December 21, 2016

Public Transport

One thing South Africa doesn't do particularly well is public transport.

If you're an expat soon moving to South Africa, you might have come to this blog by way of Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa. There is a reason that article is so popular. Without a car, you're pretty much lost in Johannesburg, otherwise a world class city in many ways.

Granted, this has changed some with the arrival of Uber. It's like South Africa was the perfect match for it, with families experiencing a new kind of freedom as their teenagers can now come and go as they please without their parents having to worry about their safety.

Yet in a way Uber just proves the point: A lack of public transport plagues Johannesburg.

You might be forgiven to think, well, what do you expect, this is Africa. It can't be as efficient as the Western World. If you live in Europe, you may be right. But if you're American, not so fast, my friend. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate my point:

It's a cold Sunday morning a week before Christmas. What I would most love to do on a morning such as this is lounge in front of a crackling fire and read the New York Times, beginning to end.

What Jabulani, a high school senior just out of school for the Christmas holidays, wants to do this Sunday morning is visit his girlfriend in Chattanooga, a little under two hours from here. Since his siblings are still in school writing exams and will need the car, he was faced with the option of either staying home or taking the bus for the first time. He opted for the Megabus, departing Nashville at 10:10, corner of Charlotte and 5th Ave.

No problem, I say, let's take you there. I should be back by 10:30 to have my tea and paper.

Except the Megabus does not run like the trains in Europe. In fact, I'll take the Gautrain in Sandton any day over this sorry excuse for a bus line, both in terms of punctuality and comfort level.

The day already starts badly when we can't find the darn bus stop. Google does not seem to treat bus stops with the same kind of attention as it does actual buildings. Which is no surprise, given the dearth of bus stops in the United States.

We finally find it, just in the nick of time, and Jabulani shoulders his bag, waves good-bye, and disappears into the assembled Chattanooga-bound crowd. I linger. In typical American mom mode, I stay put. I realize how ridiculous that is, when in Germany my son would have been taking buses since the age of ten, going to all sorts of places amongst all sorts of strange people without any adult supervision. But here, in America, it is perfectly normal that an 18-year old has never traveled by bus in his entire life.

Megabus stops in the U.S. are not unlike minibus stops in South Africa. You show up
and hope for the best!

It's a good thing I stayed around, because the bus is nowhere to be seen. After about 30 minutes Jabulani appears back at my car, wanting to escape the deep-freeze outside. Simultaneously, the crowd begins to thin. Do they know something we don't? Where is the bus? Jabulani calls Megabus. Gets hung up on. Calls again. Is told 10-15 more minutes. After 20 minutes, he calls another time, finding out that the bus is actually delayed until 11:40. What now? Ranting and raving won't help, so we drive off to find some breakfast.

Nashville is deserted this bitter Sunday morning, but if you think that would make parking any easier, you're mistaken. We pull into a surface lot, walk up to the machine for a ticket, and learn that it's $18 for a minimum of two hours. Seeing a the entire bus ticket is only $16, which was the main attraction of the Megabus as an alternative to taking the car, we politely decline and drive off again.

I remember the public library. It has parking. It's not far from where we are, and indeed offers parking in a nice garage for $1.50 the first 30 minutes. I have never understood how this huge gap can exist in Nashville's parking scene without market forces somehow leveling this gap, but am quite happy it exists on this increasingly annoying Sunday morning.

The Starbucks we spill into minutes later is tiny. It has exactly seven seats, five of which are occupied. How lucky. Except once we settle into the two remaining seats with our steaming cups, the man next to us starts speaking in a loud voice. Looking like a homeless person, but one who owns a laptop that he is at this moment hunched over, with headphones on, he begins to... preach a sermon! Or something like that, it's too strange to repeat. He sounds a little like one of those guys walking the streets of New York City with a big sign yelling "the end of the world is near!" The weirdest part about it is that the other patrons seem oblivious. Like only we can hear him, and no one else.

We gulp down our drinks and polish off our sandwiches, trying not to ogle the other, equally colorful occupants of the coffee shop too much while our preacher's sing-song baritone booms in the background, and then we figure it's time to get back to the bus.

Hallelujah, this time it is here. We are early, it's only 11:30, but from about three stoplights away we can see that the line is getting shorter as people are boarding. What the hell, it might actually leave without Jabulani if these lights don't start turning green anytime soon!

Just in the nick of time he makes it. I'm about to text home that we have had success and that he is boarding, when I see him approach again in confusion. It's the Atlanta bus, he tells me, defeated, while I'm busy arguing with a cop who has appeared out of nowhere and takes issue with my illegally stopped car.

