Tuesday, April 25, 2017


In the middle of the Namibian Desert.
Once, I wrote a blog post titled, Not For SissiesI wrote it a while ago but fast forward to now and I still think life in South Africa can be hard. Electricity and water might stop working without warning and even if there is warning it doesn't help much. Homeless beggars stand in the streets pointing to their mouths to let you know that they are hungry. Sometimes, the beggars don't even stand in the streets, they sit or kneel in between the lanes at intersections. I am not sure if they do this because they are too hungry and weak to stand or because they are hoping to be hit by a car. Mothers also stand on street corners with their young children in tow, begging for spare change or food. The kids at the Diepsloot school come to school with torn uniforms which leads me to think that either no at one home has the means to sew and repair the items or no one cares to. Which is worse? I'm not sure. 

We just returned from Namibia a country I would describe as harsh. While South Africa can wear on you emotionally, whether you're frustratedly trying to renew your TV license or feeling concerned for a person you care about who is barely holding on and surviving. Namibia, wears on you physically. Don't misunderstand my use of the word harsh to mean that I wish I didn't go to Namibia or that I didn't like it. On the contrary I loved it and it would have been a shame to have skipped it. 

Namibia lies to the northwest of South Africa and borders Botswana to the east and Angola and Zambia to the north. It's western boundary is the Atlantic Ocean. I have wanted to visit Namibia ever since someone described it to me as "looking like another planet."

Much of Namibia is desert (both the Namib and the Kalahari) and the desert runs right into the ocean. Our first stop was a place called Swakopmund located on the shores of the Atlantic near Walvis Bay. I'll write about Swakopmund shortly but this post is about our road trip from Swakopmund to a place called Sesrium near Sossusvlei which is a famous area for those who know about Namibia. 

I realized as we began the drive that I haven't spent much time in deserts. I've been to Phoenix and Las Vegas a few times each. Once, I drove from Tucson to Phoenix and another time I drove from Albuquerque to Santa Fe but that's pretty much the extent of my desert experiences. When I think of the desert I think of three things, Chevy Chase running around with his pants tied around his head in National Lampoons Vacation, snakes and dry skin.  

The drive began on a paved road which quickly changed to gravel at which time it became difficult to see where the road ended and the non road began. As we drove, the landscape kept changing from orange sand to brown and flat with occasional small shrubs to dark brown and rocky ground and then back to flat lands with green grass so fine it could barely be seen. We passed areas where trees were growing and other spots where we saw were nothing but rocks. 

If it had been up to me we would have stopped a thousand times so I could take photos of some of the most unique earth I've ever seen but of course that would not have been practical so you will have to settle for photos taken from the car through the window while moving. 

Where does the road end? 

Notice the dark clouds. Who says it never rains in the desert? 

While we did see other vehicles on the road, we passed through only one town the entire trip (305 km/190 miles.) The town is appropriately named Solitaire. Referring to Solitaire as a town is being generous as it's a gas station with a shop and a restaurant. I think the employees live on site as well. As we drove we saw no pedestrians and no houses. There were some fences, so someone owns some land somewhere and we saw a few signs for lodges along the way. But that was all. It was desolate. Not to be overly dramatic but if your car broke down and no one stopped to help you you could die. That's Namibia. And don't worry, I'm sure someone would stop....eventually. 

The other thing I noticed as I stared out the window were lots of used tires (or tyres as we like to say here in Southern Africa) strewn on the side of the road. I began counting them and had just reached number 26 when our own vehicle began to weave and make a funny noise. In an ironic twist of fate we had a flat tyre.

Flat is not the best way to describe our tyre. Shredded would be a better word. It was so shredded that part of the tread was stuck underneath the SUV where the jack needed to be placed. While Mr. Deep and our friend were changing the tyre, the rain started. And if that wasn't all bad enough then the hail started. I told you Nambia is harsh. And while there are times that I wish Mr. Deep cared a little more about fashion or took an interest in properly moisturizing his skin I was never so glad as I was in the middle of Namibia to be married to such a manly man who can and does change a shredded tyre in the middle of a hailstorm. 

