Tag Archives: international

The photographs of a life in motion


At last count, my trusty Canon EOS-M2 had produced 9099 images for me.

The last two months have been chockablock with professional and personal activities.  As a result, I have neglected my blog!  I know what my next post will address, and I have plenty left to say on other topics, too.  I will return to writing posts when I can sneak in some extra time (late June?).

In the meanwhile, I hope you will enjoy these albums of photographs that I took during the busy travels of 2016 and early 2017.  Looking back at that period, it is amazing to me that I traveled so much!

Inside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20161221 Table Mountain Google Photos
20161216 Cape Point Google Photos
20161213 Robben Island Google Photos
20160908 Kimberley Google Photos
20160702 Northern Cape Google Photos
20160319 Eastern Cape Google Photos
20160312 Cape Agulhas Google Photos

Outside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20170113 Prague Google Photos
20161019 Warsaw Google Photos
20161015 Berlin Google Photos
20160926 Shanghai Google Photos
20160917 Beijing Google Photos
20160611 London (no post) Google Photos
20160416 Ghent Google Photos

Should you leave the United States?

Almost three weeks have passed since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and some of you are still hurting.  Some of the initial horror has passed, but the ongoing political news may be arousing fresh worries.  Perhaps you look to the January 20th, 2017 Presidential Inauguration with suspicion that four horsemen will appear in the skies.  Sure, some of you joked about it before the election, but should you seriously consider moving outside the United States?

Push and Pull

The advice of Dan Masys, my first department chair, has been endlessly useful to me: the best moves are those where the push is in the same direction as the pull.  In other words, it is less satisfying to run from something awful when one doesn’t feel drawn to something new.  For me, the decision to leave in 2015 was tied to my excitement about being able to make a difference for biotechnology education in South Africa.  Before that I had seriously considered acquiring a law degree through night classes at the Nashville School of Law, with a shift toward biotechnology law research.  If you do not have something that draws you, moving away from the United States will likely feel like a surrender rather than an advance.

For many, the desire to be of service to the world will be a strong motivator.  I feel a loyalty to humanity, wherever it can be found, and I’ve signed on as a Global Citizen.  For some, your movement may be tied to religious motivations; many of my friends who preceded me in visiting South Africa did so through their churches.  Perhaps you studied a foreign language in high school or college and want to gain real mastery in the language and the culture of a corresponding country.  My French training from high school and college has come in handy on several occasions with immigrants from Francophone Africa!  Coming to South Africa fired me with new energy for my career.  I hope that you find something in the rest of the world that renews your spirits.

What are the practicalities of moving abroad?

When I first developed the notion that I might move abroad, I really didn’t know all the challenges that would present themselves along the way.  Let’s separate this topic to a few practical realities:

Can you get permission to reside and work in another nation?
Relatively few nations welcome free immigration to their shores.  Even if you intend to volunteer your labor for room and board, you should be sure to get a visa that allows that activity.  I was a bit surprised how hard I had to work in order to acquire my temporary residence permit for South Africa; it took six months after I received my formal job offer.  Some nations, such as Australia, use a formal “points” system to determine whether a person qualifies for a visa.  People at a more advanced age will be glad to know that many countries offer a retirement visa option (this example is from Thailand).  The requirement for retirement visas normally hinges on applicants showing a suitable bank balance.
Can you afford to move to another nation?
My move was the “deluxe” option, where my new employer paid for a shipping container for my worldly goods.  I spent months selling down my inventory of furniture and electronics.  Even so, when my goods arrived, they barely fit into my three-bedroom townhouse in Cape Town.  The cost of packing a household into a shipping container, moving the container, and unloading it in a new country can easily reach $10,000.  If you are changing nations on the cheap, you can generally bring two 28″ roller bags without incurring extra charges on airlines.  Having lived out of two roller bags for two months, I know it’s possible, even for someone used to creature comforts.  On the question of affordability, I must say that the U.S. Dollar is at a high value versus the U.K. Pound, the Euro, and the Chinese Yuan, despite what the financial naysayers have been saying.  Here’s the ten-year comparison to each currency (can you spot the Brexit vote?), where a higher trace means the dollar buys more of the other currency.