"Are you crazy?" I say (not to the cop, but to Jabulani, after I've pulled into another illegal spot farther away from the cop.) "You better get back on before it leaves. Last time I checked, Chattanooga was on the way to Atlanta." Had I not been there, the hovering mother to educate her public transport uninitiated child on the intricacies of North American geography, he would be standing there still. The good news is, he didn't get mugged or kidnapped that day. As menacing as that bus stop crowd had looked to one who'd never taken a bus in their life, they seemed to mostly mind their own business as soon as they'd found their seats, eyes on phone displays and earbuds firmly plugged into their ear canals.

It was 12:30 pm before I was back at home. Only slightly earlier than if I had just driven straight to Chattanooga and back. I might have missed the Sunday paper, but I came home with something better: A good story to tell.

Welcome to public transport in America.

So.... My point is, before you diss South Africa about the lack of buses to take you places, ask yourself when you've last ridden a bus in your home country, and whether it left on time.

If you call the United States of America your home, the answers might not be very flattering.

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Is There Public Transport in South Africa?
Joburg Traffic

December 15, 2016

A Great Way to Explore Johannesburg

Vibescout Johannesburg Events

When you're new to Johannesburg, it's great to have a good to-do list to start out with. And I don't mean the kind of list telling you to call Eskom to set up your electricity (or, most likely to complain about an error on your bill) or calling the City of Joburg to alert them about the broken robot at the nearest intersection. We all have those lists and know that they are terrible and never go away.

What I'm talking about is a list telling you about all the exciting things you can do in the sprawling city you now call home, so that you can dive right in and get to know it. Joburg teems with exciting happenings at any given time, and the sooner you start, the more you'll fall in love with this young and vibrant city.A bit farther down I'll tell you about a great new tool to get real-time news about what's happening in Joburg. But let's go over the must-see sights first. In What To Do in Joburg you'll find a comprehensive list, but here is a quick summary depending on your area of interest:

Apartheid Museum

History and Culture

Your list should include the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Memorial, Mandela House, Walter Sisulu Square, and Regina Mundi Church, all of them in Soweto. Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia is offers another great history lesson. Or Kruger House Museum in Pretoria a bit farther afield.
Graffiti Tour with Past Experiences

On Foot

If you’re adventurous, go on a graffiti walking tour with Past Experiences, join Dlala Nje's Streets of Hillbrow. or go on MainStreetWalk's Underground Pub Crawl. Join the Joburg Photowalkers on one of their Sunday walks, or find a tour that ventures into Alexandra, one of the most infamous (and historic) townships in the area.

With Children

If you have kids or are adventurous yourself, start with Gold Reef City, the Bird Gardens at Montecasino, the Maropeng Visitor Centre and Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind, JoziX, which is a bit like the TV Show Wipeout, the Magaliesberg Canopy Tour, and Avalanche, an artificial ski slope.
Elephant Sanctuary


The best way to see animals is to venture into Joburg's surroundings for the Elephant Sanctuary or the Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary near Hartbeespoort Dam, or the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt. Less than two hours away, you can explore Pilanesberg National Park in your own car and see the Big Five in their natural habitat.
Dainfern Square


Johannesburg, more than any other African city, is for shoppers. People still flock from all over the continent to stock up in a place that seemingly has it all. Don't miss Sandton City, the new Mall of Africa, Rosebank Rooftop Market on a Sunday, Bryanston Organic Market, and Dainfern Square.
View from Northcliff Hill

Enjoy the View

Be sure to drive up to Northcliff Hill, Johannesburg's 2nd highest point. Another great view can be had from the top of the Carlton Centre, the Soweto Water Towers (which you can also bungy-jump off of!), the balloon at Montecasino, or the Melville Koppies.

Introducing VibeScout

All the above are mostly places any well-read tourist will know about. What if there was a way to get the true vibe of Johannesburg, by diving right into the scene whenever things are happening in one of its many suburbs? What if you knew about more authentic local experiences you could join, like live music, a food festival, an art exhibition, or anything else that is going on at this very moment in Johannesburg? 

I've recently come across a service that is right on the pulse of these happenings in Joburg. VibeScout is a new tool that brings you fun things to do in Johannesburg (as well as other metropolitan areas like Pretoria and Cape Town). It's a cool and completely free and easy to navigate entertainment guide for Johannesburg created by brothers Paul and Jonathan Myburgh. On VibeScout, you'll find events as varied as this week's Holiday crafts and animal feeding event for kids at the Johannesburg Zoo, the African Summer Christmas Picnic featuring iced drinks, a band, and African-inspired carols at Joziburg Lane, or if you're lucky a raffle of free Johnny Clegg tickets for the first 100 patrons registering for one of his outdoor concerts on Facebook.

