March 30, 2015

Meet Our Woman in Johannesburg

"Meet Our Man in Tehran."

I was intrigued by the article behind this headline in the New York Times. It sounds a little "John le Carré" to me, suggesting intrigue, spies, and perhaps some exotic food.

It occurred to me right then that "Meet Our Woman in Johannesburg" doesn't sound all that different, and that this might be a headline I could use to introduce myself. (Well, except for the small part of not actually living in Johannesburg anymore, the alert readers among you will point out.)

Indeed, I saw a lot of parallels between the article in question and my own expat story (except, again, for the part that I am not actually employed by an internationally renowned news organization). For instance, take this passage:

"How, they ask, can one live in a country where angry mobs roam the streets denouncing Westerners, burning flags and shouting “Death to America”? Are you not afraid?

No. I am not.

Iran is more modern, livable and friendly than some portrayals would have you believe."

Except for the "Death to America" part, the same is true for Johannesburg. Haven't you been asked similar questions about your life there, or in South Africa in general (in fact, asked them yourself before moving there)? And have you not also struggled to describe why in fact it is not a crime-ridden cesspit of sin and doom at all, or that if it is, there are enough modern, livable, and friendly aspects to your life that they more than make up for it? That you are, in fact, not afraid at all?

When I first stood in Alexandra in late 2010 and took this picture, I was very afraid, I won't deny it.
But then I got to know some wonderful people and Alexandra never looked the same to me afterwards.

After having made your home in South Africa for just a few months, you probably find yourself bristling with outrage at the suggestion by outsiders that it is a place best avoided due to its problems, corruption and crime chief among them. And you are sure that everyone will see it your way, once they have seen for themselves. And yet you yourself, not having lived in Tehran, probably have the exact same fears about that place described above. And just hearing someone tell of how great a place Tehran is may not be enough to sway you to move there, should the opportunity arise. Most likely you've formed and are holding on to the same prejudices about life in Iran that most people have about South Africa.

You will, then, probably agree with this:
It's always that which we don't know that we're most afraid of. And, by extension, it's often that which we're most afraid of that we allow ourselves to hate. 
Which is why we have to strive to get to know "the other" - our neighbors, our political opponents, other countries, other places within our countries, and their people. It makes us less afraid, less prejudiced, and less hateful.

Start today. Get to know the people and places you don't know. Subscribing to someone's expat blog is a good first step, and it's absolutely free. Scroll down and look for "blogroll" in the right sidebar, and you'll find a sample of some blogs to get started!

March 23, 2015

Going to the Gym in South Africa

I just came across another Johannesburg-based expat blog I'd never heard about before. It's called Johnny Africa and authored by someone who, like me, has spent some time in South Africa and since then returned to the U.S. But there the similarity ends. It looks like whereas I was constantly going places with four kids in tow, he was more or less free to roam the continent at a breathtaking pace, collecting the most envy-inducing pictures along the way. Go ahead and check it out, it's well worth it for all the travel tips alone.

His blog also has a great "Guide to Joburg" section which I think all Joburg-bound expats should check out. I'm working my way through it and found a post about going to the gym, and that made me realize that I never wrote about South African gyms at all.

The reason I didn't tell  you about gyms is that, ahem, I didn't go to any in South Africa. I was too busy living the expat wife life sipping cocktails in my chaise by the pool, I suppose. Actually, I'm just not a gym-goer, no matter where. The closest I got to going to the gym was when I signed Impatience up for winter swim lessons at Virgin Active in the Broadacres Shopping Centre and passed the time for her to be done by ordering a milkshake. I couldn't wait for winter to be over so she could swim outdoors again, as it should be!

But I can (and did) tell you all about boot camps in South Africa. You can check out the story about Gillian Sieling's Way to Wellness boot camp right here. I don't know if it's still offered at Dainfern College, but if it is and you live anywhere near it, go check it out. Just the location is beautiful (if you discount the fact that that thing spanning the valley overhead is actually a shitpipe).

Speaking of Dainfern College and the area around it, there are all sorts of sports option for you and your kids there, if, like me, you are adverse to gyms. There are private tennis and cricket instructors who use the school grounds for lessons, there is a soccer club and dance and/or ballet lessons offered at the Pavillion in Dainfern Estate, there are several horse riding stables scattered around the American School (one of them being Shumbashaba which as I've mentioned in From the Horse's Mouth is also an excellent place for volunteering), and there is the Junxion Centre just down the road toward Diepsloot where you can sign your kids up for gymnastics lessons or the Brazilian Soccer School. There are also a number of people offering Pilates instruction out of their homes (if interested, contact me, and I can set you up with a friend of mine). And, of course, if you really want some exercise, train for and compete in the 94.7 Cycle Challenge!