All charts from Google Finance

Can you handle the trauma of an international move?
Moving abroad is emotionally taxing.  You will encounter considerable disbelief (and demands to justify yourself) from people who could never imagine leaving “home.”  You will bang your head against bureaucratic barriers, rail in vain against expensive SNAFUs, and you will assuredly ask yourself if it could ever be worth it during that torturous process.  As an academic, I had moved away from my friends every few years during my training, and I still found it hard to leave Nashville, a city that had been my home for ten years.  I sought relief from unmanageable stress through moving, and it certainly seemed ironic that I would choose a course that would bring some of the worst stresses to my door.  It can be very worth your while to work with a counselor while navigating this process.  It is not for nothing that “moving” frequently appears on lists of top stressful situations.
Can you maintain ties to loved ones in the United States?
To move abroad is to lose sync with many of the people you know.  Right now, my friends in the United States are basking in the glow of Thanksgiving with family, assembling their Christmas trees, and shivering in colder weather.  I went to work on Thursday, and the weather here has me sweating in a T-shirt in the “cool” evening hours.  My family keeps its ties together through occasional Skype calls and shared photos albums, as well as my once-a-year visit to the United States.  I knew this part of the move would be hard, and I was not wrong on that score.

Reaching the decision to “go”

You may already be feeling the tug to emigrate.  Perhaps it’s more “push” than “pull” so far.  If your concerns stem from the outcome of the election, I expect that the push will increase in magnitude over the next four years.  I would love to be wrong about that.

One way to test that feeling is to apply for an international job.  I always find that my decisions are much easier when I have enough information to know what lies on the other side of a gulf.  Knowing what my career would look like in South Africa removed one of my biggest doubts.

Another way is to invest some of your savings in stocks from that country.  Do you shudder every time the price jags up or down?  How would you feel if you were paid in that currency?  (The South African Rand took a serious tumble just after I arrived in the country.)  Though the Rand’s weakness leaves me on pins and needles much of the time, I am certainly delighted at how inexpensive items at the grocery store are.  There are compensations for weak currencies, especially for retirees who keep their retirement savings in dollars!

Depending on your financial standing, you may be able to schedule a trial visit.  I visited South Africa in November of 2014, after I did not get the job I hoped for.  Instead I delivered a tutorial workshop for the students at that university.  The visit helped me to feel comfortable with the colleagues I would find in my new division, and they worked hard to fund a position just for me!


This November, 2014 photo features Novel Chegou and Gerhard Walzl, two of my divisional colleagues, along with Paulin Essone, now a researcher at UCT.

For many people, the answer will be “stay” rather than “go.”  I sometimes joke that I’m a bad person to ask why Americans do the things they do.  I left, therefore I am probably not representative of my countrymen and countrywomen!  Just the same, I hope that my experience can help smooth the way for other Americans who want to see the broader world.  It is a rich and beautiful place, and I know that my life will be immeasurably enriched because I chose to step out of my comfort zone!

Taking a gander at Ghent

Attending a scientific workshop does not always allow for enough time to explore the city in which the workshop is held, but the organizers of the 2016 HUPO-PSI had left some blocks of time free for visits to the city.  Even better, the schedule included some dinners in historic locations within the city!  The meeting itself was taking place in the historic Het Pand cultural and convention center for the University of Ghent.  The facility was once a Dominican monastery on the banks of the river Lys.  Its gardens made for an excellent group photo!


The participants of the 2016 HUPO-PSI were involved and unafraid to sign up for tasks. It’s a great group.

The first night of the conference, the organizers had set up for the entire group to visit a beer brewery.  Ghent has a great reputation in beer since its history has allowed a considerable mingling of French, German, and Dutch influences.  The Lys river represented a fault line for beer production.  The hops-based brewers on the right bank could not be reconciled with the herbs-based, hop-free brewers on the left bank.  Our group would be hosted by the Gruut City Brewery, a firm that was established in 2009 by Annick De Splenter, who completed her Master’s degree in attempting to recreate the herb mixes that had historically been used for hops-free brewing.  The brewery conducts its beer tastings in the Monsterium PoortAckere, not far from the city center, located in an area that has been occupied as far back as 1278.  I was happy that my friend Dirk captured a photo of me taking in the sights of the chapel.


Surrounded by beery bioinformaticists, Dave enjoys the sights of this chapel from the 1800s.

The following day was an incredibly busy one.  I learned I was facilitating the birth of a new working group for HUPO-PSI in quality control, so we began powering our way through the requirements.  Happily, our group was able to complete its agenda before 4:30 PM, so I had two and a half hours to explore the town before our 7:00 PM dinner at the lovely Pakhuis restaurant.  I immediately stepped next door to enter the Sint Michielskerk.


St. Michael’s allows photographs!

