January 23, 2017

Retiring in Africa Series: Mauritius, an Island Paradise

We had so many great family vacations while living in Africa that sometimes it's hard to remember them all. Yet if you asked my husband and children which one of those was their favorite, a uniform "Mauritius" would be the answer.

Frankly, to a large degree this is based not on the beautiful sandy beaches or excellent scuba-diving but on the beyond divine chocolate mousse available without fail at our hotel's nightly dessert table, rows and rows of slim glass flutes filled to the rim with the rich creamy dessert. We ate A TON of that chocolate mousse at Le Touessrok, favorite of favorite hotels ever.

To us, Mauritius was like paradise, but there were some cracks in the facade. We had friends who were building a house there. They were building it when we arrived in South Africa, and they were still building it when we left. It was a never-ending project, and there was always something going wrong and decidedly not moving forward. When you drive across the island, you see the same thing: oodles of half-built houses. Mauritius, it seems, is even slower-moving in terms of getting stuff done than South Africa.

Nevertheless, living in Mauritius can be a dream come true, as it was for Ross Campbell, an American who recently decided to retire there. The following is a guest post about his experience.

Living in Mauritius Teaches Patience and Appreciation

For many people, living in Mauritius is living in paradise, and while that’s vastly true for myself, I also find Mauritius has much more to offer than just beautiful scenery and comfortable weather. It’s a great place to call home with welcoming people and plenty to do, and best of all, a nice slower pace of living than what I was accustomed to in the States. This has been the perfect place to destress from the hustle and bustle of living in a large city and having to be around an enormous number of busy people one day after another.

I moved from the United States to Mauritius a little over a year ago, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Even with the natural beauty of the island, you will still need to do your part to make life great. Before I get into my time spent here, I would like to talk about why I decided to make the move in the first place.

Please keep in mind though that there was a fair share of swearing, complaining and frustration throughout the process. Not only did I have problems obtaining my visa due to slow paperwork, I also found some of the residential areas were much more crowded than I anticipated.

Why I Wanted to Move

Many expats move away from America to try and find a more affordable place to live. There are plenty of countries that are cheaper than the USA, but Mauritius isn’t one of them, and the cost of living was not the reason I wanted to have a change of scenery. I chose to live here because I was enchanted by the beauty and seclusion it offered. Sure, the island isn’t massively large, but there’s always something new and beautiful to look at. While on vacation here for the 5th time in 10 years, I knew there was something particularly special about Mauritius. I could spend hours just wandering the island and taking in the sights, and that’s exactly what I do now. I enjoy hiking and seeing majestic waterfalls, lounging around on the beach, surfing and even shopping in the local markets. In Mauritius, I have found a lifestyle of calmness that I was never able to capture before. (Of course, calm is something you will not find in the market on a Sunday morning.)

My Life in Mauritius

Since I first came to Mauritius, I’ve grown very fond of the people of the island more than anything else. Compared to Americans they are exceedingly friendly and accepting. Something to note is that Mauritius is not large, and with a low population, the noise level, as well as the level of social gatherings is slim. While there is not a large bustling population to hinder travel and sightseeing, it is normal to see smiling faces everywhere  you go, and this makes it more enjoyable to travel around and to explore new locations.

As an expat, I spend my days walking the island and talking with locals. I love browsing through the many open air shops and looking at the goods everyone has for sale. I’ll take a dip in the ocean as it starts to warm up, and I’ll grab a bite to eat before settling down to read a good book.

The main thing I’ve learned during my time here is how to slow down and appreciate the finer things in life. I pay more attention to my food and how it tastes, to the people and how they communicate so openly, and every experience  I have has made my life better.

I could focus on every beautiful site that I’ve seen like the Chamerel waterfall, or experiences that I’ve had since moving here, like open water scuba diving, but those aren’t the things that mean the most to me. Learning to relax and take in life is what I enjoy the most about living here, and it’s the reason I tell friends and family to move here as well. Even when I stop for a while and work, I feel more relaxed during my work day than I was ever able to feel back in the States. Don’t get me wrong, I still work hard, but with the calming scenery around me, it’s much easier to feel relaxed when I’m working. The pressure for results and to meet deadlines just doesn't seem to worry me quite as much as it previously did when I was surrounded with loud noises and busy people.

