Friday, February 27, 2009

More Expats

Since I've come down here, three more consultants have transferred down here from the US. It's nice to have a few familiar faces around - I knew them from the Cambridge and New York offices from work I've done there. It's also a few more people I can make American pop culture references with, and speaking fast-paced East Coast American English, which is not the same English they speak down in South Africa.

It's great to not be the new guy around here anymore - I'm actually a credible, useful source of information now! Seeing people who have just transferred down here also makes me more cognizant of how much I've learned since coming down myself - about Jo'burg and the office, but also about living in a new area / country / continent. Turns out I've adjusted pretty well - I don't even end up on the wrong side of the road anymore!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Home Sweet Home Pt V: My Gym

One nice thing about living at The Splice is having a gym in the building. When I heard about it, I feared the worst. As a veteran of hotel gyms, I know they usually include the bare minimum - a treadmill, an elliptical machine, and a TV, all built roughly 20 years ago. But, the gym at the Splice is actually really nice - new-ish equipment, free weights, decent ventilation - what more can you ask for? Maybe a TV that doesn't blare VH1 whenever I'm there. And no, it's not the VH1 I'm used to - it's British VH1. So it has music that was popular in the UK in the 80's and early 90's. Just awful.



Free weights

One problem though is converting weight from lbs to kgs - it's only 2.2x, but still it's hard to do all the time! Lifting is difficult enough without dragging arithmetic into it. Also, for some reason, I just feel much less manly benching 70 of something rather than 155 of something. More than feet or ounces or miles, I miss pounds.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Aside from all of the assault- and murder-related danger, there's also AIDS. The overall prevalence here is a little over 30%, which is staggering. 31% for Gauteng, which is the province I'm in. 39% for ages 25-29, which is the age bracket I'm in. Over 600,000 people died from AIDS in 2006, which is A LOT for a country with a total population of only 45 million. Average life expectancy in the country is falling because of AIDS.

There are references to AIDS in a lot of places, like on this mural in Soweto. However, it hasn't been as omnipresent as an epidemic could be. Due to herculean efforts, some of the stigma has been worn away over the past few years, but sadly a lot of it still remains. And in reality, there is still even a lot of work to be done in the US. But here they don't have the infrastructure, the funding, or the skills to implement the things we have in the US. Prevalence is somewhat stabilizing here, and they'll have access to medical breakthroughs some other parts of the world, but still - nearly 1 in 3 people here has HIV/AIDS and the near future prospects aren't great. That all to me is a little scarier than the murder rate.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

(Another) New Car!!!!

Apparently Avis has a policy where they rent cars with less than 11 months / 30,000 km on them. My Honda Jazz/Fit had passed that mark, so they just came to give me a new car - a Mercedes A170! It's still tiny, but it's pretty nice. It's not as luxurious as the C170 I drove when I first got here, but it still comes with the same status symbol - the Mercedes key chain.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Soweto Uprising

The Soweto uprising was a big event in the march to the end of Apartheid - basically Kent State with younger kids and 100x as many of them. It was a series of clashes on June 16, 1976 between black youths and the South African authorities that grew out of protests against the policies of the National Party government - namely one that mandated that half of the black children's classes would be tought in Afrikaans, the old language of the white people. We went to the Hector Pieterson museum on our Soweto tour - the museum was similar in layout and effect to the Apartheid Museum. Hector was the first student shot and killed in the uprising - we has 13 at the time - and was immortalized in this photo:

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Soweto is basically the Chicago of South Africa. It's a set of neighborhoods with a total population around 3 million - some neighborhoods fairly well-off, and some abjectly destitute. The latter is more on the living-under-Wacker-Drive level than the living-on-the-South-Side level. Despite the poverty, there is an omnipresent sense of soul and vitality that you don't feel everywhere these days. Our tour guide / minibus driver said that the crime rate is actually pretty low in Soweto because everyone is basically family - even the nice houses don't have the same high walls / barbed wire / etc as the nice houses in the Northern Jo'burg suburbs.

Here are my pics from the tour - I took the close-up-looking ones with a very long lens from inside the van while it was moving, so I didn't get in people's faces with cameras - trying to balance respectfulness and curiosity. Anyway, click on the slideshow to see it in higher quality in a new window.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Purchasing Power: Patron Edition

One more purchasing power post - a bottle of Patron at a club, split among 6 people, only costs $20 per person. Bottle service. Patron. We could have some problems here, folks.

