Being here over the holidays is raising many feelings and questions and impressions. First is a tinge of homesickness; we love our family and friends and miss being with all of you during this season especially. We openly acknowledge this with the kids, and are framing this as a terrific opportunity to experience a Christmas like we’ve never had! We are still going to maintain some important traditions, including the cookie bake with new friends this Saturday, an advent calendar (but not the $60 Lego version), our unique midget version of a Christmas tree reflecting the fact we won’t actually be here after Dec. 19 (Chris feels offended but I think its perfect – see below); stockings embroidered with our names on them (Mom give me the aptitude and strength to pull this off), some carefully chosen presents that don’t put us over the weight limit of our small flight to Mauritius, where we’ll be spending Christmas day, and lots and lots of carols conveniently located at nearby vineyards.
Our Christmas Tree!
A few things that strike us:
First, how is the weather so amazingly wonderful? Shouldn’t it be cold and dark and rainy and snowy, with surround sound media including A White Christmas and Bing Crosby crooning in the corner? Shouldn’t we be out shoveling in the dark?
Second. The contrast with American commercialism is remarkable and welcome. Although we understand that stores have really ratcheted up the Christmas noise/spiel/promotions over the past few years, it does not come even close to the US. While there might be some real estate dedicated to Christmas shopping in a given store, most we’ve been in have allocated a whopping ½ an aisle to it. And half of that ½ an aisle is for chocolate (certainly an admirable thing). Most of the grocery stores here don’t fill their shelves with cheap plastic toys – there are other stores for that. Maybe we aren’t shopping in the right places, but it really strikes me. Plus some stores continue to (horrifyingly) close at 5 on Saturdays and are not open on Sundays. And while we understand from friends that things like Black Friday are growing in popularity here it still feels like the states maybe 10 years ago. Not a bad thing.
Third. Online commerce is just beginning to take off here. Amazon hasn’t yet made its appearance (although two friends at the kids school have parents working at Amazon – one leading all of sub-Saharan Africa) and it seems like only a few major retailers have really put a stake in the ground around it. The privacy, security and delivery systems all seem to be a bit shaky and not reliable. I’ve heard people argue with delivery folks about delivery time, and only participate in online shopping if it’s “cash on delivery.”
Fourth: this country is gearing up to shut down; everything seems to shut down from mid December to mid January. This is the end of their academic, business, and calendar years. Kids are taking exams*, companies are having end of year parties, everyone seems exhausted and ready to shut down for 4-6 weeks. This is somewhat unfortunate for us as, now that we are settled with house, school, etc. we are geared up to really figure out how to make a difference here. Chris esp. is exploring various options, but unfortunately will need to wait a month until folks are back in the right frame of mind. Fortunately I had a ready made network upon arrival so have been doing really interesting work for the past few months – but developing a network takes time. More on that in January.
(*I’ll leave the discussion of the academic year to a different post but their concept of exams, or “matric” – is fascinating. Most if not all of their annual grade comes down to one test at the end of the year. We have had many discussions with education experts here about the merits of the various approaches to education in SA vs. US vs. UK. Fascinating)
So how have we spent our holidays thus far? Thanksgiving we went to an amazing area called Cederberg, about 3 hours from Cape Town. A blend of Sedona and southern Utah, it is an immense area of prehistoric red rock with verdant green olive farms interspersed throughout. We had to travel 40K on a dirt/gravel road to even reach our lodging – and were grateful that our mighty $10K Honda made it!!! The weekend was filled with fabulous hiking and climbing to caves and jumping in waterfalls and swimming in lovely remote streams. The last night we were closer to civilization in a little valley which is as close to heaven as I’ve been…. a working farm with a small game reserve, pool for the kids, lovely restaurant. We have everything to be thankful for and are even more aware of it here then ever.