Moving to Mauritius

Moving to Mauritius is quite the feat if you want to bring your personal belongings with you, because it’s just so far away. It’s possible to ship things through boat or by air, and I did this myself for some belongings, but I wouldn’t recommend it for too many items. I relied on a professional transport company to ship my car here in a sealed container. When I started planning to ship everything else, I was looking for a low cost provider to ship everything all at once. While I managed to ship most of my belongings all at the same time, I paid more than $3500 to do so. I’ve spoken to others who paid more. The shipping period was very extended and I had to set up the service many weeks before I planned on moving myself. This gave me anxiety, but it worked out for the best in the end. The same company helped me with some of my larger belongings, but I decided not to bring my bulky furniture and large personal property but rather to sell much of it to people I knew or via sales ads online. I also placed a few important pieces in storage for safekeeping before the move.

And then there is the small matter of paperwork. Once I had arranged my shipping through the moving company, I had to gather the paperwork to hand to the officials of Mauritius. Here is a quick list that can help you gather what is needed if you’re considering the same move:

  • A Visa, which can be obtained through an application with an intent to move to the country. In it you will state the reasons why you want to move to Mauritius. United States citizens are not required to obtain a visa, so this is a plus for American expats considering a move.  
  • A Passport is required and must be valid for at least 6 months prior to leaving for Mauritius.
  • Declaration of Goods for all personal property imported.
  • Proof of Income or letter from the company you will be working for showing what your position is and what your salary will be. 
  • Those seeking permanent residence need to show proof that they have a negative HIV/Aids test
  • Vaccinations are required and these include: Hepatitis A, Typhoid and all routine vaccines such a polio, MMR, DPT and chickenpox. 

Please keep in mind that to become a permanent resident in Mauritius you must provide proof of being an investor with $500,000 or more that you will bring into the country, or you must work within a specialized field.

Many expats move to save money, but those who live in Mauritius have usually moved here to live a quieter life. Something to keep in mind about moving to Mauritius is that you really need to check rates for rentals and check into the cost of living before you move. The cost of living can be high, higher than in many areas of the U.S., and should be taken into consideration prior to moving. If you can purchase a property in areas such as La Balise Marina, La Tourelle or Tamarina Golf & Beach resort instead of renting, and can afford to spend a half million USD, you will be eligible for permanent residency.You should also know that expats are only allowed to purchase property within a few developments.

Mauritius is an exciting place to live, it’s beautiful and a truly rewarding location to call home, but only if you value beauty and a relaxed pace of life.

January 16, 2017

Time for Your New Year's Resolutions: 7 Things to Put on Your South Africa Bucket List for 2017

To all expats in South Africa: It's 2017 and you have a brand-new year in front of you. How are you going to fill it?

If your experience living in South Africa has been like that of my family and so many others I have talked to over the years, your biggest fear isn't of crime. Most likely you are vigilant and aware of danger spots, but otherwise manage quite well.

No - your biggest fear, I'd venture a guess, might well be that of being sent home before you've had a chance to explore more of the wonders of Africa. As expats, we know how quickly things can change when your whereabouts depend on the fickle corporate powers back home. You might be recalled to where you came from or be sent to another continent at a moment's notice. And as expats, we also know that regret about opportunities missed is one of the burdens we often bear heavily.

So as you begin implementing your New Year's Resolutions for 2017, why not look at your South Africa Bucket List and start making concrete plans?

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Go on a safari. I know, I know, this sounds lame, because of course you've already been on a safari. It's everyone's first order of business right after the boxes are unpacked and the domestic is hired. But from one who no longer lives in Africa, trust me that having a safari within easy reach is what you will miss most in your future life. If you need ideas, my safari suggestions for South Africa might help.

    Savuti Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana 2012

  2. Explore Johannesburg and surroundings. There is a ton to do close to home that often is missed because we expats are so busy traveling. Ride in a hot air balloon over the Magaliesberg, tour Soweto, get kissed by elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary, see cheetahs up close at De Wildt, savor the view from Northcliff Hill, or walk the tightrope at JoziX. See my complete list of Johannesburg attractions here.

    Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt near Johannesburg, South Africa 2010

  3. Leave your comfort zone. If you haven't yet visited Alexandra, the most notorious but also most fascinating of South Africa's townships, do it this year. Contact me and I'll set you up with my friend Tedius Ncube as your personal guide who can show you the field where the dreams of Alexandra Baseball are born. Join the Joburg Photowalkers, or go an any other Joburg walking tour. If you haven't yet, volunteer in a Diepsloot school through EduFun or any of the other volunteer opportunities listed here.

