About Waking up as an Expat in a New Land, about Hadedas, and about Joburg Expat the Book

For some reason I’ve had a succession of hadeda stories land in my inbox this week. First there was Heather’s story on 2Summers about her beautiful new hadeda tattoo. I’m not one to get tattoos, and even if I were, I’m not sure I’d pick the image of the hadeda ibis as my first one. But I have to admit it’s absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than most tattoos I’ve ever seen.

Then there was the Wall Street Journal story by Patrick McGroarty, who I actually know from our Joburg Days, discussing how hadedas came to Johannesburg, how people love and hate these birds in equal measure, how they keep at bay an even more reviled Joburg creature, and how they, much like everyone else in Joburg, are suffering from this year’s severe drought.

Baaaad idea! Our cat Maus was curious here. She never went after hadedas, but she got a little close that time and was lucky to escape unscathed.

Reading so much about hadedas, I was reminded that I too have written about them on my blog. But more importantly, it reminded me of the draft for a book that is sitting somewhere on my computer, untouched for many months, the story of Joburg Expat if you will. When I typed up the first few lines after returning from South Africa (and when another book, Kilimanjaro Diaries, hadn’t yet consumed all my attention) I brainstormed about a way to begin my story. It didn’t take long to find the perfect beginning, because the scene was still in my mind as vividly as I’d experienced it on that first morning waking up in a strange new land.

Can you guess who features in that opening paragraph without ever being named? Read on…


Joburg Expat the Book, Chapter One

African Night

I am wide awake, staring at the walls of what is to be our bedroom for the next few years. I can’t sleep, even though it can’t be past four in the morning. There is too much noise around me. I was woken by what sounded like a pig being slaughtered, and now a dog is barking incessantly, answered by more dogs somewhere in the distance. I twist and turn, careful not to disturb Noisette, my dear husband and the one to blame, if I were to lay blame, for my predicament. Without him, we wouldn’t suddenly find ourselves on the other side of the world, as far removed from our quiet suburban life in Kansas as I could ever have imagined. I don’t know how he does it, sleeping on the plane and then sleeping again at night.

The occasional car is making its way down the hill from Diepsloot, engine humming, its light beams illuminating the bedroom ceiling. My thoughts wander to what we were told about that place, an impoverished township right next to one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburbs on the northern outskirts of town. Before we even quite left the airport after landing two days ago, we were warned to never set foot in Diepsloot or any other township if we cared for our lives. In fact, it’s a miracle we moved here at all. When the prospect first came up – it now seems such a long time ago, even though barely six months have passed – I went online to Google South Africa, and my jaw dropped. The country was a cesspit of crime and we were going to be murdered for sure if we dared set foot on its shores.

But now that we are here, I’m much less concerned with the prospect of my own murder. What really frightens me is the murder of whatever it was that made this horrible noise just a minute ago, in the wee hours of the morning. It was a blood-curdling screech, not human, not animal. At least not any animal I’ve ever encountered in my life. If I have to listen to this racket every night, there is no way I’ll close an eye while living in this country.

I also can’t sleep because a million to-dos are churning around my head. Today I’ll have to buy food to fill our bare refrigerator. I’ll have to figure out where the grocery shops are. And I’ll have to figure out how to get to one because Noisette will take our rental car to drive to work, his new job already stressful beyond expectations. Before any of that, I’ll have to walk the kids to their new school and hope that none of them have a meltdown over not knowing where to go or wearing the wrong piece of school uniform, a real possibility for someone so unacquainted with preppy blazers and plaid skirts as our family.

By now the screeching outside has reached a cacophony, and I slide out from under the covers and quietly sneak outside onto the spacious balcony. It’s still devoid of any furniture, which along with the rest of our household is crammed into a 40-foot container that is presumably headed toward the Cape of Good Hope and won’t arrive for weeks. I lower myself against the tiled wall, carefully avoiding what I only now realize is a blanketing of bird shit. When I look up I can see why: The terrace is covered by a roof made from a row of beautiful wooden beams. A veritable invitation to pigeons. Maybe that’s what woke me up? But I quickly discard the idea. That otherworldly scream still reverberating through my bones cannot have issued from a pigeon.

And then the most glorious thing happens, something that lets me forget the lack of sleep, the murderous shrieking, the fretting about things to come: A sliver of orange rises over the horizon, first tiny, then impossibly fast growing into a glorious ball of fire. The sun has risen over Africa.

Starting out the day with this special view from my bird-dropping-covered perch, I just know that everything will be alright today. And possibly for the next three years.

I hope you enjoyed the first installment and welcome your comments. Maybe they can spur me on to write the other chapters so I can bring you another book, as so many have requested. Thank you for reading – it is you, my readers, who inspire me to put words on a page day after day!

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