You Want Animals…

January 31, 2009

Today we visited Tala Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It is a small (7,000 acre) private game reserve about twenty minutes from Pietermaritzburg. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in accessibility to animals much to the liking of kids and parents alike.

We went in an open Range Rover with an outstanding guide/tracker (named Jaco) informing us with stories and details about the animals and the terrain that we crossed. In no particular order we saw: giraffes, hippos, elands, wildebeasts, impalas, blesbok, reedbuck, ostriches, warthogs, kudus, weaver and southern red bishop birds, and zebras. See for yourself (warning…fairly large file):

Despite seeing a variety of wildlife, we have not actually seen any of The Big Five, thus giving us another reason to visit a larger game park later in our visit.


No…not the Augustine’s. Our good friend and former basement dweller, Drew Miller, spent a month touring South Africa through a Rotary Intenational exchange program examining the educational system in SA. Read about his experiences.

Primate Invasion

January 26, 2009

In October I made the fateful decision to question the veracity of whether there were monkeys in Pietermartizburg. We baited the monkeys with a few bananas strategically located in the Passaro’s back yard and then armed the camera ready for close up pictures of wildlife. Four hours later, nothing. Two days later, nothing. Since our arrival, nothing. At night we think that we hear monkeys, but this monkey business is getting old.

Then today…a direct assault by a monkey commando squad (actually vervet monkeys) and their three babies seeking to scorn my disbelief in our backyard. See for yourself.

Three hours later the monkeys and dogs are still barking!

The Other South Africa

January 23, 2009

There are (at least) two South Africa’s.

There is the, “this doesn’t look any different from Virgnia” South Africa that our children have thus far been exposed to. Paved roads, SkypeOut calls to the States, well stocked grocery stores, Intel Core2Duo computers, and a Mercedes station wagon to cart the family around in while being smartly guided by a GPS to our exact destination. We can even guide ourselves in miles or kilometers depending on whether we want to calibrate to the road signs, or to our internal unit intuition.

This is the South Africa that we have largely inhabited since arriving a week and a half ago. There are of course differences, but the differences are largely cosmetic. The similarities greatly outweigh the differences.

I was reintroduced to the other South Africa on Tuesday. We have two domestic workers, Zanele and Thandi.

Lunch Time

Lunch Time

Zanele does housework and Thandi works in the garden. Both are Zulu and our children have been excited about trying out their Zulu on Zanele and Thandi. Thandi does not speak any English, so Zanele is our interpreter. She even interprets English.

We were having lunch on Tuesday and I asked Zanele how to say “chicken”, to which she replied, “chicken”. I told her with a wink that I was hoping for the Zulu word. Our joke is now that Zanele can teach us some English.

We asked Zanele about her transportation to and from our house and she said that it was a series of taxis. The taxis take a little more than 10% of their daily earnings and take over an hour to go about 6 miles. On Tuesday I offered to given each of them a ride home to save them on the taxi fares and to see where they live.

This is the Other South Africa.

Zanele is from Imbali, a township southwest of Pietermartizburg. It is actually the township just before Edendale where the Bonginkosi School is located, so I had driven past Imbali in my visit in October. Thandi is from a township east of PMB outside of Eastwood called Thembalihle (which ironically means “hope” in Zulu as Zanele explained). As part of my chauffering deal, I asked that I drop of Thandi first as Zanele could interpret and give directions.

Thembalihle is stunningly poor with informal settlements, mud and stick dwellings, chickens and children in the roads. Thembalihle clings to the side of a hill with a dizzying network of semipaved and dirt roads. We drive further up and further into the township to reach Thandi’s home. While I did not get out and walk around, the scene was shocking to behold. Shack upon shack, tenaciously holding onto the side of this muddy hill and many young adult males hanging around at 3 pm, when they might have been at work…if there was work to be had. We were now well off the GPS turn by turn navigation grid. The GPS name for the streets were all now “Road”.

As I carefully inched back out toward Eastwood trying to avoid hitting a stray chicken or child, I talked with Zanele about the poverty in South Africa and compared it to the poverty in America. She was surprised that there was poverty in America at all, but I told her that the poverty in SA was much more intense that in the US. Zanele told me that Thandi lives in a much more desparate housing situation than she does, which soon turned out to be true.

