The Mystery of the Missing Cement Mixer

Zax and I were reminiscing the other day about Singapore. He was two years old when we lived there, and in an absolute boy’s heaven. Singapore in the late 1990s was a hub of construction with cranes and other heavy machinery wherever the eye could see, the result of which is apparent in a skyline today that’s very different from the one we remember. Also, the Singaporean government loved nothing more than digging up streets that were perfectly fine – more than fine, compared to South African standards! – and repaving them, at least twice a year, or at least so it seemed in our little street, Holland Grove View. A veritable gold mine of construction viewing for a little boy gazing out the front gate.

Singapore also was – and still is -home to the world’s second busiest container port. Whenever I felt Zax needed some entertainment away from home – perhaps when there was a lull in road-digging – I’d pack him up and schlepp to the harbor, where we’d sit for hours and watch the gantry cranes moving big 40-foot containers – much like the one our household goods had arrived in – this way and that. Fascinating stuff.


By age three Zax was ready to relocate for the second time in his life

Anytime we left our house, even if it was just for a grocery run at the nearby Cold Storage (just saying “Cold Storage” which means grocery store makes me feel homesick for Singapore), Zax was in his element. He’d point out all the diggers and trucks he could spot from his car seat in the back, and crow their names. Except he knew these machines way before he could properly say their names, so that words like cement mixer, which is “Betonmischer” in German, came out as “Ton-mis.” Of all the trucks and diggers around us, he was obsessed with the “Ton-mis” in particular.

So a few days ago, when we were talking about Singapore and I was telling him about his “Ton-mis” infatuation, he grew reflective and said: “You know what, I haven’t seen any cement mixers in a long time.”

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. You do not see cement mixers on South African streets, ever. How weird is that?

Upon reflection, not so weird. I think it’s due to the fact that labor is very cheap and available here, and so there is no need for a machine to do the mixing, if people can do it more cheaply. I thought back to how our pool deck was retiled earlier this year, and sure enough, bags of cement were delivered, a pile of sand dumped on our driveway, and “the guys” were mixing the cement right there on our lawn. Which had a bald patch for weeks bearing testimony of the mixing taking place there.

Or could it be due to the dry climate? I remember despairing when I first tried my watercolors here in South Africa. You couldn’t do any nice washes because no matter how much paint you poured on your paper, it would dry before you’d get a chance to spread it with the brush. It seems to me even a hyperventilating cement mixer would have trouble in this climate keeping the cement from drying.

So let’s put another one in the “interesting but more or less useless facts about South Africa” column: No cement mixers.

Not that you really care about it one way or the other. You probably won’t rush out and alter your plans about moving to South Africa because I’ve opened your eyes to the state of the cement mixing business down here.

But I somehow had the urge to write about it. And it might have opened the spigot to a whole new track of expat-themed posts on this blog, as you’ve now got me thinking back to Singapore in a whole new light.

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