Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Eskom, again

Ok, I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m getting tired of the whinging and shit-stirring.

This evening Hubby and I watched 3rd Degree and, due to the host’s continual interrupting and badgering, were unable to get much coherent information out of the guest from Eskom. My patience at an end, I fired off the following email to the program.

First of all, I was appalled at Debra Patta’s rudeness to Steve Lennon on tonight’s program. She repeatedly interrupted him and was sharp and offensive in both her manner and her words. Frankly, I was a great deal more interested in what he had to say than in her grandstanding.

Secondly, the primary source of this problem is the government’s refusal to allow Eskom to build new plants when it warned of the impending power crisis as much as 10 years ago. I don’t blame the waiter when the cook burns the bacon...why blame Eskom for not building additional power plants when they were refused both the permission and the funds to do so?

Isn’t it about time that the media, including programs like 3rd Degree, stopped fanning the flames of discontent and started focusing on the fix? Eskom put an additional 1000MW on the grid last year and will have another 1000MW up within the next year or so. Negative reporting like Debra Patta’s inquisition actually HURTS recovery because it makes people want to quit working for Eskom (employees are being accosted and abused by the citizenry in public!) and discourages others from wanting to work for the company.

Why not stop beating the dead horse of fault finding and try to find a way to help Eskom fix the problem? Fostering an adversarial situation between Eskom and its consumers may sell newspapers and draw viewers, but it does absolutely nothing to help resolve the problem of the energy shortage. It is self-serving, mean spirited, and short sighted.

No reply so far, but if I ever get one, I’ll post it here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

More madness: Eskom's woes

Last night Hubby and I had dinner with a friend who works for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. She, like many of us, is concerned about the power outages. I gleaned some very interesting insights from their conversation.

Eskom has made the news again with the announcement that it has reduced its headcount by half in the last twelve years and now it is suffering from a critical skills shortage which is negatively impacting its ability to resolve the present power shortfall. The citizenry, predictably, is outraged, ignorant of (or ignoring) the pragmatic reasons for such a situation having come to pass. The government, hypocritically, is calling Eskom on the carpet, tasking the company with resolving the problem that is, in truth, one of government’s own making.

Eskom has known for years that this power crisis was looming. Over the past decade or so, Eskom has quietly recommissioned mothballed power plants, converting its excess generating capacity over to active use to serve increasing power demands country-wide. But, due to short-sightedness on the part of government (by refusing to authorize the funds to build new plants), Eskom was unable to build new power plants to replace the excess capacity and over time, Eskom came to have no reserves of any significance.

According to President Mbeki, Eskom repeatedly asked for authorization of the funds to build new power plants and they were refused because the plans were for building “excess capacity.” This is immensely short-sighted because an electric power plant isn’t like a litre of milk…you can’t just run down to the store to get another one when you run out of power. The gas-fired plants in Atlantis and Mossel Bay are quick to build…18 months or so…but they cost THIRTY TIMES what a conventional plant costs to run! They cannot be run at a profit unless the rates you and I pay for electricity go up. WAY up.

So, Eskom found itself on the horns of a dilemma: government won’t turn loose of funds to build new power plants, the company is expected to generate a profit along with its electricity, and there are a lot of employees…in particular, the guys ordinarily involved in the planning, designing, and building of new power plants…who have nothing to do. Eskom can’t raise its rates, can’t build new power plants…so what does it do? Well, it cuts the unnecessary staff, of course. What else could it do?

When a company is mandated to be profitable but is prevented from raising its rates to accommodate inflation or salary increases to its employees or the increase in the costs of goods and services it must use, what steps can it take to fulfil its mandate? Obviously, if it cannot increase its rates, it has only two possible paths: increase sales or reduce overhead…or both. Eskom has done both…and now the whole of South Africa is paying for it.

With the country’s annual growth rate presently at 4%, Eskom has increased its sales, because a growth in the economy requires additional electricity to support it: it sold more electricity, so it made more money. To sustain that rate of growth, however, Eskom needs to add 1600MW to the grid annually. Until recently, it has done so by bringing its mothballed excess capacity power plants…the “back ups”… back on line…but what happens when we run out of back up plants just sitting out there on the veld, waiting for their turn to go onto the grid? We get power shortages.

Eskom has reduced its overhead as well, but a corporation’s ability to do that is limited. Eskom doesn’t have warehouses full of electricity they can divest themselves of, they can’t sell their assets. The easiest and most cost-effective way to trim the budget and reduce overhead is to reduce personnel and reduce salaries, increases, and benefits to the personnel who remain. This, of course, has a knock on effect of the remaining personnel being dissatisfied with their reduced circumstances and sends them off looking for new jobs, further reducing the overhead. In America we call this “downsizing,” and Eskom has downsized its human overhead by 50% in the last twelve years. So, while the demand on its product has been growing, Eskom has been shrinking…but it has managed to meet its mandate from its sole shareholder, government, to be profitable.

Well, now it has come back to bite us in the butt. The excess capacity is used up and because government specifically refused to allow Eskom to build excess capacity to replace that which was converted to active service, we have no back up, no reserve generating capacity. Now that government has recognized its error and reversed itself, tasking Eskom with building 20 new power plants over the next 20 years, Eskom no longer has the trained personnel…or even, in some cases, the training programs…to effect a rapid remedy of the situation.

Worst of all, due to alarmist media stories, people are angry with Eskom for a situation not of its making. Even government, the actual perpetrator of this fiasco, is holding Eskom’s feet to the fire…talk about blaming the victim! Essentially government is saying “Yeah, we refused to give you the money to avert this disaster, but that is your fault because you didn’t make us listen.”

So, today Eskom is chasing a moving target. Eskom needs to add 1600MW annually to the grid in order to sustain a growth rate of 4%. Government is pushing for a target growth rate of 6% growth, which will require Eskom to add 2400MW to the grid annually, just to keep up with growth, never mind putting in excess capacity. It takes about eight years to build a conventional power plant, with the cost in the BILLIONS; it takes longer and costs more to build nukes, presently the only viable solution for the Cape and other places that don’t have immediate access to coal beds.

The gas-fired plants in Atlantis and Mossel Bay are just fingers in the dike. They added 1000MW to the grid last year (but we needed 1600), and they took 18 months to build. Eskom is hard at work building more gas-fired generating capacity in these locations, but at the end of the build they will have added 2000MW to the grid and a 4% growth rate will have required 4800 in the same time frame. Eskom is chasing a moving target and while they can catch up, it’s going to get worse here for a while before it gets better.