So now that I've told you all about how I hate gyms and given you other avenues to pursue fitness, I figure maybe it's time to deliver as promised in the title of this post and talk about gyms. Or, rather, since I know nothing about gyms - other than the fact you can buy a decent milkshake at Virgin Active - I will send you off to Johnny Africa's blog post about Gyms in South Africa. He covers the two main providers - besides Virgin Active there is also Planet Fitness - and the different plans and options they offer, including pictures of the different locations and a nice cost comparison at the end.

Visit Johnny Africa's blog for
more info on gyms in SA

March 17, 2015

Load-Shedding? Try Real Hardship: Snow Days!

I'm writing this as the sun is finally shining, the birds are chirping, and spring is erupting with a vengeance here in the Northern hemisphere.

But just a few weeks ago, it was still bleakest winter here in the American South, where it's supposed to be mild and perpetually hot and steamy. It was a harsh winter, my South African friends. In fact, you think you got yourself some hardship with all that load-shedding? Well, you haven't experienced real hardship. You haven't experienced Snow Days!

I don't think these warthogs have previously experienced Snow Days either

Snow Days are the days your kids are out of school for ten consecutive days in February. In the kids' eyes this makes for a nice interruption of the impossibly long stretch between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but for us poor parents it makes for some pulled-out hair, more than the regular clumps you've already pulled out by virtue of your occupation.

Mind you, there doesn't have to be any snow involved to get yourself a Snow Day. There just needs to be the threat of snow. Or ice. I don't blame the school administrators for this. They can't win. Don't close the schools and you'll be crucified by irate parents whose kids you've endangered by not being more cautious. Close the schools, and you'll be assailed by furious parents whose schedule you've messed up.

Definitely not going anywhere on a day like this!

Every once in a while, you get real snow on Snow Days. Because of the Chicken Little effect, you haven't listened to all the warnings on TV and haven't rushed out to score the last bread and milk on bare store shelves, and so you find yourself stranded at your house for a week with a few wrinkled apples and some flour. And four kids. The roads are iced over, there is only one snowplow for a city of 500,000, so you can do the math - it will be a week before you can get out again. And, more importantly, before your kids can get out again.

Snow Days mean you're cooped up with four people who sleep in late, demand to be fed around the clock, trail yucky puddles of snowmelt into your house, leave piles of coats and mittens and smelly socks in front of all your doors, and watch Game of Thrones all day long, leaving a trail of popcorn throughout your living room like Hansel and Gretel.

Snow Days also mean that you find out, the hard way, what an "ice dam" is on your roof. It's something that will make water drip through your ceiling while you're having coffee and will make you climb over the rafters in your attic with a flashlight between your teeth and a laundry bin under your arm on the way to find the leaky spot and catch all that water, and it will mean that the carpet in your bedroom is a soggy swamp because you found the leak too late.

Snow Days also mean you get to do this. Right in front of Carrie Underwood's house.

And Snow Days mean that a day later you are idly wondering why the water pressure is so low until you look on the side of the house and see a fountain spraying from your sprinkler system which you did remember to have winterized, but apparently not well enough. It means that you are running around your yard like crazy, in your pajamas and in the dark, trying to find the bloody meter so you can turn off the water,but that is nothing compared to the dark stares your kids will give you upon learning they will not be able to take a shower this one night! Of course this is totally your fault, and you better fix it today mom, by the time I come home from school. (School has just been reopened, on a late start schedule, mind you, and all of a sudden, the thought of going to school, where there is water, is oddly attractive.)

Oh, the hardship, you have no idea! What, no running water? For a whole night? This will mean that one daughter will refuse to go to the bathroom that night and be very mad at her sister who finally gave in and used the joint toilet, only for number one, mind you, but a teenager will think that's one horribly contaminated toilet ever after. Not to be deterred, one of your boys will take all the ice from the icemaker and melt it in a bowl over his heating vent so that he can take a shower the next morning anyway. It might be worth having a burst pipe just for that little lesson in water conservation.

First-world ingenuity to produce water to wash hair with; note the
first-world central heating vent to make this possible.

Come to think of it, it was definitely worth it because your neighbor, an NFL football player of the most gorgeous build, came over to your house to inform you, did you know you had a fountain of water spraying out from the side of your house? Except that you weren't in your workout tights but in your pajamas...

We did get the pipe fixed the next day and the kids could go back to their ways of taking half-hour showers. Apparently, my kids are still a lot less spoiled than the average American family. The sprinkler repair guy who found and replaced the blown valve told me that some other families have demanded to be boarded in a hotel for the few hours they had to make do without running water.

Where can I sign up for load-shedding? I think we need to get our teenagers a weekly does of that!

