The dangers of jargon

In one of our epic meetings the other day, one of our partners kept going on about all the ‘disease-specific areas’ that we need to make sure we train the provincial-level health staff on in our proposal. While this made sense, she continued to use this jargon when she was referring to our family planning, reproductive health and gender activities. Um? Did I miss something? Since when is it a ‘disease’ to be a woman? Come on, think about what you’re saying before just spouting meaningless jargon.

(apologies in advance for being a super-geek and finding this hilarious…I’m sure the vast majority of you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about much less why I find it funny – I guess that’s an occupational hazard. Yes, yes, I need to get a life.)



So far my life in Kinshasa has consisted of a) work, b) expensive dinners, c) cockroaches, and d) traffic.

I hit the ground running in terms of work – I arrived in Friday afternoon and went straight to the office (fun, considering I was broiling hot in the sweater and jeans I’d worn to keep warm on the airplane.) We’re working on writing a proposal to USAID for a very large health grant, so several staff from NY and other country programs have come in to help, but none of them arrived until Sunday. So all of the sudden I found myself leading an initial brainstorming meeting with the Health technical team here Saturday – I wasn’t quite prepared for that! It’s been pretty fast paced since then. We are working in partnership with some other organizations on the proposal, so we spent much of the week meeting with their proposal team and writing up inputs for the first draft.

Kinshasa is an insanely expensive city. I thought Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire were expensive, but they’re not even close. I guess it’s a UN Mission/price ratio – the more UN forces you have on the ground, the more expensive things are! I’m sure it’s in part the places we’re going, but dinner and a drink routinely costs at least $30, even for a pizza or pasta. There are some nice restaurants, though – Taj, a really good Indian restaurant, is up on the 8th floor of a building (which you have to get to by riding a very dodgy elevator) and has a great view of the city. In addition to the high cost, you have to bank on at least 2 hours minimum for every meal – tiring when you’ve just spent a gazillion hours in the office.

In the 10 days I’ve been here I’ve stayed in 3 different hotels. I thought I’d be able to move in before everyone else got here and no one would be able to see how much stuff I’d brought (I’m a founding member of over-packers anonymous), but no luck. The first place seemed fine to me (except maybe for the slanted floors in the shower that successfully directed the water away from the drain), but our Admin guy wasn’t happy that they didn’t have a back-up generator so I moved after one night. The next place seemed more posh – right on the main Boulevard and decked out with bordello-red curtains and bedspread – but unfortunately had a major cockroach problem. EW. At first I thought it was just one or two of the little tiny ones. I should have known better. Where there is one there are millions. I spent two nights in the room spraying Doom like a fiend and stomping on the little buggers, but they were fearless. I came back to my brightly-lit room to see one just hanging out on my bed. Yuck. I am pretty sure they were living under the wooden bed frame. Needless to say I slept with the light on – it was a good thing I was exhausted or I never would have gotten any sleep. I changed rooms finally and was lucky that the ground floor room seemed to be roach free, but my colleagues weren’t as lucky. We moved hotels the third time a few days ago – now we’re in this super posh hotel (ok, not actually posh by anything other than DRC standards). Unfortunately, every time I repack in a hurry my bags seem to multiply, so now I had about 11 it felt like…at least I wasn’t the only one. My room is great other than the chain-smoking South Africans in the next room, but hey, they’re not cockroaches.

Traffic is insane here in Kinshasa. We’re probably a 2 minute drive from the office with no traffic, but some days it has taken us over 30. There is one bottleneck in particular just outside the UN compound, about 5 car lengths from our office, where we routinely get stuck. I was told of one day when the staff were coming back to the office and got stuck there for so long they decided to walk to the office. The car they were in apparently only made it in the gates 2 hours later. Ugh. The worst is that it is totally unpredictable. Midday is usually bad, but you never know how bad. And you’d think that Saturday at 11 wouldn’t be the worst traffic time, but we did get stuck for about 30 minutes at one intersection the other night…

So, so far I’m enjoying the work and the people here a lot, and have seen a little bit of the city. I would LOVE to be able to explore the rest of the country, especially the area around Lake Kivu on the border with Rwanda and Burundi, but doesn’t look like I’m going to be venturing too far beyond the hotel and office on this trip. I guess that’s the exotic life of a consultant!

Rolling out the red carpet

Before I left for DRC last week, I traveled to Jo’burg for a meeting set up by the organization I’ve been doing some work with in South Africa. They bring together members of the regional and international community to dialogue about the challenges in Zimbabwe and raise awareness of the South African government and general population about the current situation in Zimbabwe.

I knew they were well connected, but I was still surprised when they told me that Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, would be addressing this session of their ‘Building International Consensus’ dialogues. For those of you who don’t follow Zim politics much, Tsvangirai is the founder and leader of the MDC, the party that has provided the main opposition to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. After a disastrous election in 2008 (lots of corruption, violence and vote stealing), they joined together to form the Government of National Unity (GNU) to try and move the country towards a new constitution and elections. I won’t go into too much detail since I’m far from an expert in Zim politics, but you can find more info from the BBC here.

The event was all very dramatic. After a morning session of the usual diplomats, academics and civil society activists (which uncharacteristically started AND finished on time), all 150+ people there were hushed and seated We were coached that protocol indicated that we must all rise as the Prime Minister entered the room. When the doors were flung open a mass of about 10 men in black strode quickly into the room – the Prime Minster isn’t the tallest man, so he was swallowed up in the sea of suits. He was an incredibly charismatic speaker – most notably he announced that both he and Mugabe are committed to having elections next year, something that has been widely debated. He took questions for nearly as long as he’d spoken, addressing and answering even the most difficult questions in a very un-politician-like manner.

