Tag Archives: Joburg

Goodbye, Johannesburg

I can’t believe I am leaving South Africa tomorrow. I got here at the end of October 2012, which is somewhere between yesterday and a long time ago, and tomorrow I’m departing for London. Weird. I thought, after spending over seven months on the ground in South Africa, it would be fitting to write a piece about what I liked about my experience here, what I didn’t like, and what I learned. So — here goes nothin’.

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It’s no secret that I wasn’t a huge fan of Joburg. From the beginning, I wasn’t psyched to move to this particular city (even though I was excited about the adventure Al and I were embarking upon together), but  I was determined to keep an open mind about this place and give it a chance. I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that I did give Joburg a chance. I was prepared to let it win me over. It just — didn’t. I don’t want this to devolve into a long list of things that I hate about Joburg, because no one needs to read that, but suffice it to say that this city and I were not meant to get along.

Bread at Vovo Telo - one of the best parts of Joburg

Bread at Vovo Telo – one of the best parts of Joburg!

For one thing, you need a car to do anything here. Al and I shared a car, our trusty 2008 Toyota Yaris, but he took it most days for work, since he had to go to clients’ offices and meetings and such, whereas I worked from home. Fair enough. But that ended up meaning that on days I didn’t have the car, I was functionally housebound. You can’t walk anywhere here (no sidewalks, dangerous, etc.), and there’s no viable public transportation. So I spent a lot of time by myself. Inside. And until a few months ago, that was okay. I embraced my inner introvert, I got to know the afternoon TLC schedule (Say Yes to the Dress, Rich Bride Poor Bride, Jon & Kate Plus 8), I cooked dishes that required obscene amounts of prep time (including this one, which I highly recommend if you have an afternoon to spend grinding spices), I knit (oh, did I knit), I wrote (duh), I got hooked on several TV shows on Netflix (Being Human UK: life changing), and things were pretty good, overall.

I got REALLY into knitting.

I got REALLY into knitting.

Then, a few months ago, I hit a wall. I just got sick of not having much of a life outside of my house. Part of this frustration was compounded by the fact that Al and I had not invested heavily in our social network here. We made wonderful friends, of course, but most of them worked crazy hours during the week and traveled on the weekends, which meant that during the weekdays and early evenings, I was pretty much left high and dry if I needed social contact with other human beings. The thing is, I’m not someone who needs a ton of time with other people to be happy. But I do need options. I’d like to have the option of setting up drinks with someone, for instance, or the option to just leave the house and go do something by myself. When I lived in Sao Paulo by myself and my friends were traveling or otherwise not around, I used to take myself to the movies, and I could walk to the theater. But here in Joburg, I couldn’t do that. And after a while, I got pretty sick of it.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

A typical afternoon in Joburg.

Now, the flip-side of all of this, of course, is that while we were here, we invested heavily in travel, and I am very glad we did. In nine short months (more or less), we traveled to Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Namibia, as well as pretty extensively within South Africa (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Kruger, the Drakensberg Mountains, Durban, and more). Plus we squeezed in a trip to Italy, and I went to North America twice (first by myself to San Francisco, and then with Al to Ottawa, DC, and Mexico City). So, not too shabby, if you ask me. I am so, so grateful for the experience of living here and being able to travel so widely in Southern Africa and within South Africa, in particular. Joburg, while not awesome itself (in my opinion), is a great jumping off point for seeing all sorts of amazing stuff in this region.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I saw a leopard. With my EYES.

I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to live in a country — and a part of the world — that I knew pretty much nothing about before I came here. To be honest, I still kinda don’t get it. South Africa is confusing and complex and confounding, but I’ve enjoyed being here and trying to figure out what’s going on around me day to day (that is, when I step foot outside of the house). It’s a country that has a lot of problems (inequality, corruption, wastefulness, racial issues), but it’s also a place with incredible potential and some of the most stunning natural beauty (flora and fauna) that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a special place.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

I probably won’t miss the experience of living in Joburg, per se, but there are definitely some things I will miss about being here. A short list would include the low cost of living (and especially the cheap, high-quality steaks, nom), the incredible (and cheap) wine, my adorable local knitting store, and the great weather.

