September 28, 2015

How (Not) to Camp in the African Bush

Had we stayed longer in South Africa, we would have gone camping in the bush for sure.

Our friends, Mike & Jacky and Adrian & Andy (if you've read Kilimanjaro Diaries, those characters will all be familiar to you) had been trying to talk us into it for some time, but we initially resisted. You know, on account of lions, pythons, elephants, broken axles and such. We were smart enough to know that camping in Africa is not the same as camping in a National Park in the United States.

Although, lest you think we're complete wussies - as Mike likes to call those with inferior outdoor survival skills - Noisette and I have done plenty of camping, back in the day. A trip to Spain in 1987 comes to mind, where we vegged out on a beach called "Caya Gogo" boasting of a sound-proof disco which no doubt would have been soundproof had not all the windows been knocked out at some point, making sleep only possible between the hours of 4 am and 7 am, at which time the baking sun sent you scrambling out of the tent gasping for air. Still much better than sometime later in Denmark where it rained for 7 days straight and we kept having to prop up the tent from inside each time to wind flattened it into a pancake.

We also lived out of a converted Ford Aerostar minivan for 8 weeks in the summer of 1993 when touring the American West. We had the best salmon ever somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, bought at a market in Seattle and later grilled to perfection over hot coals. And we still salivate over the steaks we once had in Yosemite. They were so absolutely delicious when eaten in the dark on our picnic table that even discovering the next morning during daylight the evidence of having eaten clean through the paper plates (in the form of only paper plate rings left behind) did not change our opinion of their goodness retroactively.

Camping in the Ford Aerostar. Come to think of it, this would have worked well in Africa, except
perhaps a bit crowded with 6 people on a full-size futon mattress... Pictured: yours truly.
(June 1993, North Carolina)

Shocking, right? And by that I do not mean the sparse camping gear but the skinny shape of Noisette.
(July 1993, American West somewhere)

Perhaps our meal standards weren't so high back then. Having to skim a layer of ants off the top of a boiling pasta pot didn't really bother us much either. We were poor students then, and not picky. That steak might have been the only steak that month, so it was bound to taste good regardless. During those days, we developed a knack for getting a free meal off of a single beer during Happy Hour, and for resupplying our "travel kitchen" with plasticware and crackers at fast food restaurants along the way. But I digress - those adventures, which, happened all before kids, are fodder for another blog post.

Post kids, our camping exploits took a precipitous downturn. Quite optimistically, we did set out once, when our oldest was about a year old and chose that precise night to have the worst bout of diarrhea to date. Five hours of a tide that could not be stemmed. Which considerably dampened our desire to ever go camping with a toddler again. And, for that matter, teenagers.

Diarrhea or not, camping in Myrtle Beach is not really at the furthest outpost from civilization.
(July 1997, Myrtle Beach, SC).

In the end, there were only three instances of camping our family partook of while in Africa.

One, the time Noisette went father-daughter camping with Sunshine, our youngest, then perhaps nine years old. They drove the 3 minutes to school from our house, equipped with a pop-up tent, sleeping bags, and some beer, to join other fathers and their daughters on the rugby field for this bonding experience. I remember going to bed that night all comfy in my cozy blankets, glad that I was indoors and reading my book and looking forward to sleeping in the next morning. But I was rudely awoken at 6:30 AM when both husband and daughter clattered back into the house, thoroughly tired of camping and wanting to be served breakfast.

Two, the time all six of us went canoeing on the Orange River in Namibia - or, as the kids labeled that vacation, "double-buckled in the  middle of nowhere" on account of the limited space in our car's backseat on the way there. We had borrowed a large family-size tent as welcome shelter against the wintry Southern African night, except the tent was blown off by a sudden gust when first erected and suffered a fatal injury to one of its poles, so that the four kids had to squeeze into our ancient two-man tent, which Zax had insisted we bring along so that he could sleep separate from the rest. Well, that didn't work out so well for him, did it? The fact that the next day was his birthday, which normally he wouldn't have chosen to start by standing around a campfire in the freezing cold looking at 3 measly presents and an entire day of paddling in front of him, didn't much make things better. The only bright spot of the tent incident was that Noisette and I got to test the down sleeping bags I'd bought for the Kilimanjaro hike, right there under the star-studded Namibian night sky. What a spectacular sight!

Zax, on the far right, listening to us singing Happy Birthday and staring at the sparse offerings.
(August 2012, Namibia)

You're not exactly roughing it in the bush when you get this kind of almost-en-suite setup!
(August 2012, Namibia)

Three, the aforementioned Kilimanjaro hike by Zax and I (which, my publicist* tells me, I should slyly mention again here: 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). 

None of the above really counts, however. Both camping trip Two and Three stood out in terms of the built-in luxury of a guide (many guides, actually, on Kili) doing all the heavy lifting for us: Packing all the food and stuff, carrying it, cooking it for us, telling us where to go, setting up the loo, and bailing us out on occasion (like when Noisette and Jabulani overturned their canoe and had to be "rescued" from a rock). In fact, one might say that these trips were chosen for the very feature of guides-slash-porters-slash-cooks being present.

It doesn't really count either when your tent's already waiting for you, along with a bowl of hot water.
(September 2012, Kilimanjaro)

But had my family ever gone camping in the African bush, this is very close to the blog post I might have written about it afterwards:

by My Thoughts From The Deep End

It's about a trip to Kruger Park, a guided self-drive with a few other couples they met there for the first time, each in their own respective vehicle. Just to give you a glimpse, this is how she (a fellow American living in South Africa) starts out: 

Mr. Deep and I created the preparedness challenge that I explained in this [previous] post feeling so confident that we would win. Who would design a competition knowing that they would lose?
We lost. We lost in spectacular fashion. To quote Bon Jovi, we went down in a blaze of glory. Only minus the glory.  
And then later:

It was then I began to realize that Mr. Deep and I were like a high school basketball team. We are a good team but we have never played outside of our division. We practiced hard and prepared well but we were outclassed.
Yep, I could have said "I told you so," had I been asked prior to the trip. You cannot outclass South Africans when it comes to bush-preparedness, and not just preparedness, but mind-boggling luxury. Like a full-service bar. Or a meat selection any Brazilian steakhouse would be jealous of. See for yourself the chart with all the other categories these campers were outclassed in - if as an expat you've been there, you'll laugh, and if you haven't gone yet, you'll now be prepared!

Come to think of it, if we had undertaken that trip, we would have probably lost even more epically. One dead battery? I raise you three flat tires!

Read the entire blog post here.

And now think long and hard about how you're (not) going to camp in the African bush.

* I do not, technically speaking, have a publicist. Just thought I should be completely honest.

September 21, 2015

Interview: "How we Retired in South Africa"

Retirement in South Africa is a surprisingly hot topic on some expat forums. Brits in particular seem to have a fondness for the former colony. You can't blame them, really, when you compare the average days of sunshine in London versus Johannesburg. 

But how to actually make it work? Making the decision is just one part of it, but then you've got to figure out a way to pay for it, apply for visas, and get all other paperwork in order. It involves quite a bit of knowledge of "the system," and it helps tremendously to know someone who's done it before you.

The perfect photograph for this blog post (taken in the Drakensberg), don't you think? An official
"no entry" sign but a helpful arrow pointing the way if you're undeterred.

Since I know just such a person, I decided to interview her for you. Her name is Lotte Sorensen. Together with her husband Lauge she recently retired to South Africa (though "retirement" is a very loose term, more on that later).

Joburg Expat: You and your husband have lived all over the world. Can you name some of the places you've made your home?

Lotte Sorensen: We left Denmark in 1998 for a short assignment in New York. One thing led to the other, and after 7 years in the United States we moved to Bangalore in India, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, then Johannesburg, had a short stint in Shanghai and are now back in Joburg.

JE: Having lived in so many places, what made you choose South Africa as your retirement home?

LS: It's a funny story, because at first I wasn't thrilled at all about South Africa. We had spent a wonderful two years in Malaysia, and I was sad to leave. The move was full of all these silly hiccups, and I found myself holed up in a sad service apartment, wary to venture outside on my own, (as I would probably get carjacked, robbed and shot on my way to Pick'n' know how it is). And it rained for the first two full weeks!

JE: So it wasn't love at first sight.

LS: No, not at all. But eventually we settled in, made friends and explored the country. Joburg and I grew on each other, to the point where I was devastated when it was time to leave. When we got to Shanghai, I almost immediately started making plans for how we could return. The timing was good: My husband didn't particularly enjoy his assignment there, and after 15 years "on the road" we were both rather ready to settle down.

JE: Were there any good reasons to settle in South Africa, other than liking it there?

LS: I would like to say that the choice to make South Africa our retirement home was based on very rational criteria: cost of living, quality of life, infrastructure, access to medical care, climate... And in fact, South Africa does tick most of these boxes. But mainly I was just madly in love with this country and very eager to stay in one place longer than two years at a time.

JE: Did the visa/permanent residency application process play a role in choosing South Africa?

LS: I suppose it did. If the retirement visa route to permanent residence hadn't existed, or we hadn't qualified......then it wouldn't have happened. In that case we'd probably live in Malaysia now, taking advantage of their retirement visa scheme called MM2H ("Malaysia My Second Home"), which is not a bad alternative and would have been our Plan B.

JE: What exactly do you mean by the "retirement visa route" you just mentioned, and what rights does your current status give you in South Africa?

LS: We applied for the temporary retirement visa [editor's note: the proper name is "Retired Person's Visa" - see more details on visa categories here], which is valid for 4 years and renewable for as long as requirements are fulfilled, at the SA High Commission in Shanghai. We spent a few months collecting all of our required documentation. The police clearance reports (from every country you've lived in since 18 years old - in our case six!), was a particular hassle. Financial statements, medical certificates, etc., including translations and legalisations... I won't lie, it was a lot of work. We finally went to the High Commission one morning with two big piles of paper to turn in, and to our astonishment received a call by lunchtime that our passports with visas were ready for collection.

JE: [Shakes head.] Wow, that last part will make anyone who's ever dealt with the Department of Home Affairs turn green with envy! So do you and your husband still have the status of temporary residents via your Retired Person's Visas?

LS: No, for the simple reason that as temporary residents we wouldn't have been allowed to work. As soon as we arrived in Johannesburg we started getting ready to file our application for permanent residence on the basis of our retirement visas [editor's note: It's called Residency-on-other-grounds; normally, you have to wait 5 years before you can apply for permanent residence, but residency-on-other-grounds allows you to start the process right away; click here for more info]. Except for a couple extra things, it was more or less the same documentation as we had needed in Shanghai, so thankfully we were able to skip a few steps and recycle some papers (the police clearance reports, e.g. are considered valid for 6 months).

This time we handed in our applications at the Home Affairs HQ building in central Johannesburg. We had hired an agency specializing in immigrations processing to double and triple check everything, as we had heard stories of applications being denied for any slight imperfection or silly technicality...

JE: Ha!

LS: ...and the clerk did spend a good 15-20 minutes closely looking over every single piece of paper, challenging us on a few of them, but finally was satisfied and handed us a receipt with a processing ID-number and a you will be contacted in 12-24 months. It was 13 months to the day when we received an email with the good news. Sigh of relief and cause for celebration!

JE: You mean to say, they just sent you an email without you having to prod them relentlessly, in person, standing in line for days? My readers might not actually believe you...

LS: Yep! We are now Permanent Residents of the Republic, with rights to live and work here permanently. We can apply for (must apply for, actually) SA identification cards and driver's licenses. Should we choose to, citizenship can be applied for after 5 years, this would grant rights to vote in elections and to apply for a South African passport.

JE: All joking aside, South Africa does have the reputation of being overly bureaucratic. But you've lived and worked in many countries. Would you say filing the paperwork and getting everything approved was easier or more difficult than elsewhere?

LS: During our time in the U.S., we did apply for and receive permanent residence (Green Cards). As far as I remember, it took 4-5 years from beginning to end, with endless paperwork and appointments, and cost an absolute fortune in lawyer fees. (And this was before 9/11 - I can't imagine the process has gotten easier.) So, compared to that, yes - SA has actually been a breeze.

JE: You are originally from Denmark but as you just mentioned also U.S. Green Card holders. Are you able to tap into retirement funds like Social Security while living abroad?

LS: During our time moving around the world, we kept our Green cards - barely - by applying for "re-entry permits" and special circumstances. But in the end, once we had decided on a future in SA, we decided to surrender them. Which, interestingly, is a whole process on its own. [Editor's note: As a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder you owe the American government taxes on your worldwide income, which is the reason why some people surrender their Green Cards or even citizenship; for tax implications for British citizens abroad, click here.] But to answer your question: No, I don't believe we are eligible for any kind of Social Security or benefits from the U.S., or Denmark, for that matter.

JE: If you aren't able to tap into any benefits from abroad, do you need proof of sufficient funds and/or health insurance/medical aid to apply for a retirement visa? If not, what medical aid route do you recommend, i.e. a local or global plan?

LS: Yes, there are specific requirements financially, to be able to obtain a retirement visa and subsequently permanent residence. There is also the option of the “independently wealthy” category, but this carries a steep non-refundable fee of ZAR 175,000. If you don’t want to pay that fee, you just have to jump through a few more hoops to show that your net worth or pension is high enough to pay out a certain monthly annuity.

As for proof of health insurance, I don't think that's required. We were never queried on that. We have chosen a local "medical aid" or private health insurance plan. It seemed to make more sense since we do consider ourselves locals now. [Editor's note: There are some other benefits of South African medical aid schemes, like receiving discounts on gym memberships.]

JE: Is "permanent residence" indeed permanent or is there any way to lose it again?

LS: I just checked my new shiny certificate. It says in small print: Permanent residents who are absent from the Republic for three years or longer may lose their right to permanent residence in the Republic. The "may" part, I suppose, opens up to potential exemptions, but the general rule seems to be 3 years. But that is not an issue for us since we plan to stay.

JE: You mentioned earlier that you used an agent specializing in immigrations processing to handle your permanent residence application, were you happy with them and can you share the name?

: Yes, they're called Immigration Boutique. We were quite pleased with them - they are experts in that field, so it was nice to have someone who could advise and reassure us. They did place calls with Home Affairs and followed up on our application status throughout the process. Their fee was around ZAR 10,000, which I find quite reasonable for the peace of mind.

JE: What advice do you have or those following in your footsteps? Is there anything you would have done differently?

LS: I'd just like to mention that we applied before the new immigration act came into effect (in May 2014). Some things have changed. The Retired Person's visa and all that still exists, but the criteria may have changed, and the application process definitely has. All applications must now be submitted through the VFS processing centers and not Home Affairs. I couldn't tell you if it has made things easier or more complicated.

JE: Thank you so much for sharing your story and helping future retirees navigate the process! One last question before we finish: You chose Johannesburg for your residence and not Cape Town, even though this time around you weren't tied to any job. Some of my readers will wonder why - do you care to share your observations, at the risk of setting off a culture war - about Joburg v Cape Town?

LS: Lots of people have asked us that question. We enjoy the Cape tremendously - for weekend getaways, trips to the winelands, or lovely vacations by the sea. To us, it feels more like a holiday destination than a place to live. Joburg has that urban, vibey feel of an actual big, working city. We like that. Oh, and the weather, again....nothing beats the Highveld climate!

JE: Thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on your permanent residency, and all the best for your life in South Africa!
Lotte with kitty Tessa: finding a permanent home had the other huge advantage of finally getting a pet!

Lotte and husband Lauge (though pictured here not in South Africa but in Swaziland).

This concludes my interview with Lotte Sorensen. One last note: I mentioned earlier that the word "retirement" might not really apply in the case of the Sorensens. Lauge, Lotte's husband, has been busy building a new vocation that he's very passionate about. And, I would argue, very good at. Check out his first works as a photographer and budding documentary filmmaker here: Lauge Sorensen Photography.

Related links:

Retiring in South Africa: Sponsored post by Whichoffshore.
Applying for a South African visa? Here is what you Need to Know: Guest post on SA People
How Can I Get a Job as an Expat in South Africa?
How Do I Obtain or Renew a Study Permit for a South African School?

September 13, 2015

The Absolutely Worst School Project Ever (Or: Why Some Mothers Self-Medicate with Chardonnay)

The scene: A beautiful Sunday morning in September, a serenely calm house, a just-poured mug of coffee, the New York Times still pristine in neat folds ready to be plucked apart and spread out.

Daughter, plodding down the stairs: "Mom, I have to build a cell replica for science class on Tuesday."

Mother, with infinite patience: "Okay. Wait... the one your sister did two years ago?"

Daughter, eyes shining: "Yes!"

Mother, cringing, because this brings back all the agony, the crying, the slamming doors preceded by All the other kids get the styrofoam ball from Michaels for $15 too! But then, with dawning realization: "It's still in the basement, you know. I kept it all this time."

Daughter, pulling a long face: "I know. I saw. It's got mold on it."

Mother, more and more hopeful: "Never mind the mold, I'll scrape it off, but you can totally just take it as is, no one will ever know! Besides, it's a new teacher this year."

Daughter, now defiant: "I don't want to cheat. I want to do my OWN project."

Mother, for once wishing this was one of the boys' projects, because they surely would embrace (if be a bit puzzled by) this wonderful opportunity to evade all the work: "But it's all there already! The modeling clay nucleus, the pipe cleaner, the ribbons...All you have to do is change the label with your name."

Daughter standing mutely, lower lip jutting out, a solitary tear rolling down her cheek.

Mother, in defeat: "Fine. But we're NOT buying another [repressed expletive] styrofoam ball for $15! You can scrape all the modeling clay and pipe cleaner and ribbon off the old project and re-use the ball."

Daughter storms off and slams door.

Mother, more loudly: "And don't come to me for help with your project!"

Daughter, the next day, having scraped all the old decorations off the styrofoam ball, a  worried look on her face: "Mom, I don't really know how to build this cell replica for science."

Cue gathering storm clouds around Mother's head, and her brain ready to explode: "You can't be [barely repressed expletive] serious?"

A few hours later, Mother and Daughter are seen in the car on their way to Michaels, Daughter happily chatting away: "I'm going to buy modeling clay and pipe cleaner and ribbon and..."

To all the 7th grade teachers out there: Do you know that the only way one can build a reasonable replica of a cell is with a styrofoam ball? Unless one wants to get knee deep into paper mache? And that styrofoam friggin' balls are going for $15 at Michaels (2 years ago, that is; for all I know, this year's edition comes to $19.99), which with its cramped aisles of  crap and sensory-assaulting stink of potpourri is a place no reasonable person should ever be sent to, not even by her worst enemy?

Whatever happened to building fun projects, like this:

Soap box car project at Dainfern College, South Africa
Please, oh Puh-leeeeease, spare us any more cell replicas. Anything involving a trip to Michaels, really. Feel free to give those kids excruciating exams on cells. The toughest exam ever, if you wish, one that makes them sweat water and blood. Feel free to give them an F if they can't remember all the parts of a cell. Do whatever you wish in that classroom, just don't make them glue together a science project which you've gotta know, just KNOW, renders the Mom with first-degree burns on both hands and requires craft and office supplies sufficient to run a small country.

And while we're at it, don't put 25 Number 2 pencils on your back-to-school shopping list. No kid will ever need 25 pencils in one school year. Unless of course they sit there breaking them in half out of pure boredom because they have to color in yet another picture of a cell. One mechanical pencil with some extra lead would be just fine, but you've banned mechanical pencils. Banned! And who do you think is going to carry around 5 3-ring binders stuffed full of 10 sheafs of wide-ruled paper in their backpack, I ask you?

Please excuse me now while I run out to buy a new supply of glue sticks. After a detour to the liquor store to replenish the much-needed self-medication supplies, also known as Chardonnay, to get me through yet another 7th grade science project.

The end product. Admittedly even more beautiful than its predecessor. Still...

September 7, 2015

Ticket to Timbuktu

Remember the faraway places you read about as a child, and the sense of wonder you felt at their mention?

One such place for me was Zanzibar. I’m not sure exactly where I got my information, but it might well have been a story from Arabian Nights. I’d lie in bed long after my mother had declared it a night and closed the book she was reading aloud from, and I’d imagine colorful people in turbans, exotic scents wafting from their hookah pipes, bustling about in a busy marketplace bargaining for wares.

When we lived in Africa and had the chance for some extended travel, both Noisette and I knew exactly where we wanted to go to fulfill a childhood dream: Zanzibar. You can read about our exploits there here and here and also here.

Another such place exerting an equally fascinating pull on us was Timbuktu. It has that same exotic ring to it, a place nearly at the end of the world that’s very hard to reach and fabled to contain riches beyond belief for those who should be so fortunate to reach it. But alas we never made it there.

When I recently came across a copy of Ticket to Timbuktu by Joe Lindsay, I jumped. The next best thing besides traveling to a place is visiting it by proxy when reading a compelling travel memoir.

I was not disappointed. Ticket to Timbuktu is nothing fancy, nothing overly dramatic, but a very honest account of one man’s trip from his home in Scotland to Timbuktu and back. Going there had been a childhood dream, and when his wife gave him the trip for his 60th birthday he overcame his misgivings and plunged right in, braving the overland route from Dakar much like the early explorers might have done.

I was much reminded of Paul Theroux’s writing in Dark Star Safari, another excellent African travel memoir. Traveling overland in Africa always seems a particular adventure, much more so than doing the same in Europe for instance, and Lindsay’s story did not disappoint. From border crossings to almost-arrests for illegal, if innocent, photography to having to share a mattress with a self-proclaimed policeman, he paints wonderful scenes of his trip through Senegal and Mali that are so vivid that you believe you're right there with him. What I particularly like is his approach to dealing with the locals: wary at first, which in truth we all would be when confronted with the constant hustling and unknown customs, but always open-minded to observe and learn, and by the end of his trip savvy enough to get by even when confronted with an extreme shortage of money.

Yes, I'm aware of the fact that this is neither Dakar nor Timbuktu nor anywhere in between. I took
this picture in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and it is a street scene I imagine to be as close to what Joe
Lindsay saw on his overland trip as described in Ticket to Timbuktu as I can produce. Just imagine
desert instead of lush tropical foliage, and it's probably very close.

Here are some examples of the descriptions I found charming:

“The streets are filled with people walking. If it was Scotland, you would think there must be a football match on somewhere, but here, it was simply life.” 

To anyone who has ever lived or extensively traveled in Africa, this rings very true and brings a smile to your face. If there is one thing I miss about Africa, it is the crowded streets teeming with life.

Or this:

“Now, I was in a pickle. My passport was being held by a rural African policeman. The Chief of Police was no doubt going to accuse me of spying, and I hadn’t reported in to control [Joe's wife] for two days. I had also involved Michael [a fellow traveler on one stretch], and he had a bag of drugs.”

It is matter-of-fact statements such as this that made this story so funny at times, without even trying.

Or this:

“I taught a little boy how to make a paper aeroplane. We flew it all over the cabin, then out into the big grey river. Children are fun, no matter where you are.” 

Is there a better observation of humankind than that?

And also this:

“He nodded, and said something completely unintelligible, which I interpreted as “Aye, ok.” In retrospect, he may have said “Yes, and if you do, you’ll probably be shot.”

It is this simple prose and humble telling of a story that made this an enjoyable read for me. If there was one thing I might have liked to learn about that wasn’t present in the book, it is the history of Mali and Timbuktu. Lindsay is such a good storyteller, he could have easily gotten me to learn a bunch of new facts about that part of Africa that I didn’t know, without even having to try. But with or without history, this is a nice travel memoir, and if you’re at all planning to travel to Timbuktu via the overland route, or for that matter anywhere in Africa by road, this is a must-read for you.