Afterward I was sitting with the team who had put on the meeting doing a post-mortem, and everyone got up and went outside rather abruptly. I followed them outside, and wondered why they were all standing in a line. Then I noticed that there was a fancy car parked at the curb of the hotel, and a red carpet rolled out – I still didn’t put two and two together. Finally I realized that the team was lining up to say goodbye to the PM, and that where I was standing put me in line to be first to shake his hand! Not exactly what I’d been expecting when I woke up that morning.

So much for roots…off to DRC!

One of the things that I was looking forward to most about moving to Cape Town was the chance to finally put down some roots. This is not something I would have imagined myself saying a few years ago – I have always had itchy feet and while I imagined having a home someday, that someday always seemed far away. Not sure what it was – stress, age, circumstances, all of the above – but I was very excited about the idea of staying put for awhile when we moved here. And I managed not to travel for a bit…

It’s starting to seem a bit like I’ve put down those really shallow roots – they hold me in one place, but aren’t really all that solid yet and can easily get swept away. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do my job without traveling so much, but with little success so far. So I’ve also been thinking about what else I can do so I don’t have to travel so much – also haven’t gotten very far on that.

Maybe part of the problem isn’t so much the travel or even the work – I most always enjoy it once I get there. I think probably it’s more about the uncertainty. And the unpredictability. In the last month I’ve almost gone to about 3 different countries – Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Georgia – and every one was a last minute, prepare-to-put-your -life-on -hold-and-be-ready-to-leave-in-two-days kind of assignment.  And none of them panned out, for various reasons (the organization I was on a bit with didn’t win the proposal, the proposal was postponed, etc). Makes it a little hard to plan your life when you’re never sure if you’ll be in the country the following week.

So now I think it looks like I’ll be heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  with the IRC a week from today. They wanted me there sooner, but there is this whole pesky visa thing. And I was literally called about this job for the first time last night. Things move quickly! I’m never sure I’m actually going until I’m on the plane, but this one seems pretty solid. It should be an interesting assignment, writing a $142mm health proposal, and I’ve always wanted to visit DRC. But I am heartbroken to have to leave my little kitten – she’ll be so big when I get back in 3-4 weeks! Not to mention having to cancel classes I was planning to take, etc. Oh well, c’est la vie – at least for now.

Welcoming Lucy!

About a week ago we stopped by the Animal Welfare Society in Stellenbosch to see if they had any kittens (dangerous, I know). We’d been talking for quite awhile about getting a little fuzz-ball, and when we walked into the cattery and saw little Lucy we fell in love. She had climbed up the wall of the cage, meowing furiously, trying to stick her nose and paws through the holes to touch us. She has such a big personality!

Lucy and her litter-mates were found on the side of the highway with no mother cat, and the AWB bottle-fed and fostered them. Because of this she is extremely affectionate and used to people. She’s only 6 1/2 weeks old, but they wanted to adopt her out as soon as possible as the kennels are getting very cold at night and the foster mother was getting a bit fed up.  She was under observation for about a week, as they were worried that she wasn’t eating enough. When we called them yesterday they happily told us that the hunger strike was over, and that she was in fact now eating like a piggy! Lucy obviously misses her mom and the other kittens – she doesn’t seem to want to be away from us at all and has found a surrogate in one of our fleece blankets. She sleeps in the crook of your arm or any other warm place near you – right now she is curled up in the back of Nick’s sweatshirt hood while he works at his computer, in fact.

It was bitter-sweet getting a new kitty – while she is the cutest thing, she does make me miss my little Squeekers. But it is so nice to have a (very loudly) purring kitten in our house again. Not sure how Fang will take it when he next comes to visit, but he’ll just have to get used to her! At the moment she is so tiny she’s got to be far from threatening.

Ok, I’ll stop now – I don’t usually get this gushy, but she is so cute! I’ll let the pics speak for themselves.

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Musically stagnant in Cape Town

One of the most frustrating thing about living on the other side of the world is the fact that it is so far away from so much good music! And I am in desperate need of new music.

I don’t want to belittle the SA music scene.  To be honest, I haven’t really had a chance to explore it fully, and there are a number of bands that I really want to check out. And of course there are the local acts that I am loving – I’ll have to do another post on all the great (and some odd) SA groups that are doing well.

But on a daily basis, I find it considerably harder to get access to new music that I like. There are a number of radio stations, but as far as I can tell they all play pretty much a variation on the Top 40 theme – some are a little more adult contemporary, some a bit more pop, some more Afrikaans (oh, how I dislike…more on that another time). The only one I can really stomach listening to is a pretty formulaic Top 40 station, 5fm. At least they have some good DJs and play the odd great song, plus their cheese of the day feature rocks. But I simply HAVE to turn it off after awhile – I can only hear Young Money’s ‘Bedrock’, Chris Brown’s ‘Crawl’ or Ke$Ha’s ‘Blah Blah Blah’ so many times before I go nuts….They actually have a tab on their website to show you the 5 new songs they’ve added to their playlist during the week – this gives you an idea of just how repetitive the daily tunes get. And even though they’ve got some shows highlighting local talent, they’re usually played late at night or on the weekends, never when I’m listening.

I assume that most of the music being played on the radio here, with the exception of the local tunes, is the same is what is on the Top 40 in the US, maybe a few months behind – Rhianna, all the American Idol people, Shakira, etc. Though there is probably some music here that doesn’t make the airwaves in the US, given that SA seems to be influenced more musically by the UK than the US, thanks to their proximity and the fact that so many South Africans travel to and live in the UK at some point in their lives. Also, there seem to be a number of Australian bands that make it here – I guess the proximity again.