While it is not the most famous church of the city, I did love the height of St. Michael’s windows, letting abundant afternoon light into the nave.  The church features some lovely paintings and stained glass.  I paused before the the “Christ on the Cross” by Van Dyck.  I also love an elevated two-story speaker’s platform that’s simply covered in ornate carvings.  It’s a relaxing place to unwind from a challenging day.

One of the most characteristic views of Ghent appears when one turns the corner upon leaving St. Michael’s.  The bridge adjoining the church points directly into the Korenmarkt, in the historic center of the city.


Looking to the east from the bridge next to St. Michael’s


A look to the north from the bridge shows the lovely buildings to the east of the river.

I pressed to the east, and I found a building I had loved when I first visited Ghent in 2009.  It was the Masons’ Guild Hall.  The figures atop its gable are dancers.


Some architecture is so lovely it’s worth dodging traffic to get a good photo.

The citizens of Ghent have a reputation for rebellion, and their bell tower and the Castle of the Counts both bear stories that speak to this reputation.  It was typical of cities to adorn their bell towers with chicken weather vanes.  Ghent went a different direction, not only making the bell tower taller than that of the adjoining church but placing a golden dragon at its peak.  The Castle of the Counts is an unusual one in that it is found in the city center rather than at a strategic bit of geography nearby.  My guide reported that the castle was unusual in that it was designed to protect the nobility rather than the peasants of the town.  Whether or not that is true, it’s worth noting that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page to determine which Revolt of Ghent one wants to learn more about.  The inhabitants of the town have since been given the nickname “Noose Bearers” in memory of a humiliation meted out in the aftermath of a rebellion.


The skies were so blue!

The bell tower features a small museum in the building at its base, but the day was already quite advanced.  I continued to St. Bavo’s Cathedral.  Since it is further from the Korenmarkt than St. Nicholas, one might think that St. Bavo’s Cathedral is less significant, but this is untrue.  A quick walk around the nave will demonstrate that each chapel in St. Bavo’s is highly ornate, and one should not miss the museum down in the crypt.  The church prohibits photography, but I took one snapshot down there (without a flash).


I find it thrilling to see the columns of an ancient church hiding in the crypt of a massive Gothic cathedral.

This area is all that remains of a Romanesque church dating to around 1150 AD.  The crypt also contains a variety of the ceremonial clothes of church leaders.  On my way back to the hotel, I snapped a photo of St. Nicholas, so conveniently close to the Korenmarkt.  The tall tower at the junction of the transept and nave lets more light into this church than is common.


The tower of St. Nicholas only looks bigger because I’m standing next to it.

On the final evening of the conference, I was delighted to visit the Castle of the Counts at last (I hadn’t managed to see it during my preceding visit).  It’s a brooding building.  I am glad, though, that it has been restored after being bombed by the Allies in World War II.  With my friend Erik Deutsch, I toured its small museum of armaments.  Did you know that an executioner’s sword does not have a point?  I had never realized that before.


…to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you…

I loved this two-handed sword in its collection, especially since I am a fan of Conan the Barbarian.  This one probably dates from the sixteenth century.  Erik and I had a great time at the castle ramparts, looking out at the skyline of Ghent in all directions.  We were both more somber near the close of the tour at a square room used for torture right next door to a chapel with a cross-shaped window.

The touring had worn us out, though, and what better place to recuperate than a pub at the Korenmarkt?  I decided to wind down with a glass of beer made from cherries!


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

April 16, 2016

Attending a conference in the United States most often means flying from one city to another, never needing a passport.  Generally, one drives to the airport, boards a flight, and then takes a taxi or shuttle bus to the hotel serving the conference.  From South Africa, attending most conferences will require considerably more effort!  Join me in my travel itinerary to take part in this year’s HUPO-PSI meeting in Ghent, Belgium.


Two flights take me to a beautiful, though now troubled, country.

Cape Town International Airport is centrally located, though accessibility does not mean “high property value,” in this case.  For example, the airport is always contending with homeless people trying to establish an informal settlement on the site where the runway expansion is planned.  Leaving my car there for the duration of the meeting did not seem like a secure option.  The department arranged a taxi for me, instead.

I have mentioned that the mini shuttle buses serve as taxis for the general public, but I hope to steer clear of them.  Instead I rode a private taxi from a particular company.  I was glad that the driver arrived ten minutes early, though I neglected my rain jacket as I pushed the last items into my bag.  During the twenty-five minute trip, the driver asked my impressions of Cape Town, and I said something positive about my experiences so far.  He then gestured toward some people sitting against a wall near the road.  He made a sneering comment about lazy people expecting a handout.  He then claimed “it’s their culture,” singling out one of the two largest language groups in the country.  Then he “praised” another ethnic group, saying that a husband-wife duo would make a great housekeeper-gardener team.  The temperature in the cab dropped several degrees.  As we parted ways at the airport, I suggested that he consider whether giving voice to such dismissive comments about “culture” with a complete stranger were really a good idea. (On my return from the airport, a different driver from the same company was very good company.)