Don’t be surprised if Eskom begins reporting operating at a loss over the next few years. But don’t take it as further proof of management incompetence, take it as proof that Eskom will sacrifice whatever necessary…including profits…to keep your lights on at a reasonable price. You see, the only short-term solution to the power shortage is to build those gas-fired plants. Nothing else can go from bare dirt to fully operational in such a short time. But the cost to operate these plants is 30x higher than a conventional plant because they burn diesel fuel. Under normal circumstances these plants would only operate two or three hours per day, during peak demand times, and remain idle the rest of the time. Due to the government’s refusal to allow Eskom to replace the excess generating capacity that was pressed into service to support the country’s growth, these expensive peak time generators are running up to 20 hours a day to supply much needed capacity to the grid. When put into service only a few hours a day, their high cost of operation is not an important factor. But running flat out for extended periods of time is going to have a significant deleterious effect on Eskom’s bottom line…it is likely to eat up all of the company’s profits and then some. Eskom can prevent those losses by raising its rates, but I don’t think the customers would like that as much as the company failing to post profits for a while. Remember, Eskom’s sole shareholder is government, so a rate increase that could restore Eskom to profitability…well those profits go into the government’s pocket, just as an operating loss comes out of it.

I hope not to hear any more cries about replacing Eskom’s management. The fault is much less with management than with an owner…government…that will not allow those managers to do what is necessary to keep the lights on. Cries to replace the management are just stupid…is there anyone here in South Africa who knows more about running a parastatal power utility than the guys who are doing it now? How does replacement = improvement?

Here’s hoping that we put on our thinking caps before we open our mouths. Eskom really is running as fast as it can, building new power plants and looking at new technologies to implement once the crisis is over. Tell the next anti-nuke nutjob who harangues you that we, in the Cape, are right now faced with three choices: noisy diesel generators running 20 hours a day and pumping pollutants into the atmosphere, clean, quiet nukes, or no power for half or more of each day (and that power to come from the existing nuke).

Once the Koeberg reactor that is presently down for refuelling comes back on the grid, the present crunch should be eased a bit. But make no mistake, Eskom is behind the curve now, thanks to government’s failure to heed timely warnings, and it is going to get worse before it gets better. It WILL get better, but it’s gonna take some time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Eskom, South Africa's Prince of Darkness

Eskom is the supplier of electrical power to South Africa (and a few other places). Eskom, in fact, is one of the largest electricity generating companies in the world. Like in America, Eskom is owned by its shareholders; unlike America, Eskom has only one shareholder…the government. This makes it a “parastatal” company, one that is not technically owned by the government, but is, in fact, controlled by it.

Due to poor planning…mostly on the part of government…and unexpected population shifts, South Africa is presently experiencing a lot of planned power disruptions. Having lived through the summer of rolling blackouts in California, this is nothing new to me, and I know how to arrange my life around the power outages. Unfortunately, Eskom’s manner of handling the outages is not as efficient as Pacific Gas and Electric’s was, so we are often left in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

I understand the problems Eskom is experiencing and the citizen unrest against them is, in large part, unfair. But since when are people fair? They will yell at a waiter because the food is not properly prepared (when the fault is the cook’s), they will impeach an excellent governor in favour of an arrogant ass of an actor (when the fault was with scheming corporations over which that governor had no control), and they will blame Eskom for insufficient capacity when the fault is with the government for failing to heed Eskom’s warnings and authorize the funds to build more power plants.

That said, however, Eskom must take the rap for its egregious mishandling of the situation with its customers. Good communication can work wonders with a discontented group of people. With clear and proper explanations, people can understand a situation…even if they still don’t like it and remain unhappy with it. But knowledge makes people feel empowered and feeling empowered mitigates, to some degree, their enmity

The first place Eskom falls down is in its use of jargon. I am a reasonably intelligent person, literate and fairly well-informed, and I often have difficulty understanding what Eskom is trying to say. Luckily for me, my husband is a technical manager with Eskom and I can ask him to explain it to me…most South Africans, however, do not have this advantage and therefore remain in the dark. An example of this is when we had an automated shutdown of the local nuke a few years ago and the local news had terrifying headlines about the workers at the power plant “scrambling” to shut the plant down and avoid a catastrophe. Nothing could have been further from the truth. But the Eskom spokesperson who gave the media their information had committed the Sin of Jargon and the media folks who didn’t know the jargon just morphed it into something they did know, and terrifying headlines hit the streets. What the spokesperson had said was that the reactor had SCRAMmed, SCRAM being an industry acronym for a well-controlled automatic safety procedure the reactor engages when the sensors sense anything being even slightly out of whack. Nobody scrambled, no meltdown was narrowly averted, no panic had occurred or was necessary. But because the spokesperson did not explain SCRAM to the media, “the reactor SCRAMmed” was misinterpreted as the reactor crew scrambling and their creative juices flowed from there.

Another, more timely example, is the use of the phrase “load shedding.” What does that mean to you? Personally, I get a mental image of an overburdened little donkey shaking off some of its cargo…certainly nothing even remotely related to a power outage! I assumed my ignorance was due to me being foreign, that “load shedding” was a South African term that they all understood but I didn’t. After a conversation with a local woman last week, however, it became apparent that South Africans haven’t a clue either. They just take is as a euphemism for Eskom intentionally dumping their power.

Well, in one sense they are right, but because Eskom hasn’t adequately explained (in non-industry jargon) to its customers what load shedding is and how it works, people don’t get it. They see it as arbitrary, unpredictable, and therefore not something they can plan for…which pisses them off. And because the phrase “load shedding” is an Eskom invention that originally had nothing to do with shutting down residential and other non-industrial customers, there’s nothing in the term that would allow someone to intuitively grasp its meaning, like the PG&E term “rolling blackout.” Yup…that’s what it means…”rolling blackout.”

The woman I spoke with appeared to be of at least normal intelligence, but not only did she not understand what “load shedding" meant, she had no idea why Eskom was doing it. When I explained to her that these were rolling blackouts…that the power in my suburb was cut for two hours so that other people could have the electricity, then their power would be cut so that I (and others) could have electricity, and then, after two hours, yet another suburb would lose power for two hours, she quickly grasped it. The blackout rolls from suburb to suburb…an easy mental picture for anyone to form. So why can’t Eskom explain this in simple, easy-to-understand language devoid of industry jargon?

