella. Or central heating. Or indoor plumbing.

But I do get their idea. Rather than stressing out about something you can't change - might as well embrace it and turn it into positive thinking. So, instead of once again complaining about Eskom - my favorite blog topic the first year we lived in South Africa - I here give you:

Top 10 Benefits of Load-Shedding for the Expat Wife

  1. It gets your 13-year old off the xBox, pronto. He will run into your kitchen in a huff. He will be outraged - OUTRAGED, I'm telling you - at this interruption of his routine. And you will be giddy with glee at this intervention from on high over matters you can't be expected to have any control over. This is Africa.
  2. It absolves you from cooking duty. You were going to prepare a three-course dinner, you really were. But now your oven isn't working, and your dishwasher won't work afterwards either, so it's everybody fend for themselves with whatever cold cuts they can find in the fridge.
  3. Alternatively, your husband will do the cooking. There is that problem that once your fridge and freezer are out of power, the stuff in there will go bad. What a golden opportunity to fire up the braai, which of course is man territory, to have the most delicious steak prepared for you without you having to lift a finger. For bonus points: Get to know your neighbors by inviting them over to the steak dinner.
  4. You get a good night's sleep. No lights in the evening means you go to bed early. Which, this being South Africa and the hadedas sure to wake you at 4:30 in the morning, will ensure that you sleep long enough. It has the added benefit that you might beat the infamous Joburg traffic by leaving the house at 5:00 AM.
  5. It's like camping without the hassle. S'mores over the fire, watching the sunset, spending time with your family without electronic distractions... Oh, the bliss! If it weren't for pesky mosquitoes, the hard ground under your sleeping mat, and the less-than stellar ablutions facilities. Load-shedding is the perfect solution: You get to have all the fun but sleep at home on your comfy mattress under the mosquito net with a perfectly fine toilet at your beck and call around the clock. 
  6. You have a better chance of not reaching your capped internet limit. Nothing is more annoying than living in a country where your internet is capped at 9 gigabytes per month. At a speed of, I don't know, the Flintstones' first car. What better way to conserve your bandwidth than, uhm, not using it?
  7. You get excellent story material for your blog. If your trash were always picked up with mind-boggling regularity, if all the traffic lights always worked, if your mail would actually get there, what in the name of sweet Jesus would you write about on your blog? Except, hold those thoughts. Until the Internet comes on again so you can share them.
  8. Write a letter instead of sending an email. This will be an excellent opportunity to see if the "out of order" sign has been removed from the slit in the mailbox at your local post office. Bonus opportunity: Put some cash into the envelope. It will make your local postal clerk very happy.
  9. You briefly get to return to the real world. This gives you an opportunity to take pictures and gather material you can later post as a Facebook status update.
  10. You get to binge-watch your favorite TV series later. This is so much better than having to see them in real time, one at a time. Bonus: microwave some popcorn while you have power.

July 23, 2015

The Price Tag of Safety

If you could do everything in your power to keep yourself and your children safe, wouldn't you do it?

Duh, you will say. Of course!

But not so fast. I'm going to show you that there is a price you pay for safety. Or, conversely, that you get unexpected benefits when easing up a little on the safety. It's the age old question of freedom versus security: It's not possible to have 100% of each at the same time.

Take crime. It's definitely an issue to take into consideration when contemplating a life in South Africa. But it's just one issue. You'd make a mistake to base your decision only on that. In the case of South Africa, most expats there will tell you, it's worth taking on a little risk for the great life you get in return.

While this is true about crime, it's also true about safety in general, and South Africa makes for a wonderful case study. Some examples:

  • Seat belts often seem to be optional in South Africa. Children can be seen climbing around inside moving cars all the time. But that's actually tame compared to when you see children riding around on roof racks of 4x4 vehicles. When we first arrived, Noisette and I both swore we'd never let our kids do that. Until they were invited by friends to their car's roof rack and had the time of their life.
    Children enjoying a rooftop ride in South Africa
  • I also don't think I ever contemplated letting a 13-year old drive around on regular roads for hours at a time. But when that same thirteen-year old has had to perform the adult task of changing a flat tire - three times in a row, I might add - then your view of what is and isn't appropriate might change. Most of our local friends' kids knew how to drive a manual, and their cars showed the scars of the learning process.
    40 miles on a godforsaken gravel road in Namibia - perfect
    opportunity for a 13-year old to 
  • I've already told you about the lion park in Joburg, and the fact that you never once sign an indemnity form before entering. And yet people have been killed in that park. You might have heard of the American woman, just weeks ago, who fell victim to a lion attacking through the open car window. It's tragic, and I cannot condone the verbal attacks I've seen online targeted against this woman and her lack of judgment, but it's also true that what makes safaris so great, or even possible, is the fact that there are no fences, no warning signs, no indemnity forms. All that stands between you and a lion is the talk given to you by your guide, which you'd do well to pay attention to.
    South African school children at school sport, barefoot
  • South African children run around the school grounds barefoot all day long. Entire cross country races are completed by hordes of barefoot kids. Are there, miraculously, fewer pitfalls awaiting bare skin on African soil, you wonder? Not likely. And yet I know of no edicts against bare feet in South African schools.
  • A friend told me a story of a fundraising event at their school. Someone had brought in a wrecked car and a sledgehammer and deposited both in the middle of the rugby field. For a per-minute fee, kids could climb onto that car and smash it to pieces. Needless to say, the field was subsequently covered in glass shards, but cleaning it up didn't occur to anyone until the next match was well underway. I can't quite imagine this activity being offered at your average American school.
    Thinking back, I can't believe we were this close to the lion,
    not even a sleeping one, when I took this picture in Madikwe
  • Not one of my kids made it through their South African school's Design and Technology class without cuts or other injuries. Even the younger children are entrusted with knives and hammers and drills so as to learn how to handle them. And there isn't even a school nurse on hand.

Now I'm not advocating for anybody to be reckless. Seat belts, for instance, are non-negotiable, especially on the roads of Johannesburg. Access to guns, such a huge safety hazard in the wrong hands, should be tightly restricted. Airline pilots, it turns out, should have more stringent psychological evaluations.

And yet there is a limit on restrictions and precautions before you pay too big of a price.

Yes, you can ban the use of the monkey bars at your school forevermore and save a few kids from the fate of a broken arm, but isn't losing the joy and thrill of climbing high and swinging wildly too high a price to pay?

Yes, you can ensure school kids eat a proper lunch and sit down quietly in an orderly cafeteria monitored by ten parent volunteers, but what about all the other fun things they could be doing instead at break time? Even if that means they forget to eat their lunch?

Yes, you can put rules in place that force children to include everyone on the playground, but aren't you robbing them of a learning ground to improve their social skills?

Yes, you can put fences around all the wild animals and eliminate any risks to the visitor, but what a tragedy that would be for Africa.

There is a price you pay for safety. Often it's worth it. And I would argue that nowhere have we had to endure such stringent safety measures (but not indemnity forms) as in Africa. They get it when it matters. No one wants you to fall off a tree during a canopy tour. Stand up in a safari vehicle for a closer look at the sleeping lion right in front of you, and you will be dressed down very sternly by your guide.

But the price you pay for more safety isn't always worth it. In general, South African kids seem to grow up with more opportunities to injure themselves than your average American child, but also with more opportunities for experimentation and personal growth. The approach of those in authority seems to be that of letting things move along and dealing with the consequences when they arise, instead of trying to anticipate all consequences ahead of time and eliminating them by imposing draconian rules.

In many people's minds - particularly someone like me who grew up in Europe - the United States is a land of golden opportunity, of personal freedom, of relatively few government restrictions. But to many South Africans, life there would seem unduly restricted.

Getting back to the issue of crime in South Africa: Yes, it would be wonderful if the country was safer, with fewer break-ins and carjackings, without the need for high-voltage fences around neighborhoods, less violence against women, less violence in general. Perhaps one day it will get there. But in the meantime, don't let crime define the country. There is so much more to life in South Africa that you wouldn't want to miss out on. You might start with this list: Top Ten Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate.

You might also enjoy: Legal Common Sense in South Africa

July 19, 2015

Healthcare for Expats in South Africa

Perhaps you'll remember that it didn't take long for our family to make the acquaintance with a hospital after moving to South Africa in 2010.

  • Less than a month in I was struck down by tick bite fever, except I didn't know it, and ended up going to the emergency room. 
  • About a year later, over New Year's, our  youngest daughter Sunshine made an unpleasant acquaintance with the corner of a night stand when jumping on the bed with her brother Jabulani and needed several stitches in her forehead. 
  • A bit later, that same brother in turn made an even more unpleasant acquaintance with the foot of an attacking soccer player when trying to save the goal, and needed surgery on his arm. 
  • Not to mention getting the whole family vaccinated for yellow fever, getting tested for concussions after rugby matches, and keeping an orthodontist busy around the clock with three out of four kids with more wiring in their mouths than behind your cable box.

The good news in all that? Let's just say that we definitely got our money's worth out of our global healthcare plan!

Are you moving to South Africa? Then you better get yourself such a plan too. The following is a guest post sponsored by Medibroker International, a company providing broker services for expats looking for international health insurance. 