Zanele lives in a small yellow cinder block home. Complete with razor wire fence around the house as with all of the houses. She lives on “Road” according to the GPS, although that would be a generous description of the mud and concrete in her front yard. There is less refuse, stray animals and mud homes in Imbali, but there were still plenty of unemployed young men and children who were not in school. Zanele told me that the crime in Imbali had “settled down” compared to some prior time.

I reprogrammed the GPS for home, and again carefully made my way out of Imbali to Pietermartizburg.

Thoughts of the two South Africa’s swirled. How many middle class folks have ever been through Imbali, Thembalihle, Edendale or the thousands of other townships around South Africa?

America has a persistent urban underclass that is easy to overlook if one wants to. I know that I am dating myself with lyrics from the 1980’s, but Living Colour’s Which Way to America comes to mind.

I look at the T.V., your America’s doing well,
I look out the window, my America’s catching hell.

I change channels, your America’s doing fine,
I read the headlines, my America’s doing time.

I want to know, how to get to your America.

I can’t help but believe that the millions of people living in townships around South Africa want to get to the Other South Africa…the quaint cottages and carefully manicured lawns behind iron gates that they meticulously keep for $13 a day. They are the lucky ones with a job.

Figuring out how to deal with finances in a foreign country is a challenge for anyone traveling. As is figuring out the details of driving. Add the two together and you have another Augustine adventure this evening.

We were going to pick up our kids from the Passaro’s and Kristin was about to take her first “real” drive…onto the highway. This confident post from earlier was driving 0.5 miles to an empty parking lot…not a real test of driving skills.

As we were leaving our neighborhood, I pointed out where the petrol station was and noticed that we had less than 1/4 tank and suggested that maybe after we got the kids we should fill up. Kristin wondered about filling up while it was still daylight and we only had Ruthie in the car and we were only a few hundred meters from the station. So off to the Total Petrol station in Scottsville.

First challenge: We asked for “regular unleaded” which received a quizzical look from the attendant (no self serve here). It turns out that they have two options, unleaded and metal added (lead?). So after filling up R299 worth, Kristin dutifully handed “Lucky” (that really was his name although the remainder of the story will make you wonder if his parents might have chosen something different) our credit card.

He stared at the card. Turned it over once or twice, hesitated.

“Is this a debit card”, queried Lucky?

“No. Credit.”

“We don’t take credit cards, but we do have an ATM and you can get cash”

Two problems. (1.) our ATM card does not work here, (2.) we have no idea what the pin number is on the credit cards because we have never taken a cash advance out. And besides, MasterCard and Visa are accepted everywhere in South Africa…except at petrol stations (and about 15% of the other places that we have discovered.)

I suggested that we go home and get some cash and would return. Lucky called his supervisor. No dice. He said only if I left my credit card. I said no dice. Then I suggested leaving myself. Surely a Ph.D. chemist is worth more than $30. Lucky was not so sure but agreed to it.

Now Kristin was about to find out if she had been paying attention to how she had gotten to the Total Petrol station, because she had to drive back to the house, get the R300 and then return. Did I mention disarm the alarm for the first time by herself and wonder whether she should get Ruth out of the car for the one minute that it would take to run in, disarm the alarm, get the cash, reset the alarm, lock the house and run back out.

Meanwhile Lucky and I chatted about America and petrol stations and the lack of credit cards therein. I also skimmed the news about the soon to be president’s legal problems (Jacob Zuma not Barack Obama) while Kristin navigated her way back with the help of a Garmin GPS that was telling her to go one way and her instinct was to go the other.

Ten minutes later, Kristin, Ruth and the Merc returned to Total Petrol in Scottsville, we paid Lucky and we were back ready for “the first big driving test”.

It was now getting dark and was raining.

We made it. Kristin did great. That healthy glass of wine really did help to calm the nerves–Kristin’s not mine. None for me, thanks. I’m driving.

In order to set the stage to understand this strange tale, you need to know that almost everything is South Africa is ringed with razor wire, electric fences, motion detectors, metal spikes, gates and locks. Generally they are not all present simultaneously (although sometimes they are), but usually at least one of these crime deterrents are in place in a house and generally several (gates, motion detectors and alarms for example). Our house is no exception.

