Our time in ZA is almost up so it’s a good opportunity for the happy and crappy list. This post is an attempt to answer the “What did you think about South Africa?” question. As always, it’s impossible to summarize 3 months and an entire country into a few words such as “we liked it” or “we didn’t like it”. But when I say “Oh you should read my 1,395 blog posts I wrote while there”, I get a bit of a blank stare. So here is a summary, on the eve of our departure. Full disclosure, this is MY happy/crappy list. Dan’s H/C list would probably look a little different. But he’s sleeping while I’m up with the sun, writing the blog. So what I say goes. #yousnoozeyoulose
I will start with Crappy because I like to end on a good note.
South Africa Crappy
- Cops: It’s hard to love a country when you can’t trust law enforcement. Our first encounter with the police was when we were pulled over for “speeding”, which may or may not have been true. We paid the “fine” on the spot which we are pretty sure resulted in some cop family having a nice dinner. We don’t mind paying if we did the infraction, but the jerk cop also told Zoe that he was taking her dad to jail and he’d be out in 2-3 years. He never softened it by saying he was joking. So it was a tense 5 minutes while we assumed he was
an assholekidding. Not cool, dude. The next encounter was when a cop was trying to give Dan a second ticket for a registration paperwork issue that we had already gotten a ticket for, but he was pointing out that the ticket was over a month ago and it should have been taken care of. He didn’t seem to care about the logic that we were renting the car and had not turned it in within the last month. It really was just a cop on a power trip. Social media tells us that is pretty common here. It seems more common than in Mexico.
- Poverty: It feels wrong to say we don’t like a country because of it’s poverty. So I won’t say that. But I will admit that the poverty is hard on your heart. When driving around you pass miles and miles of shantytowns and you wonder how their lives will ever change. It is depressing. At most major intersections you have people begging, or sometimes they are selling things or collecting your trash for a tip. But not all is as it seems… one intersection near our house regularly featured a blind man and his wife, who led him around. Or, on alternate days, the wife was blind and the husband led her around. Perhaps they were doing split testing, to see which gets the highest revenue. If so, good for them for being entrepreneurial in their begging. If this were a reality show, I would vote for the wife being the blind one. She performed the role better, making her eyes roll up into the back of her eye sockets and kind of moaning a bit. So, yeah, instead of feeling compassionate sometimes you feel suspicious. And then you feel guilty. So many “feels”.
- Driving on the left: Dan would not put this in the crappy category, and it’s not a strong one, but driving on the left was rather confusing for me. For one, the walking current in the mall tended to replicate how they drive so us ‘Mericans were always getting in someone’s way. But Dan adjusted well and he drove all over southern South Africa without an incident. I did not drive. I am not a confident driver to begin with and driving on the left would not be good for
meeveryone. This meant I had a little less independence. This wasn’t too big of a deal because the few times I wanted to go somewhere without Dan I would take an Uber. I was a nervous wreck the whole time we were driving, though, which prompted Haley and I to switch seats and I became Zoe’s permanent companion in the backseat. It only helped a little. Haley has announced that this will be the permanent seating positions when we drive from now on. Um, yeah… we’ll see about that.
- Water guilt: When we arrived there was a severe water shortage in all of the country and
Dan,the girls and I were feeling horrible about every shower we took. But by the time we were only halfway through our visit, Johannesburg had enough rain to fill their main reservoir. Unfortunately, poor Cape Town was still suffering, as they get the bulk of their rains in the winter, which generally doesn’t start ’til June. When we left that area the dam levels were about 15% and they had about 100 days left of water. I tried not to take too many baths but I could not deny how nice it was to have a bathtub again. We were at the mall once and they suddenly had no water. So there were no fountain drinks, bathrooms were closed and we all wondered how the food preparation workers washed their hands. Zoe said the water outage was due to the bath I took the night before. If you can’t guilt yourself enough, perhaps your 10 year old can do the job.