    Street in Alexandra, South Africa 2010

  4. Visit the Drakensberg. It's a spectacular mountain range, but with so many other spectacular sights on most expats' lists, the hauntingly beautiful scenery of the Drakensberg is easily missed. Our son went on a 10-day wilderness hiking tour with his school during 9th grade, and I always regretted not doing something similar with friends. We only go to hike in the Drakensberg for half a day - from the hotel to a waterfall and back - and even so, walking along those scraggly ridges was an unforgettable experience.

    Drakensberg near Champagne Sports Resort, South Africa 2012

  5. Visit Cape Town - again. Just like a safari, Cape Town  with its breathtaking views, wide sandy beaches, and gourmet restaurants is the place you'll longingly think back to one day. But unlike a safari, it's very affordable. If you've already seen the main tourist attractions in Cape Town, here are some new ideas: Tour the former prison on Robben Island, sit on a bench in Hermanus watching whales right below you, go scuba diving in the tank of the Two Oceans Aquarium, or spend a day going wine tasting in Franschhoek - you may never want to leave.

    Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa 2011

  6. Go hiking. There are many options for day hikes close to Joburg, like Groenkloof Nature Reserve, the Hennops Hiking Trail, or Cradle Nature Reserve. If you want to go bigger without lacking comfort, book the Wild Coast Meander like we did last August - the scenery is unforgettable. I've also heard great things about the Oystercatcher Trail. And for the ultimate African hiking trip (but where, I'm not going to lie, you will lack in comfort), climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I can recommend a little book called Kilimanjaro Diaries for further research.

    Hennops River hiking trail near Johannesburg, South Africa 2012

  7. Make a point of having a sundowner every night. There are so many more destinations I wanted to put on this list. Stone Town on Zanzibar, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Isle aux Cerfs in Mauritius, the dunes of Sossusvlei and the Orange River in Namibia, Victoria Falls in either Zambia or Zimbabwe... But I've already gone on for too long. You know what I miss most of all when thinking back to our charmed life in South Africa? I miss impromptu get-togethers with friends watching African sunsets. It's called a sundowner, and it's one of Africa's greatest inventions. Cheers!

    Somewhere in the bush at sunset, Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa 2012

I hope I've given you some ideas for your 2017 calendar. If you're newly embarking on your expat adventure, this should be a good starting point. And if this is the year you'll have to leave Africa, I hope I've given you some tips so you can leave without regrets.

Finally, to make sure you truly don't have any regrets, get the kind of health insurance that covers you and your family during all your travels. I recommend Cigna as a provider – they have services tailored for expats and coverage that includes emergency medical evacuation throughout Africa, giving you peace of mind throughout all your adventures. Click here to see the full range of Cigna Africa services.

This post was sponsored by Hollard Cigna Health. Opinions expressed are entirely my own.

January 11, 2017

Book Review: We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun

The story is about  author Justine van der Leun’s quest to get to the bottom of what really happened the day Amy Biehl, an American student on a Fullbright scholarship in South Africa, was killed by an angry mob in a township near Cape Town in 1993, in that period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president of South Africa. It’s a heartbreaking story: Amy drove into Gugulethu that day to drive home two of her anti-Apartheid activist friends. They were all fighting for social justice, yet she was brutally murdered by some of the very people whose welfare she was most concerned about.

I vaguely remembered the event, and also that Amy’s parents created headlines by publicly forgiving the men convicted of her murder. But I knew none of the details.

If you’re interested in that long-ago story, this book will bring it back in all its detail. The author, an American writer married to a South African, finds herself with time on her hands when first moving to Cape Town, where she stumbles across this story. Believing there are unexplained holes in it, she decides to investigate it on her own.

But Amy Biehl’s murder and its investigation by the author isn’t all there is to We Are Not Such Things. It’s much more than that. I would say it’s one of the best portraits of life in a South African township that I’ve read, at least if you consider it’s written by an outsider. In the course of her investigation, Justine gets to know the main players on that fateful day and forges an especially close bond with one of the men who pleaded guilty to Amy’s murder, Easy Nofemala. He was one of the four men arrested for Amy’s murder in the aftermath – all of whom were, in the end, pardoned by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was formed to address Apartheid-era crimes. Through Easy, Justine gets to meet other witnesses on frequent visits to Gugulethu and surroundings.

I don't have pictures of Gugulethu. The closest I have is this picture of another township near
Cape Town, Khayelitsha, taken in 2012. It goes on for miles along the highway to the airport.