Now I am sure Eskom is confident that their website has all the answers. In fact, they are so confident that when my power went down unexpectedly the other day (my husband works for Eskom so I can actually find out where we are on the scheduled outages), I called Eskom to see if this was a scheduled outage or if there was another reason…like a car rammed a power pole…for my electricity to be down and got a recorded message that stated that Eskom was load shedding due to shortages (duh!) and to find out when my area was scheduled for load shedding, I should check their website. Now this is monumentally stupid for at least two reasons: 1) the majority of South Africans do not have computers and/or internet access and 2) those of us who do have computers and internet access cannot get to Eskom’s website…or any other website, for that matter…during a power outage! But somehow these very simple bits of fundamental information have escaped Eskom’s notice, so customers who awaken to find their power out…with no clue why, since load shedding at 6 am doesn’t seem especially logical…have no way of knowing if theirs is a scheduled outage that will resolve with time or some fault in the system that needs to be reported.

Being married to an Eskom engineering type, I tried to do the conscientious thing yesterday morning and go to the website and download an outage schedule for my area. Unfortunately, despite my fairly decent native intelligence and high degree of literacy, I was unable to make heads or tails of the thing. My interpretation was that if I was lucky, my power would be down from noon to 2:30, if I was unlucky, it would also be down from 6am to 8:30am, and if I was in a serious state of karma-debt, it would also be down from 8pm to 10:30pm as well. What days? No clue. How do I know which of those times would see me without power? No clue either.

Eventually, Hubby deciphered the danged thing for me and it turns out that you practically have to have an engineering degree (not to mention internet access at any and all times of the day) in order to use the blasted thing. It involves three pages of hoop-jumping (most of it egregiously non-intuitive) in order to input your city, get the hokey-looking dial that points to the colour that applies to your area, and then get the interpretation of your colour status. Hint: brown is bad.

Now you have to go to yet another page to determine what that brown means, because there are three degrees of brown. Brown1 means you’ll be out once during the day, Brown2 means twice, and Brown3 means three times. (Since the outages are now 2.5 hours each, why bother turning it back on at all?). On that third page you are supposed to see a chart that tells you what days of the week and the times you will be affected by Browns 1, 2, and 3. Interestingly, Hubby’s chart showed the days (he was accessing the website from inside Eskom’s network) and mine did not (I was accessing from outside).

Now if I, a veteran of California’s Summer of Rolling Blackouts, could not decipher this load shedding schedule without help from an Eskom insider, I’m wondering just how useful it is to other people who don’t even understand the concept of a rolling blackout. What, after all, in the words “load shedding” gives any indication of what is actually going on?

Addressing Eskom’s means of communicating the schedule for the blackouts, they couldn’t be doing a worse job. Aside from the aforementioned lack of access to the website for most of South Africa’s millions of Eskom users, there is the matter of that complicated, obtuse method of access the information for the minority of us that can get on line. PG&E had a simple and brilliant solution: on your electric bill there was a code number. That code corresponded to blackout schedule that was printed on the back of the bill. Simple…read your code, compare it to the chart, know when your power was going down.

In South Africa some of us have “prepaid” electricity, meters in our houses that we charge with a card purchased at any one of thousands of gas stations, 7-11 stores, and grocery stores. These people don’t get a monthly electric bill, but they do have to physically go to a shop to charge their cards, so a brochure with a colour-coded map could be handed out with each electricity pre-payment.

I don’t really blame Eskom for the inadequacy of the supply. They started warning government more than ten years ago that new power plants were necessary…they even had the plans ready for many of them…but government didn’t listen. I think it is supremely ironic that government today is haranguing Eskom and calling them on the carpet to explain the meagre supply when, in fact, government’s foot-dragging is at the core of the problem. The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, has recently admitted as much. Eskom knew they needed new power plants, but government would not loosen the purse strings and now we are in a deficit situation…and with 2010 (World Cup) just around the corner.

Let’s just hope our electrician is as good to us as he has been in the past…Hubby has him coming out to give us an estimate for installing a generator to power the house during shut downs. Considering who Hubby works for, that’s pretty ironic in itself!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Great Expectations

Years ago I was a recruiter…a “headhunter,” if you will…and one of the things that struck me repeatedly were the unrealistic expectations of entirely too many of the employers with whom I dealt.

“I don’t want some old fart,” they would tell me. “I have a young team here…mostly under 30…and I need someone who will fit in.” And then they would proceed to give me a litany of qualifications that would take the better part of a lifetime to acquire, followed by a salary range that would cause a fresh grad to laugh. Part of my job, of course, was to counsel these guys…to give them some reality therapy. One of my stock-in-trade lines was “You’re going to either come up on the money or flex on the qualifications because guys who can do all this won’t work for that kind of money.”

Occasionally, however, I would run across some starry-eyed navel-gazer who would insist that if I just tried hard enough, I could meet his needs. To these people I found myself saying “Let me get this clear…your basic requirements are a guy under 30 with 20 years experience who is willing to work for entry-level wages. Honey, I’m a recruiter, not a magician!”

Those headhunter days are long behind me, but I still find myself regularly coming up against people whose expectations are all out of proportion to reality. I own a bit of rental property and my premium flat is about to come vacant again, and I am just flabbergasted at what some of these potential renters are expecting for the money they are willing to pay!

First, you must understand that houses and flats (apartments) in Cape Town, especially newer ones, tend to be rather on the small side. This, of course, is not uncommon anywhere in the world where the area is considered desirable: builders tend to want to maximize their profit by squeezing as many units onto a piece of dirt as they can, no matter that the rooms in the units are so small that it’s a challenge to get furniture into them.

Three years ago my husband and I spent three months looking for a new home, something that had a master bedroom big enough for our king-sized bed and the other pieces of our bedroom suite. We ended up buying in an older suburb where the rooms (and plots) were more spacious than the upmarket area in which we had been living. Shortly after moving into our new house, we went out looking for an investment property. We looked at houses, flats, and a variety of different units before settling on the property we now own.

We learned quite a bit over the last three years. One of the things I learned from a rental agent is that the average size of a two-bedroom flat here is about 74 msq…800 sq ft. Such a flat would typically have four rooms…living room, kitchen, bedrooms…plus a single, shared bath. I’ve seen even smaller but for the most part I would agree that 800 sq ft is a pretty typical size for a two bedroom flat around here.