Update from the morning/afternoon after: We had some problems, folks.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Very unfortunately, working abroad isn't like study abroad in one key respect - study abroad means very little (if any) studying, but working abroad is still work. I probably work longer hours here in Joburg than I have in Chicago in recent months. The hard part for me is that work days here start at 8 AM - supposedly a vestige of the old mining culture in South Africa. Of course, those miners used to get off work by 3 or 4. At least the ones that weren't forced laborers paid pennies per hour and lived in shanty towns until they died when they were around my age. Ok I guess things could be worse for me. My days usually end around 7 or 8, followed by a quick trip to the gym in my apartment and a late dinner out somewhere. Maybe once a week there will be a night that goes until 10 or 11 PM, and only once so far have I been in the office past midnight, which had me leaving arond 3 AM. I'm hoping I don't see my first African sunrise from my desk. It's okay though - as long as I can play with baby lion cubs on the weekends, I'll maintain my sanity.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Home Sweet Home Pt IV: My Office

Here's where I spend most of my time in South Africa - and the scene of the epic wasp battle - my corner of 83 Central St. I have the same laptop stand / keyboard / mouse setup and the same desk chair as my office back home, so it's nice to have some consistency.

I sit by the window, which is great when there isn't exceptionally gorgeous weather outside. I do have an office plant for the first time, which is pretty exciting. Especially because I'm not responsible for taking care of it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Weather on the Plateau

One question I get lot from people back home is "It's Africa in the Summer... isn't like 100+ degrees there every day?" Well, no... and not just because everything is in Celsius here. Johannesburg is located in the eastern plateau area of South Africa known as the Highveld, at an elevation of a little over a mile. So, it's like being in Denver in the Summer, but a little cooler - it rarely even gets into the mid-80's here. It's not too hot - kinda pleasant, like Spring in Chicago. Except it lasts 6 months here as opposed to 3 weeks.

View from my office on an afternoon where I did not want to be in the office

Monday, February 16, 2009

Well In MY Country...

I tend to hang out with the other expats in the office, mostly because each of us has a maximum of two friends outside of Monitor living in South Africa. I was recently at a dinner when I realized that we were all from different continents - North America, South America, Europe, Oceania, Asia - very small world, in a Disney sense of the phrase.

So, as with study abroad in college, there is always the convenient conversation topic available here of "What's _____ like in your country? Oh wow! That's a little weird but I guess it could be normal if you're used to that..." This can apply to pretty much anything. It's a little more interesting than in college though, because the questions don't apply only to comparing college lives. Having those conversations at 25 yrs old as opposed to 21 yrs old gives you a much better sense of the meanings of family, independence, money, security, free time, etc.

I think the place I'd have the hardest time living would be Korea - work 100+ hour weeks as a consultant and live at home with your parents until you get married. Brazil has the whole living with the parents thing, but you work 30-40 hours less and go surfing instead - and you get a government-mandated lunch allowance from your employer. Spain has the whole siesta thing going on though. Hard to beat that. Of course, in terms of the questions I get about the US, the old favorites do come up every now and then, namely - "How can you not drink until you're 21?!" "How could you people have elected that guy twice?!" "What exactly is a fraternity?"

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I watched Superbad tonight with my Brazilian roommate, Rafael. The first time I saw it, I laughed so hard that I missed a lot of jokes and earned the hatred of the person sitting behind me in the theater. It's one of the DVDs in my rotation and one of the movies that I'll always stop on when channel surfing. In short, it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.

Apparently the awkwardness-as-high-comedy thing doesn't really translate well. I'm not sure if it's the language barrier or lack of being able to relate to the US high school / college experience or lack of prior exposure to Michael Cera, but I think I was the only one in the room laughing 99% of the time. Kinda disappointing. But, for most action / drama movies, there probably isn't as much of a gap. Something about comedy is just so cultural / contextual - getting a joke requires a lot more than appreciating an explosion. I'm sure there are some hilarious Brazilian comedies I wouldn't get even if I spoke Portuguese. Maybe Rafael would appreciate Superbad more if I told him more about what high school / college are like in the US? Or maybe if I just gave him a thesaurus of terms used for male genitalia. Probably the latter.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day

Not much of a Valentine's Day celebration here in South Africa - other than a very small section of the drugstore devoted to cards / candy and radio advertisements for Valentine's Day themed events at bars, not much mention of it here. Radio DJ's talked about it, but they talk endlessly about anything they can think of rather than play music - seriously, it's worse than it is in the US.

It's really weird having a traditionally Winter holiday here when it's 75 degrees and sunny outside. It makes the 'holiday' seem that much more pointless when the familiar stereotypes are not applicable - big fancy dinner, bundling up to go outside, being cozy inside, etc. I couldn't imagine what Christmas here would feel like.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Still depressed that I'm missing my semi-annual Vegas trip, I tried to drown some of that with exchange-rate-adjusted gambling losses at Montecasino - "Gauteng's premier entertainment destination."

