It is uncanny how approximately every six months I have the desire to sit quietly and pen the experiences had in my new country. Low and behold, it is so since part 3. So here goes with part 4. (at the bottom of this piece, you will find links to the first 3, should you have missed any of them, and are so inclined to follow the full story)
It is the 4th of January. Honestly, Christmas and New year was a real nonevent this time around, mostly because I was rather ill, nothing serious, just your irritating head and chest cold that slows you right down and refuses to leave. And, in part that we kept a low profile, stayed at home, and worked throughout. No exciting adventures or travels at the turn of the decade.
This would be because we are saving our days off for a 2-week visit, to go back home and visit our friends and family for the first time since we left in April 2017. By then, it will be just short of 3 years that we left our blessed Africa on a one-way ticket from Cape Town, via Dubai to New York. One of the longest, most round about journeys to get to our destination, I swear I will never do that again, but hey, the price on Emirates was right. Anyone who knows their geography will think this route to be madness, you are correct. If you do not, I encourage you to look at a world map and track this course.
Of course, the dogs, our dear Koda (golden lab) and Penelope (fawn pug) flew direct on South African Airways, no detouring via the United Arab Emirates first, nope, straight from Africa to North America. Not without their own travel issues however, as the airline went on strike just as the dogs landed in Johannesburg. That was a stressful and trying time. One I never care to relive. We planned for the best, and ended up with a major speed bump, how else did you expect that part to go?
Back to the imminent excitement at hand, we have booked a trip to visit home! Cape Town, South Africa, we are coming for you. I am even dreaming of the sights and sounds. We are counting down each sleep, we have an itinerary jam packed to go back and see everyone, experience all the things we never got to do when we still lived there. As excited as I am starting to become, I am also resisting the urge to be too happy, because we all know how it goes, we will blink and it will all be over, and we will be back at Cape Town International airport, going through security, watching our family wave us farewell, not knowing when we will ever see them again.
Emigrating is not for the faint of heart. At the center of it, you must be a tough son of a gun. I see this now. I have no regrets, don’t get me wrong, but there have been days when it was honestly very difficult, where the sadness envelopes around you like the perfect tube wave in Jeffrey’s Bay at the Billabong Classic, and all you can do is stop and wait for it to pass, breathe easy, keep your balance, keep your cool, ride it out. Because if you give into it, you will without a doubt tumble, and sink.
So that’s exciting for us in what lies ahead. Another massive undertaking and joyous moment for us that was, took place midway through 2019, was this was that we fulfilled a rather large item on our list, we bought a place we can call our own. So, in two and a half years, we arrived on US soil with nothing but two bags, and our two dogs at JFK. We started off in my brother’s attic in the remote town of Oxford, then moved into his little flatlet on the premises when we started working and earning, and then soon after that we moved to a rental apartment in a different town where there was more activity from a professional and personal point of view (we have made so many friends!) Here we slept on the floor and sat on camp chairs. Fast forward. And we are now in our own home, each driving our own car, sleeping in our own bed with couches to sit on, and spoils like a 55-inch TV streaming Netflix on our uncapped Wi-Fi. What a dream. America is a great place to be!
Sadly, as you know from part 3, my special golden labrador named Koda, is no longer with us, so instead of 2 dogs, we now have our South African born (runt of the litter) Penelope the pug still with us, but we have since adopted a rescue cat named Garcia. (Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds is a favorite of mine hence the obscure pet naming combination) I honestly did not want another pet, certainly not another dog, I am still reeling over Koda’s loss. But Penelope felt the loss too, maybe even more, because Koda is all she knew. She never left his side, followed him everywhere, always sat so close to him making sure she always touched, and of course, in an amusing way, literally climbed on and slept on his back. It was like witnessing a whale with barnacle stuck to his rear, a hairy version of this mammal phenomenon.
So, after watching her turn gray almost overnight, hearing her heartbreaking grieving wails, this coming from a dog that never barks or growls, we heard her voice for the first time, and chewing her feet till they bled, we urgently set out to find her a little friend. And along came Garcia. A grey, oddly very hairy cat, that likes to have milk in the mornings, sleeps by my feet, burrows under the blankets on our freshly made bed for an afternoon snooze, is obsessed with the gas fireplace, and loves to talk (meow) a lot. We now affectionately call her “Meeu” which is I guess an adapted Afrikaans word which sounds like “meow” but comes from “Seemeeu” which is “Seagull” and we know how vocal they can be.