Fortunately the tyre shredding took place not far from Solitaire and when we arrived we found out that Solitaire has a tyre shop. Clearly tyre repairs and replacement are very necessary services in this part of the world. The tyre was replaced allowing us a new spare in case we needed it on the remainder of our trip. Luckily we did not. 

The shop in Solitaire.

More to come from Namibia soon. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Gated Estate Comedy

Before you read today's post, you might want to read this one which I wrote back in September of 2015, it includes details about a funny communication that we received from our estate management. 

Mr. Deep and I live in a gated estate. We live there for safety purposes as when we moved to Joburg we were told by the relocation company that helped us find a home, that we, as expats, had to live in a gated community. I am not sure if that was really true, but we followed their advice. While the amount of security around us (guards, electric fences, walls and security cameras) has taken some getting used to, we enjoy where we live and find the neighborhood, the security staff and the neighbors very pleasant. But we recently learned that while all appears copacetic in our hood there's an underbelly of sordid behavior, some of which involves the improper use of trash bins. More on that shortly.

Until now, the only means of communication from the management has been through periodic SMS. SMS messages which Mr. Deep and I find quite amusing.

Here are a few examples. 

And on the subject of exotic wildlife: 

Mr. Deep and I were away from home at the time of the "monkey incident" so we never saw the monkey or had a chance to shout at him. By the time we returned home the monkey had supposedly moved on. 

While amusing, these SMS messages did not, by themselves, warrant a blog post. But then the other a day, a comedic treasure trove of sorts arrived at our house when we received our first ever official estate newsletter. 

We've lived in our house for two years and never received an official estate newsletter before. So I'm thinking either we weren't supposed to get the newsletter because we aren't homeowners or there was a long gap in between the publishing of newsletters. This newsletter was a printed document stuck into our gate. I don't know who authored the newsletter but the tone, word choices and content all strike me as very funny and as good foreshadowing for future when Mr. Deep and I move to a retirement community in Boca.

Let me share with you some of my favorite passages taken verbatim from the newsletter:

"Rubbish bins permanently left outside homes: 
Here's another thing that's mind-boggling. A rather unusual habit has been creeping into the estate lately, which sees residents finding a permanent spot for their rubbish bins outside their property. This has never been encouraged and is viewed as lazy behaviour."

"Rubbish bins taken out too early:
Rubbish bins can only be taken out after 5pm on Sunday afternoons or on Monday mornings as previously highlighted. A growing number of residents have been taking out their bins on Sunday mornings, extra trash and all. This is quite shocking, especially since many people receive private and show day (note: a show day means a real estate open house) visitors. One can only imagine what they think of the estate when they see mountains of rubbish. Residents are really urged to read up on their estate rules. Fines will be imposed."

"Stealing rubbish bins space:  
More unruly behaviour. A number of residents and their workers have been caught on camera placing their excess trash in bins that are not theirs. This is not accepted. We encourage each household that needs more bin space to BUY another bin. Please take this as a final warning."

"Intoxicated Visitors: 
The estate has once again experienced some rather unruly behaviour, which saw an intoxicated visitor who was visiting a particular resident breaching a neighbors property. (note: this was NOT one of our guests for those who may be wondering) The incident was caught on camera and that visitor has since been banned. The resident who let the visitor in was also fined. We remind residents that visitors are solely their responsibility wasted or not and should no way infringe on the rights of their neighbors."

After perusing the newsletter I have a few questions.
First, can you really "steal space" from a rubbish bin? If someone has put his bin out for collection then isn't he announcing that he's done using it for the week? And no, I have never put trash in any bin but my own, but still such a harsh warning warrants the question. What happens after the "final warning" has been issued if someone is caught, on camera of course, putting trash into someone else's bin? Are they fined? Banned? Is a photo of this person hung on the tree in the center of the estate? As for the drunk guest who was banned how is this ban being enforced? Is his photo hung in the security booth so the guards can refuse him if he tries to enter? What if he's wearing sunglasses? Can he still be detected? What if he goes to AA? Is this a lifelong ban or can he be rehabilitated? If the estate has "once again" experienced "some rather unruly behaviour" can we please get the details of the previous incidents? Did it involve a bounce house?  Was the hedgehog safely returned to his loving owner? Or did he meet an untimely demise at the hands of the well meaning but "cruel to be kind" SPCA? And can we trust that the monkey really did leave the estate on his own four feet? Or was he a victim of something far more sinister?

