SA 101

As anyone who has ever moved to another place knows, a large part of your initial ‘settling in’ is made up of identifying everything that makes this place different from what you know. Despite many similarities to what I’ve grown up with and experienced in other places, particularly the UK, I’ve had to get used to all sorts of ‘new’ things – strange words and phrases, foods, customs, obsessions, odd habits. Even after living here nearly two years (!) I pick up something new every day, it seems.  As I am inclined to do, I’ve been keeping lists of some of the odds and ends I’ve picked up. Many of them have become part of my everyday life and lingo, so much so that I sometimes forget how odd they seemed when I first arrived. I thought it might be fun to post some of my observations here, in part to give those who haven’t had the opportunity to travel to this beautiful country a little taste of its uniqueness (and equally to explain a little to friends and family in the US since I always get grief when I come home to Mpls for sounding ‘funny’). So, for those of you who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of having a ‘lekker’ ‘braii’ while overlooking ‘the mountain’, sipping some Black Label with your ‘chinas’…ok, enough. If you’re not sure what I’m on about, stay tuned for future SA101 posts…

Some disclaimers:
For you SAfricans reading, feel free to correct me if I get things totally wrong. (If I do, I fully blame it on my cultural translator, Nick. He has been away from SA for awhile, after all…). I also fully admit that my knowledge of South Africa, particularly the language and culture, is heavily influenced by the fact that my family and many friends here are English (speaking) South Africans. I’m sure there are MANY other South Africanisms I am missing out on – I hope my horizons will continue to widen the longer I’m here.

Saying goodbye to Lucy

Nick and I had to make a terrible, awful decision in August last year to put our little kitten, Lucy, to sleep. I wrote here about her getting sick, but just couldn’t bring myself to write anything else as she fairly quickly got much, much sicker.

As Nick and I were coming to terms with the decision we knew we were going to have to make – it was only a matter of time – I wrote down a list of things that I would miss about Lucy, just to make sure I remembered all the little things we loved about her. In many ways, we have come to terms with losing her. In spite of everything, we know we gave our little rescue kitten the absolute best life she could have had for her short six months on earth. She was kissed, cuddled, fed (a lot), and generally spoiled. But most of all, loved. I thought, as a means of closure, I would share that list here along with a few more pics to remember her by.

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Things I’m going to miss about Lucy…
written 8/19/2010

