January 25, 2016

Things to Pack (and Not to Pack) in Your South-Africa Bound Shipping Container

I got a reader question today that I think is worth sharing with the general public in terms of practical advice when moving to South Africa:

Do you have any tips regarding what is worth shipping in terms of furniture? For example, should we ship our outdoor grill that uses a propane tank? What about gardening tools like wheel barrows, push mower and water hoses? I have a 5 and 1 year old and I am thinking of shipping all of their toys, is that wise?

This reader is moving from the United States, so my answers are a bit skewed towards the American expat and might not necessarily be the same if you're moving from Europe or Asia. Please take that into consideration as you continue reading, as I don't want to get any angry rants on my Facebook page telling me "YOU GAVE ME TERRIBLE ADVICE!!! (Yes, I do get people shouting at me in all caps like that:-).

First off, what you ship and don't ship really depends on how much space you have in your container. If this is a corporate relocation, most likely your employer will provide a 40 foot shipping container, which can fit a lot of your household goods, if not all of them.

What it looks like when you ship all your furniture

If you're paying to ship everything yourself, I'd strongly consider renting a furnished place, or buying everything once there. It can be quite liberating to part with all your stuff, if you're bold enough to try it.

The following answers are geared toward the former, i.e. a corporate relocation where shipping space is not much of an issue, but where you still don't want to necessarily bring a bunch of useless or unnecessary items you'll  have to handle and store on arrival.

Q: Should we ship our outdoor grill with propane tank?

A: No. That's the short answer. There are several reasons I advise against it. A) Many South African houses have built-in "braais" already. South Africans love to grill, and chances are you'll end up in a beautiful house with an even more beautiful patio where your grill is already part of the layout. B) you can easily buy one there, you will find a great selection at places like Builder's Warehouse or Patio Warehouse. And most importantly C) the gauge of the gas line is different, a problem we are now having in reverse with our gas heater lamp purchased in South Africa. It doesn't fit onto the gas bottles we can get in the U.S., and to change it is iffy because of the potential for leaks. Better to buy everything there and the bottles will fit. 

Q: Should we ship our gardening stuff like mowers, wheelbarrows, and hoses and such?

A: That's also a good question. The answer is, that depends. Most likely you will use a gardening service in South Africa. That's just the way it is. It provides great employment opportunities for a lot of people and so everyone has gardeners. If you employ an individual guy, you need your tools. If you don't and rather go with a service (I can recommend Mike at Jean's Garden Service!), then don't bring your tools and mower as they will have all those. Personally, I'd bring shovels and hedge clippers, if you enjoy a little gardening like I do. But I'd leave behind the wheelbarrow. Your yard is likely going to be much smaller than in the United States. Also leave behind any electric tools like edge trimmers and such, because of the voltage. With regards to water hoses, I'd also buy those in South Africa, as again the gauge is a little different and it'll be easier for you to get them attached properly if you buy them there. Gardena is a great brand for all those junction pieces, and Builder's Warehouse is the place to shop for all that. 

Q: Should we ship the kids' toys to South Africa?

A: Yes, absolutely. When traveling with small children, it's especially important to create a comfortable environment in your new home. Having familiar toys will do just that. In fact, if your contract allows for an air shipment, I'd try to put as many toys as you can into that versus the ocean container. Our kids were older when me moved, and we actually took the Xbox on the plane with us, which was a great move as it gave them something to do for those long weeks without all our other stuff. You don't want to arrive in South Africa and have to figure out where to buy toys, because trust me, you will have plenty of other things on your mind on that first day in an unfamiliar place! In fact, I'd make a pitch here for not only bringing the toys you currently own, but perhaps buy a few toys ahead while you have the convenience of Amazon.com at your disposal. Splurge a little so that you have some upcoming birthdays and perhaps even Christmas already covered. (For a list of all the things I recommend you buy before moving to South Africa, read 19 Things to Put on your Shopping List for South Africa.)

It's great to have toys at thre ready upon your arrival in a new country
On second thought, being reminded that THIS happens when you ship toys, you might reconsider

Q: Which if any furniture should we bring with us?

A: This goes back to the question of how much space you have. If you have space, why not bring it all? There were a few items that I just couldn't figure out where to buy when we first arrived in Johannesburg, and even though eventually finding a solution made for an interesting boondoggle and a great story on my blog, it would have been easier not to have to worry about it at the time. We brought all of our furniture, except patio furniture (which we only left behind, including the gas grill, because they were covered in snow on the day of packing and we didn't want to mess up the container). It all worked out as we found beautiful pool furniture at Patio Warehouse in Johannesburg. If you end up moving to South Africa without your furniture, the above link has a list of furniture stores in Joburg. Or you could always try Gumtree

Q: Is there anything else we should make sure to pack?