As for concerts, there are quite a lot of local shows but really no one that I’m into coming from abroad to play. I guess SA is just too far away. The big US artist to visit recently was Kelly Clarkson (um, not for me). Oh, the Killers were here this summer, but it was sold out immediately. Other than that I can’t remember a single international act coming that I was keen on hearing. There are a ton of music festivals here in the summer, but they all feature pretty much the same cadre of local talent, and you can hear them play just so many times live before the thrill goes out of it.

The SA music scene has some good talent, but it’s not terribly deep.  And it is more of a pop, hip hop and dance vibe, not really much in terms of the kind of stuff I like (I’m not exactly sure how to classify what I listen to).

Ok, as I’m writing this I’m realizing that I’m just being a bit lazy. I know I’ve been totally spoiled being in MN where good new music just seems to drip from the icicles. Not to mention that I had friends and family in the US who were equally into hearing new music and sharing it around – I don’t really have that yet here. It may not be as easy to just turn on the radio and hear an awesome new track and know I can probably hear them live at some point, but there are some good bands here to be found. Hmm. I think I need to think a bit more about that and share the good tunes that I do hear here! But I still wish I had a bit more of a finger on the pulse of what is happening overseas in terms of new music to compare things to. Any ideas?

Roadtrips – US vs. South Africa

I am a huge fan of road trips. There is something so exciting about the prospect of a long drive, despite the obvious drawbacks of road travel. It’s far from the fastest way of getting anywhere, but even without the insufferable security screening, endless lines and baggage restriction induced panic, I would opt for a road trip any day. I love listening to music, staring out at the landscape and towns whizzing by, snack breaks, chatting, stretches of comfortable silence, and, of course, finally getting there.

I’ve road-tripped in a lot of places, and haven’t met one yet I didn’t like. I even relished the epic drives on potholed roads in Liberia. Somehow the repetitive soundtrack of Lionel Ritchie, Lucky Dube and West Africa’s greatest hits induced a trance-like effect that had me doing some of my best thinking on the road.

Nick and I just got back from driving his car back from Jo’burg to Cape Town, via Arniston. I’ve done quite a number of roadtrips over the years in South Africa, including the Jo’burg-Cape Town drive (about 16 hours) 5 or 6 times. There are quite a lot of differences between road-tripping in the US and South Africa – here are just a few:

  • While the main roads in South Africa have pretty major gas stations that have snacks, food, clean bathrooms, etc, if you venture even a short distance off these roads you’d better plan in advance! Even on stretches of major roads, the towns are sometimes far apart, meaning fuel stops are too. A major challenge for people with pea-sized bladders like me.
    • Even the major N-S route that crosses South Africa is a one-lane highway in many places. There are few super-highways in the middle of the country, unlike in the US, despite the fact that it is the major trucking route. This means there is a LOT of truck dodging and passing. Even on tight, windy mountain passes.
    • Passing is polite here. There is an unwritten rule that if a vehicle pulls over or somehow tries to make it easier for you to pass, you thank them by turning on your hazards. They respond by flicking their lights at you. If you don’t do this, you will incur the wrath of the driver (I’ve seen it firsthand – normally calm Nick yelling ‘you’re welcome, jerk!’ at cars that haven’t thanked him…)
    • There are hardly any billboards! I spend my time trying to read and pronounce the odd Afrikaans named towns and landmarks since those are the only reading material. It would be damn hard to play the alphabet game in some parts of the country!
    • Only pretty major towns have streetlights, so once the sun sets it is just DARK.
    • There is not nearly as much to buy. There are farmstalls along some roads that sell fresh naartjies (nectarines), pies (the meat ones, not the fruit ones) and preserves, you won’t find the same kind of roadside stuff shops you can in small town USA.

    Of course, some things are the same – speed traps in small towns, construction and lane closures, artery hardening burgers and chips as the main form of sustenance on the road, crappy radio stations, etc. I’m sure there are a lot more, so I’m going to plan another road trip to try and find out! Now if only I can stay awake long enough in the car to take note…

    Roadtrip Happiness Is…

    …the smell of damp, freshly cut grass and the smoke from far off velt fires rushing in through the vents

    …needing to dig out your sunglasses even though the weather forecast called for cold and rain

    …smoked beef Simba chips and Coke Light at the gas station

    …dancing madly and singing along to the cheesy tunes on the only radio station in the area

    …extremely random conversations about anything and everything

    …hearing rush-hour traffic reports for the cities you’ve escaped and seeing no other cars on the road for miles

    …the sun sinking slowly below the horizon to my right, the colors deepening and spreading across the sky, turning the landscape pink and gold

    …seeing a huge yellow moon rising in the navy sky over the horizon on the other side of the car, illuminating the fields and reflecting in the ponds and reservoirs

    …the feel of the fresh, cold air that hits just as the sun goes down

    …cute B&Bs in odd towns (with electric blankets and MNet!)

    …arriving at your destination ahead of schedule!

      Check out

      I need to give a little shout out to

      First off, it’s not an online shop to pick out your latest Holsteins and Jerseys (look at the city girl knowing her cows…). is home to a million and one fabulous print products, everything from  greeting cards, postcards, and business cards.

      a few of the mini-card designs

      My incredibly groovy, trend-setting sister turned me on to their mini-business cards a few years ago.  When I left my job I decided I needed some personal cards with my contact details on them to hand out for freelancing, networking, etc.  Great decision.  I ordered the super-cute ‘Classic Laura Cameron’ mixed pack of patterned mini cards when I was back in the US – an even better decision.  I have gotten more compliments on the cards than I would have imagined – they have been a great way to share my contact details, and also a great conversation starter!

      No, I’m not getting paid for this – I just think they’re incredibly neat, and wanted to give credit where credit is due.  For those of you in SA, they are originally a British company so their UK shop delivers here. , and delivers here.

      My Earth Day Resolution

      I don’t think people usually make resolutions on Earth Day, but I have: I will do my part for nature this year and stay away from live plants.