In California I owned a tract house built in the early ’60s and it was about 1325 sq ft, which included three bedrooms, two baths, eat-in kitchen, living room, and a family room. Yes, the bedrooms were small and the eating area in the kitchen was cramped, but it was a single family detached house. Our flat, the one coming up for rent in a month, is 120 metres square, which is roughly 1300 square feet…nearly the size of my California house! And into that space it has a living room, dining room, huge kitchen, only two bedrooms, and two baths…unheard of in a flat! Additionally, the flat has two patios, a fenced-in private yard, and access to the pool and entertainment area. And to top it all off, the flat is located in a quiet residential area with well-maintained owner-occupied homes surrounding it, and all of the utilities are paid…no electric bill, no water bill, no bill for the trash collection.

The rent is R4750 (or $672) per month and considering that the tenant will not have to pay utilities…easily R350 per month, the price is quite reasonable. It’s clean, spacious, well located, and reasonably priced…so why are we having trouble finding a tenant?

Well, the first tendency is to look at the property and say “What’s wrong with it?” but after a couple of weeks of advertising, a couple of patterns began to emerge. The first one was one of callers not being serious.

We try to be conscientious, thoughtful landlords. As a result, we like to give the present resident at least 24 hours notice before dragging a bunch of strangers through her home. Unfortunately, the people who make these appointments seem to have no compunction about not showing up…and not bothering to even call to cancel.

This can get to be very annoying…I have to drive over to the place and wait for them to show up and so I sit in my car, in the hot African sun, awaiting the arrival of rude bits of humanity who cannot be bothered to call and cancel their appointments. Monday I had arranged to show the flat to four people…I have learned to arrange a single showing per day to cut down on the number of times I have to drive over and sit around waiting for no-shows…and out of the four, only one turned up. And she was a rental agent who had her client in tow.

It happened again last night…in fact, I would say that easily more than half of the appointments or just shrugged off by the potential renter…people who made the appointment but were not serious about keeping it. In fact, one woman has failed to show up for her appointment three times, each time sending me a hand-wringing email with one excuse or another and begging me for an “urgent” viewing. I go to the trouble to make arrangements with the tenant and then she no-shows again…makes me wonder what kind of excuses I would be dealing with when her rent is past due over and over again.

The second pattern I’ve begun to see is crystal ball gazing. This is South Africa and most houses have a six-foot high masonry wall surrounding the front of the property. This is the norm here and South Africans are accustomed to it. So, a rental agent made the mistake of giving out the address of the property to a potential tenant who, instead of waiting for his appointment to see the place, drove by it, looked at the wall, and then called her up to say the place wasn’t what he wanted. Without even seeing it? This same agent gave the address to another client who did the same thing, then called and said she was not interested in an “ugly little green house.” What? It’s painted white, not green, and besides, you cannot see it because of the privacy wall around it!

Yet another woman rejected the place…sight unseen, mind you…because her boyfriend didn’t want to live in that area. Ok, that’s fair enough…except that when she gave me a list of the places he did want to live, guess what was on his list? Yup…the very area he had just rejected!

The third pattern I have found…and the one that irks me the most…in the one I call “Great Expectations.” Like the woman who called and asked where the flat was located and when I told her, she very archly informed me that she was only interested in places near the beach…the flat is about a kilometre away from the beach, so I immediately checked various rental websites, fearing that I might be asking an out-of-line price for the place. Fifteen minutes searching for two-bedroom, two-bath flats near my local beach turned up several places on offer, not one less than R12 000 (about $1700), and none with the utilities included in the rent. None of them were garden flats, either, which generally rent for more money as well. I had to wonder what she had been smoking before picking up that phone, because my search revealed to me that tiny (less than half the size of the flat I was offering) flats near the beach were being offered for around R6 000 to R8 000 per month, again without utilities being included in the rent.

Then there was the young lady who made an appointment and who showed up with her boyfriend and another couple. She called me back a few days later and declined the flat because it was “too small.” It seems the two couples wanted to take it together and the couldn’t make 1300 square feet work for them…geeze, what do they want? A mansion? My neighbours in California raised entire families…households full of kids…in houses barely larger than this flat! And they can’t do two couples in it?

Then there was the woman who wanted to negotiate the rent if she also rented the little cottage on the grounds when it came vacant in April. What kind of break would I give her? The same break the bank will give me on my monthly mortgage payment, I was tempted to tell her. What cheek! Here I’m offering her a flat that is more than 50% larger than the average two bedroom flat (and not at a 50% increase in monthly rental), and throwing in free utilities, and she wants a better deal? What is wrong with this picture?

The tenant who is moving out was no better. Just weeks after she moved in…and knowing that the flat had secure parking for two cars but no garages…she called my husband and quite seriously tried to talk him into demolishing half her garden and one of her patios and building a garage for her! And she was serious! She had a small dog (we allow small pets) and left the front door open so the animal could come in and out, keeping her security door latched. No problem…except that the constantly open door was an invitation for the entry of a mouse into her flat. It took up residence in her kitchen and she demanded that we get rid of it for her.

Then there was the matter of her lights…she insisted that the downlighters in her living room were faulty, so we sent our electrician (at a cost of R300…more than $40) to chase down and resolve the problem. Turns out she needed to change the light bulbs and she was just astonished when Hubby informed her that it was her job to change her light bulbs, not ours!

And her dogs (by the end of her rental period, there were two)…the lease specifically states that dogs must be kept in the tenant’s private garden, but any time I was there, they were running loose in the common area and she was not very conscientious about picking up after them. When counselled on the problem, we were treated to a litany of reasons why she “couldn’t” comply, clearly implying that we should take responsibility and improve the fencing that separated her garden from the common area so her dogs would stop digging out!

On top of all of this, she was regularly a week…and sometimes up to two weeks…late with her rent, a situation that caused us to have to pay the mortgage on the rental property out of our own pockets and replenishing the funds when she got around to paying her rent. This caused us some uncomfortable cash flow problems at times, since we had our own obligations to meet and sometimes found it difficult to do so until she got around to paying her rent.

I suppose it is not surprising then that after two years of this kind of thing, it didn’t break our hearts when she informed us that she wasn’t going to renew her lease. In fact, we had already decided to decline to renew it at the end of her term…but she saved us the awkwardness of telling her.

And now I’m having to deal with people who can’t seem to read plain English (they send me email asking where the flat is located and how much the rent is, both of which are clearly stated in the ads), people who seem to think they can see through concrete walls, people who can’t be bothered to keep an appointment and haven’t the common courtesy to call and cancel it, and people who seem insulted that my R4750 flat…with free utilities, nogal…isn’t a seaside mansion. It’s getting to the point that I am seriously re-thinking the rental business…not that owning rental property is such a bad thing, but it would certainly be a lot better if I didn’t have to deal with all these people!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The (tin) roof over my head...

