I’ve finally arrived in South Africa, land of the 11 languages and the Rainbow Nation. I feel like I’ve done so much yet so little my first two weeks here. My main focus has just been getting settled in and getting a lay of the land. Life is certainly a complete 180 from what I’ve been so familiar with for so long but that’s half the reason I moved out here in the first place, to experience something different. So in a two week span, I’ve learned a thing or two.
Prior to leaving, I was so delayed with my visa process that I thought I’d never make it out of the country. For awhile, I lost being in the mindset that I would be living abroad that while I was waiting to pick up my visa in NYC, I got used to the NYC lifestyle again. Occasionally, I’d remember that I was in fact leaving the continent but not nearly to the extent of when I first found out. Nevertheless, the visa eventually arrived and as I boarded that South Africa airlines flight at JFK, listening to the pilot give his speech, and then finally taking off, I finally realized holy shit, I’m leaving this country where I’ve lived my entire adolescent life in, and I ain’t coming back any time soon.
I’ve traveled to many countries but have never been away from the US for more than two weeks (until I went to London and did all my European weekend trips) and now I’m leaving what I’ve grown to know, to be comfortable with, to love, for a place I’ve never even set foot on. It was an anxious, unnerving feeling that you’d think you’d get during the period between signing your contract and departure but nope, it only happens as soon as you get on that plane and realize wtf you’re doing. It’s exciting however, and you gottta ride with that emotion because it’s the only one that’ll get you through.
Sandton is not Johannesburg
Many people seem to forget that South Africa is a proper country that is every bit developed as it is undeveloped. People think “Africa” and immediately associate that with safaris and savannas but Johannesburg is a proper metropolis. The city has 4.5M people which if put in the USA, would make it the SECOND most populous city in the country behind only NYC. So I’m not moving to a place where I can step out my door and see a lion chasing a gazelle. This is very much a real city I’ve moved to.
Johannesburg has a bad rap and has gotten worse recently. Everyone I’ve talked to tells me Johannesburg’s CBD (Central business district) is a place to avoid and a place to pray that your company will not move offices to. I still have not even been to the city center of Johannesburg and most people tell me a one off visit will suffice. This is why when many expats move here, they will live in Sandton, a suburb that has recently been built up since many of the large financial institutions shifted their operations over from Johannesburg.
From the vibe Sandton is about as suburban as it gets. Everything about the city just reminds me of a sprawling suburban town in America. If it weren’t for the exotic looking trees, the beggars in the middle of the street, and the whole driving on the other side of the road thing, I’d easily think that I was in Bellevue, Washington, your quintessential suburban town in America (also where I grew up).
You’re on African Time now!
This can really be renamed to “You’re not on NYC time now!” but since I am in Africa, this sounds just a little more appropriate not to mention a little catchier. I’d been warned by South Africans prior to coming to not expect the same type of lightning quick, always on the go, type of service I’d been accustomed to in NYC. People like to take their time here, enjoying each other’s company and squeezing every spare minute they can.
I’ve been plenty used to this because traveling to almost any other country, people are going to be leading a slower lifestyle than in Manhattan. Those trips however, were short, and I was on vacation so I was in a more chill mindset anyhow. Two years here in this slow paced environment will test me for sure.
When I went to open my Chase bank account upon Arrival in NYC, I remember it taking me no longer than 20 minutes to have it set up. I went to open a South African bank account the other day and my God, I waited almost one hour until someone helped me. There was only one other person waiting with me at 11am in the morning.
Because I had no previous South African credit history, they had to put my application on hold and told me it shouldn’t take more than a day to clear up with the head office. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve applied for my bank account and I sit here writing this, STILL with no bank account in tow.
Money Goes Somewhere Here
Anyone moving from an “expensive” city will really appreciate what you can get here. I’ve been here no more than two weeks and I’m sure I will have more comments as time goes but for now, I can safely say your lifestyle will go up (if you’re making a comparable salary to what you made back home). As soon as I checked into my corporate apartment, it blew my mind how nice it was. The manager told me the two bed/two bath apartment is 27000 Rand, which is about 3000$ USD. Extremely expensive anywhere in the US but you’d be hard pressed to find a decent 1 bedroom in Manhattan for that money. Mind you that 27000 Rand a month is a ridiculous amount of money that most South Africans will never see in their lives and if used in a more efficient way could rent you a proper 5 bedroom mansion.