      I have long quipped that I was blessed with ‘black thumbs’, that I manage to kill pretty much anything green (or flowering) that I come in contact with. Part of it is negligence – I am terrible about remembering to take my vitamins in the morning, much less watering the plants. It’s another part ignorance – I don’t know how I managed to live my 31 years in such a massive state of ignorance about plant life, but I think I will blame it on my urban upbringing. I am a city-loving, apartment-living girl through and through. My lack of knowledge is epic – I actually asked Nick’s Mom about the bushes at the front of our house and she laughed to realize I couldn’t even identify a rose-bush! (Though, to my credit, they didn’t have any roses on them and never really have – they look more like stick bushes to me). I also had to ask Nick to tell me when/how often I needed to water our little garden when he was away – I even made notes on things like ‘don’t water at midday, the sun will just soak up the water’, and ‘no need to water if it rains’.

      Despite my best efforts to be vigilant of our (teeny, tiny) garden and potted plants, I was unsuccessful. Despite my constant watering and even feeding (!) our little trees we’d potted and put out on either side of our front door, they managed to die while I was away for a month. To be honest, they died before I left, or were well on their way. It should have been a tip-off, maybe, when the water I would pour on them would not seem to penetrate the sandy soil and just run right through. Hm. Maybe there was something wrong there.

      We were all set to buy another pair of trees (poor Fred and Myrtle – I knew we shouldn’t name them, we were only inviting trouble!).  Then Nick’s dad came up with the brilliant idea to spray paint them. I took it as a joke, but Nick (apparently fed-up with shelling out dough for plants I would only kill next time he was away) went out and bought a can of ‘Irish Green’ spray paint that same afternoon! We toyed with the idea of purple or red trees, or maybe polka-dots, but decided to go with the almost-natural green color.

      Our spray-painted trees

      Attached is a pic of our lovely little trees. Their shocking green has faded somewhat in the bright sun so they’re looking a bit more natural. The neighbors haven’t yet complained about the unsightly lumo-green trees flanking our door. It might not have exactly the same effect as planting a tree on Earth Day, but I think I’m just doing my part to protect nature from Jenny.  So this year we can celebrate two fewer plants that would inevitably fall victim to my black thumbs.

      Happy Earth Day!

      N2 Chronicles III

      Cruising along on the N2 last night, heading home after an overly-decadent dinner with Nick’s fam in Somerset West, we were passed at high speed by a small white van.  I thought nothing of it until I saw the lettering on the back:

      Mortuary Ambulance

      Excuse me?  I didn’t know there was such a thing as a mortuary emergency.  I pretty much figured that once you were dead there stopped being emergencies.  Ok, maybe being late to your own funeral could constitute a minor crisis…but how often does that really happen?  So often that it requires an entire ambulance service?  Maybe something I have to add onto my list of ‘things to worry about’.

      I’m allergic to West Africa.

      Yep.  It’s true.  I’m allergic to West Africa, I fear.  Or maybe it’s IRC.  Or maybe just work in general.

      I’d only been there in Abidjan a few days when I started feeling all achy and feverish.  Signs I should have been familiar with, but had banished to the back of my mind.  After a night of excruciating pain and high fever, I came to the conclusion that the infections I’d been having continuously in Liberia in the months before I left had returned.  Of course, since I left Liberia I’d been the picture of good health – well, other than self-inflicted klutz-factor related injuries, of course.  So I hadn’t come prepared with my usual traveling pharmacy for self-medication.

      Luckily I’m here working on a Health proposal, so my colleagues are an MD and an RN – both had plenty of cipro and ibuprofen to get me started, so I’m on the road to recovery.  I do love the abandon with which us development folk both self-diagnose and self-medicate.  I’m always a bit wary, but after you’ve gone to one incompetent doctor too many it really hits home that medicine in most parts of the world really is an art and not a science.  And I certainly know myself better than anyone else, so my guess is as good as theirs most of the time.  Why pay to confirm what you’re 99% sure of, especially when you don’t need a prescription to get the drugs and the pharmacy anyways, and you have your own non-practising MDs to help you with dosage? Not to mention I would be incapable of explaining my symptoms in French.

      (Mom, don’t worry – I will go to a doctor if it gets worse!   Don’t you love it that moms still worry even when you’re 31?)

      Abidjan again

      It feels odd. It was almost exactly a year ago that I was here in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire with IRC for a conference. Now I’m back helping their Health team out with a proposal for a couple of weeks.

      It’s great to be back – the team here is very welcoming and friendly, but I am totally LOST. I haven’t spoken French since I was here last, and it was pretty poor then!  I am really struggling with the basics – I somehow managed to skip the whole intro French stuff back in the day when I started learning, so I am particularly bad at things like greetings and pleasantries – it probably makes me look unfriendly, but I honestly don’t know what to say when people greet me!

      It’s interesting being back with IRC West Africa, seeing so many familiar faces and hearing the gossip of what’s going on in the region and beyond.  In many ways it feels like nothing has changed at all.  But it’s cool to be back as a consultant, working specifically on one project rather than being swamped by a million things at once.

      The trip here was long – suffice it to say I ate way too much odd airplane foods at weird times of the night and slept in such a way my neck may never be the same again.  The best thing about the trip was that on my first leg (CPT-Dubai) we flew in an Emirates 777.  It had an awesome lighting system, and when the food service was over and it was time for the passengers to go to sleep the ‘sky’ lit up blue with little pinpricks of starlight!  Very pretty.

      So far away

      Ah, it’s the little things…

      I woke up the other day with that Owl City song ‘Fireflies’ in my head. It’s been playing on the radio for weeks, and somehow managed to creep into my subconscious – I don’t particularly like it, but it’s one of the least annoying songs on the radio here at the moment.