The first essential training upon arrival to the house was how to arm and disarm the alarm system which is tied to an armed response team. Any triggered alarm results in a call within a minute or so, followed by an armed response if the answer to the call is not satisfactory. The armed response business is doing very well, thank you, with a host of private security companies vying for business all across the land. Residents are comforted knowing that even the local police stations are protected by private security firms (true!)

Which leads us to:

Day 1: Augustine’s arrive in the afternoon on 1/14 and are given a crash course in arming and disarming alarm sytem. While unpacking, I make the Fateful Decision to plug a US power strip with a SA adaptor into the plug. I know that SA uses 240V and the US uses 120V power, but I also know that most current generation electronic devices have the capability of operating using either voltage. This particular brand new device does not which I found out on Day 2, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The results of the Fateful Decision were as follows: the overhead lights in the house were unaffected, but all of the wall outlets were powerless. This included not only the power strip, but the refrigerator, microwave, TV, DVD player and all floor and desk lamps. Figuring this out took a while, since I did not know what worked and what didn’t, but eventually we came to the conclusion that all of the wall outlets were nonfunctional.The other major consequence of the Fateful Decision was that the outbuilding which is really a small apartment on the property was now without power, the consequences of which would not be obvious for several hours.

Since we were new to the house and the country, we did not know where the circuit breakers for the house were located, and even if they are the same as in the US (they aren’t). About 45 minutes after the Fateful Decision, the security company called informing us that they were receiving an notice that the system was not powered and whether we were alright. (Forty five minutes!?!) Why? Because many criminals cut the power to the house before breaking in which is why most alarm systems have a battery back-up.12V lead/acid rechargable it turns out…like a small car battery. After trouble shooting with the security company, I discovered where the transformer for the alarm system is located and that the power was definitely out to all of the outlets. That is when Fateful Decision #2 occurred.

There is a main power box on the outside of the house where the line voltage comes in off of the street. It is made out of rotting plywood in case you are an electrical inspector. I decided to “reboot” the house and turn off all of the power and then turn it back on.  It didn’t solve the problem.

This is where things get dicey. After calling back the security company, they told me that the battery back up last between 6 – 18 hours depending on the quality of the battery, but that once the battery is fully discharged, it cannot be recharged and will need to be replaced. Cost: R180 (~$18). We went to bed uneasy, but assured that the battery would protect the house through the night.

Day 2: At 3:30 am, the alarm sounds waking Rebekah and myself up. Not a full scale panic alarm which would have woken up the entire neighborhood (we have now heard it several times), but a repetitive beeping. It stops. I encourage Bekah to go back to sleep, and do the same myself. Just as a shut my eyes, the exterior lights begin flashing on and off and I can hear a creaking sound outside. I stare in vain through the blinds, but do not see anything, but hear the neighborhood dogs barking. The lights flick on and off three or four times and then stop. Now I am in full scale alert.

Should I wake everyone and bring them into our room? How can we be getting robbed on our very first night in South Africa? Maybe someone was casing the joint and saw that we were new and did not really know how to use the alarm. Maybe they saw the 10 suitcases full of American gear. I listened intently, but did not hear anything else, but  darkness can play strange tricks on one’s mind. I lay awake until 6 am when I finally dozed off after exhaustion from the 36 hour travel schedule the prior two days.

The Aftermath: A comedy of errors which in retrospect makes perfect sense when everything is pieced together. The Fateful Decision did indeed trip the circuit of not only the outlet that the power strip was on, but on the outlets for the entire house (which are actually on three different circuits). An electrician stopped by first thing in the morning and reset the circuits and we tested the power strip under controlled conditions and it was indeed the offending party. The lights flickering and creaking noise? That was the husband renting the outbuilding. When the alarm started beeping, he had deactived the alarm as it was also going off in his apartment. When he woke up to turn off the alarm, he realized that the power was out and he went outside to reboot the house and the creaking was the aforementioned plywood box on the circuit breaker. The next morning the alarm was completely off–battery drained. More stories to be told about my first drive and the discussion that ensued in the battery shop, but to make a long story long, the alarm is now functioning three days later albeit R500 poorer.

Well…the day has finally arrived. After almost two years of planning, the big day is here. We are doing final cleaning and finding one or two things around that need to go with us, but other than an emotional melt down or two (large teddy bears need to come with us…small ones are no good), we are ready.

Salani kahle (stay well).

We will miss the beautiful Shenandoah Valley for our seven months and will be thinking and praying for you.

We go under the mercy.