  • Office time – since I work from home, I spend most of my time in our home office that Nick and I share. She has to be on our laps or computers most of the time (typical cat). Her computer skills are impressive – at one point she managed to shift ALL of the text and program windows on my computer screen sideways by sitting on my keyboard. She also sits in the window of the office and watches the world go by – the neighbor’s cats, the people on their way to the train – cowering any time there was the least bit of a loud noise (the kids scare her especially). She only fell out the window once.
  • Roadtripping – we bring her with us to Nick’s parent’s place so she doesn’t have to stay home alone, and that means frequent road trips. As soon as we’re in the car and on the road we let her out of her carrier so she doesn’t yowl. She crawls all over the car, exploring, and ends up in the back window where we’d get such great looks from the people in car behind, perches on my shoulder or sits on Nick’s lap and try to help him drive.
  • Monkey-mode – she gets all riled up, running up and down the house, chasing her favorite toys (cable ties), racing up and down the cushions on the back of the couch, and when she gets particularly hyper she would ‘monkey’ – spreads her toes, poof her tail, hop at you kind of sideways in an attempt to intimidate you, breathing heavily, sometimes giving a little spit – so funny!
  • Blankie – her grey blankie is her favorite thing in the world,  her security blanket. She adopted it from the first day we got her, crawling onto it to suckle and ‘make pudding’. We think she must have been the runt of the litter, the bottom-feeder of the bunch, because she always kneaded blankie way above her head. She’d get so purry and happy, zoning into Stevie Wonder mode where she’d kind of sway her head back and forth in a figure eight. We joke it is the only way to slow her down when she gets into ‘hyper-mode’ is to put blankie into her path, since she couldn’t run over the blanket without stopping to ‘make-pudding’ on it.
  • Her big, Puss-in-Boots eyes that could make me do anything – she just gives me this look and I somehow want to give her food, pick her up and pet her, you name it.
  • When she was a tiny kitten she was absolutely MAD about her food. She would run in circles meowing frantically, climbing Nick’s leg to get to the countertops, a total nut. I’ll miss the way she never quite eats neatly, and has food stuck to her little beard she couldn’t quite get off (she didn’t have a mom to teach her those things, you know). Later she wouldn’t eat unless she was sitting on the scratching post (it is too cold on the concrete floor to sit on for too long), and you HAVE to pet her while she eats or she’ll keep looking around for you. You can’t be too far away! She also LOVES her Greenies, the little treats we give her.
  • I’ll miss her cute markings – her one white foot, one black, the orange leopard spots on her white belly, her little white eyelashes, the whiskers that never quite grew back fully after she singed them, the little crooked-looking smile – she has a half pink mouth which you can especially see when she’s meowing…just so cute.
  • That darn tail – she just can’t get away from it, it keeps following her around! It would come out of nowhere and hit her in the face when she was trying to sleep.  She only recently learned that she has to tuck it under her paw to keep it under control. It also was in a near-permanent bottle-brush state (all poofed up – it would get that way whenever she freaks herself out (a regular occurrance).
  • Sleeping with us – she was so little when we got her, we let her sleep on her grey blankie between our heads every night. She purrs so loud most nights that she wakes me up at some point. Also, if you get to close to her face at night, she will lick and lick and lick your face – especially your nose. You can’t get her to stop until she falls back asleep! When she gets really cold she burrows under the covers and sleeps in the crook of Nick’s knees – ‘prickly side in’ Nick says
  • She couldn’t get enough of people – part of having been bottle-fed from a tiny kitten, I guess. She would perch on Nick’s shoulder as long as he would let her, curl up on my lap for hours on end. The thing I will miss probably the most is the ‘I love you’ look she gives you, looking up at you while sitting on the desk, purring, wanting kisses on her head. Her little head bumps to get you to pay attention to her. Just pure love.
  • I will desperately miss coming home and saying ‘where’s my Lucy?’, only to have her run out of wherever she was sleeping (usually the blankie on the bed) and greeting me with the happiest meows. Sigh.
As I write this it is comforting to have the two newest additions to our household, Mia and Ollie, curled up beside me. But it doesn’t make it any less painful to write these words – after losing our first kitten, Squeekers, just the August before, we had only just opened up our hearts again, and it still hurts. It’s never easy to lose friends, whether furry or otherwise!

Just another day at the airport

If you’ve never experienced the joy of trying to depart from an airport in the developing world, it goes a little something like this:

The process:

1)   Leave for airport. Two hours early for a flight? Not a chance. The ‘protocol’ team insists you leave 5+ hours early to get to the airport. While it does make some sense given the nutty traffic (that’s another whole story), it is still excessive. You finally track down the driver, negotiate it to a more reasonable 3 ½ hours, and arrive well over 2 hours before your flight is set to depart.

2)   Pay exit tax. It seems straightforward, but there is an unwritten hierarchy (read: who pays the biggest bribe) that makes your place at the front of the line irrelevant. Since you’re not planning on bribing anyone today, ‘handlers’ push in with stacks of passports from either side, pushing yours to the bottom. When the man (or woman? You can’t see their face behind the mirrored glass they stand behind) finally asks you a question, you can’t see or hear them given they are trying to talk to you through a tiny slot just big enough for your passport to slide through. Pay money, leave.

3)   Baggage screening. You walk past a (broken) x-ray machine to a table where a man opens your bag, dislodges everything you’ve neatly packed, checks out your bras, and closes it again. There is no indication of precisely what they are looking for,  but they make a mark in chalk to show that the bag has been searched (which is, I’m convinced, some kind of code to tell others whether there is anything worthwhile in the bag to steal).

4)   Passport check #1. You wander, slightly lost, to find the right place in the cordoned off area around the check-in counters to enter the maze. When you finally find the right place to enter, the man there checks your passport picture to make sure it is you, and sends you through the maze of aisles to the counter.

5)   Check-in (and passport check #2). The man at the counter greets you, takes your passport, checks your name off a list, hand writes a boarding pass, and sends you…somewhere over there for baggage (very unclear).

6)   Baggage check-in (or so you think, and passport check #3). You walk about 3 feet to a table, hand over your passport and boarding pass, and are waved on to somewhere else (again totally unclear).