The weather and plant life of the San Francisco Bay Area are remarkably similar to that of the Cape Town region. Knowing this, when I moved from the former to the latter, I had this kind of subconscious expectation of finding the housing to be roughly similar as well.

I was wrong.

In America, wood is relatively cheap and easily obtainable. In South Africa, however, wood is too costly to choose over cheap and readily available clay and cement bricks, so the houses here are mostly made of brick. Besides, the Bay Area is plagued with earthquakes, something virtually unknown in South Africa, and that fact alone affects Bay Area architecture. Houses that are stick-built rather than brick-built are more likely to flex in a quake: rigid brick buildings tend to come apart when the earth beneath them begins to rhumba, raining bricks and mortar onto any unfortunate occupants and the streets outside.

But the differences don’t stop there. We’ve never heard of shingle roofs in this place! You can drive from one end of the country to the other and you won’t find one! Cement tile roofs, thatched roofs, even the occasional slate roof…but not one cedar shake or asphalt shingle will greet your eye. Mostly what you will see, however, are roofs made of corrugated tin, and those, mostly, will be painted green.

Americans tend to think of corrugated tin roofs as being very down market, the kind thing that you find on tumble-down shacks in rural poverty pockets. South Africans, on the other hand, find corrugated tin sheets to be perfectly acceptable roofing for dwellings of any calibre, up to and including luxury homes in exclusive areas and five star boutique hotels. But, since South Africa does very little in the way of insulation, the roofs tend to be rather ineffective for anything other than keeping the rain…and uninvited guests…out. They certainly do very little to keep a house the desired temperature inside!

Bay Area residents who don’t have air conditioning in their homes (by far the majority) depend on open windows and fans for cooling. Despite intensive vector control efforts on the part of the county, however, pests such as mosquitoes and flies (not to mention larger four-legged mammalian pests…and even some two-legged ones) are a regular problem. The solution is simple: window screens, something seen on virtually every house in America. In fact, when I was selling my house in California, it was missing two window screens and the agent informed me that I had to replace them or she couldn’t list the house!

By contrast, after four years in South Africa, I have yet to see a window or door screen! There are no vector control programs by the municipality and mosquitoes are a fact of life to the degree that bug spray companies like Raid (yes, we have Raid here) make products that plug into the wall and give off a mosquito-killing vapour throughout the night so you can sleep without being chewed alive. Mosquito nets aren’t the romantic décor items they are in the States, here they are functional additions to the bedroom…we sleep under them or risk being sucked dry in the night.

And its not just mosquitoes that fuel small industries…you know those net “food umbrellas” that are so commonplace on picnic tables in the summer? Well, they are an everyday part of the South African kitchen. The flies here are aggressive, fearless and persistent, and are not easily waved away. They fly right for your nose or eyes…I’ve had them fly up under my glasses! One would think that people would screen their doors and windows to keep the cheeky buggers outside where they belong, but the styles of windows built into the majority of houses here just aren’t screenable…and that’s assuming you could even find window or door screens at all!

Drains…yes, drains…are different here. In the US, when the water goes down the sink drain, it goes directly to the sewer without ever being seen again. While that is true of toilet drains here…they are entirely enclosed…sink drains are different. And not better. We live near a “vlei”…a wetland…and insect life is rife in such a place. Not only do mosquitoes regularly grace us with the dubious honour of their bloodsucking presence, those drains are an “open house” sign to every manner of creepy crawly creature in the environment…most especially cockroaches. They emerge from the underground drains at night and clamour up the household pipes that lead to the open drains and crawl right up the drainpipes into sinks, tubs, and showers! In America, of course, the house drains merge into a single drain to the sewers without ever seeing daylight. Here, there is an open drain outside the kitchens and/or bathrooms that multiple pipes from the house flow into, and that drain merges with the toilet drains underground and flow to the sewer. I haven’t yet hit upon a surefire solution for keeping the roaches outside, but spraying around the drain openings helps, assuming you are ok with indiscriminate pesticide spraying. I used to not like pesticides, but after four years of finding these nasty little unwelcome visitors using my drainpipes like a freeway to the inside of my house, my qualms have been laid to rest!

Another major difference between homes here and in the Bay Area is in the area of heating. We don’t have any.

Well, that’s not strictly true…we do have fireplaces and space heaters, but furnaces for winter heating? Those we do not have. And I’m not just talking about older homes or low cost housing, either. From newly built tract developments to luxury homes in exclusive areas, South African houses are built without heat.

Now I find this to be truly peculiar. With weather similar to the Bay Area, which gets damned cold in the winter time, I cannot imagine why built-in heat is absent in houses here, particularly in newly built ones. In Silicon Valley I had an older home (built in 1960) and when I remodelled in 2003 I not only replaced the original gas furnace, I replaced the thermostat as well. I was thrilled with the ability to program the furnace to come on just before I arose each morning and warm the house before I had to hop out of bed, and to automatically shut down as scheduled, only to come on again just before I get home. My heating bill plummeted as I obtained better control of my furnace and was able to heat just the rooms I needed for the limited time I needed them to be warm.

My first South African winter was a huge surprise! You have to understand that Cape Town is a thoroughly modern city, complete with freeways, smart shopping malls, and such contemporary culture icons as McDonalds, KFC, and Coca Cola. We have glass-fronted highrises, five star hotels and restaurants, and a yacht club. And mile after mile of neat suburbs full of snug modern homes ranging from condos to mansions…none of which have built-in heating systems! With winter temperatures as low as 40F…same as the Bay Area (and the optimal temperature for the inside of your refrigerator!)…but in a house with uninsulated brick walls, an uninsulated tin roof, and no furnace, I froze my buns off that first winter!

Another great surprise for me occurred the first time I wanted to use my curling iron. I have that awful baby hair…a head full of thin, silky, stick-straight tresses that cannot be coaxed or coerced into curls…or even waves…without the diligent application of heat and those heat-activated sprays. Imagine my astonishment when I first went into the bathroom, arms laden with brushes, sprays, clips, pins and curling irons (I have two…a big one and a little one) and could find no wall outlets! (We call them “plug points” here.) Well, I assumed this was some kind of oversight in the little cottage we were living in until we moved into our second home. This house had been recently remodelled and a sumptuous new master bath had been installed, and there were no plug points in the bathrooms in this house, either! It seems that you aren’t allowed to put plug points into a bathroom here, which I find bizarre.