      Anyway, I saw a friend from Minneapolis had posted the lyrics to the same song as his Facebook status that day. Oddly, it made my day! Some times I feel pretty darn far removed from the lives and preoccupations of my friends back in the States. I can’t get into the excitement/hatred/moaning about the massive piles of snow piling up in DC – I can barely even imagine snow in the middle of summer here! I can’t get into the Superbowl madness, and not just because my team didn’t make it (boo), but because I don’t have satellite tv and so couldn’t watch it. I can’t celebrate a fabulous day off with everyone on President’s Day – oddly enough, they don’t celebrate it here in SA and today is business as usual. So there is something comforting about knowing that the same generic pop tunes are playing in the States as here. Or maybe it’s scary, I’m not really sure…but that’s a whole different topic! For now, I’ll take it as comforting.

      Make new friends

      If I was analyzing the tone of last week, I’d have to say that February got off to a bit of a frustrating and self-pitying start, at least on the social scene.

      Nick’s been out of town and I thought, great! I’ll make the most of this time to myself to get myself together, get some work done, and focus on things I never seem to have enough time for when we’re together.

      I’m a perfectly happy solitary person. I can entertain myself well, and would even go so far as to say I am a better person to be around when I have some alone time now and again to reflect and re-energize.

      However, it dawned on me this week that I haven’t really solidly established my own group of friends yet.  Not that I haven’t met a lot of great people – I have! But, as I have painfully learned from my years of travel and transplanting to new places, it takes a long time to really find your niche.

      There are a couple of reasons I’m not really feeling connected yet.  First off, many of the people that I met when we first got here or on my previous trips to South Africa are friends of Nick’s, and most of them live in Somerset West.  While SW isn’t actually that far (only 40 minutes of straight freeway driving), it isn’t that close, either.  People will come through for a special event or occasion, but it requires a bit more planning and the trip usually isn’t in the cards just for a random drink or to grab a bite to eat.

      Second, a good number of the fabulous people I’ve met have small children and live far away.  I love kids, don’t get me wrong, but trying to balance work, the schedule of a busy 10 month old and their own relationships doesn’t leave a lot of time for just hanging out!  I try to get out to their place and visit as much as I can, but again they just don’t have the time or flexibility to meet up for a random show on a weeknight, which I totally understand.

      Third, people tend to spend their whole lives in Cape Town.  It is that great of a place, I guess!  But that means that they have very well-established social networks, and even when you meet awesome people you have to try and slot into their already packed social lives.  I’m sure there are a lot of transplants out there who are also looking to meet people, but so far I haven’t met many.

      Lastly, I haven’t been nearly as good as I should be in capitalizing on those “we should totally hang out!” conversations you have around a bar or braai.  Apparently Cape Town is notoriously bad on this front, but I also take the blame.  In addition to getting really burned out on work over the past few years, I think I also burned out on the making new friends front.  While it was great that there were a lot of expats around to befriend, it definitely gets hard to be in such a transient community as the development world tends to be.  You meet great people, but everyone is there temporarily, whether that means 6 months or 2 years. There was always a going away party for someone, and you had to make new friends constantly as others left. It gets tiring.

      Normally I have so much going on, not to mention Nick to fall back on, that I hardly notice. But I think it strikes you most when you’re heading home with take-out Thai on a Friday night to a date with your couch and the tv and you see a group of friends out on their patio having a braai.  Or when you see a show that you’re just dying to see or a restaurant you really want to try, and you can’t think of anyone you could ask to join you!  Sigh.  I know it will get better, and that it just takes time, I just have to keep telling myself that.

      Ew. Gross.

      I’ve lived in my fair share of bug infested and even rodent-infested places, slept in mud huts with creepy crawlies all over, worried about scorpions on the floor of my tent, but I will NEVER get used to cockroaches.

      They are just creepy, the way they sneak into places you thought were safe and scare the bejeezus out of you when they show up completely unexpected. 

      We haven’t had much of a problem here in our place in Cape Town, which I thought was odd.  It never really gets very cold here and we’re so near the sea, I thought this place would be crawling with them.  We’ve seen a couple, but they usually confine themselves to our garden.

      BUT – as I was sitting here, minding my own business, doing a little web research, I heard a rustling to my left.  I looked down into my purse – EW.  GROSS.  There was a GIANT roach nestled in between my wallet and notebook going to town on a small packet of almonds I had tucked away for those random munchy moments.  NOT COOL.  I must admit I freaked a little, like I always do when I see one, then managed to kick the whole thing over, get him out and doom him to death.  I followed it off with a good smack with (Nick’s) shoe, just for good measure.  Apologies to the pacifists in the crowd, but chowing on my mid-morning snack is decidedly uncool.

      Ok, going to check he’s still dead under that shoe. 

      testing, testing…

      Today, I was actually sat down and shown in great detail how to fill out a bubble sheet test.  Use pencil (no mention of #2, don’t think they exist here), fill in completely, erase completely, make sure the answers match up properly, no stray marks, etc.  They also had to show me how to fill out the date, since it was ‘backwards’, despite the fact that I am clearly American.

      Apparently mastering the art of bubble sheet completion is not the same rite of passage here in South Africa that it is in the US Educational system.  I think we had that down pat by the time we were out of 3rd grade at least, and if you could manage to avoid them throughout highschool you obviously didn’t graduate.

      Just a little funny moment in my day.  Oh, and the test sheets were designed by Pearson Testing or something in Minneapolis, MN…small world.

      YAY! Nick has a new job!

      In December Nick was called in for interviews with two different regional airlines.  Airline interviews are MUCH more intense than my regular interviews, and Nick spent days and days prepping for technical exams and simulator sessions.