Our home is now riddled with dog and cat toys, cat trees, blankets, beds. Anything you can think of. Whatever it took to get Garcia settled in quickly, to keep Penelope happy, we did it. So our American rescue cat, a little over 6 months old now, rules the Benson-Muller household (I was warned this would happen, apparently it is a cat thing, never believed it until I started witnessing it for myself) and here we are, each of us living our little lives, in our routines between work, play, chores and more.
Honestly, I often feel like I am having an out of body experience, looking down on myself from above, especially when I walk out the front door in the mornings, heavily laden with lunch box, laptop, gym bags and such, heading out to work and to “do my American thing” for the day.
How did we get here? How did we get from the Southernmost tip of Africa, deeply entrenched in our own existence and experiences there, to living this American dream of ours? Heck we even have an American flag flapping outside our little home, and each time we find ourselves slipping into a sense of sadness, missing what could have been, what we know, we look at the flag and use it as our proverbial North star, we look at it and we say thank you, this country has been good to us. This is where we are now, and we rip ourselves right back, smack into the moment and get on with it.
I do have to say that as much as we love living here, and it has taken a lot of learning to adapt to ways things are done, there are just some things that stand out to me that are rather odd, obscure, sometimes completely illogical in my opinion.
Simple things like you do not have to wear a helmet to ride a motorbike (they call it motorcycle here) but you are not allowed to ride in the back of a bakkie!?? (this is named a truck here) I mean how on earth can it be illegal to stand up in the back of a truck (bakkie) on the open-air bed and not be able to enjoy the fresh air? We used to love doing that in South Africa, especially back in the day when we were still allowed to drive on the beaches, standing up in the back of the truck (bakkie) being able to “surf” the beach at high speed is a fond childhood memory of mine.
Wait, how about this one, young folk are not allowed to drink till they are 21 (good!), but they hand them the keys to a full-size vehicle to drive themselves at the age of 16 (bad!) This frightens me beyond belief. Have you met a 16-year-old of late They have a cell phone permanently attached and their attention span is centered around that device, not where the car is taking them? I have witnessed young folk pull up behind me, not just talking on their phones, but having a full-blown video chat while driving. One hand on the wheel, the other holding up the handset, looking into the camera, eyes darting back and forth to the road, and it goes without saying they were swerving all over and nearly rear ended me several times. This is one example, there are many. If I think of myself at the age of 16, I would be afraid of me driving a car, and we did not even have cell phones then and I was marginally responsible. I am not talking a golf cart, or a small multi-purpose vehicle for off road purposes, I mean full size cars, SUV’s even, and here they are all on the larger side, cruising along highways at full speed. Yes, so that one stands out for me and I still cannot get my head around it.
Oh wait, let me give one more, there are plenty, but this one also stands out because it literally just happened to us most recently, and of course, in my little head, this made no sense whatsoever.
Last week we ran out of propane for our gas bottle, that we use to light the grill (braai) and so after some homework on local social forums, everyone said, go to a Walmart, they can swap it out for you and they are a cheapest. To all those at home, Walmart is a lot like a Makro. Big and busy, with low prices. Anyhow, we arrive at the Walmart, completely oblivious as to what was about to happen to us.
We approach the exterior, where the gas canisters are all outside, locked in a cage. No person is in sight. It is minus 5 (Celsius) and we are freezing, so we stroll casually inside towards the customer service desk, as one typically does when in search of help in a retail environment, empty propane tank in hand.
Well let me just stop right there and tell you, that it was like the apocalypse was about to happen, the fact that we were not tackled to the ground is beyond me, it certainly was about to, I think if the hysteria lasted a few moments longer we would have ended up face down on the floor, hands behind our backs. The responses from all inside were of absolute panic, screaming with all their might “Oh my God!!!!” to “Hey, what the hell do you think you are doing?!” There was a chorus of sheer panic coming straight at us, and it took a moment to realize that we were the ones being perceived as this great threat, and that the very empty propane tank was the forbidden and feared object. When we were finally spoken to, and not at, and we had a moment to explain that we just wanted to swap it out and there was nobody outside to help, everyone calmed to a mild panic. I guess the foreign accents helped to calm the situation even quicker. Thank goodness we still have those. Customers at registers were even giving us the evil eye.