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I will miss you, knitting store.

So, all in all, these last nine months have been a rewarding adventure. Even for all of my complaints about Joburg, I wouldn’t ever take back the time we spent here, because it afforded us such incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to explore this region. And I will always remember my kitchen table in Joburg fondly, because this is where I launched my fledgling writing career. Me and this table, we have history now.

And now, off to London, our next adventure. Onwards and upwards. Seacrest out.

Jozi Craft Beer Fest

Yesterday, Al and I and some friends went to the Jozi Craft Beer Fest. The event was set up in a field, and consisted of a bunch of tents selling beer and food, plus a lot of watered-down, South African hipsters. Lots of brand-name beanies and skinny jeans and “fun” glasses. Bless their hearts; they’re trying.

Hipster alert

Hipster alert

South African craft beer, in my humble opinion, is okay, not great, but the event was still fun. (Now I can’t even remember the names of the beers that I tried and liked, but I think Devil’s Peak might have been one of them? Sorry, South African beer fans. Nothing made a huge impression.) It was just fun to sit in the sun and drink some beer.

Yay beer

Yay beer

It got a little cold

It got a little cold in the afternoon

So, that was our Saturday. Today, we’re off to the Winter Sculpture Garden at the Cradle of Humankind, where we’ll be sampling food and wine (and sculptures, I guess).

Hope everyone’s having a great weekend!

First(ish) World problems

On our recent trip to Mozambique, we met a lot of expats who live in other countries in southern Africa, including Mozambique and Malawi, and it made us realize, again, how (relatively) easy we have it living in Joburg. When it comes down to it, living here is a pretty cushy developing world experience. Most things work. We have electricity and hot water and fancy shopping malls. There are gyms and knitting stores and nice restaurants. And although Joburg can be irritating and slow and backwards, the annoyances we face are nothing compared to those faced by people living in less developed countries or in more rustic areas. For example, we met a Canadian woman on Ilha who lives in Pemba, in northern Mozambique, and she was telling us how the only fresh produce she can find in the entire city are beat up tomatoes, onions, and an assortment of mixed greens that look like weeds.

I would die.

Well, no, I wouldn’t, because I have lived in places like that before (see, e.g., Cuba, 2004), and it was actually fine, because you can get used to anything, and I ate a lot of ice cream, but man, I devoured vegetables like they were going out of style for weeks after I got back to the US.

Map courtesy of coha.org

We’re in the orange, hooray! (Map courtesy of coha.org)

I have thought and written about this before. A couple years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I wrote this post about all of the annoying little things that conspire to make daily life in Sao Paulo difficult. Joburg is similar; actually, I’d say Joburg is more developed than Sao Paulo in a lot of key ways. Mostly, life here is easy. We have a car so we don’t have to take the crappy (and dangerous) public transport, we eat at good restaurants, there’s plenty of fresh produce, the grocery store stocks fancy products like soy milk and pre-made curry paste, our power only goes out occasionally, and we even have cable and wireless internet.

But life here is not perfect. Things go wrong more frequently than they do back home in the States. For example, yesterday I spent my entire day – literally, from 8 am to almost 5 pm – doing errands that in the US would have taken me half the time to accomplish — except This is Africa.