      Right before Christmas, he finally got word from South African Airways Express (fondly referred to as SAX) that they wanted him to start early in 2009.  After some nervous weeks of not hearing anything more (ah the joys of everything closing over Christmas!) the other day they finally called him up and confirmed that he would start ground training in Johannesburg February 1.

      He’ll spend the month of Feb up in Joburg for technical ground school on how to operate the CRJ, the jet he will  be flying, and refresher training on things like Dangerous Goods and Crew Resource Management that he has to do every year.  It will be really intense.  Then he’ll travel to Madrid for two weeks in March to do his simulator training, then a few weeks doing “line training”, which basically means on-the-job training.  After that he’ll be a full-fledged co-pilot.

      And the best part – he was able to get a Cape Town basing, so we won’t be moving again any time soon!  Yippee!


      Ah, it is SO wonderful to have fast, FREE internet!  Seriously, I thought I was going to lose it the other day at our house.  It seems that we’re in the middle of an internet hole on our block – if you literally head a block in either direction supposedly the coverage is better, but we are back in the stone ages in our little cottage.  We bought this fancy 3G pay as you go modem (that is pretty high-tech here), but we get about 56kbs on most days…ouch.

      I’m up in Johannesburg for a work meeting this week.  Work??  you might ask.  No, I haven’t gotten a new full-time job yet, and honestly am still not planning on it.  I’ve been trying (sort of half-heartedly) to set myself up as a consultant here, and was put in touch with this organization back in September.  They do a lot of high-level dialogues and consensus-building work on Zimbabwe issues, particularly trying to influence SA Government policy.  They’re also branching out into work in other parts of the region. 

      I was brough on initially to help pull together a proposal, and have been helping out with writing policy papers, proposals, editing research papers, helping with strategic planning, etc. since then.  Its not rocket science, but it is interesting to learn about a new region (I’ve never worked at all on Southern Africa, so there is a lot to learn).  I’m also meeting a lot of interesting and important people, though usually I have to be told after meeting people just who exactly they are and why they are so important (like I said, I am pretty ignorant of the region still, and I am terrible at names!).  But its a good way to connect while keeping my feet in the work world and still having time to take classes, write, and generally explore all sorts of things.

      It’s nice to be up in Joburg again.  I still have good memories of living up here after we left Sudan, and we have quite a few good friends here.  Summer is the rainy season in Joburg, unlike Cape Town where it is dry – there are massive thunderstorms in the afternoons, and everything is so green!  It’s great to be away from the wind in Cape Town, too, although we have had some pretty spectacular days lately.  And I’m sure I’ll get my fill of rain with Cape Town winter coming.  But there is nothing like a good summer storm – just the smell in the air and as the rain hits the hot sidewalks…mmmm.

      House Pictures

      A few pics of our little house. It’s a semi-detached ‘cottage’ in an area called Harfield Village in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. We’re only about 10-15 minutes outside the city center, and are right near restaurants, shops and the train station. We’re still hoping to buy our own place, but it looks like it will have to wait until the 2010 madness subsides in August, so in the meantime we’re enjoying our little space.  As you can tell, we’re still living with some temporary furniture – some day we’ll have everything we need, but for the time being we’re making do with what we’ve got!

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      Reasons to celebrate

      I’ve been meaning to invite people over to our house forever, but it has taken us a long time to really settle into our place.  We’ve been here since October, and the house is just now starting to feel like home.  Part of the reason is that we had to start from scratch in terms of furniture – I got rid of most of my stuff back in the States, and Nick has been living on contract for the last several years.  More importantly, I was wary of really nesting yet – I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high.  We knew we wanted to be based in Cape Town, but the decision really came down to whether Nick was able to get a job posted here.  The interviews ended up taking a long time, and I just wasn’t convinced that we wouldn’t have to move to Joburg in a couple of months!  So I haven’t had my artwork and other little homey touches that I’ve collected sent from Mpls yet.

      When Nick got offered a position with SA Express based out of Cape Town a week or so ago, I figured it was a great excuse for a party!  He’ll be heading to Joburg for training for 2 months or so, so it was also a going away party.  So bunch of friends from Somerset West came through to our side of the mountain to help us celebrate a very belated house warming/yay we get to stay in Cape Town/congrats on Nick’s new job/farewell to Nick – lots of reasons to celebrate!  I wasn’t really sure who would come, since for some reason 40 minutes away seems like a serious schlep, but nearly everyone turned out.  The weather cooperated, and the wind managed to leave at least a few of our candles lit.  Good thing one of the frequent summer cold fronts didn’t pass through – our place is tiny and without being able to open our doors and use the patio it would have been a very cozy party indeed!  Fang (aka rent-a-cat) entertained the guests with his tinfoil ball antics and then promptly conked out on the bed, furring up everything he comes in contact with.  We tried to get as many different kinds of beer as we could find for our guests to sample – there aren’t really many micro-brews here in SA and people usually stick to their standards, but we’ve found a few good ones!  It was great to see everyone again.

      My challenge for 2010

      This year I ushered in the New Years in the way that I hope my year continues – chilled, relaxed, sane, connected, inspired and awed.

      We didn’t know what to expect, but camping at a friend of a friend’s farm in the mountains outside of Cape Town promised two things I required in a NYE celebration – no need to drive anywhere or contend with the drunken masses, and no fireworks (anyone who knows me know I have a completely irrational fear of them, which hasn’t exactly made New Years my favorite holiday of years past).

      The friends’ place was so relaxed and chill – hay bales and an outside bar, just a few people, kids happily running around, coolers stocked with drinks, effortlessly amazing food. We drank and talked and listened to music, danced with the kids, pitched tents in the dark (oops), made and ate sushi, watched a master braii-er (can’t say bbq-er since he’s South African).  We chatted and got to know each other better, and I remembered why I used to like meet new people so much.  I think it has seemed like such a chore since I’ve moved here because most of my conversations with potential new friends revolve around my foreignness, my job (which is not a source of inspiration for me at the moment) and crime, which is just never a fun topic, especially when linked to the first point and involving long lectures about how I need to be careful in SA. 