- Crime: Although we were not victims of any crime here (we leave tomorrow as I type this, so there’s still time!) South Africa has a reputation for being unsafe, and everyone we know has been a victim of some type of crime. But we were not. It’s ironic that while we were in South Africa, our car that we owned in Mexico managed to be stolen by a Mexican cartel (so we were told my the guy taking care of it… that’s another story). We are talented in that way; we are able to be victims of crime in countries we aren’t even in. But in South Africa we are reminded of the high incidence of crime here. The “danger Will Robinson” signals are everywhere: the security at all of the houses where we stayed, the roadside signs warning you to not stop and stay in your car in certain areas, the endless twitter alerts of a hijacking or a smash and grab, it’s just one long crime reminder. My attempt to integrate and stay informed of current events via social media ended up in my having a completely heightened sense of paranoia. #anxietysucks
- Customer Service: A lot of times the customer service was lacking in the stores. They simply didn’t care if we had a good experience, if we understood them, if we were waiting, if we had somewhere to be or if we wanted something. We also noticed that employees knew much less about their products here. Once at a frozen food store I asked how to prepare a particular food. They had no idea. I realized that the employees probably had never eaten the food they are selling. This lack of knowledge worked in our favor when we bought a mobile internet router, however. We learned later that they were not supposed to sell it to non residents. Oops. We were glad to be on the good side of that mistake.
- The Windy House: This was our own damn fault because we saw it before we rented it, so we have no one to blame but ourselves, but we stayed in a house for a month that made it to the top of our “worst” list. It was in Gordon’s Bay, where wind is rumored to have been invented. And they aren’t kidding. It was a very quirky and noisy house that creaked and swayed like an old rusty boat in a storm. The floors didn’t just creak when you walked on them, they cracked and make hideous noises. It had a silly composting system that smelled, cockroaches that had nightly conferences in the kitchen, two huge dog/wolf animals that barked constantly and shed and peed on the floor when excited, and a smoking tenant, Granny, who was actually very sweet and stopped smoking on the deck after we complained to her son, the owner of the place. She lived on the other side of the living room wall. Then of course there was the housekeeper who specialized in vacuuming at 8 am. We did like the cats, until one came home with a tick embedded in his neck and the other brought in a half-dead mouse and dropped it in the kitchen. Screams were heard. Dan disposed of it. The house did have GORGEOUS views and great outdoor areas for homeschool. When it came time to leave, it was the first place we were packed and ready to leave a full 45 minutes earlier than scheduled. We couldn’t leave fast enough. We were like the Lutz family fleeing their demon possessed house in The Amityville Horror. Oh, then to top off the experience… after we left we were shamed via text message by the owner for the 50% increase in electricity bill and a 30% increase in the water bill, in his words, “despite the severe water shortage”. Um, sorry dude, but we are simply not doing that weird bucket-shower-toilet-water saving system you set up. And we are a family of 4 that spends a LOT of time in the house. He had the nerve to ask us for US$70 to pay for our “increase” of the utilities. Whatever. Full disclosure: this house was on Zoe’s “happy” list because of the animals. But she’s also sleeping so I get to put it under “Crappy”.
- Movie Popcorn: South Africa, you’ve got a lot of things going for you but you need some serious help on your movie popcorn process. We are in an English speaking country so it was a great opportunity to take advantage of seeing first run movies. The seats are comfortable and the ticket prices weren’t as low as Mexico but weren’t nearly as high as Spain. But the popcorn? Please. We need an intervention. The popcorn here has no butter. You don’t get any options, just semi-warm to downright cold, stale popcorn. Then you take it to a little tiny round table where 10 other people are also gathering around it. There is nowhere to set your pop so you can use that free hand to dispense your salt. You have a number of salt choices, but of course they fill the popcorn bucket up high, and of course you want ALL your popcorn salted. This means 1) a wait at the salting table while everyone tries to do the same thing and 2) a huge mess. Every time we go we say, “There’s a better way, people!!”. The movie times are also a bit weird. They tend to put all their movies at the same start time., which means huge lines right before that movie starts. Again, there’s a better way. We miss the buttered popcorn from America but the caramel popcorn from Mexico.