First, I had to go to the post office to pick up a package. When I got to the window and presented my package notification slip, the woman asked for ID. I showed her my driver’s license and she said she needed my passport, or at least my passport number. I had neither, so I tried to call Al to get my passport number, but my phone was out of credit AND out of data, so I couldn’t email him either. The post office employee and I argued back and forth about whether or not my passport was necessary to pick up a package in my name, given that I had other forms of ID and my passport number was not in their system anyway, and the discussion ended with her avoiding eye contact and telling me to come back with my passport. The end. Next I went to the Vodacom shop to buy more credit on my phone – which, by the way, you can only purchase based on monetary value rather than on the number of minutes purchased, which makes NO SENSE, Vodacom – but the shop was closed. Then I went to the grocery store to buy some cleaning stuff, and the woman charged me for a bag, which I didn’t need since I had brought my own bag, and in order to void the approximately $.04 charge, she needed to call a manager, but the manager didn’t come, so after five minutes of the cashier trying to flag down a manager, I said forget it, just charge me for the bag, and then she tried to give me the bag but she had already loaded my stuff into the bag I brought and UGH I JUST WANTED TO SLAP EVERYONE IN THE FACE. Then I went to the doctor’s office, and the doctor was running half an hour late, because, of course. Then I came home to do the piles of laundry we had accumulated over vacation, and the washer started spewing water and soap all over the kitchen floor, so I called the plumber. The plumber came and could not fix the washer. Then, I went back to the post office with my passport and waited in a half-hour line. When I finally reached the window, not one but TWO separate people decided to walk up to the window and argue with the employee about various things. By this time it was 4:30 PM, and I still had to go to the pharmacy. When I got home at five, exhausted and annoyed and with a wet kitchen floor, I felt annoyed at how wasteful and inefficient my day had been, despite my best efforts to get things done quickly. I had barely had time to write a blog post, let alone work on other writing projects, and for what? (And our washer’s still broken, by the way.)

But this is what you sign on for when you come to live in a developing country, and the annoyances in my day are so minor compared to what people living in, say, the bush in Mpumalanga put up with day to day, it seems silly to complain. Sure, in general, life in a developing country can be more difficult, annoying, challenging, and slow than life in the cushy developed world – but that doesn’t mean it’s worse, necessarily. There are drawbacks and benefits to living in a place like South Africa. Drawbacks include things not working, power outages, slow bureaucracies, inefficiencies, and the lack of certain creature comforts. Benefits include a much lower cost of living, simplicity, experiencing a different culture, and learning patience.

I am still working on that last one.

Cape Town

Hello there! I must apologize, once again, for the intermittent bursts of blogging. I am still mid-vacay and won’t be back full-time for another week, but I wanted to tell you all about the five days I just spent in Cape Town.

View of Table Mountain from hostel

View of Table Mountain from hostel

After Stellenbosch, I bid my in-laws and Al adieu and stayed on in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends from DC, Elise and Allison, who were kind enough to visit me in South Africa. We stayed at a somewhat famous backpacking hostel called, appropriately enough, The Backpack. It was named one of the 10 “coolest hostels” in the world by The Guardian in 2010 and has won awards for being sustainable (they use all recycled materials, no bottled water, etc., etc.). It was indeed a very nice place with a cool vibe. The only problem is that I am too old for cool vibes. It’s official. We were put into a room that was right next to the common area, so we were treated to thumping bass, loud bellowing, and assorted screeches for all five nights of our stay. My crotchetiness came out full force last night (or, technically, this morning) at 2:15 am when I marched out into the common area and told the jerks who were playing annoying techno music to please, kindly shut. it. off. already. Youngsters these days, am I right? But, noise pollution aside, I’d recommend The Backpack; if nothing else, it has incredible views of Table Mountain.

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

We got up to a lot of stuff in Cape Town, including some shopping, wine drinking, and delicious dining. We even did some outdoorsy stuff! On our second day in town, we decided to hike stunning Table Mountain, which is the impressive, flat-topped mountain overlooking Cape Town. At the top is Table Mountain National Park, which is a World Heritage site and one of the “new seven wonders of nature,” which may or may not be a made up thing. Although, after seeing the views from the top of the mountain, I’m pretty convinced this is one of the top natural wonders of the world. For real. Check out these views.

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Not bad!

The next day, we went on a wine tasting excursion with a company called Wine Flies (be warned: their website has music — sigh). I had pretty low expectations for the wine trip, since I had just spent the weekend with some veritable wine experts (i.e., my husband and his mom) in Stellenbosch and I figured whatever packaged wine tour we went on would pale in comparison. But actually, the tour was fantastic. The guide was knowledgeable without being condescending, we went to some really good wineries (and had a great cheese tasting at one of them), we met some adorable (and naughty) dachshunds, and we ended the day with brandy and dried apricots.

My new best friend

My new best friend

A lunch companion

She joined us at lunch

Middlevlei winery

Middlevlei winery

Brandy cups

Brandy cups

Needless to say, by the end of the day, everyone on the tour bus had become best friends. At least until we all stumbled out and went our separate ways. Then we totally forgot one another’s names.