The airports in South Africa are all quite new, dating from the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  I was able to convince British Airways to apply this trip to my American Airlines frequent flyer account, and I gained access to the British Airways departure lounge for the first time in my life (they afforded me Sapphire Status, but it was all over before my return from Europe).    There were no restaurants in the international departures terminal, but free food and drinks (open bottles of wine, actually) were plentiful throughout the British Airways lounge.  I poured myself a glass as I enjoyed the wireless signal.  Is this what my future will look like?

The flight to London on British Airways, by contrast, was quite ordinary, except that the ticket provided by the conference put me in an interior position in the middle section of four seats.  The entertainment system had a good store of movies, though the touch screen wasn’t responding well.  The flight crew reset the system for the whole plane, but it made no difference.  Mostly I felt cramped, with a seat back that slouched without my hitting the button.  Even so, I managed to sleep at least six hours on the 11+ hour flight.  While it is certainly faster to reach Europe by air than to reach the United States, it’s still an incredibly long distance.

I was glad that I didn’t need to retrieve and then re-check my bags at London Heathrow.  Instead I enjoyed some more quality time at the British Airways departure lounge!  My pain-au-chocolat and orange juice hit the spot as the sun rose for Sunday morning.  I walked quite a distance from one gate to the other, plus taking a shuttle bus; terminal 3 and terminal 5 are not neighbors.  Just before boarding the plane, I stopped at a kiosk to change some rand to Euros.  I handed in 200 rand, and I received a shiny 10 Euro note in return.  Google later told me that the current exchange rate should have given me 12.17 Euros.  Remember, just because they’re waiving commission does not mean you will receive a fair rate!

After an uneventful short hop to Brussels, I de-planed for the last leg of the journey.  The first change I noticed was the presence of assault rifles everywhere at the airport.  Because of last month’s terror attack, the airport is a heavily armed zone, with soldiers and police sporting impressive weaponry.  This pattern extended throughout the city.  The airport seemed strangely empty, and when I left the terminal to reach ground transportation, I could see why; the usual mob of executive car service and taxi drivers were sequestered on the far side of the road.

The airport rail station was a casualty of the terror attack.  Now I needed a bus to get me to one of the other train stations.  The MOBIB station accepted Euro coins and, ostensibly, bank cards.  I tried my South African debit card and did not even get a PIN number prompt before rejection.  Then I tried my Visa credit card from the United States.  Frustratingly, the machine asked me for a PIN to use it (even these new chipped credit cards from the States do not work with PINs in that context).  My 10 Euro note was not usable with the machine since it needed coins, but a taxi driver was able to remedy that problem in a flash.  My foul mouth calmed down once I had my MOBIB ticket in hand, and I boarded bus 21 to the Luxembourg train station.  I decided to alter that design, though.  Instead I came off the bus at the European Commission building (“Capital of Europe“) and popped onto the Metro (the same ticket grants one access to bus and metro lines within an hour).  Jumping off at the central station for the metro network, I walked a few blocks southeast.  My oversized gray luggage case bounced nervously on the cobbles.  I turned a corner and KERPOW!  I was in the Grand Place or Grote Markt, a one-of-a-kind square lined by buildings dating as far back as the 14th century.


The guild halls of the Grand Place are one-of-a-kind

As if on cue, the skies opened up, and a hail/sleet mix skittered on the pavement.  I captured a few images of the buildings despite the weather, and a fellow with an Eastern European accent took a snapshot of me.


By this time, I certainly wished I’d brought my rain jacket!

With that, I walked in the general direction of the central train station.  I learned from a few conversations along the route that my limited knowledge of French would get a workout if I spent much time in Brussels.  I have grown accustomed to being understood by everyone in Cape Town, so switching to French for others to understand me was something of a novelty.  I was happy to see another statue in tribute to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as I drew near to the train station.


Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know how to mix it up.

My financial stress continued at the train station; the automated ticket machine failed on both my cards.  Happily, the manned ticket counter used my Visa with no problems.  My ride to Ghent was very rapid, and the smooth passage on the rails gave me a chance to record my thoughts in a notebook.