I knew it wouldn't be Vegas, but it actually ended up being a lot like Foxwoods - the feeling of walking around a small town of shops, kiosks, and restaurants with facades and faux blue skies with faux clouds that make it feel like 3 PM 24 hours a day. The restaurants, 1 per ethnicity, added to the sense that I was walking around the international part of Epcot Center except with gambling here and there. As far as the gambling goes, it's hard to beat $5 min blackjack tables. It made my losing money take a lot longer than it would have at pricier gaming establishments.

We also tried to go to a karaoke bar while we were at Montecasino. However, we weren't able to go inside because the music was at a physically painful volume level. I could feel the individual tiny bones in my ear shaking as we walked past. Let alone the awful, awful karaoke-ing going on that produced the sounds themselves.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reference-free Communication

It's not that easy communicating with the international folks here. They all speak great English, and no, it's not the accents or British spelling or having to the difference between America for the past 8 years vs. America now - it's having to communicate without a palette of pop-culture reference. Life here isn't a stream of movie quotes and 80's tv plot references and beer ad campaigns. While it's true that a lot of American movies and tv shows and whatnot have made it around the world, it's inconsistent from country to country and can't be depended upon. As a creature of analogy and methaphor, it's not always easy for me to express myself from the ground up. It's taken some getting used to, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. But still, whenever I hear the word 'playoffs', in the context of soccer or cricket or whatever, only one thing comes to mind...


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Malls, Malls, Everywhere

When I lived in Boston, I lived across the street from one mall and a block away from another, and I worked across a fake pond from another mall. In Chicago I'm not as confronted by malls on a day-to-day basis, but there are a staggering number of places to spend money in a very short distance from me. I thought I'd get away from that by coming to Africa. Not exactly...

Since Johannesburg CBD (which basically means 'downtown') is less than safe, good old white flight 15 years ago led to an emigration to the suburbs. As a result, virtually anywhere you would go to buy something here is located in a heavily fortified, enclosed mall. Restaurants, grocery stores, clothing boutiques, barbers, department stores, etc - they're all in a mall. You go into the underground guarded parking garage and come out and you're suddenly in an area that you can hardly tell is enclosed and guarded by walls and barbed wire and armed guards. Basically, instead of the government securing the whole city, private companies built little secured privatized areas and then developed little towns inside with self-supporting economies.

The closest one to me is literally two blocks away - Killarney Mall. It would be really convenient if not for the hours. The grocery store closes at 7 on weeknights and 2 on weekends. The rest of the shops are worse - most close at 5 on weeknights and don't even bother opening on Sundays. But, when things are open, there is a lot of commerce going on.

The place we end up going to most often for dinner is Melrose Arch. It's all of 5 minutes from the office or from the apartment, and I can get to it without a GPS. All big plusses.

There is also the recently renamed Nelson Mandela Square, featuring a 50' tall statue of the man himself in the middle of the square. This one is 15 minutes from me. There's also Rosebank, which is 10 minutes from me, which is actually two malls in one.

So yes, there are plenty of malls around. I cannot escape them, even in Africa.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve

The Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve is a game reserve on the Cradle of Humankind, about 45 minutes from Johannesburg. It's got tons of animals wandering around, including brown and white lions, gazelles, antelope, zebra, lots of birds, warthogs, etc. and a convenient system of trails to drive around on. There are also rhinos, but we didn't see any when we were there.

The real highlight for me though was the opportunity to play with baby lions and tigers. There were 3 enclosures with them - 6 month old lions, 6 month old tigers, and 2 month old tigers. They also let us in to 'play' with a full-grown cheetah, which I'm not sure is actually a part of the normal set up. It was $2 to spend 5-10 minutes in each enclosure, so we did it 7 times. The second time we play with the baby lion cubs a couple of park workers were walking in with baby bottles full of milk, so we nervously asked if we could help - YES. Top 10 life experience, despite the full complement of scratches and bite marks on my hands and arms and legs. Check out the pics in the slideshow below - click on it to see them full-screen...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve - Preview

More complete post tomorrow, but here are the cell phone pics for now...

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Apartheid Museum

Went to the Apartheid Museum today with some friends from work... not the most uplifting start to a Saturday, but quite an experience. The closest thing I can relate to it is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Except... the pictures are in color. And the 'survivors', instead of being considerably aged and few in number, are everywhere. It's stunning how recently some of the horrors of Apartheid took place. Kurt Cobain died before Apartheid finally did.

For those who have never heard of it, Apartheid was the system of racial segregation set up by and enforced by the government. The foundation was laid at the beginning of the 20th century, although it could be argued that its roots stretch back to the colonization of South Africa hundreds of years earlier. Apartheid didn't really get going until until the mid-20th century though, and the violence didn't erupt until the 60's, and then got progessively worse in the 70's and 80's. To put it in more Western terms, it was the Jim Crow laws, Native American forced relocation, European ethnic cleansing / labor camps, early American sharecropping, and pretty much every other racial offense one can think of rolled into one. Pretty much everything except mass execution, unless you think about it more broadly and less literally.