A: I threw that question in there because I sorely missed one thing in South Africa, and that was our warm winter stuff. Most people assume it's going to be warm year-round in a subtropical place, but Joburg's altitude ensures that winter nights are freezing. Your kids are going to need winter coats and hats and mittens on their way to school, and while you can buy all that in Joburg, it's kind of a pain to have to buy winter stuff for just a month worth of cold mornings. So bringing all that makes a lot of sense.

If your shipping company lets you bring booze, bring it! (And if not, bring it anyway!)

Q: Which electric appliances should we pack into the container?

A: Unless you  have some very dear ones, like a favorite cappuccino maker, and have purchased an electric step-down/step-up transformer to run them, don't bring any appliances. Things like hair dryers and vacuum cleaners are definitely a no, even with a transformer. Read my blog post Power Talk to learn about the issue with appliances, and then read Where can I find an Alarm Clock? to find stores for all those items you'll need to buy in South Africa, like appliances, other electronics, converter plugs, stationary, and school uniforms. (Everything except groceries; read Grocery Shopping in Johannesburg to find out where to buy those.)

This is a step-up/step-down transformer. It weighs as much as a small car!

Q: Should we ship our car to South Africa? 

A: This was a question from another reader I received at about the same time. I answered with a resounding NO, because this reader was coming from the United States, and driving an American left-steering car on left-driving roads for several years just sounds like a bad idea to me. But even if you're coming from England or another left-driving road system, I don't think bringing your car with you is the wisest course of action. I have friends who did just that and I seem to remember the associated bureaucratic nightmare (and payment of duties and taxes) was quite substantial. If you know how it's done, it's not that difficult to buy a car in South Africa.

Oh, and I almost forget, make sure you read What Expats SHOULDN'T Let the Packers Put in the Container.

I hope this list has been helpful for anyone moving to South Africa. If you've moved already, please share your experience or comment if I've forgotten anything!

January 18, 2016

South African Bureaucracy Driving You Nuts

During that first year in South Africa, all that kept me sane at times was the knowledge that yet another crazy bureaucratic errand would make a good blog post. I'd be standing in the Telkom office clutching pages of my phone bill, wanting to hit the lady at the counter over the head - I really am not a violent person - because she was so intractable and obdurate about fixing an obvious error, and there'd be a little angel sitting on my right shoulder, tugging at my arm and whispering: Wait till you can tell your readers about this. They won't bloody believe this.

Yes, by then I had mentally absorbed the word "bloody" into my vocabulary. You can't live without it in South Africa, and it makes for an excellent companion when standing in line in a Telkom office.

The telephone in the Telkom office that I was told I'd have to use if I wanted to make a complaint.
Instead of being able to talk to any of the clerks sitting behind the counter twiddling their thumbs.

I'm glad to know that my readers indeed must have enjoyed such blog posts. Because I am now one of those readers.

Sitting in my lovely centrally-heated house in America, where the trash gets picked up rain or shine with unflinching regularity, where I can bank on every traffic light working like a charm each morning on the way to school, and where I can start and stop utility service on a whim with just a single phone call if I so desire, I chuckle with utter delight when reading about the misadventures of yet another American expat in South Africa in an imbroglio with Home Affairs. Or a crazy homeowner.

Sometimes both at the same time. In My Thoughts from the Deep End's latest blog post, you will be witness to how the sale of a home often leaves poor expat tenants in the middle of a "War of the Roses"-like dispute over piddly stuff like potted plants and movable kitchen islands. I can totally relate. I don't know what it is about South African home owners and what kinds of slights they must have endured in their previous lives to become quite so paranoid and unreasonable. It took us three tries to rent a home, because the previous two landlords inexplicably changed their minds after the leases were agreed to. No can do, don't want to rent, nope, we are now selling the house. The owners of the third house ended up being lovely people, but not before negotiating tooth and nail over the price of our refrigerator and dishwasher, which in comparison to the corporate lease they gained was peanuts.

But my favorite paragraph in the above blog post was the part where, after an already lengthy battle with Home Affairs depicted in numerous previous blog posts, the husband's visa was finally renewed, but not the wife's. This by the way is something that seems to occur pretty much every single time an expat renews a South African visa if I go by my friends' stories. The wife's visa was not renewed because instead of listing her as the dependent WIFE they made her into a dependent DAUGHTER, a situation which then needed to be rectified and would take until "next week."

Har har - has ANYTHING ever happened at Home Affairs next week? Fittingly, the wife's comment about this on her blog:

"Mr. Deep [the husband] wonders if it might be easier (and faster) if he and I get divorced and then he adopts me as his daughter so that the visa will be accurate."

Indeed. You do wonder if that might well be faster.