By this time, my relationship with the oversized silver luggage had deteriorated to the point that I felt the need to punish it.  I walked to the Ibis Hotel near the Ghent Opera House (perhaps a couple of kilometers).  A person in a more tractable mood would have taken the convenient streetcar instead.  My very long travel day came to an end.

Jan Smuts, hero and villain

I have finished reading an illustrated biography of J. C. Smuts (1870-1950), and yet I struggle to come to grips with this enigmatic giant of South African history.  Despite his considerable international stature during his decades of public service, Smuts is now almost an unperson in the nation he helped create.

It might be easiest to start with the military legacy of Jan Smuts.  He was deeply involved in three major conflicts: the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), World War I (1914-1918), and World War II (1939-1945).  Essentially he was a senior general in South Africa from just after the American Civil War to the end of World War II, when he was appointed Field Marshall by the British Crown.  Remarkably, his command in the Second Anglo-Boer war pitted him against English forces (he led a deep-penetration commando into the southwestern Cape to harry English forces), so it is quite remarkable that he was so closely trusted by the British government as to be included in the British War Cabinet during both World Wars.  In 1917, he authored a proposal that led to the creation of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force.  In short, his contributions to war policy, in particular, are still felt today, throughout the world.

Next, we have Smuts the statesman.  Smuts was a considerable strategic thinker, with an emphasis on holism (he wrote a book on the subject) that caused him to favor peace over war (as Paul Kruger’s 28-year-old State Attorney for the Transvaal, he applied all his skills to forestall war with the Cape Colony), favored relationships over humiliation (urgently appealing for the end of German reparation payments in the aftermath of World War I), and served as one of the key architects of the new world order (he drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).  His persistence and influence amplified each other.

Outside of South Africa, he was regarded as a fire from the wilderness.  Inside South Africa, he played a challenging role in the middle, as the leader of the South African Party and later of the United Party.  He faced strong challenges from Afrikaner movements, particularly the National Party under J.B.M. Hertzog.  After two stints as prime minister (1919-1924 and 1939-1948), his time as leader of South Africa was cut short by the National Party under D. F. Malan.  He died only two years later.  In South African politics, the South African Party was viewed as liberal (particularly in their desire to remain part of the British Commonwealth), while the Nationals were interpreted as more conservative (believing that South Africa should be an entirely independent nation with its own language).

In post-Apartheid South Africa, Smuts is a divisive figure from the past whose accomplishments cannot be celebrated because he was also responsible for setting the stage for Apartheid (though the Nationals were generally his political opponents).  The pressures that Smuts faced from the left seem to be those that have most damned his reputation in modern eyes.  Smuts was party to the patriarchal view that white men from European cultures were to be the salvation of the world; in his view, white men must take responsibility for civilizing other people.  A theme that emerged again and again across Smuts’ career was that of gradualism.  Smuts clearly believed that making drastic changes was inherently foolish.  Several times his slow-motion responses to civil rights crises made me think of Gladstone’s admonition that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  It seemed equally clear that Smuts never assembled a cogent vision of how the white and other populations of South Africa should interact.  As a result, he often found himself digging in his heels to slow the roll-out of National-inspired legislation without offering an alternative vision.

Some concrete examples may be illustrative.  As a leader of the government for such long spans of time, his was the responsibility to protect the rights of the population of his country.  Specifically, these included the ethnic Indian population in Natal, around the city of Durban; the Cape Coloured population, principally the offspring of Khoisan, Malay slaves, and whites in and around Cape Town; and the African tribes occupying South Africa, principally the Xhosa and Zulu but also including many other groups. The Indians in Natal had campaigned for civil rights, especially as Gandhi began working out effective strategies for passive resistance (he started that career in South Africa, not India).  Although Smuts and Kajee, a leader of the South African Indian Congress, kept up a close relationship, Smuts allowed legislation to pass that forestalled Indians from buying property in certain areas.  The Cape Coloured population has generally been left in the middle for most racial legislation of South Africa, but at least it was possible for them to vote in Cape Colony and later South African elections, if they qualified under the Cape Franchise Qualifications.  Smuts essentially traded these franchise rights for other benefits that he judged would be more suitable.  The black population of South Africa, typically, got the short end of the stick.  The moderate leaders of the 1930s African National Congress sought to work with leaders of the government to establish civil rights.  Smuts turned a deaf ear to these moderate leaders enough times that more violent activists were able to take over leadership.  I would point out that other leaders were more visionary on this score.  In the lead-up to the pivotal 1948 election, Jan Hofmeyr, deputy to Smuts, responded to a question that “Natives will eventually be represented in Parliament by Natives, and Indians by Indians.”  This dramatic statement caused many moderate whites to turn away from the party, but Smuts sheltered Hofmeyr from the criticism directed at him within the party.  Near the end of his political career, it appears that Smuts had begun thinking more proactively about the constructive role that public policy could play in improving the future for other races in South Africa, but his liberalism (plus the end of World War II) left his party open to defeat at the hands of the Nationals in 1948.