Food is also much cheaper than back home but not as cheap as areas in southeast Asia I’ve visited. I’ve had plenty of steak already and can easily afford to eat at one once or twice a week. Compare that to NYC where a steakhouse dinner with a will easily run you over 100$ whereas 30$ could get you the same experience here.
When going out to a bar, expect to pay no more than the equivalent of 3$ for a beer and no more than 5$ for any drink. For the first time in my life, I can finally live like a normal human being instead of living like the peasant that I was in NYC. I’ll have more to report on this as I get accustomed to my new surroundings.
NO ONE walks in South Africa
Anyone moving from a city like NYC, San Fran, or London, will be in for a huge culture shock here. NO one walks. Everyone drives. Yet, it’s different than suburbia in America because while everyone there has a car, you still see plenty of people walking around. I’ve seen hardly anyone walking around during the day, and certainly nothing at night. It’s like as if the few people that are walking are zombies and the majority of the populace decided it’s safer to ride in a car.
Okay, perhaps it is not that apocalyptic but you will receive the funniest reactions from people when you tell them you feel like walking home from work. Even if it’s a half hour walk, people will gasp at you like they’ve seen a ghost and caress you like you’re they’re child trying to convince you not to do it. It’s not safe is the common answer and while I’m certainly in no position to argue this point, I’ve heeded everyone’s advice. However, as I get more comfortable with my surroundings, I may test this out at some point in the future!
Driving on the left side
Haven been lucky enough to live in NYC for the past 4 years, and college previous to that, I’ve not driven a car on a regular basis since high school as there was no need. I absolutely despise driving and that is probably because I just love walking and the convenience of NYC subways but moving to Joburg, it is absolutely impossible to get around without a car, and for safety reasons, not advisable to walk. Without a doubt, you’ll be driving if you move here and you’ll be driving on the wrong side of the road. For me, it all came crashing down at once: Not only had I not touched a car in a year, but I had to learn to drive on the other side of the road which is a challenge in and of itself.
What happens when you start driving on the other side of the road?
Inevitably, driving on a different side will probably be made easier if you’ve been driving regularly but for me there were my main challenges:
When turning right, which is now the long turn, you’ll likely turn into the wrong side a time or two. Yes it’s terrifying, but don’t panic, back up safely and get back on the correct side. Worst case, if you can’t stop doing this, paste a sticker to the front of your car saying “Sorry ahead of time, I’m used to driving on the other side!”
- You will naturally drift to the left. When you’re used to driving on the left side of the car, you’ve developed spacial awareness over the past many years of where you car should be in terms of the curb, the lane markers, and other cars. But when you now drive on the right side of the car, your brain will naturally want to put the car where it should be when you’re driving on the left side but now you’re shifted over 2-3 feet and your car will want to be too. Hard to explain, but try it out and you will see.
- You’re less attentive at first. When you sit on the passenger’s side of the car for all your life, you get used to the fact that if you’re on the right side of the car, you’re not driving, can relax and not worry about the road. When you’re on the left side, the drivers seat, you’ve been accustomed to all your driving checks; checking the rear view mirror frequently, the side mirrors, and just constantly looking around being aware of things. Now you’re driving on the passenger’s seat and you don’t feel like you’re in the space where you are supposed to be driving and hence do not think as much. I sure as hell didn’t look at my rear view mirror for the first week or so.
- Wipers and turn signals are reversed. Not all cars in SA have this but the rental I got reversed the signals and wipes so I turned on my wipes at least ten times. The best way to get around this is to drive one handed with a gangsta lean (right hand at the 12), and this way you’ll never be tempted to use the other side again.
Well I’ve only been here for two weeks. That doesn’t even rival the longest vacations I’ve taken so by no means am I the SA expert yet. I’ve mainly just been working during the week and trying to get settled in on the weekends and doing whatever I can. I’ll update this again in two months in which time I’ll have hit up at least one safari, settled on a gym, found an apartment, started looking for cars, get some nightlife in me, and just living life in South Africa.
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