Expat Healthcare in South Africa

You might have chosen South Africa as your expat destination for a dazzling job opportunity, the warm climate or for the expat lifestyle; but chances are you have a few concerns about your move.

Safety is a daunting issue for most expats planning a move to South Africa. Just as you take steps to protect yourself, it’s also important to get protection for your health and finances by purchasing private medical insurance. It’s boring, it’s unavoidable; but Medibroker International can make it simple.

Looking after your health should be your number one priority when moving to a country with an infamously fragmented health system. There is a vast gap between public and private health facilities in South Africa which makes a comprehensive health insurance plan essential if you’re going to be living there for any length of time over 12 months.

Johannesburg Healthcare

While the City of Gold has the most medical facilities in South Africa, the standards of these hospitals and clinics vary. In fact, Johannesburg has a long way to go before it fulfils its ambition to be ‘One City One Health System’.

Public Healthcare and Local Health Insurance in South Africa

It’s wise to avoid relying on South Africa’s public healthcare system if you are an expat. At present it is overburdened by locals and seriously underfunded. Things like poor sanitation, substandard housing and unjust social conditions have put a real strain on publically funded healthcare in the country. Public hospitals are generally understaffed, lacking even basic supplies.

Local health insurance can also be unreliable in South Africa – there are horror stories of local insurers cancelling cover when a policyholder notifies them of required treatment. This leaves the policy holder uninsured in their time of need and faced with the near-impossible task of finding a plan that will cover them for a condition which is then classed as pre-existing.

Private Healthcare in South Africa

Fortunately, expats can benefit from private healthcare systems in South Africa of a world class standard. In fact, Johannesburg’s private healthcare is the most robust in all of Africa.

Private healthcare currently accounts for around 55% of the country’s spending on healthcare. To access the best facilities, you will need private health insurance. Buying a policy before you go will help alleviate any apprehensiveness you may have about seeing a medical professional in a new country because you are usually able to choose your Doctor. Staff in private facilities are highly trained and you will benefit from shorter waiting times in addition to an increased quality of care.

In South Africa expats will typically pay for medical bills as they are incurred and each service is usually paid for separately. You can then use your receipts to claim a refund from your insurer by submitting a claim.

Health Insurance for South Africa

An international health insurance plan is often the best option for expatriates living in South Africa, particularly if they will be travelling outside of the country or would prefer to receive medical treatment elsewhere. International cover has become more sought after among Brits now that the NHS crackdown will affect repatriates.

Steve Nelson, sales advisor at Medibroker says:  “With many international plan providers to choose from it is important that you get the right level of cover for you and your family. It is important to consider benefit levels, scope and cover and of course any exclusions. Getting this wrong can leave you exposed to hefty medical bills that you will have to meet yourself.”

If you are working in South Africa or are on an international assignment and your company does offer a benefits package that includes private healthcare, you should question the extent of that cover. Does it include maternity? Are your family covered? What about medical evacuation cover?

Medibroker provide a completely free and impartial broker service to expats looking for international health insurance. They will make sure they understand your needs before recommending a suitable health plan from a portfolio of over 30 providers. Request a quote today.

July 16, 2015

The Expat Shopper in Johannesburg

I'm not the world's biggest shopper. I don't love the excitement of going out there to hunt for bargains. I don't revel in waiting with bated breath for the grand opening of a long-awaited store. And I don't go all crazy over finding my favorite brand-names far from home.

Because I don't love shopping, I've become really good at making it efficient. Especially as a newly-arrived expat, you need to know where to buy your steaks, your chocolate chips, your converter plugs. Especially your converter plugs, if you live in a country like South Africa where all the power outlets are wrong, no matter where you've come from.

I've come a long way from my first shopping trip in Johannesburg as a newly-arrived expat, that day I found myself staring at an empty fridge that needed to be filled before the kids came home. I somehow learned the ropes of shopping in Johannesburg, painful trip by painful trip, and even though I'm not a bright-eyed Mommy blogger who inundates her readers with links to all the things they absolutely must own, I have put together a surprisingly long list of tips on where to buy all sorts of different stuff in Joburg. So I thought, why not share it with you all in one place to save you the trouble.

You may have to do a bit of work and scroll to the bottom of some of these posts to get to the place where I reveal where you should go or XYZ, only because I learned the painful way. I apologize if you have to read through some of my complaining to get there.

In Johannesburg, this is where you buy your...

