October 24, 2016

The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours

I've lately gotten many inquiries about exploring Johannesburg and whether it is safe to do so.

While I don't want to be responsible for you getting mugged - something, I might point out, that can happen to you in any big city - I can tell you that in 3 years of living in Johannesburg I never encountered any trouble. And it's not because I stayed locked up behind the walls and fences of our security estate in the Northern suburbs. I took many trips into Soweto and Alexandra in my own car, I delivered firewood for women in Diepsloot, and I walked the streets of the inner city hunting for perfect pictures of jacarandas, graffiti, and the occasional This-Is-Africa worthy situation.

This shot was taken on my way to Arts on Main. It wasn't part of a walking tour but shows
the kinds of street scenes that offer such rich photo material when touring Joburg.

(You might also take heart in learning that Joburg is Africa's most visited city, ahead of Cape Town which is a distant second. So you won't be alone in exploring it.)

What I do recommend for those new to Johannesburg and concerned about safety is taking a tour as part of a group. It's more fun that way in any case.

Here is a list of what I've put together using my own experience, as well as that of Heather who blogs at www.2summers.net. She has become an expat's expert on Joburg few of us can hope to emulate in terms of her detailed knowledge of the city, and many of the links below are to her articles.

1. Walking tours with Past Experiences

I met Jo Buitendach, who runs Past Experiences, when I participated in one of her Graffiti tours of Braamfontein. It was fabulous. Jo's knowledge of the city is remarkable, she and her partner are a lot of fun, and the pictures I took that day were some of my favorite of all of my time in Johannesburg. See here for yourself.

You don't often see graffiti in the making, but Johannesburg is a good place to find some of
the world's most renowned graffiti artists.

2. Joburg Photowalkers

It's a great way to explore Johannesburg on foot, but not alone. Plus, they'll get you to the best picture spots in town, as most of the photowalkers are photography enthusiasts. You might learn a thing or two from them about your camera too, if, like me, you find all those buttons a bit of a mystery. My walk was during jacaranda season and I was very happy with Purple Explosion, the resulting photo essay. It's that time of year again, so join their next walk if you can!

My Joburg Photowalkers group in a puddle of jacaranda petals in Rosebank, 2011

3. Johannesburg Heritage Foundation

This was recommended to me by a reader and I don't have personal experience with any of their tours. However, their website is an excellent resource for all things Johannesburg, and the tour offerings look very interesting and unique, such as the Mosques and Minarets tour. Jacaranda tours are offered here as well - make sure you don't miss the chance while they are in bloom. For more insight into one of their tours, see Heather's excellent blog post From Mansions to Muti Shops: Exploring Johannesburg's Heritage.

4. Johannesburg Red Bus

It didn't exist yet when I lived there, but I've heard good things about Joburg City Sightseeing or Joburg Red Bus for short. City sightseeing has been in Cape Town for ages, but has newly arrived in Johannesburg, offering bus tours to the CBD as well as Soweto. Read about Heather's experience of a day on the Red Bus to get an idea of what it might look like. I also see that they offer free walking tours.

Again, apropos no specific tour I did, but I wanted to point out that Johannesburg has a vibrant
Chinatown. It also has an Ethopian quarter and some of the world's most impressive mosques.

5. Joburg Places

According to Heather, one of Gerald Garner's tours is a must for anyone wanting to understand Johannesburg's history and how it came to be the city it is today. It's also a must if you like to visit rooftops - and trust me, you will want to, as the photo opportunities are incredible. See What I didn't Know About Joburg for an excellent blog post on one of his tours.

6. Dlala Nje's Inner City Adventures

If you really want to get into the thick of things, "hit the streets of Hillbrow and discover the truth about one of the city's most notorious and misunderstood suburbs," starting out in the iconic building of Ponte City. If that sounds too gritty for you, try their "Taste of Yeoville" tour for a culinary experience. If you tell any South African that you're planning to go into Hillbrow, they will shudder and tell you you're crazy. It wasn't that long ago that Hillbrow resembled a war zone that no one in their right mind would venture into, at least not unarmed. But things are changing rapidly in Johannesburg, particularly the inner city which has been vigorously rejuvenated over the past few years, so I think even Hillbrow is well worth a visit if you've got an adventurous spirit and the will to experience the real South Africa.

7. MainStreetWalks

For a slightly different perspective of Johannesburg, try their Underground Pub Crawl, a nighttime tour to places you'd likely never get to on your own. Just make sure you have a taxi ride home lined up so that you can enjoy the drinks included in the tour without worry. MainStreetWalks also offers daytime tours with a slightly different twist, like their coveted picnic at the top of Carlton Centre.