The next morning, bright and early, we went on a tour of the Cape Coast, which included stops at an island full of seals, the penguin beach at the nature reserve within Table Mountain National Park, and the Cape of Good Hope itself.  The penguins were my favorite part, obviously. They’re so cute and weird and awkward! And they have a pretty sweet beach they get to hang out on:

Penguin beach

Penguin beach

Nature reserve, Table Mountain National Park

 

We also saw some pretty stunning vistas as we drove down the coast toward the Cape of Good Hope. Here are just a few photos to give you an idea of the landscape:

Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

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To round out a trip full of natural beauty and wildlife, we spent our last night in Cape Town stuffing our faces with awesome seafood, wine, and beer, and then dancing at one of the best bars I’ve been to in quite a while, The Waiting Room. The DJ, the so-called Daddy Warbucks, looked like a nerdy, less bald version of Prince William and he was awesome. After dancing for an hour or two, we came back to the hostel and I watched Juno on TV in one of the common rooms, by myself, sitting on a beanbag chair, until I realized it was past 2 am and time for my old bones to be in bed.

Cape Town

Cape Town

This morning, we said goodbye to Cape Town and headed back to Joburg. And even though Cape Town is, by pretty much any standard, way better than Joburg, it still feels good to be back home.

Joburg

Joburg

Tea at the Westcliff

One of my friends here, Mare, had a birthday tea today at The Westcliff, a hotel with great views of the leafy top of Joburg. The Westcliff, being fancy and a wee bit colonial (awkward), serves a lovely high tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones, sweets, and, you know, tea.

View from the tea room at The Westcliff

View from the tea room at The Westcliff

They didn’t have the kind of tea I normally go for (i.e., boring, Irish tea) but they did have all sorts of exotic, flowery things, including one tea that opened up into an actual flower when placed in hot water. I went with the least exotic kind of tea. Nothing flowering, blooming, or otherwise germinating in my tea, thank you very much. The serving implements were quite pretty and I felt very fancy pouring tea out of an individual glass pot being kept warm by a votive.

Tea, steeping

Tea, steeping

Tea, steeped

Tea, steeped

I ate some finger sandwiches, a mini quiche, and some fruit salad, and valiantly avoided the scrumptious looking desserts. They even had red velvet cupcakes, a particular weakness of mine, but I resisted.

Toward the end of our tea, it started to get cloudy, and by the time we left, it was pouring down rain, monsoon-style.

Clouds overhead

Clouds overhead

View from inside the car - crazy rain

View from inside the car – crazy rain

All in all, a nice little getaway for a Monday afternoon. Now I’m home, listening to the rain bucket down, and feeling inspired to get back to revising my novel (again).  Sigh. See you tomorrow, and happy Monday.

 

 

Neighbourgoods

No, I didn’t temporarily lose hold of my senses while trying to spell “neighborhoods” – Neighbourgoods is a fun, partially enclosed market in the central business district (CBD) of Joburg showcasing local merchants selling all manner of goodies: organic wine, raw chocolate, French cheese, thin crust pizza, empanadas, fresh baked bread, fruit smoothies, raw honey, homemade hummus, and the list goes on.  It’s a paradise for people like me and Al (i.e., gluttons).

Neighbourgoods is one of three places in Joburg that I’ve been told I simply “must” visit to experience vibrant city life in this city of malls and walls.  And it was very fun – but true city life, it’s not.  It was more a safe gathering place for hipsters, foodies, and people who enjoy a cold beverage on a hot day.  Al and I sort of fit into two out of three of these categories, if we’re being generous, so we enjoyed ourselves greatly.

We met up with one of my new friends here, Mare, and one of Al’s colleagues, Kitso, for some pizza, oysters, sparkling wine, beer, eggs benedict, and other delicious bites, including beetroot hummus, goat haloumi, and gelato.  We sat outside on the baking roof, ate, drank, and listened to music.  A very nice way indeed to pass a Saturday morning.

Gotta love this beer:

Now we’re back at the apartment, resting up and watching crime shows, until we head out again to watch the Harvard-Yale game somewhere tonight.