Baking supplies
German sausage (for Germans only:-)
Good bread
Electric appliances
Drugs and beauty supplies
School uniforms
GAP clothes
Picture frames
Gardening and building supplies
Gas bottles (and refills)
Sporting goods
Sports, Health, and Wellness
African crafts
Stone art from Zimbabwe
Christmas trees (the real deal)
Christmas tree (the fake kind)
Goods on Amazon (not really)
Anything you can't find anywhere else (aka street vendors)
Used stuff
Used cars
If you have to ship it from the U.S.

I'm sorry if this picture is misleading; this is all the stuff I had trouble finding in South Africa. 

July 13, 2015

The New Dainfern Square Shopping Centre

I've told you several times how much I enjoyed the Valley Shopping Centre right next to Dainfern Valley, the neighborhood we used to live in while in South Africa. I enjoyed how close it was, that I could pick up medicine, a movie, my dry-cleaning, and a few steaks and wine for dinner all in the space of 20 minutes, and only having to park my car once. It was small, but it had everything.

Well, not quite everything. Now that the new Dainfern Square has opened not far from it, on the corner of William Nicol and Broadacres Drive, I have retroactive pangs of jealousy about all the great stuff I missed out on so close to our doorstep.

Thanks to today's guest blogger Debbie Spazzoli, here is a rundown of what Dainfern Square has to offer.

Dainfern Square Is Finally Open!

Just over a month ago the long awaited Dainfern Square finally opened. I am sure that many of the residents of Dainfern and surrounds are thrilled with this welcome addition to the suburb.

On a recent Saturday morning we decided to pop down and see what new shops and restaurants were opening up. To get there, we drove up the wonderful new and widened section of William Nicol Dr. - just imagine, three large lanes in both directions!

The great news was that the Virgin Active gym was opening that day. We dropped off Hubby at the entrance for a chance to try their brand new machines and visit the change rooms. The boys and I however decided that we would rather try the new Mugg and Bean for brunch. We were not disappointed.

Here is a list of stores that are open or will be opening soon:

  • Woolworths Food Emporium, Pick n Pay
  • Exclusive Books
  • Jeuval Hair Salon, Sorbet Nail Bar and a Sorbet Dry Bar (wash, blow and go!) Beauty Factory, Goodfellas Barber Shop
  • Estate agents Sothebys and Pam Golding
  • Mugg and Bean
  • Vida e Café
  • Melissa’s (yummy!!!!)
  • Yume Sushi
  • Col’Caccio and Turn’nTender (coming soon)
  • Postnet, MTN, Vodacom4U, Standard Bank
  • Take aways – Debonairs, Fish Aways, Pizza Hut, Anat Steers and Kawai (opening soon)
  • Clicks and Dischem and The Body Shop
  • Kitchen Quarter is relocating from Lonehill
  • There are also ATM’s, a car wash, and a travel agent.
  • The Virgin Active has a wonderful view but if it was up to me, I would have put the coffee shops upstairs instead of the usual South African way of putting them all facing the carpark.

Take away food court

View from Virgin Active

Still some construction going on

Exclusive Books


Woolie's, of course!

Aaaah - looks just like America.

Melissa's, again. Never heard of the place but it does look tempting.

All in all it is convenient, and I am sure I will be back because I can never resist a visit to Melissa’s.

For a full list of stores at Dainfern Square click here.

Debbie Spazzoli moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa in December 2004 with her husband and their three sons on a 2 year inter-office permit. They have lived in South Africa for 10 years and are proudly South African permanent residents. Their boys are almost more South African than Zimbabwean but have many happy memories of growing up in Zimbabwe.

July 6, 2015

Koeksister Who?

A brief explanation about the demographics of South Africa:

Based on the latest census in 2011, roughly 9% of South Africa's population is white. Within that group, about 61% are Afrikaans speakers, 36% are English speakers, and the remaining 3% speak other languages such as Portuguese.

A good portion of the black population - which of course constitutes the vast majority of South Africans - also speaks Afrikaans, though mostly not as their mother tongue. Today, however, it is only the Afrikaans speaking part of the white population that I'm going to write about. Or rather, their cooking. Which might be one and the same. Afrikaners are very proud of their cooking.

I'd like to say that I actually don't know if the word Afrikaner is offensive or not. Or a source of pride for those who have Afrikaner bloodlines. Just like some WASP Americans take pride in tracing their ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower and the first pilgrims, some Afrikaners can trace their heritage all the way back to Jan van Riebeeck who was the first European settler to set foot on South Africa's southwesternmost tip. More Dutch settlers followed, but alas, as so often in history, the English were hot on their heels and eventually managed to wrest the new colony from their hands. But not entirely. Eventually, both sides entered an uneasy truce which you could say has lasted until today. (This was the very condensed version. For a more in-depth history lesson, read In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers, and for a bit of background on the English-Afrikaner conflict, read my review of The Covenant by James Michener.)

Afrikaners have also been called Boers, a word you might know from the Boer Wars. There were two. Winston Churchill was there. And concentration camps were established then too. By the British. But I mostly know the word Boer from Boerewors, an excellent piece of sausage. Which brings us back to cooking.

Koeksisters (pronounced "cook sisters" or close to it) are one of the South African food staples. Right behind biltong, rusks, and all things off the braai. They are a very sweet and very sticky delicacy made from a donut-like dough shaped into mini-braids and finished off with sugar syrup. The word derives from the Dutch koekje, which means cookie. Apparently there is also a spicy Cape Malay version of the koeksister which is rolled in dried coconut. I've never seen that version, but we came across the Afrikaner koeksister on many of our travels. Sometimes it was simply sold by the roadside, and sometimes it was touted as "the best koeksister to be found in all of South Africa" by the establishment selling them. Recipes are handed down through the generations of Afrikaner families (and the occasional "English" family too, I think) and there is a lot of friendly competition as to whose is the best.

I can't say I've exactly missed koeksisters. Much like I wouldn't miss Dunkin Donuts if we moved away from the U.S. again. But nonetheless I was excited to come across a whole kitchen full of koeksisters the other day, right here in Middle Tennessee. That's because we have a club here called Friends of South Africa. We do a lot of fun stuff and we field a killer dragon boat team, but mainly, what we do best is cook (and eat).

Recently we got together at Anile's house to learn how to make koeksisters. Or, as in my case, we watched others make koeksisters while we stole samples off the tray.

Here is the koeksister prep table:

I didn't linger at the prep table too long, because it looked like a lot of work and nothing to eat (yet). Here you can see how you cut the dough so it can be braided. What's with that drafting paper underneath? Do you have to be that precise?

Here is the braiding part. Looks exactly like when my girls get their hair braided at the beach in the summer. That's how fast these women can braid a koeksister!

Now comes the big moment, the frying of the koeksisters. Note how uncrowded the pot looks. I think that's my undoing whenever I fry something (which is once every 5 years, approximately). I am impatient to be done and put everything in at once, and then it doesn't brown.

And finally, the dunking of the koeksisters into the syrup. Note how the syrup is kept in a bowl of ice water. Apparently it's real important that it's very cold. So as to stick better, I assume.

I hope that this will prompt you to try making your own koeksisters sometime. They will either turn out to be lekker koeksisters or kak koeksisters. (For a little primer on Afrikaans, click here.)

Here is Anile's secret family koeksister recipe (no doubt handed down from Jan van Riebeeck's wife himself):

Anile's Secret Koeksister Recipe

For the batter

  • 6x250ml King Arthur unbleached flour (250ml is one cup)
  • 20ml Baking Powder
  • 5ml salt (1 tsp)
  • 30g margarine
  • 500ml milk (but use a little less).
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  1. Sift all the dry ingredients together. Heat milk and margarine until margarine is melted. Let it cool and add the eggs. Add mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until a soft batter forms. Rub hands with a little oil and knead the dough well for 10 minutes (you can also use the Kitchenaid). Cover and let stand in a warm place for 20 minutes.
  2. Roll it with your rolling pin, cut in strips, braid or twist. Fry in medium oil until light brown. Dunk in cold syrup immediately after removing from the oil. Place on a drip rack.

Syrup (prepare this the day before baking your koeksisters)

  • 12x 250ml sugar
  • 6x 250ml water
  • 7.5ml salt
  • 15ml vanilla
  • 30ml lemon juice (optional).
  1. Heat sugar and water until it's about to boil and all the sugar is melted. Stir continuously. Once the syrup starts boiling, set timer for 7 minutes. Remove from heat after 7 minutes, and add the rest of the ingredients. Cover with lid and let cool. Refrigerate overnight. Use half of the cold syrup for your first batch of koeksisters, keep the rest in fridge. Keep adding the cold syrup as you go along. (Best to keep the syrup in a bowl of ice water while dunking the koeksisters).
  2. Store koeksisters in refrigerator to prevent from getting soggy. Can also be frozen.

I haven't tried making them myself, but there seems to be one hard rule: Do not, under any circumstances, leave the koeksisters in the syrup for more than 4 seconds! Also not less. 4 seconds exactly. I don't know what happens if you forget - maybe you'll be forever glued to the koeksister upon touching it if you do it wrong.

In any case, it seems to be a good idea to have plenty of wipes nearby when you're eating one.

Ta-daaaa! Ready to dig in. Which we did, trust me.