View from the "Top of Africa" in the Carlton Centre. Photo credit: Zax.

8. Nielsen Tours

I found them via a link from the Red Bus website so can't personally vouch for them, but yet another outfit offering free walking tours. If you follow the maxim of "You get what you pay for" a free tour might not be your first choice, but I didn't want to withhold the information. Personally, I can highly recommend Past Experiences.

9. Sophiatown Tour

This one was a late entry meaning you get 9 for the price of 8! The historical suburb of Sophiatown (it was one of the racially mixed suburbs that was dismantled and whose residents for forcibly relocated during Apartheid) offers walking tours and a small museum. You can also go to one of their monthly live jazz events or community encounters - the next Jazz Fest is coming up this November 19th, and it's free!

There are some other options out there for exploring the city, such as Voice Map, a podcast-type app where you download walking tour audio onto your phone, or simply Uber. We used Uber on our recent trip to South Africa for our airport transfers, and it worked like a charm. Under 5 min waiting times, clean cars, good drivers, and incredibly affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Oh, and here is a seasonal tour that sounds like a lot of fun, put on by Joburg.co.za, another website you should bookmark: A Mystery Ghost Tour! I can't wait for one of you to go on that one and tell me all about it.

I hope this has given you a good overview of the many options of exploring Johannesburg, on foot or by bus. I'd love to hear about your adventures, or if you've found any new tours not mentioned here!

October 17, 2016

Repatriating Expats: How to Survive Losing your Live-In Maid

You know the saying Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all?

Well, I think it might be the opposite in the case of domestic help. Losing your maid after returning to a land where live-in domestic help was last affordable in the 1950s is so painful, so utterly despair-inducing, that you might be better off never having enjoyed a helper in your home in the first place.

However, it isn't always a real choice When we arrived at our new house in South Africa in March 2010 and woke up the next morning not quite knowing where to start, the doorbell rang before I'd even had a chance to pour a cup of tea. "Hello, Mama," said the beaming woman in front of me. "I heard you are looking for a helper!" Of course this wasn't true at all, but word spreads quickly in a South African estate. You live in a nice house and you are simply expected to employ people to clean it, tend to the yard, and perhaps even chauffeur the kids to school. The same was true a decade earlier in Singapore, and there are countless other countries outside of Europe and North America where it is similarly customary (and affordable due to, let's face it, weak labor laws) to employ household help.

Fast-forward to early 2013 and we were saying our tearful goodbyes not just to our friends, the bush, and shopping at Woolworths, but also to our beloved Primrose and, by extension, to lemon-scented tile floors, spotless bathroom fixtures, and meticulously tucked-in sheets. My husband, Noisette, had developed a special affinity for freshly-ironed underwear, a luxury hitherto unknown, and deeply mourned the abrupt return to the old wrinkly mess in his dresser.

Losing your domestic help means you might go from this.....

...to this

What's a woman to do?

You might try my approach as outlined in The New Domestic Help and delegate the job previously held by the maid to your very able children. But honestly, I find it incredibly exhausting to nag my kids 24/7 to do the things I can do in half the time. No matter how hard I try, I find that my kids will always outlast me in their dogged opposition to anything smelling of a communal chore. It's worked for laundry - you don't wash it, you can't wear it - but everything else either doesn't get done or gets done very badly.

And then I had my epiphany: I didn't have to delegate chores to someone else to be happier. I just had to find a way to do them happily myself!

How? How do you happily do a household chore?

You subscribe to Audible. Click here for a 30-day free trial of Audible. (Or, if you're cheap like me, try your library's Overdrive app - the best thing I've found is to have both, as not everything is available on Overdrive). I've discovered I'm A LOT less resentful of having to put away yet another round of groceries or unload the dishwasher or cook a three-course meal when I'm eager to get to the next chapter of a good book.

That's how last spring I came to clean every single ground-floor window of our house, one squeegee stroke at a time, a task I never would have tackled otherwise. I was listening to Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith and, already having vacuumed all floors and scrubbed all sinks and toilets, I needed a new chore, preferably a really long one. Windows!

There is no limit to what you can do while listening to your favorite story: Stretch and exercise, vacuum-clean, wrap Christmas presents. My yard is weed-free because of Ordinary Grace, a coming-of-age story in 1960s Minnesota. The carpenter bees have finally been eradicated and the holes plugged up because of Istanbul Passage, the latest WWII espionage thriller by Joseph Kanon who, in my humble opinion, is that genre's master. When I was scrubbing a wet winter's accumulated mildew off our deck and window sills, The Matthews Men and their valiant battle against German U-boats in the Atlantic were with me the entire time. I'm currently deep into the delicious intrigue of Henry VIII's England in Wolf Hall, and if I ever run out of material, I might go back and listen to Jenna Lamia's sweet Southern drawl in such classics as The Help, The Invention of Wingsor The Secret Life of Bees.

