Monday, March 16, 2015

Egyptian Expat In Joburg – an amateur’s guide to living Joburg to the fullest..

From Nikes to Hikes (part # 1) – 5 reasons an amateur jogger might just give up in Joburg … 9 More to overcome that angst!

From Nikes to hikes, I never imagined that taking my outdoor leisure activities to Joburg would be this challenging.  I’m a hiker, yes I am.. That is I like to walk in forests, enjoy a rock climb or two, assuming the incline is no steeper than 15% .

Jogging on the other hand, was an on again- off again passion of mine but I only took it up seriously when I decided I want to run my first 5 k in New York before I leave. And I did! With very little training.

I landed in Joburg armed with my Nikes and ready to jog my neighborhood away. I joined a hiking club through the kids school and inwardly, I was gloating J For once, I am embarking on a new expat post with a better plan to make the most of it for day 1… no whining for me! No time for nostalgia and homesickness woes. I’m here and I intend to that it to the fullest.. Every single day!

Then I hit my first jog.. Half an hour later I was panting, navigating a thin pretty creek-side trail through blurred eyes and oxygen deprived brain cells.
It’s the altitude, my husband said.. I could think of a thousand reasons more to add to my pathetic state.

  1.  Joburg sits at 1753 meters above sea level.. second only to Mexico City in height above sea.So if you’re not used to heights, it will knock you out of your first trail run in less than 30 minutes… listen to that buzz behind your eyes, it’s you system crying out… gimme more O2 NOW!
  2. As if this incredible altitude is not enough, the terrain is quite hilly with ridiculously steep inclines.. Up and down.. Up and down.. It just doesn’t seem to end.
  3. All of Joburg seems to be jogging every morning. While this can be a very inspiring social movement, the sight of so many fellow joggers passing me by effortlessly is actually quite annoying.
  4. Joburg runners wake up way too early, by 9 am, just as I’m about to hit the gravel, everyone else is finishing up, victory smiles shining through their sweaty cheeks.
  5.  Everyone is in full gear, and I don’t mean shorts, shoes and an iPhone stuck to their sweaty arm. This is hardcore gear: Racing shorts, Race numbered tees from previously conquered races, water bottle sticking out of weird outfit places.
You get out of your front door and you get that sudden rush that you are about to start today’s 5 K challenge among all these 1st class racers. Daunnnnnnting!

Here are some ways that have worked for me.. I still fall behind, pant and act in all the non-inspiring ways I shouldn’t act when I jog.. But I’m working on it

1-    Alternate jog and walk inclines.. That’s what I do when I want to conquer multiple inclines in my run.. I jog the first, walk the next, and so on.. Eventually I’ll skip every two working my stamina up slowly

2-    Don’t joke around with your breathing (like I used to), there is no room for error at this altitude so no shallow breathing here.. you need all the O2 you can inhale with every step you take, so make those inhales count

3-    If you are a groupie, you will find plenty of running groups to join all around, I joined the one from my kids’ school. They’re still hardcore for me, but it’s convenient and start off is always right after drop-offs which is very convenient

4-    Ignore the race tees blazing by. Run at your pace and enjoy the incredible scenery that Joburg has to offer

5-    Yes they are all fit and light and agile and all wrapped in envy-inducing halo qualities, but you’re here, in Joburg and you’re already jogging, months after you’ve landed. That’s huge so pat yourself on the shoulder and gloat.. You earned it

6-    Get a few Gym runs every once in a while to uplift your morale. In a controlled environment and on a treadmill, you’ll find that you go longer and faster without the after-shocks of a first few runs in high altitudes

7-    Try not to jog alone.. Security remains an issue and if you plan to take it slow at first, maybe walk a bit or even sit down for a breather, you put yourself at risk.. I’ve done it though, twice and I was OK. I didn’t feel threatened even when I did sit down to catch any lingering air molecules that haven’t been inhaled yet.

8-    If you’re worried about uncontrolled environments, check out the closed in trails. I heard the Botanical garden has amazing trails.. I have yet to go!

Here are some useful links for you..
9-    Finally, if you happen to bump into me on one of these run days, let me know how you’re doing.. It totally helps to know that you’re not alone out there.

Monday, November 10, 2014

.com Moms - #Joziexpat chronicles

As far as stereotypes are concerned, I proudly espouse “Your Typical American Suburban Mom” definition.  I carry a history of driving a minivan on the streets of Westchester, a wardrobe dominated by yoga pants and a bathroom drawer that carries all the hues for elastic bands I use to tie that perfect morning ponytail high up.

I did my gym hour with my peers every morning after drop offs and I dragged my sulking face and objecting feet back home for housework and cooking afterwards. Ultimately, I became a social media addict.. I made it social, political, sometimes religious.. Anything to make my excuse for not cleaning.. Yet another bathroom, legit!

But there is this much you can say on Facebook without coming across as an empty headed, emotional fireball, totally bored with her life despite all its blessings.  So I moved to the magical world of .com shopping.. It was perfect: convenient, available, no time restrictions and no one sitting there to judge your every click! Delivery was free on almost everything and if you didn’t like it… you would just return it, also free of charge.. Welcome to American convenience at its finest!