      But I digress. Our host piled us in the back of his pick-up around 2am to drive a short distance away.  I was not at all sure what this was all about, but as we turned a corner I sucked in a deep breath.  The valley and the mountains across the way were lit up brightly by the full moon shining through the clouds.  They illuminated the orange fires raging in the forests on the other side – we’d seen the smoke earlier in the day, but I didn’t realize it was a fire of this magnitude.  It was a terrifying, yet beautiful, sight. 

      What I hope 2010 brings for me is a renewed buring – to find a passion that will light up my life like those fires and the moon.  For too long I have convinced myself to just be content, telling myself that I am progressing along a path with work and that eventually I will rediscover what it was that initially drew me to my work.  I’ve realized that my job does not necessarily have to be that passion, it is ok if it is merely a way to make ends meet – it’s wonderful when those two things do come together, but often the day-to-day mundane details are enough to wear out the passion.  The challenge for me in 2010 is to discover what it is for me that makes me burn.  It might take me more than a year, but you have to start somewhere…

      Christmas traditions

      This year Nick and I spent Christmas in Cape Town – it was the Westmoreland’s year to have us (I like to think of myself like a rock star, always in demand on the Christmas scene).  This was my second SA Christmas, and actually only my 2nd away from my family too – how I managed to make it home from overseas or the other side of the country every year (or at least to convince my family to come visit me, like they did in Spain) is amazing to me, but it’s true.  I got my first Christmas tree to put in our apartment – it was so cute! Though maybe just a touch bald in some places – but hey, pine trees are not indigenous here!

      The Christmas lunch is the big game here.  Nick’s mom and close family friend spend the week planning the menu, shopping, preparing, making sure the less culinarily-skilled are adequately carrying out our assignments.  The result is a major feast.  The meats are traditional, fillet (steak), gammon (I still have no clue how it is related to ham other than that it tastes as good!), maybe a chicken or turkey or other poultry.  But the sauces, sides, salads are all incredibly gourmet with amazing ingredients I would never think to throw into the same bowl.  Yum!  I was in charge of the Pimm’s this year – I find it funny that they’d entrust such a quintesentially British drink to the only American around, but I guess I did drink enough in Brighton to cement my Pimms cred.  Also a safe bet for a non-gourmet.

      After all the Pimms and champagne and pink gins and and are drunk, the crowds start to disperse.  Nick and his friends have another Christmas tradition which I think is fab – after the family celebrations, all the friends who are in town converge on a local bar to catch up and basically take the place over.  The usual spot is a dive bar right on the water called Bart’s (no, not dive like scuba dive, a real dingy hole that has been known to inspire diving out the windows once a certain quantity of alcohol has been ingested…).  Unfortunately, the advance teams this year said Bart’s was too packed, so a herd of us drove and called around until we found the one other place in Somerset West that was open Christmas.  A group of about 10 of us showed up, and soon there were probably 50 people – mostly friends of Nick’s from school or who grew up together.  There were a lot of people who live overseas back in town, or others who just hadn’t hung out together for years, so it was quite the reunion.  It made me miss my friends from all my different lives – elementary and high school, college, work, grad school, DC, Sudan, Brighton, Liberia…the list goes on.  As much as I have loved my life traveling all over the world, I do miss being able to reconnect with old friends like this.

      I had a great Christmas in 2009, but missed my own family’s traditions in MN…and even the snow which came down there in epic proportions this year!

      Fabulous birthday weekend!

      For my birthday this year, Nick gave me the best gift ever – he didn’t make me plan a thing!

      My birthday (December 8) is a little to close to the Christmas season for my tastes.  Planning a birthday party has always been a bit of a hassle – competing with finals when I was in college, then with the holiday parties that everyone throws in early December.  I actually had someone ask me why I was throwing a party in December – he felt there were already enough…I had to explain to him that despite the red sweater and Santa hat he’d donned for my party this was actually my birthday party! 

      I’ve always insisted on having a celebration, though.  How else would I get my share of gifts and well-wishes?  Not to mention my license to be a birthday brat (a time honored tradition in my family).  But I am a bit of a procrastinator, which usually leads to an attempt to plan a party at the last minute, and in a season where people have so many cometing priorities this doesn’t usually work too well.  I’ve managed to throw some great bashes, but this year I was feeling a bit down – having not really set up a large social circle here in Cape Town, it was looking like it wasn’t really going to happen. 

      Nick came to the rescue – he told me that there was a plan in the works, but that it would be a surprise.  The Saturday before my birthday he got me up, gave me some general guidelines on what to wear and pack, and we headed out the door.  We drove through to Somerset West, where his folks and a bunch of our friends live.  He dropped me off at the mall while he ran some last minute errands, and then we headed through to our destination.  Nick and our friend Chole had planned a shushi and margarita party for me, two of my favorite things!  And if that wasn’t enough, they’d talked Chloe’s dad into letting us use their wine cellar/tasting room as the destination.  With the vinyards and the Helderberg mountains encircling it, it is definitely one of my favorite places.  Not to mention the fact that her folks have decorated it beautifully!  When our friends arrived, we set up on benches outside so we could see the sunset and moon rise, and when it got dark enough we started a bonfire to keep away the chill (it is Cape Town, after all).  It was a really magical evening.

