December 21, 2015

One of Johannesburg's Best Suburbs

This week's post will be short and sweet, but - so I think - all the more informative for the prospective expat in Johannesburg.

I often get asked what I think is the most important question any expat faces: Where should we look for a house? What is the best place to live?

Of course this is impossible to answer definitively, as it depends on so many factors - work, school, budget, lifestyle, size, etc. But often it's also hard to find good information about a particular suburb you might be looking at.

Therefore, I was thrilled to come across this promotional video about the suburb of Lonehill that I think very effectively gives prospective residents an idea of what life there might look like. It's an area a little south of Dainfern right off of William Nicol Drive, an up-and-coming neighborhood that I think still flies a little under the radar of the expat crowd and therefore might offer a better overall value than the mainstays of Dainfern and Fourways Gardens. See for yourself:

Lonehill has many great things going for it. Have you ever been to the Lonehill Koppies? I had lived in Joburg for a year before figuring out that not 5 minutes from our house there was this cool nature reserve right in between shopping malls and residential areas which I believe some naturalists bill as one of Joburg's prime bird watching spots.

Lonehill is also an open suburb as opposed to the surrounding enclosed estates. I recall visiting a friend there once and being amazed that I could drive up to her house without the tedious security procedures we associate with living in South Africa. This doesn't mean that Lonehill is any more dangerous. In fact, it's billed as one of Joburg's safest open suburbs. You can read more about Lonehill in this informative article on Property24.

I don't know if Lonehill is the right place for you. But if I was moving to Johannesburg, I'd give it a serious look. It's within easy reach of the American International School to the north and several excellent South African private schools to the south. There is convenient shopping all around, restaurants, cafes, the mall, and well, the Koppies (if you're not familiar with South African lingo, a koppie is a little hill and the word is often used for nature reserves that are strewn around cities like Johannesburg).

For further reading on where to live in Johannesburg, I suggest the following:

Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1. Questions you should be asking yourself in preparing to move to Johannesburg.

Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 2. Includes a comprehensive listing of Joburg suburbs and a description of each.

Where to Live: Dainfern or Dainfern Valley? If you are dead-set on living in either of those two neighborhoods, this might sway you one way or another. Hint: We lived in one of them.

Private Schools in Johannesburg. There is a reason this is Joburg Expat's top-rated post with 60,000 page views. Selecting a school often comes before selecting your suburb, so this is a good place to start.

Sandton Field and Study Centre: Boring Name, Beautiful Park. A great article by 2Summers about another one of Joburg's lesser-known nature reserves, if living close to a nature reserve is important to you.

December 14, 2015

About Waking up as an Expat in a New Land, about Hadedas, and about Joburg Expat the Book

For some reason I've had a succession of hadeda stories land in my inbox this week. First there was Heather's story on 2Summers about her beautiful new hadeda tattoo. I'm not one to get tattoos, and even if I were, I'm not sure I'd pick the image of the hadeda ibis as my first one. But I have to admit it's absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than most tattoos I've ever seen.

Then there was the Wall Street Journal story by Patrick McGroarty, who I actually know from our Joburg Days, discussing how hadedas came to Johannesburg, how people love and hate these birds in equal measure, how they keep at bay an even more reviled Joburg creature, and how they, much like everyone else in Joburg, are suffering from this year's severe drought.

Baaaad idea! Our cat Maus was curious here. She never went after hadedas, but she got a
little close that time and was lucky to escape unscathed.

Reading so much about hadedas, I was reminded that I too have written about them on my blog. But more importantly, it reminded me of the draft for a book that is sitting somewhere on my computer, untouched for many months, the story of Joburg Expat if you will. When I typed up the first few lines after returning from South Africa (and when another book, Kilimanjaro Diaries, hadn't yet consumed all my attention) I brainstormed about a way to begin my story. It didn't take long to find the perfect beginning, because the scene was still in my mind as vividly as I'd experienced it on that first morning waking up in a strange new land.

Can you guess who features in that opening paragraph without ever being named? Read on...

Joburg Expat the Book, Chapter One

African Night

I am wide awake, staring at the walls of what is to be our bedroom for the next few years. I can’t sleep, even though it can’t be past four in the morning. There is too much noise around me. I was woken by what sounded like a pig being slaughtered, and now a dog is barking incessantly, answered by more dogs somewhere in the distance. I twist and turn, careful not to disturb Noisette, my dear husband and the one to blame, if I were to lay blame, for my predicament. Without him, we wouldn’t suddenly find ourselves on the other side of the world, as far removed from our quiet suburban life in Kansas as I could ever have imagined. I don’t know how he does it, sleeping on the plane and then sleeping again at night.

The occasional car is making its way down the hill from Diepsloot, engine humming, its light beams illuminating the bedroom ceiling. My thoughts wander to what we were told about that place, an impoverished township right next to one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburbs on the northern outskirts of town. Before we even quite left the airport after landing two days ago, we were warned to never set foot in Diepsloot or any other township if we cared for our lives. In fact, it’s a miracle we moved here at all. When the prospect first came up – it now seems such a long time ago, even though barely six months have passed – I went online to Google South Africa, and my jaw dropped. The country was a cesspit of crime and we were going to be murdered for sure if we dared set foot on its shores.

But now that we are here, I’m much less concerned with the prospect of my own murder. What really frightens me is the murder of whatever it was that made this horrible noise just a minute ago, in the wee hours of the morning. It was a blood-curdling screech, not human, not animal. At least not any animal I’ve ever encountered in my life. If I have to listen to this racket every night, there is no way I’ll close an eye while living in this country.