I was explaining to some European friends here how, only last year I was planning for my nephew’s wedding back In Cairo and I simply didn’t feel the urge to go dress hunting. So I ended up buying the dress of my dreams online and with 50% discount from ebay. To make it even sweeter, I ordered 7 pairs of possibly matching sandals from Zappos and zoom, three days later, I was trying them on in my bedroom.. Picked one up and just as easily, returned the remaining 6 with a couple of clicks, a quick trip to the post office and a full refund a few days later. That easy!

From the looks on their faces, I decided not to share my nostalgia for my weekly virtual super market visits to Freshdirect, my secret Santa amazon midnight sprees and the amazing deals I found on Groupon and LivingSocial. Zappos was seismic enough for the fragile state of our newfound friendship here.

And then came that moment all expats dread - or sometimes anticipate depending on your personal experience -  When you are told: WE ARE MOVING… new post.. new life. For me, that meant: more Internet time, legit time, to research my new destination and explore its virtual benefits to give myself something to look forward to.

The thing about searching for info on South Africa online is that it has this dramatic feel that only health sites are notorious for. If you search your symptoms online, you’re sure you’re going to die before you make to the doctor’s office.

But just like health sites, the drama turns out to be nothing more than an exaggerated disclaimer.. Your symptoms are nothing but a stress induced nervous entanglement… The issues with security in South Africa don’t make your daily life a venture into a mine field either.

One thing my .com savyy eyes immediately caught on: shops close at 6 pm on weekdays and are almost all closed on Sundays.. Then to make it worse, I stumbled upon this great blog by an expat in Joburg and on it, she lamented the loss of the way of life…. Ooohhh.. Now I need a legitimate excuse to be online.. fast!

F-forward two months and I proudly sit right now to brag about another misconception about South Africa I’m about to dispel.. 

For all .com buffs like me, who are either living in or about to move to Joburg, here is a list of what I’ve found and already tried J
1- For    there is always
2- For FreshDirect    there is PicknPay
3- For Craigslist    there is
4- for Groupon… well there is also
and it’s just as colorful and vibrant with daily add-ons and quirky stuff
5- for Zappos.. Unfortunately my hunt has not yielded much in that department.. Yet.. but don’t despair.. I’m on it

After all, I’ve only been here two months now!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

the Fourth Breed

When I ask you to give me a Kleenex.. What I really need is a tissue paper.

When I urge you to hand me a Band-Aid.. What I really want is any self-adhesive sterile cover for my wounds.

Think Q Tips, Jet Skis, Tupperware, and Scotch tape… all brand names generically used for all products serving the same purpose.

Now think bigger and profound terms loosely used but actually have deeper meanings that create havoc and induce wars. Think Anti-Semitism, a term Israeli fanatics adopted to point fingers at anyone who dares criticize anything anti Israel and its people.

Now Zoom out even more and think that one word everyone gets itchy when they hear in New York.. That word they told me to watch out for when we moved to South Africa a month ago. A word everyone pretends they are passionately against but can’t concede that we are all guilty of, in one shape or form..

Think Racism!

Living in the US you get bombarded with anti-racism propaganda. Schools work hard to emotionally sensitize kids to be tolerant, accepting and at least in public, non-judgmental!

The thing is, I’ve always had an issue with this culture of tolerance. Acceptance means that YOU DO see a difference, YOU DO feel that people are segregated by color, faith, nationality or social status.

I didn’t want this for my kids! I didn’t want them to see the difference, then learn to curb the urge to point it out.. I didn’t want my kids to be politically correct.. I want them to POLITICALLY BLIND.

And sine I’m neither correct nor blind, this task remains elusive but I’m working on it J

Then we landed South Africa and again, we were told to watch for three distinct breeds here: Africaans aka Whites, Blacks, and colored.

Naturally my kids all wondered and asked: which breed do we belong to then?? Since they caught me clueless, on yet another important subject: their identity, I had to improvise and bring out my deep voice of ‘sagesse’.. You know, that low pitch that only tells them that what I am about to say isn’t just an answer to a simple question, it’s actually a crucial lesson in life!  Any mom would totally get what I’m talking about.

“We actually don’t belong to any of the three categories. We are African by virtue of being Egyptians, but we carry the mixed genes of over three hundred years of colonization.  You can trace them all on the not-so-fine lines on my face.”

I was right.. but then, I was totally wrong!

What I forgot to mention was that we are a very unique and universal breed that belongs to non of the above.


It’s true.. One of the most underrated, almost completely ignored, virtues of being an expat is that you become so unique in your experience that your deep-rooted prejudices suffer some seismic shifts naturally… and you stop seeing the difference.

Every post you live through leaves an imprint on your soul. You see places, you learn languages, you eat food and you hear music. You read books, you explore environments and … you forge friendships.  Then you pack up and you do it again… and again!