I doubt we'll ever get the answers to these questions as the next newsletter isn't scheduled to be published until 2019. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Schmool's Driving School

In addition to my volunteer work teaching English at Diepsloot Combined School and managing a not-real travel agency called Time Pressure Tours, I have created another pseudo-business. I am now sole proprietor and instructor at my own faux driving school affectionately known (to me) as Schmool's Driving School. 

A majority of South Africans don't know how to drive. This is not a funny way of saying the people here are bad drivers, the way one might complain, "people in New Jersey can't drive," it's an actual fact. A report that I found online called the National Household Travel Survey 2013 indicated that as of 2013 only 48% of African males and 39% of African females in South Africa had driver's licenses. That leaves a majority who don't have licenses and who likely don't know how to drive. 

There are several reasons why a large percentage of people here can't drive and don't have licenses.  First, many people have spent little to no time even riding in cars. Unlike a 16 year old in America, who maybe has never driven but who knows what a seat belt is and how it works, what the mirrors are for and how to adjust the seat, many people here do not have this basic knowledge. Combine this with the fact that driving school is expensive for a poor person (a quick check on Google shows five lessons cost R700) and it's hard to practice driving if you don't own a car and don't know anyone who does. Finally, if a person does manage to learn to drive, supposedly getting a license is notoriously difficult. There are many stories about corrupt agents who demand bribes in order issue licenses. 

I have only had two students attend my driving school. Confidence was first. I took her driving a few times. And then today, I had my second student, Clement.

Clement works as a gardener for my friend Meghan. I have met him on numerous occasions when I've visited her house.  Meghan told me months ago she had the idea of teaching Clement to drive and was thinking of doing so, but that her husband wouldn't go for it. 

Luckily, Mr. Deep doesn't have a problem with me teaching people to drive. That's because I don't tell him about it until after the fact. But rest assured, I teach people in a very un-busy parking lot so there is little risk or danger.

On the subject of finding a suitable parking lot to conduct my lessons, it's actually quite difficult. Think about where you first learned to drive. Maybe you learned at a school or a church during a time when school or church was not in session and the parking lot was vacant. Meghan told me she learned to drive in a housing development that was under construction but where no one was living. All of these are great options if you don't live in Joburg. 

In Joburg, every parking lot of every school, mall, construction site, church or whatever is under the surveillance of a massive amount of security. Every school or church that I've ever seen is walled and gated with a security guard manning the gate. Every mall has numerous security guards patrolling the parking lots at all times. The same goes for construction sites. 

Luckily, I found a lot near my house that seemed a perfect location for Schmool's School to set up shop, a defunct shopping centre that only houses one business, a restaurant called Celestino's Pizza. If you live in Joburg then you know this parking lot. If you don't, let me describe it for you. 

I am going to guess that about ten to fifteen years ago, this shopping centre, called The Fern was bustling. That was likely before ten additional modern shopping centres were built within five kilometres of The Fern. Even though there are tons of houses near the Fern and more being built all the time, The Fern is decrepit and the shopping centre looks like it's about to fall down. There may be more than one business functioning at The Fern, but the only one that I know of is Celestino's Pizza, a very nice place which has good pizza and food and even a nice atmosphere once you're inside. Even though Celestino's is good, it is not very busy at lunch and therefore this venue is perfect for daytime driving lessons. At least it was the last time I tried it. 

Wide open lot, perfect for driving lessons. 
Very little action at The Fern. 