7)   Baggage screening #2 (and passport check #4). After walking another 2 feet you see a table, where someone who does not look at all like they are working finally makes eye-contact, but only after you stare at him for several minutes and asking multiple times where you need to go. He checks your passport again and makes you open up your bag again to rummage through it…you’re only  about 15 feet from the first baggage screening, and there is nothing in the whole airport you could possibly buy to shove into your luggage. Satisfied (with what?) he sends you forward another 4 feet to the gatekeeper of the baggage check-in.

8)   Baggage check-in?? (and passport check #5). The VERY unenthusiastic woman at the front of the line checks your passport (of course), takes note of your name and makes the obligatory Jennifer Lopez comment (she is apparently the most well-known Jennifer in the world, according to my research), and you wait. Finally she points to a counter with a grunt. You move forward 3 feet.

9)   Finally the baggage check-in (and passport check #6). You wait (impatiently) for someone to acknowledge that you are waiting in their line. There are literally 12 people behind the counter, some looking very busy and others ‘advising’. No one will make eye contact with you. The man in front of you has about 5 very large bags to check. One of the ‘advisors’ tells you to put your passport on the counter, but the woman working there indicates (through mumbles and gestures) that she’s too busy and you should take it back and wait. You do (remember, you’re still 2+ hours early and only have to cover about 20 more feet before the gate, so there is no rush). Finally a baggage guy stops flirting with the woman at the counter next to you, realizes you’ve been waiting awhile, and beckons you to come over there. You do. The woman behind the counter is annoyed. The counter you just left suddenly frees up and three more people rush up. You wait again. Finally the team of women check your passport, your hand-writen boarding pass, check your name off another list, and print you a proper boarding pass. (Just to paint the picture, this set of counters is DIRECTLY adjacent to the first set of counters where they hand wrote the boarding pass in the first place). Your bag gets its tag and is taken away on the conveyor belt.

10)  Getting out (and passport check #7). Now you have to find out where to exit the 15 foot-wide cordoned-off area. You walk around, can’t seem to figure out how to get out other than crawling under. Finally someone stops you to check your passport again and stamp it. They graciously allow you to leave.

11)  Health check. I am reminded that I  have to show the very tired, cranky looking people in booths next to the security check my yellow-fever vaccination card. They are not excited to have to work. They glare at me as I ask them if anyone wants to see it, look at the front page (which has only my name on it) and jam it back into my hands.

12)  Immigration (and passport check #8). There are four booths with passport officials sitting in there, two with signs that read that they are only for protocol passengers (VIPs). No one is waiting at those, but there is a line at the other two. You wait (having been shooed back to line after trying  to approach the woman – shame on you for interrupting her nap). When you finally get beckoned to the booth, the most important question the officer can ask you is what your address in the country you are leaving was. Does it really matter?? You’re trying to leave!

13)  Passport check #9. You stand in a (sort of) line waiting for the man at the front to look at your passport again. He takes it from you, looks at you, looks at the woman next to him, looks back at you, and says “ok”. Ok what? You think he might usher you through to the security screening, but it is so poorly designed that only one person at a time is allowed to go into the air-conditioned screening area. As you walk past the woman (who has done NOTHING) she asks you “what you are going to give me?”. Um, nothing.

14)  Hand luggage screening (and passport check #10). Your bags are pushed through the x-ray machine. No taking out your laptops here – the man isn’t even looking at the screen.  You walk through and it beeps. You look around but no one cares, so you just keep going. The man at the end takes your passport and examines it up and down, reading every piece of information carefully. He hands you the passport, holding on tightly to the end. Quickly before he too can ask you for a bribe, you thank him profusely and snatch it out of his hands.

15)  Phew, bathroom break. You make a quick dash to the bathroom, half expecting your passport to be checked again when you enter. You pile your bags against the door (no lock) and try not to touch anything. There is a woman in a reflective vest waiting for you when you leave the stall – a sure sign she thinks she is important. She rushes to the sink, turns on the tap, then waves her hands incessantly in front of the ineffective hand dryer showing you how to do it. You know what’s coming – the inevitable ‘what are you going to give me?’. You say nothing, and quickly exit.