      The next day, after a big fry-up breakfast with Nick’s family, he gave me the next surprise – we were heading through to the Franschoek valley for the Champagne and Cap Classique festival!  I’m a HUGE bubbly fan, and this was pretty top notch.  All the big names in SA Cap Classique were there, plus some imported champagnes and even a prosecco – my fav by far.  We tasted away, listened to the live music, ate strawberries and took in all the posh outfits.  It was definitely a little ‘Muffy and Buffy go to the Country Club’ kind of set, with men and women wearing what I like to think of as Colonial Chic – women in diaphanous long white tops over matching skirts or pants with ‘artsy’ long necklaces, men in white or pastel linen shirts and loafers, and quite a number of hats.  Too entertaining.

      My actual birthday on Tuesday was equally fun.  Nick’s mom and sister came over for mimosas and muffins, brought presents and took me shopping at the Old Biscuit Mill, a great place with a million little shops.  Nick and I headed to the Kalk Bay harbor for a lunch of fresh fish and wine right on the ocean.  My folks and fam had sent over gifts from the US, and Nick had a few for me too – I felt so spoiled!  Overall it was a fabulous birthday, and a good start to a new year.  And Nick knows me so well he knew I’d love a break from making decisions for a couple of days – it was really a treat!

      What’s in a name?

      Coffee – not for me.  Tea – I can take it or leave it.  Coke – I can feel my teeth rotting.  Diet Coke is my source of caffeine of choice.  Yum.  Unfortunately, in all my travels around the world I’ve found it hard to get in some surprising places, and available in some even more surprising!

      In South Africa there is no such thing.  Ask for a Diet Coke like I did one of my first days here and you will get the same response I got, “No, sorry, we don’t have that.’.  No matter you can see the silver can in the fridge behind the counter, it doesn’t exist.

      I quickly learned that it is Coke Light, not Diet Coke.  You’d think people could figure that out, right?  And why the different names, anyway?  I did a little research to try and figure that out.  Apparently, Diet Coke is sweetened with Aspartame (NutraSweet), where Coke Light uses a blend of aspertame and cyclamates, which were banned in the US and the UK.  At least that’s the story.

      Regardless of the distinction, there is definitely a taste difference.  I don’t know if it’s the sweetners used or something else in the recipe, but it just does.  I used to be a hard core Diet Coke fan – when I first had to drink Coke Light I almost quit my addiction totally – it felt like it left a bad taste in my mouth.  But then, after drinking both in Liberia (I couldn’t be picky, whatever showed up on the shelves when there wasn’t a shortage went a long way towards boosting my caffeine levels!) and then going back to the US, I sometimes found Diet Coke to be a bit funny tasting.

      People get themselves pretty worked up about things like this, though. There is even a discussion group on diet coke vs. coke light. I think, like most everything else in the world, it’s what you get used to.  Now I’ll take either – I like whichever one is poured over a big glass of ice best!

      Except Coke Zero, of course.  Blech.

      Wrong Number!

      I’m annoyed.

      The only calls I seem to get lately are from wrong numbers.  And they always seem so annoyed that I’m not the person they’re looking for.  At least they don’t do the Liberian thing and start asking ‘Who dis?’ – I mean seriously, they called me, AND I answered my phone with my name.  Grr.

      But on top of that, the only text messages/SMSs (whatever you want to call them) I get these days are from my cell phone provider, Vodacom!  It makes me feel special for about 2 seconds that I got a message at all, but then I realize it’s just basically spam.

      I need to make more friends, apparently, so I can get some REAL calls!

      The N2 Chronicles – Part II

      Yesterday we were yet again driving out to Somerset West on the N2, chatting away, when all of the sudden Nick stops in the middle of his sentence – oh my god!  I turn my head to look ahead in the right hand lane (the fast lane here – they drive on the wrong side), and see something tall f-a-l-l-i-n-g in slow motion towards the cars on the freeway.  At first I had no clue what it was, but after looking around I realized it must have been one of the streetlights that line the grassy area in the center of the road.  As we drove by we could see that there was a car on the other side of the freeway which had run into the pole and spun out.  Lucky for the guys on our side of the road, no one seemed to be hurt – though the driver of the Yaris which was stopped just inches away from the fallen pole looked a bit shell-shocked!  Ah, it’s always interesting on the N2.


      When we moved into our little place, we noticed right away that our block has been designated a cat zone. Unlike nearby blocks that feature massive dogs jumping at you through the fence, our block always has a few cats lounging on the stoops, hiding under cars or snoozing in flower boxes.

      A couple of the neighborhood cats came by to check out the new tenants and to have a sip of water out of our pond, but most were a bit skittish. A well-fed looking black cat was especially curious. He was much bolder than the other cats, walking into the house like he owned the place, meowing loudly at us.

      He kept coming by and became more brazen – venturing onto the couch, sitting on our laps, generally just being cute and cuddly. If we’d closed the door and he wanted to come in, he would sit outside in the dark and meow until we let him in – usually all we could see in the dark were his little white fangs. As he started spending more time with us, we asked around the neighbors to see if he belonged to anyone – we didn’t want to be rude and monopolize someone else’s cat’s affections! We never did find out where he lived, but he obviously was getting fed somewhere – we only give him attention and the occasional tinfoil ball to play with. though he never stops trying to weasel some tuna out of us! We started calling him Fang, which stuck. Anyways, it’s nice to have a (not so) little furball hanging around again! And having a rent-a-cat is a good deal, since we don’t have to worry about what to do with him when we travel – he fits in with our ‘lock-up-and-go’ lifestyle well.

      Fang making himself comfortable in the laundry basket

      Nick working, Fang napping

      The N2 Chronicles

      On one of our (many) recent trips on the N2 from Cape Town to Somerset West I really wished I had a camera.  On one of the pedestrian bridges crossing over the freeway into Khayelitsha I was really surprised to see a young boy herding his cattle!  I’d seen the cows grazing along the side of the 6-laned road, but I guess I never thought about who tended them or where they stayed at night!  It was just a great image – country meets city, modernity meets traditional lifestyles, so many juxtapositions. 

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