Clement has patiently waited for months for his driving lesson as Meghan told him about it a while ago. When Meghan and Clement arrived at The Fern, I asked Clement if he had ever driven before and he said no. So I figured no information was too basic. I showed him how to adjust the seat and explained the mirrors and how to use them. I told him the difference between an automatic transmission and a manual (luckily Schmool is automatic.) I also shared the difference between the brake and the gas pedal and told him that only the right foot should be used, regardless of the pedal being depressed. After this brief but informative overview, we began the driving. I showed him how to start the ignition and put the car in gear and how to check the mirrors before pulling out of the parking space. Then, he drove us around the parking lot a few times. 

Clement was a great student, he quickly got the hang of the brakes, the gas and the steering. We had no near collisions. He was also extremely polite replying "yes ma'am" whenever I told him anything. I had just started preparing for the second part of the lesson, the part where he would pull into a parking space, park and then back out of the same space when we were approached by a security guard. Yes, even The Fern, which really has very little to protect, has a security guard. 

I proactively explained to the security guard that I was giving a driving lesson because I couldn't imagine that it would pose a problem. I thought he approached us because we were driving around, suspiciously, in circles. He told me that driving lessons were not allowed. He made it sound like a recurring problem, people teaching driving in the nearly abandoned Fern parking lot. Maybe it is an issue, given the lack of options. He then pointed a light pole, which was leaning quite heavily to one side and explained that another time, when someone was learning to drive in the lot, he or she crashed into that pole. I convinced him to allow us to continue our lesson for a few more minutes but that was the best I could do as there was really no way to hide our actions considering that there was nothing else going on in the lot to distract the guard. 

I felt badly for Clement that the lesson was cut short and so I asked he and Meghan if they wanted to have lunch. We went into Celestino's where a friendly waiter that I kind of know was working. I introduced him to Meghan and Clement and explained the driving lesson and told him what the security guard had said about the light post.  He said that the light post had been hit by a motorist a long time ago and that it wasn't hit by someone learning to drive, but rather by a drunk guy. 

Even armed with this knowledge there was no way to continue the lesson so we ate our pizza and found out a little bit about Clement. 


Clement is 28 years old, actually he will officially turn 28 tomorrow  He comes from Lesotho. He came to South Africa because there are very few jobs in Lesotho. His family has a farm where they grow maize, sorghum and pumpkins. He doesn't like the taste of sorghum beer but he does enjoy regular beer which Meghan gives him when she has some leftover after parties. On the family farm they also raise cows and donkeys. Clement has nothing against farming except that it's very unpredictable. If there is no rain or too much rain for example, it can become extremely difficult to survive. Clement prefers to have a steady income and earn a salary. 

Clement has a wife and five year old son named Tatalo. They live with Clement's parents, his two older sister's and one younger brother on the farm. Clement is the only family member who has left and come to work in South Africa. Clement's home in Lesotho, called Leribe, is four hours by bus from Joburg. The bus costs R250 each way. Meghan has told me that Clement very rarely goes home, as infrequently as once per year at Christmas. 

When Clement first came to South Africa, he got a job working construction for "Mr. Chris." Mr. Chris is Meghan's landlord and he also owns several other properties. Clement had never worked construction before and he learned on the job. He now not only works as Meghan's gardener, but he lives at a home that belongs to Mr. Chris, which is under construction, doing work like clearing trees and serving as security for the empty house. I asked him if the house he stays in, the one that is under construction, has electricity and and a kitchen and he said that it does, although Meghan said that there was a time when there was no electricity in the house.  Clement speaks Sesotho, English and Zulu. He learned English at school but did not learn Zulu until he came to South Africa. He told us Zulu is "easy" to learn. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Mountain Kingdom: Part 3

You can read my first two posts about our trip to Lesotho here and here.