Long story short, they gave us very stern instructions to never ever do that again, after scaring the living hell out of us, and that the bottle MUST, and the emphasis is on MUST at all times be left outside and never be brought into the store. They proceeded to swap the bottle out for a full one, we paid our $15, we climbed back into our car and just sat there for a minute trying to process what had just happened. Another example of something we did not anticipate, and where we think the outcome did not match the action. Again, another example in our minds, with our backgrounds of something that makes absolutely no logical sense.
We laugh about it now. Clearly, we will never do it again. But to my original point, we don’t understand the logic behind some of the rules here. We will keep learning as we go, I guess that is a big part of being an expat, we never really know something for sure until we are faced with it. We are not here to argue. Of course, we shall abide, because we chose to be here, we want to be here. We love it here. But we sure are racking up stories and experiences that we can share at a dinner table. The point really is, no matter what their beliefs or systems, this is a place that if you put in the efforts, you shall reap the rewards.
All is well.
2020 is here, there is much to be excited for. We have planned to visit a wolf sanctuary in New York State, my birthday weekend is lined up in Salem, Massachusetts, we are heading out on a plane to South Africa, we even have a trip planned to Miami, and if all goes well, at the end of the year we want to head back out to Thailand. We have both been to Phuket, and now have Koh Samui in our sights. We crave foreign cultural influences; this is something we want to incorporate at least once a year. We are even entertaining the notion of retiring there, so we want to go and view it through that lens, do our homework, and of course enjoy the pristine beaches, the humility of the Thai people and the delicious foods.
It is not ideal to travel outside of the USA until we are citizens and still classified as Permanent Residents, but we will make sure we record it all accurately for the day we submit our applications. It will not count against us directly, but if we are asked about a trip we took and we cannot answer with absolute certainty (and paperwork to back it up I am guessing based on my past experiences with the embassy), this may constitute an additional challenge we are not in search of to be able to become citizens.
I cannot wait to be a citizen truly. It will be one of the happiest days of our lives when we are sworn in. If I have anything to do with it, we would like to have our swearing in ceremony at the historical Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts on the 4th July. We witnessed this out on the town lawns under the US flag quite by chance 2 years again, and it has stuck with me ever since. I think I may have even spoken about this in one of my previous pieces, that’s how important this day would be to us if I am indeed repeating myself.
A proper ceremony, on a historical day, in a historical setting, outside under a flag, instead of inside a grey, cold building. I am not even sure it is possible for us; I am sure there are terms, rules and a waiting list for this venue on this day. But I will try my best to make that day happen for us. I get tears in my eyes and goosebumps just thinking about it. We still have another 2 years and 4 months before we can start applying. You must live here for 5 years before you can even be considered. So of course, we are counting down to that too.
But for right this very moment, our goals for this year, are to stay in the moment, enjoy each day as it comes. Which for those that know us, is very unlike us. We are always striving for the next thing. But we worked so hard to get here, right here, that we are just going to breathe, take the pressure off ourselves, and enjoy each minute of each day. We are going to work hard, dedicate ourselves to being good community members, and enjoy what is around us, ranging from people to places and of course, each other.
If any of you have ever read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, this concept of staying in the moment will resonate with you. It was a book I read in 2008, when I was travelling through Mozambique. We were 4 girls, backpacking, swimming with wild dolphins, we did not have connectivity or 5 cents to rub together, but this book traveled with me. It is not a very thick book at all, but it took me an age to read, because there was so much in there to absorb. And his spiritual teachings remind us of the beauty of being in the now, and how to stop yourself from wanting to move on to the next thing, to the next place, to the next person, all the while you would be missing where you are at. It was a skill I truly needed back then, and I often must practice, even in the now.
So, for me, for us, 2020 is going to be a far more purposeful expression of Tolle’s teaching, and that is to “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”