You learn to see logic behind actions, circumstances that shape behavior. You adopt bits and pieces and add them to your own character, and you embrace the change in you that only an expat can appreciate, and accept.  Slowly you rise above geographical and mental borders and you break free from the limitations of stereotype.

So it’s not that we are Egyptian and don’t need to subscribe to any local breed we live amongst. We are a global breed that keeps morphing as it roams the earth settling temporary homes.  We open up to difference and we upload some of what we learn.

In 15 years of expatriation, I am still for the most part Egyptian. I mean I speak it, eat it and act it a lot.

But I’m very much a New Yorker.  My new friends here say I speak like one.. I sure act as fast as one. Very much the impatient one and easily frustrated when everything I want is not a quick click away.. Oh how I miss Amazon and

I’m also a very proud Jordanian and if you give me enough time, I might still not say ‘EISH’ or develop a taste for Biltong, but I’m positive I’ll be very much a South African carrying the traits of its three breeds with a typical expat flare.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ten South African expectations demystified

When I landed ZA a week ago, I brought along two full 20-foot containers, 6 big bags and a mind full of false expectations…

1 1-    South Africans do not all look like Charlize Theron… And here I was worrying about my ego and how it would fit in with this long legged community!

2 2-    South Africa.. being in Africa.. is always warm.  I was warned that winter was short but can get quite cold at night. This is not cold. This is brutal icy frigid chill-blain-inducing weather and I can’t manage to get warm inside my house no matter how bright the sun shines through.

4 3- Africaan has nothing to do with English. I listen to people talk for long minutes before I can catch a word I recognize, usually it ‘s something related to Pizza, Coffee, Thank you or Please.

5 4-    Right is not always right. As a matter of fact it feels quite wrong. I’m getting the hang of it, but I still feel like I’m driving where I should be chilling and chilling where I should be steering.

6 5-    South Africans are extremely (as in.. really extremely) polite to the point that I have to remind my kids to stress on the words THANK YOU and PLEASE every time someone talks to them. Appropriate behavior is highly regarded and a wise one would not hesitate to reprimand my kids should she think she needs to. My presence and their shock would not deter a determined disciplinarian at heart.

6- Sexuality is not in the air, just as expected.. However.. The first thing I had to explain to the boys when I landed Sandton was why men need “Penis Enlargement” and why the ads for it are literally on every street corner around our house, all the way to school.  
7-    South African non-whites are not the only ones roaming the streets for a dime or two. The ratio of white beggars is actually much higher than I thought. They are not as witty or sweet smiling as their peers with darker complexions and they don’t inspire you to reach out as much. But they are there; a stark reminder that poverty is color blind does not discriminate. 

8-    In suburban Sandton, the explosive and colorful African cultural realm I eagerly anticipated is actually hard to find.  Whether it is because the area where I live is predominately white or because the architecture and landscape look more like an English countryside – only fenced in - than an African tribal dwelling remains to be discovered.  The first show we attend here was a Canadian Circus that puts Cirque du Soleil to shame. Tickets were quite affordable and yet.. The packed house was predominately white. That is one aspect of Sandton life I totally intend to fully study and observe.

9 9-    They drill you with talk about theft, house attacks, violence, mugging and every petty and un-petty crime you can fathom. You drive into your new residence and you are surrounded by high walls, topped with sharp edges, topped with electric fences and then some.

But then you take a short walk in the streets. You go for a drive around your new hood and there is a false sense of security that is actually quite seductive. You wonder with this great weather (only in the mornings still), why is it that people don’t walk more.  You look at smiling faces all around: gardeners, garbage collectors, housemaids, and you wonder: why all the fencing and the worrying? They can’t be criminals.. or can they???????

1 10- I don’t know where Disney got his inspiration from when he created DUMBO’s stork. Storks are simply not those gracious birds soaring the skies while dropping bundles of babies on whimsical moms. They’re grey and ugly and God they can make a loud screech, something between a long wail and an angry howl.. One week into the house and we still can’t prevent the knee-jerk reaction to jump out of bed and shield our faces from an unseen inevitable danger every morning when they exercise their tonsils.

I I have to confess that only Walid insists those birds are storks.. I'm beginning to doubt his ornithologist claims!!!!!!

As the days pass and we sit back to enjoy our first weekend at home, I look up at my neighbor’s house and a stork is regally standing there, staring down at me. Strangely enough, I’m in awe.. I’m in Africa and I’m greeted by storks every morning. The weather is slowly warming up but I still hold on to my fleece and my furry boots. The joke about body parts enlargement posters never gets old and the kids still find it particularly funny. I can drive without causing too much mental damage to pedestrians or fellow drivers who happen to cross my way.  I pride myself for being neither white nor Indian nor black or anything in between. For once my lack of characteristic features serves me well and I’m accepted everywhere I go.  I will not learn Africaan but I might enjoy a few Zulu lessons when I get the chance.

It’s good to be in Africa. Despite the many challenges this post brings, it just feels like I’ve made a full circle and I’ve found home. Almost!