But wait... then the husband/father will have to apply for an unabridged birth certificate for the wife/daughter and make sure he always travels with that and a notarized affidavit from both parents... Uh-oh, who'd sign the affidavit for the mother's side - the wife? On second thought, It might be better not to veer into that territory.

Home Affairs, curiously, was never my big nemesis while living in South Africa. We got lucky and never had any issues, neither the first time we applied for visas nor for the renewals. Well - if you don't count having to get police certificates from the U.S., Germany, and Singapore about our non-criminal conduct, chest x-rays for the entire family, doctor's affidavits that none of us were crazy, plus fill out a plethora of forms. Everyone wanting to live or work in South Africa has to go through that. The only incident worthy of a blog post was when we had to go to the local police station to get our fingerprints taken.

My big nemesis, as you may recall, was Eskom. Runners-up were the City of Joburg and Telkom. My first blog post on the matter, Welcome to Africa! features all three. Eskom pretty much preoccupied me throughout most of our three years as you can see just by reading the blog post titles: Eskom: Adding Insult to Injury, Eskom: Absolute Power to Turn Off Your Power Whenever They so Choose, Eskom: How Much More Absurd can it Get?, My Truce with Eskom, Time to Put My Escom File in a Drawer, and my all-time favorite I'm Having an Affair.

Oh, and the Piki Tup saga of our stolen trash bin. Or not stolen, just misplaced it turns out. Again, the titles alone speak for that train of events: Security and Crime (when I thought it was stolen - the real title should have been "You GOTTA label your trash can in South Africa", The Dustbin Saga Continues..., Finally - a New Trash Can!, and Dustbin Saga - Still Going Strong!, in which it turns out the "new" trash can was just the old one returned, which we should have known, because it's unreasonable to think that in South Africa your trash company would send you a new one within just a few weeks instead of months.

Back to my sedate - and, I admit, rather boring - life in American suburbia. Luckily, every once in a while stuff happens here too that is blog-worthy.

It turns out we have our very own Eskom-in-new-clothing called Comcast. (Maybe we should all be wary of the syllable "com" in a utility.) You can read up on the evil antics of Comcast in Welcome to Af-merica. The reason I have not written anything else about it is that dealing with Comcast lacks the African charm of dealing with Eskom. Eskom was incompetent, Comcast is bad on purpose, I'm sure of it. I have never met such disdain for the customer in any other American company.

While my dealings with Comcast are more depressing than funny, some really funny stuff does happen here in our sleepy and otherwise unremarkable town. Only in America is by far the funniest thing that's happened to me here, and made for one of my better "crazy people" stories. Just looking at the picture I staged to reflect what happened that day should get you curious (and no, no one shot the kitty):

And the topic of First World Problems in our privileged bubble always makes for entertaining stories, as in Coyote Sightings, Ungainly Outhouses, and Other First World Problems.

With this, my friends, I shall leave you for the day. I hope you get a good laugh out of one of these stories.

January 7, 2016

The Unsurpassed Beauty of South African Wildlife: The Expat Perspective

As reports of the drop in the South African Rand's value have trickled in, my heart has gone out to both South Africa and my friends and fellow expats living there. How would this bode for the future of the country? Would many people face hardships as imported goods became more expensive and out of reach?

But the good news is that one of South Africa's most prominent export goods has become as affordable as never before: Tourism. And, in particular, the African safari at one of the many wonderful game lodges throughout its wildlife reserves. When I was approached to feature a safari provider on Joburg Expat, I was happy to oblige. I have not had the privilege of trying out the featured game lodge, but from our experience at many such game lodges, all unique and wonderful in their own way, as well as the glowing Tripadvisor reviews, I have no reservations making this recommendation.

The following guest post is sponsored by Accu-rate Media:

The Unsurpassed Beauty of South African Wildlife

From the unmatched elegance and grace of the African leopard to the majestic awe and might of the legendary African lion, South Africa’s diverse range of endemic wildlife is unmatched in its natural beauty.

Home to the famous Big Five game – African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and white/black rhinoceros – game reserves in South Africa boast wildlife that has become renowned across the world. Because of this, the country sees a massive influx of foreign tourists who seek to experience the raw beauty. Such is the immense value and pride placed on the Big Five that since 1990 South African rand banknotes have featured a different Big Five animal on each denomination.

Other quintessentially African large animals are the hippo, giraffe, kudu, wildebeest (the famous gnu) and zebra, all frequently seen in South Africa's conservation areas. Even packs of the endangered African wild dog can be observed pursuing their prey.

With 299 species of mammals and 858 species of birds, South Africa’s appeal caters to most if not all animal lovers. The well-established tourism industry takes advantage of this natural beauty by offering shark cage diving, bird spotting, veld expeditions, whale watching, and arguably most famously, safari tours and packages in South African game reserves.

