The first week in Johannesburg we spent living out of a hotel. We took a week to get our bearings, view a few Airbnbs and get to know specific areas that seemed like a good fit for us. We chose a house we found on Airbnb and recently moved in for 19 days. It’s still a little embarrassing showing up with so much luggage, but we vowed to purge again before we leave. It’s a never ending cycle of purging, buying things we need for the current climate, then purging again. #onesuitcaseproblems
I am not too embarrassed to admit that the first night in this Airbnb was probably the worst night I have had since leaving the USA. It was hard for me. Really hard. The house is beautiful. It’s probably 3500 square feet, it has gorgeous rock flooring, a large front yard (albeit walled and heavily guarded), a formal living room, a large dining room, a comfortable and bright family room, a central courtyard with a lovely fountain (which Dan promptly turned off because it was too noisy), a huge backyard with BBQ, patio and very large pool, along with a trampoline designed to jump from it into the pool. Compared to the 2 bedrooms we shared at the hotel, this place is gigantic and so nice for our family of 4 to spread out a little and have some alone time. Zoe and Haley have their own rooms and Dan and I share a large master suite. It’s beautiful. So why was it so hard? Well, probably 99% is because I just worry a lot. But my problem is, in South Africa, your home is essentially a jail.
We try not to sugar coat our travels too much and we always try to a sprinkle “frankness” to add some color to our journeys. Who wants to read the bright side of things ALL the time, right? But with South Africa, we’re going to be more frank than usual. Everyone in Johannesburg will tell you that crime is a problem here. Including violent crime. The newspaper publishes articles on which intersections are the most common for car-jackings and how to avoid them. There are guards everywhere and every business and home and establishment has some kind of locked gate, with extra bars and locks and barbed wire and multiple alarms. This house is no exception and the security level immediately sent my anxious brain into overdrive. Instead of the logical “We are safe because of all this security” my brain told me “This security is needed because of crime, and the crime will happen despite the security.” Anxious brains do not operate on logic and are horrible travel partners.
The view of the house from the street is only a large wall, a 2-car garage and a steel door. That’s it. You see none of the house and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But once inside there’s even more security. There is an alarm system for the barbed wire atop the fence. Then there’s another one for the doors. The windows are completely secure, even if you open a window. So no alarms needed on them. There are steel bars on every window and through every door, there is a separate, additional security system for the sleeping wing of the house (God forbid you might want a drink of water in the middle of the night. It’s not worth it!). There is a high, pointy fence on which sits the wire that will trip the alarm and there’s a 24-hour guard shack across the street and down the street in both directions. I can’t decide if I feel safe, like I’m in jail or I’m a target. After all, if it’s worth all this protection, wouldn’t that mean it’s something really great inside? But the fact that ALL houses are like this, should minimize my fears, right? Uh-huh.
The other thing that’s very interesting is the kitchen. This house is so beautiful and designed for entertaining. The dining room table seats 10-15 and one could easily invite 50 of your closest friends over for a pool party. But the kitchen is very small. And on a different caliber than the rest of the house. If this were a house in the USA the kitchen would be featured prominently and would be as beautiful as the rest of the house with a great big granite island. We used to have one of those houses with the great big island. But here it’s clear that houses are designed to have some kind of worker in the kitchen. But in this house when you entertain… you don’t cook.
This Airbnb comes with housekeeping service 4 times a week. That’s not optional, the lady comes whether you like it or not. You all might remember how I feel about household help from my experience with maids in Mexico, but here it’s not too bad. The housekeeper knows this house better than I do so I don’t have to tell her what to do, she just does her thing and I let her. Poor girl probably thinks I’m a knuckle-head though. The first day she shows up I was unable to figure out how to open the door for her. I was inside and just could not find the right combination of keys. Now my anxious brain worries about how we could get out in the event of a fire. Great.
Thankfully the maid had keys otherwise she’d be climbing that big pokey fence in order to get in to do her work. When she finally made it inside we greeted with a handshake. She shook my hand like we were both part of a secret handshake club but I had forgotten the code. I was content to do the “grasp-up-down-release” American method but she led me through a series of “grasp-squeeze-reposition-squeeze-release” motions. I hope I remember it for the next time she comes!
We were pleased to see the house comes with a washer and dryer. Yes! Laundry! But we found out that we are not allowed to use it. The housekeeper will do our laundry and laundry day is on Tuesday. “Kids, please don’t sweat too much, since you’ll be re-wearing those clothes for a few more days!”
The house has 2.5 bathrooms but only one shower. That is very common here. One bathroom has a tub, and one has a shower. So that is taking some getting used to with this family who is used to a lot more independence when it comes to bathing. There is a severe water shortage going on right now in South Africa so we’ve been asked to conserve, but if I take really short showers for a week I might splurge on a bath at some point. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a bathtub available.
So we have all this room and all this security and it’s a great place to relax and get in some homeschool. Not to mention some social time with homeschooling South Africans. Plus we can enjoy our Netflix, right? Oops. Just one problem. Well let’s just say that Dan assumed it would have great internet since it said it had wifi and internet speeds here tend to be pretty good. Um, not in this neighborhood, I guess. The internet is worse than Panama. But Dan, being
obsessed with fast internet the resourceful guy that he is, went to the mall down the road and got a 4G cell wifi router. We get 200 GB of data (doesn’t expire, either) and it serves it at up to 150Mbps for $120. Works great (hiccups notwithstanding) for our TV viewing needs. And better yet, it works all over South Africa, so we now have a little more freedom when booking our next Airbnb. No internet in that Airbnb? No problem! We are BYO Internet. For the most part it works well but we are also lucky to be in an English speaking country, so the regular TV channels delivered via cable are also great. When the internet was hiccuping last night we switched to regular programming. We watched a little bit of Housewives of Beverly Hills (Zoe was fascinated at the drama), then The Voice finale (Haley thinks the guy’s beard needs his own twitter account) and then we settled on 80’s music videos. It was fun to channel surf after 2.5 years of not really being able to channel surf.
Every place we stay is different but this one has been fun for the girls to explore their interests. Zoe has learned chess and has re-discovered her skill as she plays against Daniel. Haley found the piano and immediately started playing some of the songs she learned while taking piano lessons in Mexico. The pool hasn’t been used all that often yet but once the weather clears up I have a feeling we’ll be doing some entertaining of our own.
So after the first rough night I am getting more used to the house and it’s level of security. It was very shocking at first, that there is this much security needed. But when talking to people who have lived in Joburg for their whole lives, they say they’ve become numb to it. They say it’s just a part of their life, that the environment is volatile and requires this degree of protection. They all seem to go about their lives, taking precautions but also just moving on. The home owner tells us that everyone has their own horror story with crime, and at dinner parties it’s frequently an informal “bragging session” on who has the worst story. Remind me not to go to any of those parties. But if I do, I hope there’s no secret handshake to memorize.