Smuts left an undeniable imprint on world history, and yet his name also bears the stain of the human beings who suffered because of him.

Adventures in International Shipping

Just how do we transport the contents of an entire household from one continent to another?  This week, I will relate the twists and turns of my household goods as they passed from Nashville, Tennessee to Cape Town, South Africa.

I should really start with the preliminaries.  I lived in a four-bedroom house in the United States, with a finished floor area around 3000 square feet (279 square meters).  That didn’t include the two-car garage or utility shed, both of which were fairly cluttered, and an attic area that I had loaded with a variety of boxes.  Because I had been planning to move since mid-2014, I had aggressively reduced my inventory through several avenues.  I sold some items, but many were given away to friends through Facebook (some of my friends were so caring that they took me aside to make sure I wasn’t thinking of harming myself).  A large pile of old clothing and housewares made its way to the local Goodwill store.  I had to give some thought to electrical concerns, and I dispatched many electronic devices because they could not run on 240V power (though I did forget some light bulbs; see below).  I was ruthless in the attic, cutting down the heap one box at a time.

To plan a move well, you need to have some notion of what housing you will occupy on the other end.  I could only evaluate real estate possibilities in South Africa from network posts.  I had thought some recently developed condominiums and townhouses were likely candidates, but they would cut my space to around 150 square meters (1614 square feet), very much a smaller target.  I did not yet realize that garage space frequently gets counted as part of floor space in South African real estate listings!  I knew that individual room sizes would likely not scale well for American furniture, since we like cavernous rooms in the United States.  I was very sad to give up my king-size mattress set, but I knew it was unlikely that a condo or townhouse would have a bedroom of appropriate size for it.  I traded a friend for a queen mattress set and canopy bed frame.  With all these cut downs in place, I felt ready to move.

I was in the very fortunate position that the university recruiting me was willing to pay for a shipping container, full-service moving crews, customs assistance, and transit insurance.  If you have never moved in this style, let me just say it is totally worth it, so long as you are not paying the bill.  The bids for this service were pretty staggering in price.  If I remember the estimates correctly, they were in excess of $20,000.  Shipping containers, by the way, are the standard way to move a pile of random items from one place to another; they have greatly reduced the amount of time a container ship remains tied up at a port to offload goods.  The university required three bids, and each resulted in a visit to my Nashville home by an estimator who looked over the contents from top to bottom and computed the number of large and small boxes plus individual items required for the move.  My friend Gerard had gone through the same process six months before, and he decided to work with a familiar company, agreeing to pay the difference between the lowest bidder and his chosen company.

I was nervous that the estimates were not being collected in time, and so I emphasized to each estimator that the pickup of my items must take place before the end of October, 2015 (the scheduled closing on the sale of the house).  One of the companies took this very much to heart, and Coleman American scheduled the date of pickup for Friday, October 23rd.  When the big day arrived, the team of packagers arrived with mounds of boxes and wrapping paper (I’d accumulated boxes, but they were entirely unnecessary).  The workers moved at lightning speeds, and within six hours they had packaged up probably two-thirds of the house.  They explained that they would return on Monday, October 26th, so long as the container would be available for loading that day; failing that, I would see them on Tuesday instead.  I breathed easier knowing the end was in sight.

When Monday came, I gathered that the container wasn’t coming until Tuesday, since the team didn’t arrive.  When Tuesday came, I got distinctly panicky by 11 AM, since the team hadn’t reappeared.  Remember that I was closing the sale of the house on Friday, October 30th!  When I called the offices of the moving company, I received a considerable shock.  The company had not been selected as the winning bid by my new university home!  Their appearance on Thursday had been a miscommunication within the office.  Given that the selected moving company had not contacted me to schedule pickup, I was in a tight spot.  I called the company that had mistakenly started packing and struck a deal; they agreed to charge nothing for their Thursday work, and I would agree to pay them myself to send a team on the afternoon of Tuesday the 27th (the same day of our call) to pack the remainder, load it into moving vans, and house it at their warehouse for a month.  They were as good as their word, and by nightfall all my goods were in a warehouse.  I began a frantic 48 hours of runs to Goodwill and recycling centers with the remaining detritus of the house.  A friend directed me to a motivated cleaner who worked miracles on a short time scale.  A dear friend from my chorus made a last-ditch run to recycling with an SUV full of cardboard and paper.  I was out of my house in time for the close!