- Banks: This isn’t really South Africa’s fault but boy did our bank hate that we were here. More so than usual, we were denied transactions all over the place. It probably didn’t help that our car had two gas tanks so when we filled it up, it was usually over US$150. Our bank really didn’t like that. Why would someone be spending that much at a gas station in South Africa, right? Even from the comfort of our Airbnb, our bank shut us down. Several times we tried to navigate certain financial pages or purchase something online but we were thwarted for no particular reason. South Africa was not a happy place to try and get USA business done.
South Africa Happy
- English: I’ve mentioned this before but it’s at the top of the Happy List… English speaking is so nice! It’s amazing how much faster you can make friends and understand the culture when you do not have (much of) a language barrier. Although sometimes the people can be hard to understand, at least we are speaking the same language. This was heavenly.
- Things to do: We love a variety of activities. It’s one of the things we struggled with in Panama – the lack of things to do. But there were so many things to do in South Africa no matter what your interest. We loved all the animal encounters and even the quick visit to neighboring Vic Falls. We didn’t even get to do everything we wanted, since you can only do so much in 3 months and still carry on a normal life (as opposed to a “vacation” life).
- Homeschool: Coming from Spain, where homeschool is borderline illegal, it was great to find homeschool groups and connect with others right away. Although many homeschooling families are following a fairly regimented curriculum, we did find some who were a little more eclectic, like we are. A growing homeschool crowd also means there are workshops and organized activities designed to offer additional classes. Zoe took a 2-day class on electricity that was simply amazing. Both girls attended a chemistry demonstration and we connected with several homeschoolers at an insect class in Johannesburg.
- Weather: We loved the weather. We had one day in Gordon’s Bay that was too hot, and more than a few days that were too windy. There were a few days in Johannesburg that were too cold. But other than that it was awesome. South Africa has permanent spring-like temperatures that did not cause menopausal bodies to sweat nor husbandly bodies to need long pants. Dan hates pants. Dan winces when he knows we’re set to visit countries that necessitate pants. Something about, “only animals should live in those conditions”… or something like that.
- Retail: Loyal readers will remember that “retail” ended up on Spain’s “crappy” list. The retail there was pretty dismal unless you liked skinny jeans and beige sweaters. Here we found all kinds of great malls and great retail that fit all kinds of imperfect bodies. I also loved all the traditional African artwork and handicrafts. South Africa is on my “revisit” list when it comes time to decorate a future house, when we stop traveling so much. The girls liked retail too, but for different reasons.
- Food: Haley will never eventually get around to posting her food blog for South Africa (expect it a few countries down the road) but here’s a teaser: we liked the food. It was easy to find, easy to get delivered and yummy. I had a lot of gluten free options, Dan discovered heavenly meat from the gods biltong (what they call “jerky”) and the kids ate more Simply Asia than there are words in this blog. We’d like to thank UberEats and Mr. D for their frequent delivery all over this country. I think we had food delivery at every. single. dwelling. #cookingwhatsthat
- Prices: In general, the prices were good. They could have been better if we would have had time to do a little more networking on the ground for our housing. Prices for housing was a little higher due to the security needed and/or the neighborhoods that we chose. Prices for services and activities were quite reasonable. There wasn’t a lot of bargaining for lower prices, however. We didn’t try too hard, though. You feel like a jerk when you do it.
- Beautiful: The pictures are accurate: it’s gorgeous here. Whether it was the ocean or the vineyards or the animals or the art, it was just beautiful.
- People: Lastly but most important: the people. We met some of the nicest, kindest, most welcoming people here. We were invited over for dinner (3 separate times) by complete strangers who thought we’d like a homecooked meal. We had people who wanted to know our story and our blog contact info everywhere we went. I made lovely friendships within one or two meetings. More than once I felt like I was getting together with a childhood friend on only the second time meeting someone. Even the lady who cut my hair got a hug and a promise to meet again sometime soon. People are just so lovely here.
Thank you, South Africa, for a wonderful 3 months. We will be back. When we do we are bringing you the popcorn butter system from ‘Merica.