To me, these visits are the real gem in her book, giving us a glimpse into a world so different from our own. They lay bare something I myself have struggled with in my experiences in a different township, Alexandra. As some of you know, I became involved in the fate of a township baseball team soon after we moved to South Africa, and my experiences helping them in any way I could make for some of my fondest memories. But I always felt a bit uneasy in my dealings with them. Not so much because many consider it unsafe to even enter a South African township, especially one as notorious as Alexandra or Gugulethu. In fact, some of South Africa’s reputation as crime-ridden and violent country probably rests on precisely what happened to Amy Biehl in 1993, but much has changed since then. No, the reason for my unease was mainly that I never quite trusted all of the stories I was told. I would hear one story from the first person I talked to, a totally different from the next, and so on. What happened to the laptop computer I donated to the team? Was it indeed stolen by one of the earlier coaches? Was he indeed caught for some other crime and now lingering in prison? Or was the computer simply sold for a quick profit, something I was assured by others involved with helping the team had certainly happened in the past with donated equipment?

When you forge ties to Africans from the lowest rungs of society who are struggling to get by every day, it’s no surprise that you’ll become their center of attention, and that perhaps some of the stories you are told at least bend the truth a little, so as to make sure you don’t go away. What I learned in my time in South Africa is that with my white middle-class childhood, idyllic compared to that of many of the kids I came across in Alexandra, I have almost no way of understanding their plight and how it might propel their actions. The morals I grew up to embrace that I thought were so ironclad appear a lot more fluid when viewed through this lens. Trevor Noah does an excellent job describing this in his memoir Born a Crime, which I’ve recently reviewed.

Getting back to Justine van der Leun, it is the telling of her quest to understand the Amy Biehl story that is so fascinating. The deeper she digs, the more confusing it gets. Did Easy and the other accused really commit the crime? Were they wrongfully convicted, and if so, why is it so hard to get to the truth? Is there perhaps an ulterior motive for them not wanting to revisit the past, because their present role at the Amy Biehl foundation has become quite comfortable and even profitable, and unraveling the truth would threaten that carefully crafted new life?

These are all questions that pop up as you progress through the narrative. It is somewhat unsatisfying that when you turn the last page, you have no idea what really happened that day in 1993. If your sole goal in reading the book is to find out what happened, don’t read it, you’ll be disappointed. I think the publisher wasn’t quite honest in pushing exactly that narrative.

What you do learn is that digging deeper doesn’t always give a satisfying answer, but that it can open a window to an entirely different world from yours, and perhaps even a window into your own soul.

January 3, 2017

From Slum to Sitting With a President: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

Buy on Amazon
Many Americans don't know Trevor Noah nearly as well as most South Africans, who over the years have seen him rise through the ranks of comedians to become a South African icon. No one does accents as well as Trevor Noah does, and no country like South Africa gives you so much good material for them.

But perhaps even most South Africans don't know much about Noah's past. He was "Born a Crime," which is also the title of his newly-released memoir, grew up in poverty, and suffered from bullying and domestic abuse. Raised by a fiercely independent single mother, he flitted between Soweto, Alexandra, and a handful of other Johannesburg suburbs throughout his childhood and adolescence, never far away from the next disaster.

To think that he is now the host of The Daily Show where we could recently watch him interview an American President seems utterly impossible given his humble beginnings. I have been to Alexandra, I have been to Soweto, and I have seen the daily struggles of the vast majority of people living there. Trevor Noah's improbable walk out of an African township and right into the halls of power (or, if not power itself, then the power by proxy of wielding influence over hearts and minds) surely must be one of the most inspiring stories of our time.

It is a story of hope.



But it's also a hugely entertaining story, and this brings me to the rest of this blog post, my review of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.

Whether you have any connection to South Africa, love Trevor Noah, or simply like reading a good memoir, Born a Crime should be on your shortlist. More specifically, you should get it on Audible - Noah narrates the story himself, and it is a luxury to listen to his voice outside of my nightly dose of The Daily Show.

As the title suggests, at the center of Trevor Noah's personal story lies the fact that his birth constituted a crime in then-Apartheid South Africa. At the time, interracial marriage or intimate relations were forbidden, and when his African mother became pregnant as a result of her relationship with a Swiss businessman she met in Johannesburg, both had to go to great lengths to hide the outcome of their crime, only meeting behind closed doors or walking apart when out in public. As a result of his parents never marrying or even living together, Noah was raised by his mother, who herself was an outsider of sorts among her own people, the Xhosa.