Now this is this massively inconvenient if you want to do something like…oh, say…blow dry your hair…or use a curling iron…or an electric shaver…or plug in a charger for said shaver or perhaps your electric toothbrush. But aside from inconvenience, just think about stepping out of the shower on a 40˚F winter day…you are dripping wet in a bathroom that doesn’t have any heat, the walls and ceilings are not insulated, the floor is ceramic tile laid over cement, and there is no place to plug in a small space heater, either. Winter bathing here is for the brave…or the resourceful: I have a long extension cord and a small heater under my dressing table in the bedroom and when I go into the shower, it sneaks around the corner into the bathroom and contentedly hums its merry…and warm!...little self as an accompaniment to my shower!

While living in the Bay Area and married to my now-late husband, Chuck, I came across something I found quite curious. His brother’s new wife, a slavish trend follower (although very much old enough to know better!), decided to remodel the kitchen and in doing so, had an entire wall of beautiful oak cabinets scrapped. Now, these people had the kind of money that people like you and I only wish for, so cost was not a factor in her remodel. And yet, for some reason I simply could not fathom at the time, she choose to replace those gorgeous oak cabinets with cheap white melamine! When I questioned her choice, she informed me that these were “Euro-style” cabinets, her tone clearly implying that made them superior to the natural oak she had so cavalierly discarded. I didn’t get it.

It took moving to South Africa for me to finally figure it out. Despite its location at the southern most tip of the continent of Africa, this country is more European than not. Europeans flock here for their winter holidays because it is mid-summer here, and the place abounds with great hotels, eateries, and shopping at a fraction of what they pay for the same in Europe. The dominant culture here is Western and white, even though the majority of the population is black. This country is more European than African, and it was that fact that finally unlocked the puzzle of a rich American woman putting tacky melamine cupboards into the kitchen of her luxury home.

Wood, as mentioned before, is scarce here, and so South Africans have warmly embraced melamine as a substitute. And where did they learn that? From the Europeans, who have been faced with dwindling timber resources for some time. In a classic example of acute shallowness, my unquestioningly unoriginal sister-in-law completely overlooked the fact that melamine kitchen furnishings exist as a cheap (read that inexpensive and tacky) substitute for wood cabinets that had priced themselves out of the market for the European middle-class. Struck only by the fact that they were the latest rage in Europe, regardless of reason, she junked thousands of dollars worth of perfectly functional oak cabinets and replaced them with tacky, cheap, and tasteless white melamine. It would be like trading in her giant diamond for a cubic zirconium of the same size for no more reason that CZs had become the newest “must have” Euro-trend.

You cannot find wood cabinetry here. At least not the kind of wood cabinetry that Americans are familiar with seeing hanging on their kitchen walls. Wood furniture is amazingly expensive (no wonder my husband wanted me to bring my wood furniture here from the States!), and the average middle class South African cannot afford to have wood cabinets built for their kitchen. But South Africa takes its design and fashion cues from Europe and it shares Europe’s paucity of wood, so it’s no surprise that Europe’s answer to escalating wood prices…cheap melamine cabinets…is the kitchen furniture of choice here. But the fact that they are economical and ubiquitous doesn’t make them anything more than a cheap substitute for the real thing, despite marketing spin designed to make us think we are buying the silk purse of “Euro design” instead of the sow’s ear of cheap melamine: fibreboard covered with plastic-impregnated paper.

But for all that, South Africa really does have some lovely homes and with a little practice, some of the differences in design can be worked around. We had our handyman build us screens for an outside drain so that water can go down it, but nothing can come up. We still don’t have window or door screens, but the sumptuous gauze canopy over our bed pretty much makes up for it. And heat? Well, my husband had our bedroom suite air conditioned last year and lo and behold! It has a programmable remote and one of its settings is “heat.”

I was toasty warm last winter!

Thursday, January 10, 2008


It was four o’clock in the morning and we were getting ready to leave on a road trip to visit my father in Oregon. My husband, Chuck (now deceased), was in the bathroom packing his toiletries.

“Hon,” he called out, “Do we have any clean combs?”

“Bottom drawer of the sink cabinet,” I called to him as I folded a garment and put it in my bag.

“Ummmmmmm…” I heard from the bathroom. “Uhhhhhh…would you come here for a minute?”

Being 6’5” tall and weighing nearly 300 lbs, Chuck was afraid of very little. But he wasn’t stupid and there were just some things he knew he should check out before taking action. And this was just such an occasion.

“What’s this?” he asked in a whisper, slowly opening the drawer a couple of inches. “Its not one of the cats, is it?”

Despite his intimidating size, Chuck was one of those tender-hearted people who couldn’t bear to see another creature suffer. In particular, he had a soft spot for feral cats and he put out food for them…resulting in a regular parade of the creatures in and out of our yard and even, occasionally in the house. We weren’t entirely sure how a little furry creature made its way into a drawer in our bathroom, but there it was, curled up and sleeping soundly. I bent down and peered more closely at the featureless ball of fur.

“It’s not a cat,” I finally told him. “Fur’s all wrong.”

“What is it, then?” my city-raised husband asked. “A raccoon?”

We lived on the edge of town, only half a block from the city limits. Across the road at the top of our street was a rural area with fields and grazing cattle and horses. And a little creek that meandered through the area. It was as close to living in the country as we could afford, and we did get some of the ambiance of country living…namely nocturnal visits from the local wildlife banditry. We had a large fruit tree in our front yard and many is the morning that I would go out to the driveway and see tell-tall prints in the dirt under the tree.

I continued to look at the animal, curled up so I couldn’t see its face or shape, and then slowly slid the drawer closed. It wouldn’t do for it to awaken suddenly and, in a panic, leap from the drawer and go hide behind our massive waterbed…we had to leave in a couple of hours! “It looks like a possum to me,” I said softly, easing out of the bathroom and closing the door behind me. “We have to get it out of here before we go.”

“I’ll get my welding gloves,” he said, and started for the bedroom door.

“No, no, no!” I cried hurrying after him. “I just saw a thing on TV where a pest removal guy had to remove a possum from somebody’s house and he said their teeth are so sharp they can bite right through something like that!”

He paused, then turned back into the bedroom. “So, what do we do?”

I mulled things over for a minute. “How do you think it got in?” I finally asked him.