Of the hundreds of wildlife reserves, none is more popular and renowned than the Kruger National Park. Established in 1926 and with well over a million visitors per year, the Kruger National Park covers an area of 19,485 square kilometres, which makes it the largest game reserve in South Africa and one of the largest wildlife parks in all of Africa. Steeped in legend and history, Kruger Park is also South Africa’s most exciting African safari destination. Aside from the spectacular African wildlife on display, it also offers its visitors sweeping vast landscapes of immense natural beauty.

With many accommodation options available, it’s never been easier for both domestic and international tourists to get up close and personal with the country’s wildlife. Set on the cool banks of the Olifants River on the 40,000ha Balule Private Nature Reserve inside the greater Kruger National Park, the award winning Pondoro Game Lodge offers its visitors comfort, sophistication, elegance, and a canvas on which to create an unforgettable African Safari. As such, the Pondoro Game Lodge has fast become one of the most popular choices for South African game reserve visitors.

This South African game reserve offers:

  • Early morning game drive
  • Nature walk
  • Picnic lunch at the hide
  • Birdwatching in camp and during game drives
  • Evening game drive with spotlight
  • All game drives in open-top Safari Cruisers

Importantly, wildlife viewing and South African game reserve experiences are a crucial fundraiser and a key aspect of meaningful conversation.

The white rhino has been brought back from the brink of extinction and now flourishes both in the Kruger National Park and the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, with similar attention now is focused on protecting the black rhino.

Whenever or wherever possible, try to take full advantage of South Africa’s unparalleled wildlife. Once you’ve been on an African safari, you will fall in love with Africa for the rest of your life. And if you already live in South Africa as an expat, now is your best opportunity to experience the beauty of Africa.

Find out about a South African game reserve today!

January 2, 2016

Why South Africa Needs a Better Postal Service to Become Great

This article got my attention today:

Why the Post Office Makes America Great
For the author, arriving in the United States from Turkey many years ago, it was culture shock par excellence to discover reliable postal rates, a service you'd even gladly surrender your passport to, and a country dotted with libraries full of books free for the taking.

I know all about this kind of happy culture shock, where everything around you seems like a wonder, a fantasy that can't be real, though my teenage eyes when first arriving in America as an exchange student did not zero in on such things as reliable postal service and libraries. After all, we had plenty of that in Germany. I was awestruck by other sightings, which I'd breathlessly report in my weekly missives to my parents back home: drive-through restaurants, cordless phones, and the priest coming over for dinner with a paper bag full of oysters in his one hand, a six-pack in the other.

Twice more I'd arrive in the United States after that initial baptism. The first was at the turn of the millennium after two years in Singapore, which didn't prompt any big cultural revelations. Perhaps because I was too busy with two small boys and our daughter on the way. My biggest cultural adjustment was trying to figure out how to get through the day without my trusted live-in housekeeper.

It is the memory of our most recent return to U.S. shores when we returned from three years in South Africa in early 2013 that had me nodding in agreement with the author. I underwent plenty of reverse culture shock then, mostly also with that sense of innocent wonder. The abundance of shopping, the vast parking spaces, the cashless economy. But my singularly biggest experience of reverse culture shock occurred when standing - you guessed it - in line at our local post office. There were 3 people in front of me, and one of them was griping about the terrible service.

An emblem of South Africa's dysfunctional postal service.
Photo taken at Valley Shopping Centre, Dainfern, 2012.

Are you insane? was what I wanted to shout at this grouch. Do you have any IDEA what great service you actually get, at such little cost? Here I was standing in line with a return from an online purchase. All I'd have to do is wait for probably less than 10 minutes, and the thing would be on its way without me having to shed another thought. It would get there with absolute certainty, my account would be credited, and I could go on with my life.

I won't have to tell you about the alternative. This is a blog about South Africa, so you must know. You've dealt with the disappointment of a promised Christmas present never arriving, of ordering a book on Kalahari.com that you then have to spend 4 precious weeks of your life to try and track down, you've stood in line at the post office for 40 minutes to renew your vehicle registration, only to find out that "the machine is broken, so sorry."

The South African Postal Service (SAPO) is in a dismal shambles. I've documented my experiences here and here. I know it's anecdotal, but my Christmas card experiment from a few years ago paints a pretty accurate picture, tables and all. South Africa was dead last, by a wide margin, in delivery times and success rates.

As the author of the above article so eloquently states, a country needs good infrastructure to be great. And, all the gripes of its citizens notwithstanding, America has good infrastructure. Perhaps not the best roads and airports - after all, you have to keep investing in those, and, gulp! raise taxes - but in comparison with all the other countries I've called my home, even Germany, American government services work well. I have a 4-month start-to-finish citizenship to show for it.

Businessman Mark Barnes recently got appointed to head SAPO, so I have hope. Turning around its postal service might be the first step in making South Africa the great country it deserves to be.