Snow days aren't all bad; they force you to learn how to make a cream cheese filled danish braid,
so that you don't have to live off the Girl Scout cookies in your pantry around the clock.

March 9, 2015

Clutter, Culture, and Getting Stuff Done

I love Pamela Druckerman.

I also envy her a little bit, as she went from blogger to bestselling expat memoirist to New York Times columnist. But mostly I just try to admire her. I've mentioned her here when I talked about balanced (expat) families.

Most recently she wrote about clutter, or rather, mankind's newest love affair with de-cluttering as the solution to all human ills. She arrives at the conclusion that it's probably more a fad, like all those other self-help fads we regularly feel compelled to try, and that " I’m starting to suspect that the joy of ditching all of our stuff is just as illusory as the joy of acquiring it all was."

"Less may be more," she goes on to say, "but it's still not enough." Gotta love that penchant for philosophy from a fellow blogger!

The part I most loved about the article, however, is what it revealed about different cultures through the lens of their respective domestic messes. A British clutter expert was consulted, and she shared some of her experiences with her international online courses.

The British, it turns out, have the most trouble with unwanted heirlooms. Ugh, those pesky Chippendale writing desks, what to do with such hardship in one's life! Italians apparently have the largest number of "unused objects" - there's a way to put a positive spin on the word "clutter." Germans, on the other hand, already have such orderly homes that whenever they mail photos of them to the expert, she is somewhat mystified as to how to help them further. Nevertheless, Germans stubbornly are her biggest subscribers. It's as if they want to wage war against the tiniest hint of a mess with all their might by squashing it before it even appears.

I had to laugh. Because of course this is so true. Have I shown you my "messy" kitchen drawer, you know, the one everyone has in their house for miscellaneous stuff?

Typical German messy kitchen drawer

Here is another one. Maybe, instead of writing books, I should try
to make money by becoming a de-cluttering expert?

If you're an expat, you may not feel a huge need to de-clutter anyway. Moving often (and being constrained by the dimensions of a 40-foot container) helps you continually get rid of things. As an expat you always find yourself either right before a move or right after one, and both will inspire you to throw away stuff en masse.

But does keeping your life clutter-free really make you happier and more efficient?

There is no doubt it makes me happier. I simply couldn't live in a cluttered home. I have, at times, gagged when entering a place and picking up my child from a playdate. 

But overall I tend to agree with Miss Druckerman. The trouble with the magic bullet of de-cluttering, promising that “once your house is orderly, you can pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life” is that that particular time never, ever, arrives. Trust me, I've tried. You can clean your house and pantry and desk until the cows come home, and you'll never get anything else done in your life, because there will always be more housework! The surest way to get something meaningful done in your life is to let the housework be and sit down at your keyboard and start typing already, dust bunnies notwithstanding. At least it worked for me and I have a book to show for it. My kitchen drawers may be orderly, but please don't look under my sofa.

And now, excuse me while I go and rearrange some things in my house so that it will look as if I have cleaned...

March 2, 2015

Your Mobile Phone in South Africa

I'm working my way up to one of my Expat Tips, so if you'd like to skip my ramblings, just scroll on down where you'll find it. But here is the backstory:

After hitting the 1 million pageview mark for Joburg Expat, I had a brief feeling of elation, almost immediately followed by guilt. Why guilt? Because I feel like not living in South Africa anymore has moved my blog away from the stories my readers so loved and needed to read. Almost gone are the tales of standing in long lines trying to wrangle a concession out of a smiling but unmoving government clerk; no more stories about traffic stops where cops ask you what you've brought them today. Not even any complaints about the hardship of load-shedding!

It's only natural, you'll say, since I don't live there anymore. Still, I'd like for my blog to continue to be helpful to newly arrived expats, at least every once in a while. Luckily, I still have a good amount of material stashed away, collected during our crazy busy life in the Joburg sunshine, and so I've decided I should dig up these pieces at least periodically so that I can continue to share some advice.

Hence this post about mobile phones in South Africa, a rather banal topic. But, as I remember all too well, a very important one to the newly-arrived expat. I remember how it drove me crazy not having any phone the first 3-4 weeks of living in our gated community, not even being able to answer calls from the gate to let contractors in. The very contractors, I might add, that would help me be connected to the world, like the people from Telkom. A mobile phone, I quickly realized, was my ticket to everything that I needed those first few days, and yet I didn't have one.

Getting phone service set up in South Africa, mobile or otherwise,
took forever. But who cares when you can sit by a beautiful pool?