It was his turn to mull. “Ummmmm…mebbe it came in through the hole where the drain pipes go through the wall? From under the house?”

I stepped back into the bathroom and quietly opened the door under the sink. This was an older house, built on a raised frame with a crawlspace beneath and the pipes ran beneath the house in this space. I looked at the hole the pipes passed through and realized that someone…or something…had enlarged the original hole until it was big enough for a small animal to squeeze through. If this was a young possum…and its ability to curl up in a small bathroom drawer indicated to me that it just might be so…it could probably squeeze through the hole.

“Yup,” I said, exiting the bathroom. “I think you’re right. And if it came in that way, it can go out that way, too.”

“How do we make it do that?” His voice dripped scepticism.

I shrugged. “We just have to find a way to make it want to leave.”

This was not my first encounter with a possum or, more correctly, an opossum. The opossum is North America’s only marsupial and they are slow-moving lumbering creatures about the size of a large housecat when full grown. They have poor eyesight and hearing, and are most often seen by Americans as roadkill…dead by the side of the road. This is due to a confluence of factors: they tend to forage at night, they move too slowly to get out of the way of an oncoming car, and they have an unfortunate habit of feigning death when extremely frightened…which would cause them to keel over and play dead in front of an oncoming vehicle.

Possums look very much like overgrown rats. I once had a cat who believed it to be her life’s work to pile my front porch with her hunting trophies and one morning, as I went out my front door to work, I found the largest, ugliest, most grotesque dead rat I had ever seen on my front stoep. It was not until much later that I realized that hideous monstrosity was a very young possum, and not until later still that I considered the thing may actually have been “playing possum” when I saw it, having dropped over in fright when I opened the door. There were, after all, a couple of half-chewed dead mice on the porch as well, and that possum (they are scavengers) might have been having a late breakfast when I opened the door and scared it half to death.

The possum in the bathroom was my second close encounter with the beasties. Chuck and I pondered our options keeping in mind that a) we didn’t want it to get out of the bathroom and into the rest of the house and b) we were running out of time if we wanted to get on the road before the infamous Bay Area commute traffic got started. We needed not only an effective way to evict our unexpected tenant, but expedience as well. Inspiration finally struck.

“Go out to the kitchen and get the biggest wooden spoon you can find,” I told him. “I’ll keep watch here.” (The creature could conceivable enter the house by exiting its drawer and, from the space under the sink, pushing open the cupboard door.)

He returned with a long wooden spoon and we stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind us. Chuck took a thick towel (to throw over the creature if it got into the room) and I grasped the spoon by its bowl, giving me a long stick. I slid the drawer open a couple of inches and began to rapidly poke and prod the creature to wake it up. Then I opened (just a couple of inches) and closed the drawer vigorously about 15 or 20 times to scare it and make it view the drawer as a perilous place. We then exited the bathroom to give the animal time to exit.

We went about finishing our packing and loading the van for our trip and, just before it was time to leave, we crept back into the bathroom and opened the drawer a crack. It was gone! Cautiously, we opened the door under the sink…no possum there, either! We left on our trip but Chuck fretted the whole 12 hours we were on the road because we hadn’t had the time for him to patch the hole around the pipe and make it possum proof.

My father, an old farmer to whom possums are old hat, was frankly amused by Chucks fascination with the animal. “I wonder if it will come back,” he pondered. “What do we do if it is still there when we get home?” he would ask.

My father’s response was typical of an old woodsman such as himself: “They’re good to eat,” he said.

When we got back, the drawer was empty and I suspect Chuck was a little sad as he put up the wall patches to keep his furry little nocturnal squatter from returning. But the story doesn’t end there.

Possums are considered to be rather lazy, complacent creatures. They are opportunistic feeders, move slowly, and are not aggressive. But you’d never know that if you had ever encountered one that felt threatened…just not threatened enough to roll over and play dead for you. A few weeks after Chuck evicted the bathroom possum, Chloë, our little Pekingese, began to set up a ruckus in the front garden where she had been outside sunning herself. Since she was never prone to yapping for no reason, I stepped out onto the porch to see what had set her off and found her barking at something in the bushes at the base of our property line fence.

Fearing it might be a snake (there are rattlers just up the hill and they come down the hill when the water dries up and the field mice come down to the neighbourhoods to forage), I rushed over to remove my little angel from danger. Instead of a snake, however, I found Chloë had cornered a young possum…possibly our uninvited guest from a few weeks back? It was backed up against the fence, it’s mouth open in a menacing manner, ferociously hissing and showing Chloë a mouthful of wickedly sharp teeth. I am not sure if she viewed it as a threat or just an intruder, but the dog wasn’t letting move anywhere near the house! I called her away and, the moment its path was no longer blocked, the toothy little beast set off towards the street, its safe haven forever destroyed by the presence of the tiny little wolf descendant that patrolled the property.

When I told Chuck about Chloë’s discovery, he immediately rushed to the bathroom to make sure the patch on the wall beneath the sink was secure. It was…but I think he was a little saddened by the realization that the creature, after having been evicted by a snapping, snarling dog, probably wouldn’t return.

But I’m not convinced that it stayed away. The possum may have gone, but the little possum prints in the soft dirt under the plum tree did not.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

I have a very nice life...

I have a very nice life.

It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but at this time in my life I am living better than at any time in my past.

For some people, life is a struggle from the moment they are born…and it remains a struggle until the day they die. The definition of struggle is subjective, of course, dependent on the lowest common denominator for survival in the society in question. But in my life, the struggle to simply survive, to have enough to eat and a warm, dry place to rest my head, often came perilously close to being lost.

A person living in a tipsy shack on the edges of Gugulethu might find that comment laughable, since I grew up in America, but it is no less true for all that my definition of privation is richer than hers might be. Before the word “homeless” came into common use, I found myself so, staying with a series of friends and working peripatetically. When I was able to establish my own place, it was an endless struggle to earn enough money to pay for that roof and eat. There were infinite days of hunger, eating one scant meal a day or living on unsweetened, milkless oatmeal for days at a time. There was a time that my entire cache of personal possessions could be rolled up into a sleeping bag and carried on my back.

This life of privation was not freely chosen, not a vagabond manifestation of my hippie soul or artistic free spirit, but the culmination of a series of events in my life, most of them not of my choosing. From the sexist paradigm that deprived me of a scholarship opportunity in favour of a less-deserving male student to the corporate ball-gazing that deprived me of a respectable career opportunity because their tests told them I was “too smart to be happy doing this work,” I found myself uneducated, unqualified, and unemployed.