16)  Boarding call? There are about 3 flights waiting to board at around the same time. They announce (if you can call it that) the first flight is boarding. You try and guess by the passengers who stand and rush the exit which flight it is. Everyone else seems to know. You deduce it’s not your flight but the one which leaves after yours. You sit down, only to get up again 5 minutes later as the rest of the passengers start towards the door – no one has announced anything, but you join the line. No passport or boarding card checks here, you just get on a bus hoping it’s going the right way.

17)  Baggage check and hand luggage screening #2. Wait, aren’t the bags already checked? All the bags are lined up on the tarmac – you have to identify yours for them to load it onto the baggage cart (and then hopefully onto the plane). You walk a few more feet and present your hand luggage for search again, and then yourself for a pat down.

18)   Finally on the plane…

Seriously. I’m sadly not exaggerating AT ALL – this is what I went through to get home this past week from a work assignment. And in an airport not much bigger than my house. Really, it isn’t much different from anywhere in the developing world- although perhaps this was a BIT more over the top than usual (I did hear a number of other passengers joking about the ridiculous number of times they’d been asked for their passport, so I wasn’t the only one laughing). As much as I hate airports worldwide, experiences like these definitely make me think more fondly of airports in the US and Europe – there is something to be said about the relative order of airports in nations that believe in queuing…

So long 2010…

2010 was a good year.

As cheesy as it sounds, I’ve always liked that New Years gives me a chance to reflect on the year that is coming to a close. In the rush of daily life it’s easy to get caught up in the problems, the little irritations. But looking at the year as a whole, 2010 has really  been a banner year for Nick and I (I’m taking liberties here, but I’m sure he’d agree). A friend asked how I would describe my year in 5 words: I’d say change, transition, fear, contentment, and rooted. Yeah, a little contradictory, but I guess that’s my world!

In 2010 we made South Africa home – Nick for the first time in many years and me for the first time ever. We found our feet in the city, exploring new neighborhoods, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones. We enjoyed being close to one part of our family, while finding ways to stay close to the other. I started a new chapter in my professional life, rediscovering some passion in my job hidden under layers of exhaustion and frustration, and learned that I love working for myself. Nick also made strides professionally with his new job. I read some great books, travelled to exciting places, spent relaxing evenings at home doing nothing. We were loved and entertained by our little Lucy, for however short a time. We bought a house – by far our biggest accomplishment of the year, and one that we’ll be able to enjoy for years to come.

For 2011? Sure, I’d like to make some new, healthy habits both for my body and mind. I’d like to create explore even more career opportunities. But mostly I want to continue to enjoy the little things, the small happinesses that fill up the days. It isn’t always easy,  but if we lose track of those little things we miss out on what it’s all about, right? It’s not an earth-shattering resolution, but in the end it’s everything.

Happy New Year!

‘Selinah’ – The Topsy Foundation PSA

If you have a minute, check out this short PSA. It’s really powerful.

It is one of the PSAs that won in the 2010 VUKA! awards, sponsored by M-Net. It aims highlight the talent of SA filmmakers while at the same time raising awareness of some of the most important issues facing South Africa. The first time I saw this on t.v. I was really moved. You can check out the other award winners at


‘Go get those aliens’

Reading this headline in one of the local neighborhood newspapers, you would think a) South Africans are confused and think that District 9 was real life and that the country has been invaded by aliens, or b) these S’Africans aren’t too fond of foreigners.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that the latter is true, however this article wasn’t referring to gross creatures from another planet or those of us without SA ID cards, but rather another kind of ‘invasive alien’ altogether: trees. Anti-alien sentiment seems to have reached some sort of a fever-pitch here, and ‘clearing drives’ like this one are common. Nearly everyone who has visited our house has commented on the mulberry tree in our neighbor’s yard which is growing over the fence – apparently they’re nasty, weed-like trees that drop seeds everywhere and take over, but apparently we’d be well within our rights to turn in the neighbors for harboring an alien plant species. One family member (who shall remain nameless in case we ever befriend the neighbor and they read my blog…unlikely) even suggested we tap the tree with an ‘eco-plug’, a small device that you stick into alien trees that poisons them. While this kind of ‘eco-crusading’ seems pretty crazy to me I guess, now that I think about it, I have heard about the plants and animals brought from one lake to another in Minnesota that start breeding like mad and choking off the natural plant and animal life, so I guess this is the same. Apparently a major concern here in SA is also the strain on limited water supplies. As hard as it is to believe in the middle of a rainy Cape Town winter that there is ever any water shortage, when the dry summer wind comes around you remember that water isn’t as abundant as we think it is. Non-native plants like pine trees are apparently thirsty little buggers.