After the visit to the sangoma, the village tour continued. We were led inside a building where some kind of village council meeting was taking place. Adam said the topic that the council was discussing had something to do with finances needed so that a funeral could be held. I wasn't able to take any photos of the meeting but there were about 12-15 women sitting in a circle on the floor of a dark, one room building. A few of the women had babies with them. Even though it was a warm and sunny day, all of the women were wearing lots of clothing including long skirts, long sleeve shirts and in some cases blankets. The Basotho shepherds that we saw also were wearing blankets even in the hot daytime sun. I am not sure why. 

We left the women to their meeting and drove a bit further down the road to visit a shebeen. A shebeen is a place where beer is brewed. In the past shebeen referred to an unlicensed and often illegal establishment selling alcohol but these days a lot of shebeens are legitimate businesses, although the one we visited may not have been. I have wanted to taste homemade sorghum beer for a while and finally I had my chance. 

Sorghum close up.

From a distance the sorghum plants look like corn.

My parents and me outside the shebeen/cafe.
Sorghum grain.

Adam tasting the sorghum beer. He told us that he was "scared" of sorghum beer because the amount of alcohol in it varies greatly from batch to batch and one could never be quite sure how strong it would be. I read on another website that the alcohol content can vary between 1% and 8%.
Brewing the beer and stirring it with a huge stick. Photo credit to my mom. 
The sorghum beer is light in colour but cloudy. It did not have a strong alcohol taste but it was very sour. I thought it tasted a little like grapefruit juice. I only had one sip but I didn't hate it and would certainly be open to trying it again if and when the opportunity presents itself. 

The rest of the weekend in Lesotho was spent hiking, horseback riding and enjoying the scenery. If you ever have the chance to visit Lesotho, I recommend staying at the Maliba Lodge. It wasn't perfect as there was an incident when we were served raw meatballs (in fairness they were cooked on the outside) but other than that the food was good, the setting was spectacular and the rooms were clean. And if it's good enough for Prince Harry and King Letsie III, it's good enough for us. 

The hike to black pool. 
My horse was named Pinky. She was a chestnut and she did have a pink hue. She was a great horse very chilled and steady.
Pinky close up. 
Meghan's horse, Bullet (left) and Pinky sharing a drink.
Our horseback riding guides were named Joseph and Justice. 
Joseph crafted himself a hat out of branches to protect himself from the sun. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Mountain Kingdom: Part 2

Beautiful Maliba Lodge in Lesotho.
If you missed part one of our trip to Lesotho The Mountain Kingdom, you can find it here.

The morning of our first full day in Lesotho, we made arrangements to tour a local village. Normally, the village tour includes a visit to a school but as it was Saturday school was not in session. The village tour offered by Maliba Lodge is a genuine tour of a village. There is no reenactment, no natives wearing costumes or anything phony. The tour involves going to a village and seeing what is happening there. It's the real deal. 

Our tour guide was named Adam. What was particularly cute and funny was that Adam was also our waiter for breakfast at the lodge that morning. Adam was soft-spoken and based on my informal research quietness and shyness seem to be traits of the Basotho people. Adam's English is very good though, so I can understand why he was selected to be a tour guide. 

Adam is not from the village he took us to, he is from Butha-Buthe another village located about 40 kilometers from Maliba Lodge, but he clearly was very familiar with the village we visited as everyone there seemed to know him. Sadly I can't remember the name of the village we went to. The name is similar to the Sotho word for the round houses that the people live in. The word is not rondevels but another word, which I can't remember.

Adam our tour guide. I'll explain his hat shortly.
Round houses.
For the tour we had to drive ourselves and Adam to the village about 15-20 minutes from the lodge. The village is located on the side of the main, two lane road. It consists of a handful of round houses (again, what are they called?) and some other buildings. Unlike poor communities such as Diepsloot, there are no shacks and no trash. Everything is very clean, with lots of grass, foliage and crops. 

Immediately as we arrived a bunch of curious kids came out of nowhere and began following us around as though one of us was the Pied Piper. The younger kids did not seem to speak English but a few of the older ones, aged ten or so, did. 