I even made it through polishing all the silver. I forget which book that one was.

For now, I draw the line at ironed underwear. But there is no telling what I'll do when the next Cormoran Strike installment by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling!) comes out.

I might yet surprise my husband. He might finally applaud my addiction to books.

Don't wait. Sign up for Audible now, it's a FREE trial and I promise you it's LIFE CHANGING!

October 3, 2016

M.I.T., Tummy Tucks, and Roger Federer: Why Joburg Expat Has Gone Silent

Dear Readers -

I realized this morning that it's been almost three weeks since my latest blog post. Gulp! Since the inception of this blog in March 2010, I've never gone more than a week at most without publishing an article. If you're a blogger, you will understand how anxiety-inducing a slowdown in posts can be.

If you're NOT a blogger, you're perhaps happy for the respite in assigned reading from Joburg Expat.

In any case, I thought I'd give you a quick update on what has kept me so busy lately that my beloved blog has taken a backseat. And I can tell you right now, it HASN'T been my new book.

College Applications

For the last two years our family has been sucked into the college application game. You'd think that it gets better with child #2 and a huge learning curve from child #1 who is now happily installed at college and away from home, but the particulars of child #2's temperament (read: lazy!) don't allow for a respite. I spend an inordinate amount of time reminding, begging, pleading, and cajoling, none of which seems to much move the needle in terms of progress with university applications. I cannot remember the last time I walked into my son's room and didn't nag about a) the not forthcoming college essay or b) about the clothes I had to climb over to get through the door before I could nag about the college essay. It might have been sometime in 2011. What time I don't spend nagging, I spend fretting over the fact that everyone ELSE's child has already applied at 5 universities, submitted 3 scholarship essays, and secured a NASA internship for next summer.

He has high aspirations, I'll give him that. That's where M.I.T. comes in, and their engineering program. But I say, you'll never get into any school, not even community college, if you don't actually submit the application!

One of America's oldest universities. And no, it's not M.I.T. but rather the one
institution where Jabulani has actually managed to submit his application so far.

Maybe it will get better with children #3 and #4, because they show signs of being diligent and ambitious and blessed with foresight. In other words, they're girls.

Speaking of girls, I absolutely LOVE this study. Saying that nagging your daughter is an important factor for her future success. And that when she "rolls her eyes and says something like, 'Arrrrggghhh, Mom, you're so annoying,' what she really means, deep down in her subconscious mind is: 'Thank you for the helpful advice. I shall endeavor to act accordingly.'"


I'm not sure nagging has any effect on boys whatsoever. Other than strengthening their thick skin with another protective layer.

Plastic Surgery

No no no, before you even THINK it, I have NOT gone and gotten myself a pair of new clunkers. (I still have an iPhone 4s, people, that's how un-hip I am; and if I HAVE a few thousand extra dollars, it'll be a Mac Book Pro I'm getting, not new cleavage.)

And yet plastic surgery now occupies almost every waking hour of my day. One year ago, my husband and I purchased a company. Mainly so that we could finally settle in one place and stop moving while the kids are in high school. It is not your ordinary company, to be sure, but a plastic surgery practice specializing on - yes, it's true! - liposuction, butt lifts, breast jobs, tummy tucks, and all manner of facial fillers and laser procedures. You can check out our website if you're at all interested, and we're also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Any new likes are welcome! But, more importantly, all those pages show you what I've been busy with - as the new self-anointed head of marketing - over the last year.

Talking about a change of style in my writing! I've transmogrified from chatty travelogues and observations on local culture to slick marketing-speak about how you, too, can feel great about your body if only you get the new LazerLift procedure.

One upside is that my Photoshop skills have markedly improved, after having to plow through at least 150 before and after pictures of tummies and breasts to improve on around terrible lighting and unflattering underwear.

Photoshopping Before and After pictures might not be my favorite pastime, but
I admit I've had great fun with our iStockphoto collection.

My Tennis Game

Aaaaah. Finally we're getting to the fun stuff. You just can't keep a Brentwood housewife away from her tennis, as evidenced here:

And when I'm not climbing fences to get to a tennis court, you might find me watching Roger Federer's forehand in slow motion on YouTube. It's mesmerizing. I can do that for hours, especially with a big match coming up.

So you see, this is what the Ivy League, Brazilian Butt Lifts, and the world's greatest tennis player have in common. They conspire to keep Joburg Expat off the presses.