Remember, though, that the warehouse storing my goods was not owned by the company that would actually do the shipment.  Once my university settled on a moving bid, their U.S. partner company (Armstrong Relocation) had a visit to the offices of the company whose warehouse held my goods.  In order to ship, a representative from Armstrong had to see the items (not just the boxes or the lists of items) they were shipping to be able to make out the customs manifest!  As a result, Armstrong was compelled to empty out all those boxes from Coleman and transfer the contents to new boxes.  It was apparently quite involved, and I am grateful that I didn’t know much about it at the time as I was nailing down my visa while this was taking place.  The new boxes were then transferred to a twenty-foot shipping container; the company was concerned that I might have slightly too many items to fit, but the company found a way to get them all into the container.

I do not really know the date on which my container made it to a ship, nor do I know the port where it took place.  Nashville is not on the sea, after all!  In January, though, I learned the name of the ship.  It was called the “Dal Karoo.”  The Karoo is a desert area that’s on an inland plateau from the Western Cape, past the coastal mountains.  I hope to visit it someday.  The name of the ship could be translated as the “Karoo Dale (valley)”.  I was thrilled to learn that if you know the IMO number for the ship, you can track its movements quite precisely with the Vessel Finder website I’ve linked above.  The agent from the relocation company borrowed my passport on January 6th and returned it January 13th; he was able to handle all the customs paperwork in advance of the ship arrival, and I never had to make a personal appearance in the downtown / port area.  Just the same, I sweated bullets for a week to be without my sacred passport!

January 10th was a very big day for me, because the ship was scheduled to make landfall at Cape Town.  I had chosen the 10th as my day to move into Turtle House with this expectation in mind.  The ship was certainly near Cape Town on that date, but it could not come into the port because the winds in the area were so strong.  Dal Karoo continued on its course, passing to Port Elizabeth and Durban before reversing course and heading back in this direction.  It made port late at night on Saturday, January 23rd.  My container was offloaded earlier this week.  In this photo, you can see it on a truck beside Turtle House on Wednesday, January 27th, around noon.  Right away, you can tell it was going to be a tight fit to get everything inside!


The shipping container of my household arrives at Turtle House

After certifying that the container was the right number, the workers from Monarch Relocations were forced to remove a large wooden barrier that had been nailed into place.  One of the workers rolled his eyes: “the shipping agent in the United States thinks this is necessary because the container is coming to Africa.”  (The Western Cape province of South Africa is rather unusual in the efficiency of its government; corruption and pilfering are not commonplace here.)  With the barrier removed, the boxes were swiftly moving out of the truck and into mounds within my garage and driveway.


Anton unbundles items on day one of unpacking.

We formed into an effective team.  Violet stayed at the side of the container, dutifully recording the number of every box or bundle that came out of it.  Anton (pictured) was the unwrapper, slicing and pulling off the heavy wrapping papers with a box cutter, prioritizing items like table legs for retrieval (he was very good at it; I haven’t seen a single gouge from this process).  I was the dispatcher, pointing to the rooms that should receive items flowing in from the garage.  The rest of the team (I believe it was four different men, with forearms of steel) worked tirelessly.  We were very fortunate that a break in the heatwave had arrived!  As the day drew to a close, all the items were either in the house or boxed in the garage, and the team promised to come back the next day to help with unboxing.  After some bustling about, I was surprised at how livable my main area had become.  I unboxed and connected the TV and DVD player, and I watched a disc from the Nashville In Harmony chorus and then from the Klingon Collective to celebrate.


Dave’s home is surprisingly livable after the first day of unloading. Not pictured: a mound of boxes in the garage

The team was somewhat delayed on Thursday, January 28th, day two of unloading.  When they arrived, we had a brief strategy pow-wow.  My two reinforced bookshelves from the United States had not survived the journey; the Office Depot particle board shelves had broken into top and bottom pieces, and the cam bolts at the tops were particularly mangled.  We decided that any box marked “books” (and there are several) should be heaped in the garage until I work out a better place for them.  “Linens” were to go to the guest room atop the black bed I had rebuilt with my friend Erik, and “clothes” were headed for my bedroom.  “Office supplies” went to the front room (which featured a built-in desk next to my black desk, which I had reassembled that morning).  Any box with computer equipment inside was to come to me in the living area, where I would excavate the numerous computers and monitors destined for the Stellenbosch med school campus (note to potential thieves; they’re not here anymore).  Boxes of junk that I shied from dealing with in the hullabaloo (such as a box of saved gift bags from the attic) headed to the outdoor braai area.