I also can’t sleep because a million to-dos are churning around my head. Today I’ll have to buy food to fill our bare refrigerator. I’ll have to figure out where the grocery shops are. And I’ll have to figure out how to get to one because Noisette will take our rental car to drive to work, his new job already stressful beyond expectations. Before any of that, I’ll have to walk the kids to their new school and hope that none of them have a meltdown over not knowing where to go or wearing the wrong piece of school uniform, a real possibility for someone so unacquainted with preppy blazers and plaid skirts as our family.

By now the screeching outside has reached a cacophony, and I slide out from under the covers and quietly sneak outside onto the spacious balcony. It’s still devoid of any furniture, which along with the rest of our household is crammed into a 40-foot container that is presumably headed toward the Cape of Good Hope and won’t arrive for weeks. I lower myself against the tiled wall, carefully avoiding what I only now realize is a blanketing of bird shit. When I look up I can see why: The terrace is covered by a roof made from a row of beautiful wooden beams. A veritable invitation to pigeons. Maybe that’s what woke me up? But I quickly discard the idea. That otherworldly scream still reverberating through my bones cannot have issued from a pigeon.

And then the most glorious thing happens, something that lets me forget the lack of sleep, the murderous shrieking, the fretting about things to come: A sliver of orange rises over the horizon, first tiny, then impossibly fast growing into a glorious ball of fire. The sun has risen over Africa.

Starting out the day with this special view from my bird-dropping-covered perch, I just know that everything will be alright today. And possibly for the next three years.

I hope you enjoyed the first installment and welcome your comments. Maybe they can spur me on to write the other chapters so I can bring you another book, as so many have requested. Thank you for reading - it is you, my readers, who inspire me to put words on a page day after day!

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December 7, 2015

Patience vs Efficiency

I'm going to go out on a bit of a controversial limb and make the kind of generalization I myself have warned about. Generalizations lead to prejudices, and prejudices are the foundation of racism.

But one thing that makes expat life so interesting is that you do get to observe how other cultures foster behaviors different from our own, and often that teaches us something worth knowing about ourselves.

Most Africans are patient. Very, VERY patient, in fact. If you see the kinds of queues people stand in on a Friday afternoon, especially at month's end, waiting for a taxi to take them home, you cannot help but marvel at such stoicism. Me, I would pull my hair out after about 10 minutes. Maybe 30 minutes if I'd brought along my Kindle. Let's not even talk about what Noisette would do.

What makes them so patient? Is it their upbringing? Is it that years of living under apartheid required of you to be very patient or you'd go insane? Or have they realized, better than the Western world, that patience is often the easiest path to happiness, or if not happiness, then contentment? Judging by all the big smiles you encounter so abundantly on any given day in Africa, that last one might be closest to the truth.

I would honestly say there isn't a big difference between South Africa's black (91%) and white (9%) population in terms of this patience. Seeing how quickly every Africa-bound expat has been able to acquire oodles of patience, whether by necessity or by choice, it makes sense that over entire generations any differential in this regard would have evened out. I like to call it Type A Remedial School. In Africa, we learn to shrug and say "Welcome to Africa" and move on. Back home, we like to yell at someone, fume until steam comes out of our ears, and expend a lot of energy nursing our anger.

Our first understanding for the need of patience came on our first safari at Yellow Wood Game Lodge, where it rained and rained and rained (hard to believe now that there is a severe drought) so that we were stuck at the lodge most of the time, not able to go out. When we finally were able to see our first giraffes and rhinos, the reward for our patience was awesome.

I'm a fairly patient person, and Africa has made me even more so. However, certain things I can't change about myself. If I can get there by walking faster, for instance, I will walk faster rather than slower. There is always something I want to get done, so speeding things up to get through with it is the ultimate goal. But that is just my Western, and perhaps white, attitude. I could never ever sit by the roadside under a tree all day, as I've seen SO many times when touring the African countryside. I just couldn't. There would always be something more meaningful I could pass the time with.

Maybe you could argue that I'm just spoiled, always having something at my disposal to pass the time with, like my phone or a computer or even simply a book. But I don't think that's all of it. I think, in our Western culture, we are just raised in a way that teaches us to keep ourselves busy. To show something for the time we've passed. Except of course if you're a teenager. Then you are perfectly content to sleep until 11:30, take a 45-minute shower, eat something, take a nap, eat a bit more, and spend the rest of the day depleting your parents' internet bandwidth watching YouTube videos.

Patience is definitely a virtue, and I have great admiration for patient people. However, there can be too much of a good thing. What is patience to one can be disrespect to the other. For instance, being told that everything will be fine and to wait until Just Now, whenever that might be, is greatly annoying when you know something COULD be done, if only there was a will. Many a South African government agency or utility could be run so much more efficiently without the automatic assumption that consumers will be patient. American customer service is often so superior because it has the customer at its center. Doesn't matter if you share the customer's' beliefs. The customers are always right, and they are probably impatient for a solution, so you better find one faster than Just Now.

So much in South Africa could run better and faster if only people were a lot more impatient. Impatience has bred a lot of change in the world, and we like to think of it as progress. But if South Africa become more impatient and perhaps more efficient, would it lose some of its charm? There is no doubt in my mind that it would.

I wonder if there is some kind of middle ground on that spectrum between patience on one side, and efficiency on the other, perhaps allowing a peak of whatever curve you draw between the two. The ideal center.

Maybe expat life is so rewarding because it allows us to find balance somewhere near such an ideal center between cultural extremes. At the least, I think it allows us to better understand those at the opposite end of the spectrum.