These are the all of the Apartheid laws - there are a lot. One placard next to it said to think of it as a symbol of oppression, but also a symbol of people's ability to circumvent laws and force the creation of new ones. The glass window there in the middle leads to...

Nearly 200 nooses, one for each person that was executed or died in confinement while resisting Apartheid. The most recent was in 1989. The only name I recognized on the wall was Steve Biko, who I know mostly from the occasional mention in a rap lyric.

At least I'd heard of Nelson Mandela. As you might imagine, there is no shortage of mention of his name. Here they detail the meaning of his name - the name given to him at birth was Rolihlahla, meaning 'pulling the branch of a tree, or the one who disturbs the established order.' Well, they got that one right.

Just one of the many horrors under Apartheid was Bantu (native) education. There were no desks or chairs in classrooms, even for the teacher. There were upwards of 100 children in a class. Training was meant to keep people repressed and forced into menial labor positions. While this might look like scenes from the 1860's in the US, this was in the 1960's in South Africa.

What was striking was just how recent everything was. I was 10 years old when the first free elections were held in 1994. Also, it was not like there was no organized resistance to it all. Led mostly by the youth, there was internal resistance for 55 years before it all came to an end. The government simply detained people for life, if they didn't execute them outright, and continued on with business as usual.

I could go on for a while, but please, if you want to know more, go to the Apartheid museum website or the wikipedia page.

One final thought - this quote is on the wall outside of the museum, with letters protruding from the wall so that they cast a shadow directly below:

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others" -- Nelson Mandela

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Home Sweet Home Pt III: The Office

The Monitor office is located in a fairly well-to-do suburb called Houghton, conveniently ~5 minutes away from my apartment. It's very open and airy with a lot of natural light, which is always a plus. Also, unlike the Chicago office, we have individual offices and unlike the Cambridge office, we get to have permanent ones.

Here's the view of the atrium in the middle of the office from the second floor - this is where we all eat lunch every day

Here's the second floor tables and chairs and balcony and coffee machine

View of those same tables from across the way

View of the front of the building from inside

The 'waterfall', which is basically a 2-story version of the ones you put on your desk / coffee table that gives you that running-water sound all day (for better or for worse)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New car!!

Actually, the exclamation points are misleading. It's actually not exciting. My new car is...

A Honda Jazz, or as they're called on the other side of the Atlantic, a Honda Fit. It's easier to get into parking places here, and I'm a less obvious target for grand theft auto. Yay.

One problem though - the turn signal is on the right-hand side, so when I go to turn sometimes, I accidentally hit the windshield wipers or hit the windshield spray thing. It's a little jarring / embarrassing, but not as bad as accidentally turning into the wrong side of the road, which I haven't done a while... (knock on wood)...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Here's what the sunset looks like from my office right now...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wasp, Africa-style

I engaged a mighty beast in battle today in my office. It was a wasp, at least as big as me, maybe bigger. Probably 6', 200 lbs. Welllll, maybe 2" long. At least 1 1/2". I spotted him on my window and then did the typical just-making-sure check that he was on the outside... but he wasn't. He was definitely 3 feet away from me on the inside of the window, ready to kill me at any second. I took off my shoe and swatted him, with easily enough force to kill a standard North American bug. He was unfazed. In fact, I think I heard him scoff at me. He crawled around on the window some more and then flew into the the flourescent lighting in the ceiling. Undeterred, I soon had both shoes off and was standing on top of my chair trying to flush him out of his hiding place, taunting him and trying to draw him out. Atfer 5 minutes of this, he eventually came out, and I was able to clap him between both shoes. I had won the battle.

Or so I thought. This was the picture I took immediately afterward, before heading to get a glass of water. When I came back, he had flipped over and was beginning to crawl / flap his wings again. He had come back to life. I quickly took my shoe off again and delivered another deathblow. Inferring that regular zombie rules would apply, I found a pen cap and used it to decapitate him. With the head removed and some appendages still twitching, I finally declared a lasting victory. The body and the head remain on my windowsill as a warning to all other wasps, should they dare to enter my office. I may have to have it mounted and stuffed - my first successful wild game hunt in Africa.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Super Bowl

I really wish the Super Bowl didn't come on at 3 AM here. If the Redskins were playing, I'd even watch the pre-game show starting at 1 AM and then stay up all night and take the next day off of work. That's if I didn't fly to Tampa for the weekend. But, Steelers / Cardinals... don't think that's worth starting my week with a lack of sleep. So, I set my alarm for 5 AM to catch the second half... and didn't wake up until 6 AM. I turned on the TV to see... the post-game wrap-up. Of course it was an incredible ending to a surprisingly high-scoring game. Great.