Thursday afternoon is a bit of a blur to me.  I was slicing boxes and extracting contents as rapidly as I could.  Sometimes when we paused, we caught little mistakes.  I had sequestered some wooden legs that I was sure belonged to a low coffee table, but they really belonged to the dining table!  The Monarch crew wanted to be sure that I captured the “assembled” end table above; the legs are intended to be on the outside corners!  We also enjoyed a fun moment when the XXL sweatshirt for one of the Coleman packers turned up in one of the moving boxes.  Violet posed for a photo with the sweatshirt; it’s pretty clear it will never fit her!


With all this activity and so many boxes, it is unsurprising that every flat surface in the house was covered with items by nightfall.  That’s where I find myself now; organizing all these items into some semblance of order.  Clearly some of the things I shipped cannot stay here.  I now have a surplus of coffee and end tables.  It will be weeks before I have it all squared away, I am afraid.  Each day, though, I hope to make a little progress.  Just as the ship made it from America to South Africa by continuing, nautical mile by mile, I will settle into Turtle House a bit more with each passing day.  Thank you for your encouragement in this journey!


I have some cabinets to fill!


Let’s get fiscal: moving money across borders

Just a few weeks ago, I sold my house and car in the United States.  Now I am going through the reverse of that process, acquiring a new home and vehicle.  Those acquisitions, though, require some cash.  Getting access to the money poses a series of problems.  The money from those sales last fall is

  1. located on the other side of the world,
  2. governed under a different set of laws and regulations, and
  3. denominated in U.S. Dollars rather than South African rand.

I wrote previously about wiring money from the United States to South Africa.  The $50 wiring fee is not such a big deal when you’re moving hundreds or thousands.  The exchange rate offered by the bank for account-to-account wires, though, is a bigger deal; if the bank doesn’t compete with others to win your business, why would it feel pressure to give you a good rate of exchange?

One solution to this problem is a foreign exchange company.  I read up on potential brokers at a site devoted to their evaluation.  I decided to work with one called “Currencies Direct,” and I’m glad that I did.  I set up an account with them before leaving the United States.  Essentially I send them dollars, we establish a contract for a particular exchange rate, and then they send the money to my new account in a different currency.

An additional problem soon emerged, though.  During my long conversations with SunTrust before my departure, the banker should have notified me that I needed a PIN number issued through Western Union to trigger international wires when I was no longer able to appear at the branch in person.  I have looked for a good URL to describe this process, but I haven’t found it.

The banker neglected to do that, and a nasty impasse developed.  During a week of increasing tensions, I discussed this situation with the international toll free clerks, the wire fraud people, the staff at my old bank branch, the secure messaging folks, and even the bank’s Twitter customer service desk.  By that time, at least twenty people in the bank knew that I was about to transfer money for a house purchase out of my account.  All of them expressed their condolences that my money was inaccessible to me, but nobody had a plan for how to accomplish it.  I have made it clear to the bank that I will remove the remainder of my funds as soon as I return to the United States; as I put it to the customer service people, “you had one job.”




My bank had made the wire impossible, so I used an alternate route.  Currencies Direct set up a type of account that allowed me to send a check to the company in the United States in dollars.  They would then wire the corresponding amount to my account in South Africa using rand.  I sent the check by express mail using the “bill pay” feature of the bank website.  The bank repaid my effort  by immediately slapping a freeze on the account, disabling my web access (and thus my secure messaging) and preventing the check’s delivery.  I had a very hectic 24 hours re-establishing contact with the bank (aided by a friend giving me access to Google Voice), and then they released the check and opened my web access once more.  The fee for express mailing was entirely wasted due to my bank’s efforts to “protect me.”

You should be aware that South Africa has significant laws in place to prevent money from flowing freely out of the country.  As a foreigner, you must document every transfer into the country (SWIFT messages and bank statements) to ensure that you will be allowed to transfer that money back out of the country without limitations or extra taxes.

My funds arrived at Currencies Direct last week, and I locked down my exchange rate just before the President of South Africa fired the respected finance minister, causing a terrible plunge in the rand’s value.  Some of the damage was undone when the replacement minister was sacked within four days and replaced by a new, respected finance minister.

If you are planning to spend considerable time in another country, be sure that your mechanism for transferring money is entirely in place before you leave.