I’m not a botanist, to say the least (let’s just say I’ve been laughed often for not knowing the difference between a weed and a flower). Lucky for me the SA government has taken the time to catalog and post pictures of all the invasive alient plants (IAP) and the different categories they fall into (Remove and Destroy, Need a permit, or No planting, no selling). Ridding the country if IAPs is big business, with 23000 people employed every year to remove them. I also learned that if I want to report the presence of invasive aliens I can contact the City of Cape Town If you’re caught by the Weed Inspector (actual title), the penalty can be as severe as two years in jail and/or R10,000 fine (almost $1500).

Who knew? Now I’m just hoping that people remember we’re talking about plants here and not aliens like me…I’d hate to be uprooted.

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Tying to DIY (in South Africa)

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Home Depot.

I am my mother’s daughter – hardware stores are fun, and bohemoths like Home Depot are just aisles and aisles of possible new projects. Not that I’ve really ever been much of a DIY-er, a combination of not having a home to fix up and a innate klutziness have kept me from following that path. Of course, I have grand aspirations – I constantly read blogs and watch shows about DIY home improvement projects, own drills and tools (granted they’re now ancient and in a storage unit in MN somewhere), and avoid buying things because ‘I could make that!’.

However, fate is conspiring against me ever becoming a DIY-goddess. Aside from the fact that I can’t draw a straight line much less cut one, being in South Africa has rendered the few DIY skills I have learned useless. Even simple things like hanging pictures? Nope, no luck here. The walls here are all brick or concrete, so you need a fancy mason drill which makes a hell of a noise that scares the crap out of me and puts giant holes in the walls, which makes my trial-and-error approach to drilling far from ideal. It also makes  my stud-finding skills are unmarketable. Things like putting in shelving (which shouldn’t be rocket science right?) is made SO much more difficult by the fact that I simply can’t find the materials I need. SA’s version of Home Depot, Builder’s Warehouse, leaves MUCH to be desired. They carry a little bit of everything, but it’s all such low quality and there is no variety at all. We tried to find some simple shelves we could install in our bedroom, but in the massive store there was only one teeny-tiny aisle with about four options to choose from – small, big, bigger. It seems like for anything more sophisticated you have to find a specialty shop which usually involves costly fitting of said shelf. Sigh.

Lighting is another example – not exactly DIY but home-decor rant in general. I must have visited a million lighting shops to find replacements for the hideous wall lights in our living room. They all seem to have the exact same, nondescript stock. Unless I want to spend a million bucks for something fancy, it seems like the ‘umbrellas’ (as Nick calls them) will stay for lack of a better option. I’m probably being a bit harsh, but it feels like I can’t ever find what I’m looking for here. I guess it comes from having grown up in a place with such an amazing variety of everything, and also the fact that it takes time to get to know what brand reputations are, what shops carry which products, etc. Things I’ve spent a lifetime learning in the US.

If I can just find the right materials, I have hope that Nick and I can be a great DIY team. Nick has proven to be darn handy around the house, and also a possible DIY-guru in the making. Seeing as I have no skills myself, I was hesitant to mention projects, not wanting to seem like I was just coming up with a list of things for him to do. But I’ve heard him mutter more than once on a visit to another over-priced furniture shop, ‘I could totally make that!’. Promising. Plus, he’s king of teaching himself how to do things online. I can see this working out well – I do the searching for style ideas, and Nick executes the plans…I’m not sure how he’ll feel about this!

For now, I’ve decided to start with painting. Painting is something I consider myself pretty expert at, having painted more than my fair share of apartments. (Note: I never said color selection was my forte- I now concede that the traffic cone shade of orange I chose for the bedroom of my first apartment may have been a mistake). I might break down and hire someone to paint the walls, but I’ve got all sorts of plans for painting and staining old furniture in creative ways. Now, all I have to do is find out where I can buy the old junk…