Enjoy your Saturdays!

The Elusive Joburg

I’ve been in Joburg for over a week now and I am still trying to get a sense for the city.  It’s difficult, since, as I mentioned, until we get a car, I’m effectively housebound and can only explore on foot the small radius of shops and restaurants immediately surrounding our apartment complex.  And a girl can only visit the Pick ‘n Pay so many times before things get a bit stale.

But during my two weekends here, Al and I have gotten into our rental car and tried to see some of the city.  The weird thing is, we’ve only actually driven into Joburg itself once or twice.  The rest of the time, we’ve stayed in the suburbs (one of which, Craighall Park, we live in).  The suburbs are quite spread out and the gathering places, for the most part, seem to be fancy shopping malls.  Consequently, my experience of Joburg so far has largely consisted of driving from one fancy shopping mall to another.  The malls are lovely, but I crave an actual city with a street life and neighborhoods and freestanding shops and restaurants.  I know this must exist somewhere in Joburg but I haven’t found it yet.

On Friday night, for example, Al and I went to a shopping center called Melrose Arch for dinner.  We chose a restaurant called Meatco that specializes in – wait for it – meat.  After an absurdly long wait for our food (over an hour), we found ourselves drunk on red wine and starving.  When our steaks finally came, we devoured them like animals.

Africa-shaped steak (unintentional)

After dinner, we walked to a pop-up bar in the same shopping center.  I found the experience rather disheartening.  The bar, which had the potential to be interesting and different, was filled to the brim with cookie-cutter douches in expensive clothes.  Perhaps that sounds judgmental, but I’ve found that the specific breed of douche that exists in highly unequal societies (see, e.g., Brazil, South Africa) tends to be much douchier than your run-of-the-mill douche.  I am a student of douches, and this is my studied conclusion.

But the drinks were good! And scientific!

Anyway, I’m looking forward to this weekend because, first, we should have our car by then (a used Toyota Yaris) and, second, we have lots of fun, interesting Joburg-y things planned. We’re planning on going to a famous farmer’s market in the city and we’re having dinner with one of Al’s mom’s friends, who works for the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria.  Should be interesting to get his perspective on this place.  Lots to look forward to and lots to discover.

Thirty

I woke up today, my thirtieth birthday, with a hangover from drinking too much Pinotage at a South African country estate near Pretoria. So I guess this is my life now.

It’s been kind of a whirlwind. I left DC on Wednesday afternoon and got into Johannesburg on Thursday evening.  Al was waiting for me at the airport with a bouquet of red roses (a romantic, that one!) and we embarked on our first South African adventure together: driving back to our apartment in a rental car, with no GPS, on the left side of the road.  Nothing like a few brushes with death to really make one feel at home in a new place, eh?

Our apartment is in an area called Craighall Park, which is home to a fancy mall and a fancy grocery store (Woolworths — go figure) but is also curiously abundant with sex shops.  We live directly across the street from a charming little place called Sextopia.

Our apartment complex, however, is gated off, leafy, and quiet.  When we entered the gates, there were four little kids playing with water guns in the driveway.  They all eyed us shyly and the oldest one asked us, very properly, how we were doing.  We were fine.

That first night, we ate dinner at a restaurant in the fancy mall.  I was immediately impressed with the food and the wine here, both of which are delicious and cheap.

My second day in South Africa, Al and I ran essential errands, which included buying a hair dryer, stocking up on wine, and getting a “wireless stick” for my computer, and then we packed into our rental car again to drive north to Kievits Kroon, a country estate where Al’s company was holding a retreat.  We had cocktails on the veranda of a manor house (built in the “Cape Dutch style,” I am told) looking out over lush green lawns. A cat purred around our ankles. It was lovely.

I spent the rest of last night stuffing myself with a variety of tasty local dishes, including ostrich medallions, and a *bit* too much Pinotage, which is the signature varietal of South Africa, so how could I not, right? When in Pretoria, I say.

Anyway.  Today I woke up thirty years old and with a red wine headache.  But you know? I feel pretty good about it.  I’m in Africa on a Grand Adventure with my husband.  Bring it, old age.  I’m ready for you.