We visited the village sangoma, a traditional healer who uses animal bones and herbs to make medicines. I had been hoping to visit a sangoma for a while so I was thrilled for the chance.  In addition to knowing about herbs and healing, sangomas also believe that deceased ancestors play a role in influencing the lives of the living. Sangomas are believed to have certain "powers" such as psychic abilities and the capacity to communicate with dead ancestors. A person can't just decide one day to become a sangoma, sangomas are chosen for their roles when their ancestors visit them during a dream and direct them. Adam told us anyone can learn about herbs and medical uses for them, but a true sangoma must have had the dream and therefore, the calling. 

The sangoma that Adam took us to was an 89 year old woman.  She looked quite healthy and young for her age, except that she did not have any teeth. We visited her in her round hut. While it was small, all four of us plus Adam and the sangoma were able to sit comfortably. It was dark inside the hut, with the only light coming in through the doorway. The hut had a dirt floor and was filled with interesting items including lots of fancy clothing, such as the hat made from porcupine quills that Adam is wearing in the photo above, clothing made of animal skins and clothing with intricate bead work. There were also piles of roots and dried plants, animal bones, a snake skin and other materials gathered by the sangoma to be used for healing. Along one wall were a bunch of jars and cans which I assume were filled with herbs and other found treasures. 

Some kind of animal skin hanging from the thatched ceiling to dry. 

Fortune telling objects. 
The sangoma.
The sangoma did not speak English so Adam explained everything to us and translated for her. After the overview about the dream and the clothing the sangoma asked if anyone wanted his or her fortune read. Only my friend Meghan was brave enough to do so. The cost was R100 (about $7.00)

The fortune reading began with Meghan taking a handful of the fortune telling objects shown in the photo above. The objects included shells, dominos, a coin and some animal bones. Meghan was instructed to blow on the handful before dropping the objects onto a mat so they could be read. When the reading began it was unimpressive especially if you're cynical of such things, like me. First, the sangoma cited the coin saying that Meghan was blessed with wealth. Kind of obvious since we arrived in a car wearing nice clothing. Next, the sangoma said that Meghan suffered from occasional headaches. While Meghan does sometimes have migraines, most people do suffer from headaches now and then so that didn't seem like any great revelation that wouldn't be true for most people. Also, the sangoma said that Meghan suffered from stress. This might sound funny and of course its a generalization, but I think black people in Southern Africa think that white people, as a whole, are very stressed out. So again, I didn't put a lot of credibility into what we were hearing. 

But then things got a little more interesting. The sangoma said that Meghan had been suffering from back pain and described the pain and where in her back it was. For a few weeks leading up to the trip, Meghan's back had been bothering her and at times the pain was quite bad. The sangoma also told Meghan it was important that she announce daily where she was and where she was going as her ancestors were having trouble finding her. So for example, Meghan needs to start saying things out loud, such as "I'm going to Sandton today" and the like. 

To rid herself of the back pain, Meghan was advised by the sangoma to go home, slaughter a goat, and have a party with friends to consume the goat meat together. Meghan was also told to get some tobacco snuff, have all of her friends sit in a circle, put a bit of the snuff on every one's closed fist and then ask everyone to snort it, Finally, the sangoma said Meghan had to drink lots of water every day. Meghan is an animal lover so I don't see her slaughtering a goat. But still it was an interesting experience.

Since our return from Lesotho I have told three African friends that we visited a sangoma. These three friends are all from Zimbabwe and all pretty much had the same reaction even though these were three separate conversations. They all thought it was strange and surprising that we would do such a thing.

Each of them said they did not believe in sangomas or their powers and none of them admitted to ever having visited one. One friend did say that he thought some of the herbs could help you if you were sick or injured and that he didn't have a problem with that part of it but that he did not believe in ancestor worship. Another friend seemed a little more concerned telling me to "watch out for those people" (meaning sangomas) as they can "cause lightning to strike a person." 

About Me

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Hello and thank you for taking an interest in my blog. This blog tells the story of some big life changes. First, my husband and I have just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a few months following a few years of living in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two places could not be more different. I'm excited to share our adventures, challenges and insights with you! My thoughts and opinions are my own.