I didn't have one, because I'm a perfectionist. South African mobile phone plans, some of you might already have learned, are not easy to navigate. Especially when you come from the U.S. where most plans are simple as can be. You pay one monthly sum (a princely sum, to be sure) and you get unlimited airtime and texting, plus a chunk of data, like 7 Gig or 10 Gig or even 15 Gig.

In South Africa, by contrast, there are a bazillion plans. Imagine the menu at a cheap Mexican restaurant for a moment: Pages and pages of burritos and enchiladas and tacos and quesadillas, each with 20 different innards and 10 different sides, and of course all the combinations have to be listed in all the iterations. How to choose? That is exactly how I felt when first browsing Vodacom's catalog of phone plans. And then of course there are also Cell C, MTN, Virgin Mobile - and probably more. It seemed an impossible task to analyze them all and figure out what would be best for my personal usage. How many text messages (SMS) would I want to send per month? How many calls would I make? If I didn't allocate enough minutes and went over, would the higher charges blow the cost out of the water? Conversely, if I got too many and didn't use them, would I overpay?

I agonized over it, all the while without connection to the outside world, because I also didn't have a car. But I wanted to get it perfect. I didn't want to overpay, and yet I also wanted to use my precious iPhone (you'll get a chuckle out of the fact that it was an iPhone 3, so laughably out of date now), which had the slight drawback that its SIM-card was locked as per AT&T. I agonized for long weeks over how I could possibly make my iPhone work in South Africa. I made many trips to an obscure Apple reseller, I saw my phone travel to Cape Town and back and, finally, to Vietnam into the care of an obscure hacker, and eventually managed to make my iPhone work in South Africa, but boy did it take a ton of time an energy!

In hindsight, that tapas approach to cell phone plans I so agonized over is actually not bad at all. Compared to here in the U.S. (remember the princely sum I mentioned?), cell phone service in South Africa is cheap, precisely because you are able to custom-tailor it. But instead of obsessing over it as I did, the best approach is to just go ahead and select a plan, starting fairly low, and then increase your minutes/SMS budget later when you have an idea how much you need. There is no penalty for changing your plan upwards at a later date. You just can't go down - at least that's how it was for me with Vodacom a few years back. Or, choose pay-as-you-go and do without a plan altogether - you'll save yourself the hassle of all the paperwork when signing up.

In short, my Expat Tip: Pick a carrier (I picked Vodacom - at the time, the coverage seemed the best in our area), get a cheap phone to start, and get a low-level plan which you can upgrade later. Read my article TV, Internet, and Phone Service in South Africa for more detail. 
Back then I also would have recommended getting Blackberrys for the kids. They came with such cheap group texting plans that everyone had them and your child would stand out like a sore thumb if they didn't. However, things may have changed. A lot of SA friends' kids have since switched to iPhones. Jailbreaking may no longer be an issue, as you can buy unlocked phones anywhere, especially since most carriers in the U.S. no longer offer cheap phones as part of the contract. Most people buy their phones on Amazon or eBay, and you can take them anywhere in the world and put a local SIM card in them there.

I have also since then gotten some great advice from a fellow American expat in South Africa and wanted to share it with you. It involves going not with a local plan at all, but using T-Mobile's* Simple Choice Plan, which gives you unlimited texts and data in 120 countries around the world, South Africa included. Read here what she has to say about that alternative:

After hours of research, I decided to switch to T-Mobile from Sprint about a few months before we moved to Joburg. I wanted to keep my number for holidays in the US and for banking with Bank of America.

With T-Mobile, you can buy your phone out right or I believe you can finance it over 24 months at 0%. I chose to buy my phone out right so that after 30 days of having my service with T-Mobile, I could ask them to unlock my phone. Just a phone call and it was done.

My T-mobile service is month-to-month, so I'm not tied in a contract. I went with the iPhone because I was vested in the technology. I was actually looking at a Samsung S4-mini that has a dual SIM card slot. You can buy one online from Amazon that's already unlocked and just go to T-Mobile to get a SIM card so you can have your US number. When you get to South Africa, just go to the cell phone store and get a South African SIM card. Then both numbers, U.S. and SA, will ring. You can toggle to the U.S. T-Mobile and use the unlimited data and SMS it gives you for South Africa, and only use your SA SIM card for voice, so that you only have to pay for airtime when making calls in South Africa. Since there is no such thing as unlimited data in South Africa, at least not in any way affordable.

In hindsight, I should have gone with the dual SIM technology. But I guess I was blinded by my Apple devices and so stuck with the iPhone.
I hope you find this helpful. If you have any other information to share regarding affordable cell phone plans in South Africa, pleas share!

* This blog post is in no way sponsored or paid for by T-Mobile. It simply serves as a tip for expats. There might very well be other carriers and plans with similar options, but I wanted to share the one that is proven since it's worked for someone before.