To find out more about how VibeScout came about and what new features it has in store, read the back story here.

I hope you'll give VibeScout a try (make sure you also check it out before your next trip to Cape Town, Durban, or Stellenbosch). The sooner you start diving into the street scene of Jozi, the City of Gold, the sooner you'll hopelessly fall in love with it like so many who have gone before you. Trust me on this.

This post was sponsored by VibeScout; opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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December 5, 2016

Top Five Ways to Prepare for Your Health When Moving to South Africa

Like most expats, I'm big on lists. When you have moved across continents with a family in tow, you learn to live by a ginormous checklist to keep your hectic life organized. 

The problem with lists is that you never prioritize them properly. Things that are most decidedly not a matter of life and death are invariably at the top. Finding an internet provider so that your kids don't have to go without Snapchat for a minute too long, assembling the paperwork for your Traffic Register Number, booking your first safari because you can't wait to find out what the big fuss is about the Big Five - those are most likely the issues you're grappling with during your first week in South Africa.

The topic that actually can be a matter of life and death - your health - often gets pushed further down the totem pole.  

It happened to me after just a few weeks in South Africa. I brought back tick bite fever from our first foray into the Waterberg, and I was so miserable I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I had no idea what ailed me or where to go for relief. While you'll be happy you did prioritize the internet connection so that you can research doctors online, it's no joy doing it while your head feels like it's split open by a cleaver. Much better to have all your healthcare ducks in a row before disaster strikes.

Here are the top five ways you should prepare for your health when moving to South Africa:

1. Diseases and immunizations

The good news is, South Africa isn't a particularly disease-ridden country. But you need to be aware of what lurks out there so you can be prepared. And you need to be up-to-date on your immunizations.

Let's start with the aforementioned tick bite fever. As the name suggests, it's transmitted by ticks. But unlike its ugly American cousin, Lyme disease, it's relatively harmless and can be treated with antibiotics. When you go hiking in the bush in the wet season, wear long pants to protect against tick bites. Some seasoned Africa travelers often carry antibiotics with them just in case they're needed when there is no access to doctors, but it's never a good idea to take them preventively. Also note that pets can be infected by tick bite fever as well, so treat your cats and dogs against fleas and ticks regularly.

Malaria is practically non-existent in South Africa. If you go to Kruger Park during summer from October to March, you should consider taking malaria prophylaxis such as Malanil (or Malarone in the U.S.). Other than that, South Africa is malaria-free year-round. 

You will need immunizations for Hepatitis B, DTP, MMR, and Polio before moving to South Africa. Hepatitis A is recommended but not required. (If  you travel to a yellow fever risk area outside the country, such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Kenya, see a doctor before you leave to obtain a certificate.)

In rural areas, you might be exposed to typhoid fever, cholera, and rabies - take the necessary precautions before prolonged stays in such parts. If you're not in South Africa for missionary or humanitarian work, most likely you will live in a metropolitan area and this will be of no concern to you. 

The tap water in South Africa is absolutely safe to drink and quite delicious.

HIV/AIDS poses a very small risk for expats. If you have small children and consider employing a nanny, tuberculosis is a larger risk factor. It is recommended to request TB screenings before hiring domestic help (maid referral services typically provide them).

2. Health insurance

Don't go to South Africa without having researched and obtained the proper health insurance, or medical aid, as South Africans call it.

Many expats have a global health plan that allows them to keep the same insurer as they go from one assignment to the next. In that case, you usually pay for your medical bills up front and claim your refund later by providing the invoice. 

Local medical aid plans likely offer better rates - with the exception of orthodontists, doctor and hospital fees are generally much lower in South Africa than in many Western countries - and let you avoid having to pay upfront, but if you're expecting to move again in the not too distant future, having to switch plans again might be cumbersome.

Your best option might be a combination of the two, like Hollard Cigna Health, a partnership between local underwriter Hollard and global health service provider Cigna, offering you both local know-how and global reach. This merger hadn't happened at the time we lived in South Africa so I don't have first-hand experience, but we did use Hollard to cover our house inventory and car insurance, and were very happy with their prompt and professional service. 

Make sure you research your options while you plan your move and set up an appointment with a local broker for your first week in South Africa if you haven't already obtained coverage before your move.

3. Doctors and emergency rooms

Your first week in South Africa, you should set aside time to research both nearby doctors’ offices and hospitals. 

For any check-ups and minor problems such as colds and immunizations, your entire family will see a general practitioner or family doctor. Intercare, which operates offices around the country and offers a wide range of medical services such as prenatal care, psychiatry, dentistry, surgery, a travel clinic and x-ray labs all under one roof, is a solid choice if you're looking for a larger practice. However, there are also many 1-person doctor's offices that provide excellent care. Asking your neighbors and fellow school parents where they go is a good strategy, but try to stay relatively close to home as traffic can make your commute very lengthy. 

If you need a specialist, you will most likely find them associated with a hospital.

See the scar on Sunshine's forehead. Stitches courtesy of Life Fourways Hospital. 

Jabulani's arm  operated on at Mulbarton Hospital, then plates removed at Life Fourways.

The level of training and care at South Africa’s private hospitals is excellent. There are three major private healthcare providers: Life Healthcare, Netcare, and Medi-Clinic, each with a number of branches in the major metropolitan areas. All of these have excellent reputations and offer world-class care. Again, pick one close to where you live and make that your go-to place for emergencies. We lived in the Dainfern area and were very happy with the convenience as well as service at Life Fourways.

If you don't have local medical aid, make sure you bring a credit card (preferably not AMEX) when checking in at a private hospital. You might have to pay each service separately, like x-rays, blood work, doctor, or anesthesiologist. Insist on a detailed receipt to submit to your health insurance. We've had to chase South Africa’s bureaucracy for receipts after the fact and it's no cakewalk. If you schedule a larger procedure ahead of time, try to get approval from your healthcare provider beforehand.

Please note that the above advice is geared toward private hospitals. Even though some South African government hospitals are internationally acclaimed and well-known for their research – let's not forget that the first human heart transplant in the world was performed by Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in 1967 – be mindful that service quality tends to be lower than at private facilities.

4. Pharmacies

First, the terminology. You won't get far with "drug store" when looking for one. "Chemist” is what drugstores or pharmacies are called in South Africa. The major chemist chains are Dis-Chem, Clicks and MediRite. Clicks outlets are often conveniently located right next to an Intercare practice so that you can pick up your drugs right after seeing the doctor. MediRite pharmacies can often be found in Shoprite and Checkers stores. Dis-Chem is the nicest of them all and the closest to an American CVS or Walgreens, often offering additional services like mail-order and courier delivery, clinics and vision screenings.

Your first week in South Africa, make a point of visiting all three chains so you know what they carry. I ran around frantically the first few weeks looking for night lights and an electric toothbrush charger. I felt such relief flooding through me when I finally discovered them at Dis-Chem which sells more or less everything from vitamins to bags of dried mango to small appliances. 

The fun part when going to a chemist in South Africa is the little metal cage. You go to the counter - even for non-prescription drugs - and ask for antibiotic cream and ear drops. The pharmacist will pull them from the shelf and drop everything into a small lunch-box sized metal cage and seal it with a zip-tie. You then wander through the store doing the rest of your errands, feeling a bit weird with your cage like Harry Potter carrying Hedwig to the Hogwarts Express, but you take comfort in the fact that everyone else carries the silly little cage too. At the cash register, the seal is broken and your items released so you can pay for them. Quaint.

5. Emergency phone numbers

I don't think I've ever lived in a country with so many emergency phone numbers as South Africa. Writing them all down the very first day you arrive in the country and posting them in a central location is an absolute must. 

"Call 911" is something you and your kids will have to get out of your head when living in South Africa. Many cities have different numbers for police, fire, and medical emergencies. However, if you are calling from a mobile phone the universal number for all emergencies is 112 - make sure to program it into everyone’s mobile phone the first day. While you're at it, locate your emergency room of choice from above and save it in your Google Maps.

In addition, there are two major private ambulance services: Netcare 911 and ER24 (owned by Medi-Clinic). It is best to call them directly should you need an ambulance.

If  you live in an estate, you might also write down the number of the gate, as the guards are often the quickest to arrive and can give assistance for minor emergencies. 

Here is a list of South African Emergency Numbers:

ER24 084 124
Netcare911 082 911

Police/Fire (this might vary by city)
From home phone 10111
From mobile 112

National Poison Control
0861 555 777

Being well prepared in the event of an emergency is a little bit like carrying an umbrella: Having it with you, according to Murphy's Law, pretty much guarantees it'll never rain. So go ahead and follow the above steps so that your time in South Africa can be spent on safari and not in the emergency room.

For more information on immunizations, diseases, and medications, read this follow-up blog post on health in South Africa.

This post was sponsored by Hollard Cigna Health, but opinions expressed are entirely my own. Click here to learn more about their affordable, comprehensive health insurance plans.