Far from turning Noah into a person who is bitter at the world he grew up in, his unique childhood instilled in him an intense curiosity and ability to fit in with a wide range of vastly different and separate groups like a chameleon, as he repeatedly calls himself. His unique ability with languages helped him greatly. When he lived among his black cousins in Soweto, he conversed in Xhosa and felt black, just like them. When he attended a private primary school after the end of Apartheid where kids of various backgrounds came together, he felt equally at ease with the white kids, due to his flawless upper-class South African English. As he points out at the beginning of the book, South Africa has 11 official languages - written into its constitution post-Apartheid so as not to offend anyone - and he learned to speak many of them, sometimes without even being aware that he did. In his mind, all the conversations occurred in English, he says at some point.

Curiously, the racial group he felt least welcomed by were South Africa's Coloureds, even though he looked the most like them as a mixed-race child. Fiercely protective of their cultural history and status (above blacks, but below whites) in an Apartheid regime whose goal it was to put a wedge between racial groups, as he explains it, he was considered a traitor rather than one of them. A traitor, because instead of Afrikaans, he spoke the language of their rivals.

"Language, even more than color,defines who you are to people," says Noah. You might be viewed with suspicion based on your looks which pit you as a certain race, but once you open your mouth and speak a group's language just like them, they will consider you one of them. Nelson Mandela, as quoted by Noah in the book, famously described the same phenomenon:

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

I have found this to be very true after years of living as an expat. It is so very easy to dismiss people who speak little English, or heavily accented English, as inferior and uneducated. English is not just the language of business, it is also very much the language of culture and learning. If you're black and speak English badly, you immediately invoke a lot of prejudice in white people. If you're black and not only speak English fluently but do so with the perfect accent appropriate to the group you find yourself in, you become one of them. Suddenly, through the lens of language, they see you as white.

Noah doesn't mince words. He is very critical of racism and the way South Africa's government institutionalized it through Apartheid, and also of the more subtle forms of white privilege still persistent today. When you grow up black and poor, he says, you are told that you need to just work hard to make something of yourself. But no one gives you any of the tools you need for it, or even tells you what the tools are.

Another question he spends some time exploring is this: What does it mean to be a criminal? Where exactly are the lines between right and wrong? On the streets of Alexandra, he says, there is a definite honor code. It's not lawless. But what our Western worldview considers to be criminal behavior, like selling bootlegged music or peddling goods you know had to be stolen, is not seen the same way when you grow up in abject poverty. Stealing from whites is often justified with a simple truth: Whites, his township friends tell him when he voices his qualms, have insurance. Miraculously, they get back what is taken from them. Because township life is so removed from the lives of the privileged, it's easy to grow up without feeling remorseful when all you're trying to do is get by day to day. I've alluded to this in previous musings about corruption in the context of culture, and found it hard to hit the right tone between thoughtful and condescending. Noah does a good job explaining what I meant to say.

But his main gift is to humanize the environment he grew up in with wonderful tales of his childhood and adolescence. His mother is a truly fearsome person who insisted on building his character with whatever means she deemed necessary, even if it meant letting him linger in jail when he got himself into a mess, or dragging him on endless missions through the dangerous streets of Johannesburg to attend Sunday church - not once, not twice, but often three times, to pray to Jesus at every possible turn and to cover all the bases.

Having lived in South Africa, I felt myself inexorably drawn back into its orbit by Noah's wonderful storytelling. He captured the spirit of Johannesburg and of the South African psyche perfectly. Many situations he describes were very vivid to me, by virtue of having lived there. His experiences at school sounded very much like those of my kids, even though their backgrounds are very different.

Some anecdotes in particular stood out to me: His being thrown, by his mother, from a moving car in order to escape a dangerous situation; his taking a clandestine dump on a piece of newspaper to avoid using the outhouse during a rainstorm; and him hustling pirated music CDs and financial services on the streets of Alexandra after he and his friends have finished high school and find themselves without prospects.

These are all great South African stories, and so much more, that you get in "Born a Crime." For memoir lovers, I'd say it's a bit like Angela's Ashes with sunnier weather. As a bonus when you get the Audible version, you get to listen to Trevor Noah unabridged, including his entire repertoire of African accents.

If you're reading this post because you are a soon-to-be expat in South Africa, then get Born a Crime to familiarize yourself with the surroundings.




I also encourage you to browse my other book recommendations on the Africa Bookshelf.