For most of my life I compounded an unfortunate beginning with expedient choices that had short term advantages but were long term disasters. But hardship creates limits, not only on opportunity but on your thinking. Long term planning is not possible when you have been forced to focus and plan only as far as the next meal or the next night’s rest. It was a relief to come to a place where I could plan week by week instead of day by day. And it was a luxury when I could indulge in month-to-month living, although no less a struggle.

My life has never been one of plenty. Even when I reached a time of having an abundance of stuff, I knew no other way to live than to battle my way through life. I never lived in an upscale community, I could barely afford to buy a house in a working class neighbourhood and then it was a never-ending struggle to scrape together enough money to pay the mortgage. Twice I came perilously close to foreclosure, and only managed to get out from under by refinancing the house…increasing my debt and monthly burden, and paying the instalments from the proceeds of the new loan, a strategy calculated to end badly, but the only solution available.

I had dreams, but unlike others, I never mistook those dreams for reality, entitlement, or even goals. Life had ground me into a pragmatist, a person who knew her dreams were just that…castles in the air…pretty fictions to be enjoyed but never mistaken for reality…or even possibility. One of my favourite dreams was to come to a place where I could work for the pleasure of it, not for the necessity. In this dream, I would have a fine house…not opulent, but generously sized and nicely situated in a pretty garden…and I would drive a nice car. My life would have security and I would feel loved and valued by my partner. In this dream I would have a nice car…practical, of course, so I would not feel guilty for having it…but a quality marque. I would not have to worry about money…and although I would be able to surround myself with things of beauty and quality, lavishness didn’t seem to be a part of my dreams. And I would be forever relieved of the drudgery of housework…I had laboured as my mother’s maid from the time I was big enough to drag a chair to the kitchen sink and wash the dinner dishes, and the ultimate luxury, to my mind, was someone to wash my dishes and clean my bathroom on a regular basis without stressing my budget.

It is perhaps a supreme irony that I grew up in the richest nation on Earth and could not partake in its wealth. I was born with a fine native intelligence but that is not enough in a society that values educational certification over intellect and quickness, that values one gender over another, that substitutes supposition for empiricism. Like most women of my generation, I ultimately looked to marriage for my salvation but I soon found myself in another situation of short term gain followed by long term loss: marriage should never be entered into with ulterior motives, no matter how compelling they might be.

Ultimately I was able to have a life free of hunger and privation, but maintaining that life was an endless struggle. Always, I was one payday away from disaster, one severance package away from losing it all. In Silicon Valley, where I lived most of my adult life and where big companies eat little companies and giant corporations swallow big companies whole without warning, sudden unemployment is a fact of life. But in a place where an executive secretary earns less than $5000 a month but the monthly payment on a modest tract home in a lower middle-class neighbourhood can take all that and more, the distance between affluence and desperation can be measured in weeks of unemployment after a sudden downsizing or corporate buy out. When it takes all you can earn to just keep above water, when you are no longer earning, you drown quickly. And all of the months of princely earnings do not blunt the sword that hangs portentously over your head…on the day the pay checks stop, the sinking begins.

And so I found myself widowed, alone, my income cut in half, my obligations undiminished. Life insurance is an unattainable luxury when you have to worry from one month to the next if you will have enough money to make your modest mortgage payment, when you don’t have enough to put new tires on the 14-year-old truck or the 24-year old station wagon, when you have given up all of your costly vices and still have to scrounge for change for enough gas to get to work. What had been a modestly successful effort by two people to live with a modicum of comfort became the uphill battle of one person to survive.

But there was an epiphany in that sudden plunge into widowhood and self-sufficiency: the sure and certain knowledge that if I kept doing the same things, I would keep getting the same results. A never-ending length of days full of scrimping and struggling stretched before me…unless I changed something.

And so I did. I took out that loan and finished the renovation of my house. I took a long term temp job that paid rather well because the boss was especially odious and couldn’t keep employees from throwing up their hands and walking out…they had to bribe us with fat salaries to stay in our jobs. I just ignored her nasty barbs, icy demeanour and picky personality and put those voluptuous pay checks in the bank. And I began rewriting my life rules.

The first rule I rewrote was the one that said I had to pinch every penny and live close to the bone. I finally remembered that worry is a wholly unproductive activity…the only thing it is good for is to increase stress levels.

The next rule I rewrote was the one about being appropriate. I started wearing brighter colours, I quit fretting about my weight, and opened myself to new experiences, people, even foods.

I then decided that people who live in the past have no future and began planning the next chapter in my life rather than staying stuck in old ones.

Funny thing about opening yourself to new stuff…new stuff happens! Today, that little old tract house is someone else’s burden and I have a lovely, spacious home set in a third of a landscaped acre. My old pickup has been replaced by a Mercedes SUV, and that horrible boss is ancient history: now I employ the sweetest little maid you could ever want to meet and a weekly gardener. My new husband is a professional man who earns a respectable income, is investment savvy, and pays the bills without stressing me about finances. “It hurt me to think of you alone and struggling like when I met you,” he told me the day he increased his life insurance…this, despite his being considerably younger than I am.

I like my life. I live in a beautiful home set in a beautiful garden, all located in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My house and garden are superbly kept with very little effort on my part. I can buy what I want in the supermarket, although years of frugal living have conspired to keep me from being a spendthrift and I still shop the sales…but now it’s the steak and chops sales rather than hamburger!

Most of all, my life is filled with love. A horde of happy yappy little doggies dance at my feet when I return from an outing, my maid hugs me when she comes to work with her handsome little baby boy tied to her back and again when she goes home in the afternoon. And my husband…he has half a dozen pet names for me, he brings me chocolate when I least expect it, and tells me he loves me without warning or prompting.

Yes, I like my life. It is full, it is abundant, it is rich with those things necessary for a life of comfort and security and love.

Pity I had to come half way around the world to achieve it.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Have you ever seen anything more spectacular?

This is one of the plants growing at the Goble Palms Guest House in Durban. I've never seen anything like it before, and it took a lot of Googling to finally track it down.

The plant is called "medinilla magnifica" or "rose grape" and this stunning flower is about 10 inches long. A native of the Philippines, it can be an invasive plant since each flower ripens into a berry that, once dropped to earth, will become a new plant. It is, however, a breathtakingly beautiful flower.

See more of my photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetviolet/