Thursday, September 27, 2018

How to Pinch a Rand, or, Everyday Life in South Africa

I thought it might be interesting to have a bit of a change of pace and tell you all a little more about day-to-day life here in South Africa and the creative lengths I (and others) go to in order to save a couple of rand. (The rand is the currency here - one rand is worth about $0.07). Many of you don't know how I cook, where I shop, or much about my everyday life except that I take care of babies! I do take care of babies, and that takes up a large portion of my life (that, and driving people to church events....) but another large chunk of my time is spent doing the same ordinary, everyday things that people in the US do, although in some ways they look a little different.

Hopefully the details don't bore you too much - these are the things that I find interesting, although I'm well aware that not EVERYONE cares as much about saving $0.07 as I do! So please be patient with me, even though there are probably better things to be talking about than money.

I grocery shop every Friday. This isn't always the norm here to grocery shop once a week - many people shop once a month, after payday - it isn't always easy to get transport, only going to the shops once tends to save money (cuts down on impulse purchases, I guess) and it ensures that you will have food for the whole month instead of spending your budgeted grocery money on something else that comes up. Some people shop day to day for various reasons - irregular income, lack of refrigeration, lack of funds period, etc. I was taken shopping weekly as an intern, and it's a habit I've stuck with, as I struggle to plan meals more than a week in advance - I'm always going somewhere or taking food to something - and I like fresh vegetables, fruit, and dairy products. Long life milk - shelf stable milk that comes in a box - is very popular here, but I think the ultra-pasteurization gives it a flavor that's a bit of an acquired taste! Also, shopping weekly allows me to take advantage of the various sales that happen throughout the month.

I can save a lot of money going to various specialty shops for different items that I need. Most things can be purchased at the grocery store, but the cost difference can be dramatically higher! Of course, I have to try to plan my trips so that I'm not running half an hour across town to buy powdered sugar on the day that I need it.

These are some of the stores I visit either regularly or semi-regularly:

Pick 'n' Pay - Basic grocery store. I buy things like bread, pasta, canned items, sale items, etc, here.

Makro - I've never shopped at Sam's Club or Costco but this is what I imagine it would be like, minus the membership fee. It is NOT always cheaper but they have good sales.

Fruit Stop - Cheapest place to buy fruit and vegetables. I also get milk here - I used to buy milk and juice from a tap as it was one of the cheapest options (as long as I brought my own bottles) but then I found that I can save a few cents on milk by buying it in a bag and emptying it into my own bottles at home! I buy some other dairy items here as well.

Shoprite - One of SA's largest grocery chains. I occasionally stop here to see what's on sale. It tends to have a much more South African selection of items and I can't always find everything I need.

Meat World - Hands down, my favorite butcher shop! I try to never (or rarely) buy meat at the grocery store because the butcher shop is so much cheaper! They run great sales on the weekends and I buy meat in bulk and freeze it. Sometimes they have good sales on other things too.

Clicks and Dis-Chem - These are both pharmacies. You may think of pharmacies as being more expensive, but things like shampoo and other personal care items are usually far cheaper here. Clicks is especially nice as they are always having buy-two-get-one-free sales. One thing I didn't think of for a while after I moved here, was that I should buy medicine BEFORE I get sick. I'd end up coming down with a horrible cold or the stomach flu and only be able to make it to the corner pharmacy...one time I think I spent $25 on medicine there!

Spar - There are Spars of various sizes - the one on our corner is basically a convenience store and tends to be expensive, although they sometimes have good sales, so I try to only buy those items there. Oddly enough, lightbulbs are half the price they are at other stores, although you have to shake them to make sure they aren't broken - a large number of them are! Different Spars are under different management, and I've found several bigger ones that have great sales specific to their store - one in particular has CRAZY cheap loss leaders! I always check their Facebook page for the weekend specials.

Baker's Bin - I buy some kinds of sugar, spices, and almost all my baking supplies in bulk here. I buy 5kg of margarine at a time and freeze it! It's on the other side of town, so if I'm going here, I usually plan a trip to the thrift store at the same time...because thrift stores are the best, and I can't waste gas/petrol, right? ;)

Boeremark - This is a farmer's market that is only open very EARLY on Saturday mornings. I occasionally plan a trip here to stock up on cheese or ground beef. (I buy huge blocks of cheese and grate and freeze it). They also sell fruit and vegetables as well as lots of craft items. Unfortunately whatever savings come from shopping here are probably compensated for by buying plants/etc., but I just have to consider it entertainment as well...

Ultimate Packaging and Spice - This is basically a catering/janitorial supply store and you can get cleaning supplies, etc, REALLY cheaply here. When I moved into the back house, I bought myself enough cleaning supplies to last probably for a year...or more. The unit price differences between specialty shops and the grocery stores are ridiculous. I pay 2-3 times more for the same thing at the grocery store. Even the generic name brand dish soap that barely makes bubbles costs almost twice as much as the quality stuff from the catering store.

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I thought it would also be interesting to see the cost of some things I buy frequently here - I don't do much if any grocery shopping in the States, so I can't do a very good comparison, but it might be of interest to my American readers. Prices reflect the current exchange rate of $1 = R14.12, but since I've been here $1 has been equivalent to anything from R10.50 to R16+, so you never know how much something will cost in USD from day to day! This year it's ranged from R12 to R15+, with R13-14 being the norm. This makes a big difference which is great for me (and almost no one else in South Africa) when it is up and not so great for me when it is down.

My grocery budget is large compared to most of my local friends here but the amounts I spend on things and my "spending limit" for how much is too much to spend on a certain item, may be equally shocking to most Americans. Just keep in mind that if I say something is "too expensive" to buy often it doesn't mean I'm deprived or don't have enough or whatever. Ask any of my African friends...they will testify to the fact that I make PIZZA several times per month! (And I often share it.) It just means that one - I have a grocery budget to stick to and two - in a culture where cheese is considered a luxury, I have to set some limits SOMEWHERE and acclimate at least a little!

Chicken  - You can buy a big bag of five chickens for R30/kg, which is about $0.96/lb. This is generally the cheapest option. Boneless skinless chicken breasts (called "fillets" here and pronounced WITH the T) are almost always more expensive, which is saddening when I see all the "cheap" recipes online using them! If you really watch the specials you can get them for R45/kg ($1.45/lb) but you don't see those sales very often.

Beef - Beef is expensive. Well, that's what everyone says here, and I believe them, because the majority of the meat in my budget (with the exception of bacon and ground beef, both of which are easy to stretch) must be under R50/kg ($1.61/lb).  You can sometimes find beef in bulk for R60/kg ($1.93/lb) - although it might be the kind full of bones and fat, which is popular here, but not to my liking - but more often it's R80/kg ($2.58/lb) and up, with nice cuts being well over R100/kg ($3.22/lb). I try to buy beef only once a month, so it's more of a treat than a meal staple. However, we just recently discovered a new store that runs specials for R50/kg, so it may work its way back into my diet more often! I'd also like to try making my own ground meats as I picked up a meat grinder - minus the handle - at the thrift store. I hope it works - haven't tried it yet.

Pork - Pork runs around R60/kg for basic cuts, but the butcher shop runs great bulk specials on R40/kg ($1.29/lb) for pork chops - nothing fancy or boneless, mind you, but I like them pretty well -  so I can buy a big pack for around $11, separate everything and freeze it and although it's probably not as healthy, it helps me feel less deprived about not having so much beef. Various people around me have caught onto this and started buying pork, although they've admitted they are getting kind of sick of it...ha ha!

Ground beef (called "mince" here - not to be confused with the sweet Thanksgiving pie that includes raisins!) - This is kind of expensive compared to other non-beef meats. It's usually at least R60/kg ($1.93/lb) if you catch a good sale.

Cheese - Cheese is not used much in African cooking. People tend to like it okay, but it would generally take up too large of a chunk of someone's grocery budget at R95/kg ($3.06/lb) at the local grocery store. However, if you shop specials and buy in bulk, you can find basic cheeses such as cheddar for as low as R60/kg ($1.93/lb). I will confess that I do use quite a bit of cheese, but I've come to realize that most American recipes call for ridiculous amounts. That casserole that calls for two cups of grated cheese on top tastes just as good with half that much! There are exceptions...like the quiche I made this week that definitely needed more cheese than what I put on it...

Milk - I buy it for R8.50/liter. That is around $2.29/gallon (at the moment).

Bread - The average price for a loaf of bread is R10-R13 ($0.70-$0.92) per loaf. The store baked bread is cheaper - as low as R5 ($0.35) but it doesn't always slice well enough to go into the toaster. Also, I usually have to stop at a separate store to buy it that cheaply. Theoretically I could freeze it, but that takes up space in my already-groaning freezer.

Eggs - These have gone up drastically in price. A tray of 30 (2 1/2 dozen) costs over R60 ($4.25)  I found a little roadside business where they sell 30 eggs for R41-45 ($2.90-$3.20) so I buy them there, but I have to time my egg needs with my trips through that area.

Fruits and vegetables - Prices for these vary greatly depending on what is in season. There is a very good variety and things are very high quality for low prices (at least at the store where I shop - the local grocery store prices border on the ridiculous sometimes). I prefer shopping for fruits and vegetables here to shopping for them in the US! I can usually get a smallish grocery cart/trolley/buggy full of things for around R250 ($18). You can buy things like pineapples for R7 ($0.50). Berries (and cherries, which I miss) tend to be expensive - except for strawberries, which I found for R5/250g ($0.74/lb) several times recently. In the winter, selection is generally limited to oranges, apples, pears, bananas, pineapples, kiwi (expensive), grapes (expensive) and unripe-looking papayas. Throughout the year we have much nicer papayas, mangoes, cheaper grapes, passionfruit, guavas, litchis, peaches, nectarines, kumquats (very sour), watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe, among various other fruits.

Oil - a staple here for cooking. Olive oil and all those other "healthy" oils are great but far, far more expensive than the R30 ($2.12)/2L sunflower oil, so that's generally what makes it into my cart.

Oh, and not a grocery, but gas/petrol is currently around $4.24 per gallon (once you do all the conversions from rand and liters). The price changes once a month and it costs the same everywhere - no driving around to a different station to find a better price. Thankfully when you live in the city, places are close and with my small, manual car I don't spend an exorbitant amount on gas.

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I can buy many things here, but another way I save is by making many things from scratch, for various reasons - it's cheaper, I prefer my homemade thing, I can't find it at all, etc. Some of the things I make are:

Salad dressing - you can go all fancy and expensive and use olive oil, balsamic vinegar, etc, but I've found my favorite combination is sunflower oil and plain white vinegar, with some dried herbs like oregano and basil, and a splash of milk. I actually don't like the taste of olive oil for salad dressing! One of our interns taught me how to make it and it's not only frugal, it's delicious and convenient!

Chocolate syrup - you can buy this, but homemade tastes better, is way cheaper, and only takes vanilla, sugar, cocoa, salt, and water.

Croutons - because I always have old bread.

Bread - this only happens occasionally because I am not a superwoman like my mom. I don't think I'd even save any money by the time you factor in the gas needed to bake it, but you can't deny it does taste nice.

Laundry soap - far cheaper to make, but it doesn't seem to work as well in our downstairs washer as it did in the other one, and the electricity costs for running the extra-long load would probably negate any savings. I did find a place to buy it cheaply in bulk, so I'm going to try that.

Spice blends - they actually do sell taco seasoning here now, but it's generally cheaper to make your own spice blends for things like that. I haven't tried my hand at making my own curry powder because I like the ones here so much!

Pierogies - kind of a random food item, for sure, but you can't buy them here. Nice to have in the freezer! I currently have a giant ball of leftover filling, and no pierogies, so I should make some more soon. They are kind of labor intensive, so it doesn't happen very often.

Pizza crusts - I'm not even sure they sell these. Not so bad to make with the dough mixer in the food processor, and you can't beat the price of something that only takes flour, water, yeast, and salt. I used to keep them in the freezer but now I never have space, and they really don't take much time to make if I remember to start the dough to rise several hours before dinner.

Brown sugar - they have something called brown sugar, but it's what we'd call raw sugar in the US. Treacle sugar is like brown sugar with a gazillion times as much molasses. I've found the best way to make this is with castor sugar and molasses, in the food processor, although a fork works fine for small batches.

Most of my snacks - because snacks sure do add up. I suppose the cheaper alternative would be to forego snacks altogether, but I am always getting hungry in between meals! (Popcorn is cheap...and now I want to go make some...) I bake a lot, be it for myself, church, or others. It's much cheaper to make a cake or banana bread or something else from things I have in the house (and bought in bulk) than go out and spend $10 on snacks for small group. I am taking ideas for more cheap savory snacks - we have popcorn a LOT.

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Other things I do to pinch pennies (not listed in order of importance):

- Clean out my fridge regularly and use up what's inside.

- Save sour milk to bake with or use in pancakes and waffles.

- Wash plastic bags (with the exception of those that have held meat). As a kid who was sick of drying Baggies, I vowed I would never do it when I grew up. As an adult, I wash even the ones my mom would have thrown away...and bread bags...and anything else that looks like it might have potential for one last use packing meat away in the freezer! In order to not drive my roommate crazy, I hang them outside on the washing line.

- Speaking of the washing line, we air dry EVERYTHING, no matter how bad the weather. Electricity costs are just too high to use a dryer, and although I don't pay utilities, we all do our best to keep them down. A "solar dryer" is very effective and as long as it's not raining, does the job well! In addition to the washing line, we have handy drying racks we can set up under the eaves or in the house when the weather conspires against us. I always say it's good that I always liked hanging the laundry...although I will admit I enjoyed the dryer so much when I was on furlough that I NEVER hung my clothes outside!

- We also switched to all gas for cooking and heating (for the few months in the winter when it gets cold). This is not gas that is piped into our house, but stored in detachable tanks that we have to go fill when they run out. This can be singularly inconvenient if it happens while you are cooking dinner - there is no sort of indicator on the tank to let you know how much gas is left - but at least we have several stoves on property and can help each other out. We finished about 11.5 kg of gas in six weeks - a lot faster than before I moved in...that costs about $16-$17, so not terrible. I'm not sure what the equivalent in electricity would have cost but I think it would have been a lot more. We both work so usually we cook about one meal a day each, plus sometimes baking.

- I mentioned buying in bulk. I do that a lot - when the unit price is less. Often it's not. I check the sales several times a month and stock up on things I know I will use (that won't spoil). My goal is only to EVER buy the majority of things I need when they are close to or at the lowest possible price. This requires a bit of creativity when it comes to storage in a small house, but I have had a fair amount of success.

- Every week, I menu plan (mostly from my stock), check to see if there are new sales flyers online for a number of stores, and make my shopping list. Most of the stores in my area are roughly along the same route, and I don't stop at each one every week as sometimes I don't need to buy anything in a particular shop. This saves on petrol, parking, and time, although it generally does take me several hours to shop. I often shop for others too - we have a group for posting good deals and if someone can't make it to the store or someone else is going, they often pick up things for others. As the one who is closest to most of the shops AND has a car, this is generally me, but I don't mind, and take advantage of the extra cash back and rewards points - every little bit adds up!

- I keep a budget. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I wasn't really keeping one before this year. Budgeting in two different currencies is tricky and even with only one currency takes a lot of self-control and hard work! I would try and fail after just a little while. Setting one up was sooooo overwhelming and I enlisted the help of a good friend who likes doing these kinds of things (the same friend who gets a weird enjoyment out of organizing my cupboards). I'm still not as good as I should be and sometimes I get a couple weeks behind, but overall, it's helping a lot! I was always very FRUGAL (I wash my Baggies!) but not always very good at staying within parameters. (I.e. I'll buy way too many groceries - but they were all on sale!) Or I just didn't plan ahead - pack a lunch before going out, buy snacks for small group the week before instead of at the corner store the day of, save specifically for car repairs, check for sales before shopping, plan a menu, etc.

- Another thing I do is controversial, but it works for me. I pay for almost everything on my credit card - that I pay off in full each month. I do this for several reasons.

One, it gives me a handy record of where everything is going. Cash doesn't do that. Cash is a lot more work and subject to user error. Cash also requires that I remember the exchange rate from when I withdrew it, when I put it into my budget. This is generally not as precise. As a rule, I use cash ONLY when I can't pay for something with my card.

Two, rewards points are basically free money, especially when I do other people's shopping for them, they deposit the money in my South African bank account, and I don't have to pay transfer fees to to have money there for my local bills.

Three, I need to actually HAVE a credit score in case I need it someday. Up until several years ago my credit score was virtually nonexistent. It still isn't considered "excellent" (despite the fact that never have I ever missed a payment) but it's climbing.

Four, and this is especially important to me as I live overseas, credit cards are a lot more secure than cash. If someone takes my purse, I can cancel my credit cards and it'll be a headache, but I can't "cancel" the money that was inside. One time I accidentally left money in my car at a car wash (stupid, I know, and I'll never do it again) and it disappeared. Another time someone got hold of my debit card number and wiped out my savings - thank goodness the bank (it was American) refunded me but it was a hassle and took some time.

The usual argument is that you FEEL cash leaving your hands, and it feels more like you're spending money and it's a wake-up call and you spend less, and when it's gone it's gone. For me, that just isn't a thing. If I'm going to overspend, it's going to happen regardless of the medium of currency I use. It all boils down to self-discipline and choosing not to exceed the budgeted amount in the category - and, let me repeat lest anyone start panicking - PAYING IT OFF IN FULL EACH MONTH.

- I make gifts for as many things as possible. Here at Living Hope, the number of events one needs to buy gifts for is...well, not quite uncountable, but we like baby showers...and wedding showers...and birthday parties...and it all adds up. I haven't been able to make gifts for EVERY occasion but I am trying to do better at planning ahead and using my various crafting skills when possible. I bought a used sewing machine several years ago and it has served me well!

- Speaking of sewing, I mend my clothes whenever I can. This is economical, but I also do it because I hate trying to find something new when I already have something I like. I do try to shop the thrift stores here, but the selection is pretty small. I have done most of my clothes shopping while home in the US.

- If I can build something from free pallet wood, I do. I'm currently sitting at a desk I made, and am in the process of building a bookcase. I've also made shelving, cornices (for curtains), window boxes, and a chicken coop and I plan to make a coffee table, a blanket chest, and possibly a bed, although I'll admit that is a bit daunting. When I first came here, I didn't know how to build things at all, so I just learned as I went along. I also learned how to reupholster small items. This is not ALWAYS cheaper, especially upfront when you need to buy the tools and supplies, but it get cheaper over time as you accumulate those items.

- I use all the rewards cards for all the stores, and a rebate app called SNAPnSAVE. I generally save only a couple rand at a time, but it DOES add up!

- I get my car serviced regularly and fix small- to medium-sized problems before they become huge issues (like the timing belt going out and destroying my engine). Regular maintenance can be expensive but not doing it is worse in the end!

- I learn to say "no" to things I want or put up with things that aren't ideal. This isn't just a money issue, but a contentment issue too. For example, for several years I lived in one bedroom attached to the baby home. It was noisy, and busy, and small, and I had to go outside to go inside to get to the bathroom. It didn't FEEL like an ideal long-term living arrangement and I had days when I wondered if I'd be 50 and still living in that room. But the price was right...and the lessons in contentment and community learned while living in that room, were priceless. I could have said "no, I can't handle this" and gotten a place off property for hundreds of dollars a month - for several years. (Admittedly, I didn't have those hundreds of dollars a month to pay for that, but still.)  Now I was able to move to another building on property - a small two-bedroom house I share with one other person. It's still pretty tiny but it's a pretty amazing upgrade after living out of one only sort-of private room for so long!

I'm sure there are many more thoughts in the recesses of my brain, but that's just a bit of what this part of my life is like here in South Africa! I hope you enjoy knowing more about what it's like.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

July/August

So, my last post was all about my time in the US and Malawi, and I thought you all might want an update of my everyday life and of all the babies here in South Africa!

I arrived back in South Africa on July 10th and have settled back into life here. They did a major house swap while I was gone – the baby home and the house parents switched sides of the house, and I moved from my bedroom in the baby home to staying in the back house. It took a while to get everything moved over, but I had a LOT of help! When you have friends who will organize your pantry and rearrange your bedroom for you, you know you have good friends!


Pre-organization. I'm so glad my neat and tidy housemate was traveling while I moved in! Am I a bulk buyer? .....yeah, maybe...;)


Small "helpers" playing the piano in my new room! It's so amazing to live in a house instead of just a room built onto a porch!


L (Littlebug) loves his sticks!


Peekaboo!


Snuggles!


He is ALL boy...complete with dirt!


Looking cool!


Big T, Little T, and Littlebug digging a hole to China


Enjoying the swing


More dirt! I can't keep this kid clean!


T ("Cupcake") and K ("Special K") enjoy being outside too!


Cupcake looks like she's had quite a few cupcakes...haha!


Special K got her first hairdo, and was less than pleased about the process...


B (Babybear) and I at church


Our newest arrival, sweet newborn boy "Squishy"


Bears in Bumbos!

Winter is just about over, and spring is moving in - it's nice to have it a bit warmer! Soon the whole neighborhood will be covered in flowers...the jacarandas will be blooming...it will get HOT...then it will be time for Thanksgiving and Christmas! I know that sounds funny to my American friends but having a cookout on Christmas really grows on you! Or, you know, crashing multiple cookouts - singleness really has its perks!

As always, please keep our babies and their paperwork in your prayers, as well as the ministry here at Living Hope...and please pray for me, as ministry has many stresses! But, I am grateful to see that even in the hard times, God is working and to learn yet again that I can trust Him. I made it my goal this year to read more Christian books and I have really been encouraged by them! Some of my favorites have been “Trusting God” by Jerry Bridges, “Your Family God’s Way” by Wayne Mack, and “None Like Him” by Jen Wilkins. It's really neat to see how thinking about truth can impact your life! 

I'd better be off now - I need to finish up writing my newsletter, among other things. Hope you all are doing well and as always, I love to hear from you!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

US Visit/Malawi Missions Trip

It's been a long time since I've written a blog post (sorry!) so I'm going to divide this summer (or winter, depending on which hemisphere you live in) into two blog posts.

I had a nice time visiting the States for two months, although it was pretty busy and the paperwork was very overwhelming! I did manage to get all the visas mentioned in my last blog post, although not without a lot of prayer, hard work, tears in some cases, and occasionally some rather unconventional methods! (You'll hear about that later on when I talk about the Malawi trip...)

I applied for the Malawi visa first, and called the Malawi consulate in DC an undetermined but excessive number of times to make sure the visa was, indeed, approved and coming back to me within a certain time frame. I'd like to give a shout out to Agnes, who appears to be the only employee working there or at least the only one answering the phone, for her patience with me. By the end of the process, she recognized my home and cell numbers and started answering the phone "hello, Abbie." Someone needs to give that lady a raise.

While in process for that visa, I finished compiling all the papers necessary for my South African visa. My friend and host in Chicago was also very patient with me as I couldn't nail down exact travel dates until less than a week before my arrival! I drove down on a Sunday, submitted paperwork on Monday, and drove back on Tuesday...which sounds simple, but it wasn't!

Sunday went well, although I probably arrived a little later than anticipated as there was a lot of roadwork on the way there. It was so nice to see my friend Kristine (from the Bible discipleship school I attended eight years ago) and catch up with her.

The plan was for me to leave Monday morning in plenty of time to apply for my visa. "Plenty of time" doesn't always end up happening with me, particularly when catching up with an old friend, and I left a bit late - although not before booking my parking on an app as per her recommendation. This was a really good thing because I paid about $7 as opposed to $30. (Chicago is not kind to the budget!)

I could not find my parking at first and circled the same block multiple times before realizing the parking garage was actually underground and Maps wasn't trying to completely confuse me. I managed to get in and park, but when I got out on the street I couldn't find the consulate! It was raining and I was wearing multiple layers and running up and down the crowded sidewalk...with an umbrella, causing quite the spectacle. I probably ran at least a mile, back and forth, before I finally found the consulate and burst inside, roasting hot, wet, sweaty, and not smelling so great. It was ten minutes before closing time.

The list of necessary paperwork had apparently changed, although thankfully, I had brought along a couple of the extra things not listed - just in case, or I just "happened" to have them on me, like my South African health insurance card. They weren't happy with my bank statements because I'd given them the ones that didn't show regular activity, so they sent me to the FedEx around the corner to go print more and to copy my insurance card. I spent more in that print shop than I ever have spent to print anything before - they charge you by the minute for your internet use as well!

However, I finally managed to compile everything I needed and headed back to the consulate, which graciously allowed me to come in and submit the necessary papers even though the visa submission hours had closed for the day. That was kind of nerve-wracking, however, as the person receiving them didn't seem very happy with my application and was possibly concerned that I was trying to retire to South Africa. (What??) I left the consulate with a nagging fear that perhaps my visa wouldn't go through this time.

I spent the rest of the day at a conservatory enjoying the flowers (yay! Something free in Chicago!) and visited several thrift stores and "Al's Under the L" takeaway while I waited for my friend to come home from work. It was a much nicer afternoon than morning.










I headed back Tuesday afternoon, braved all the roadwork again (I listened to the first book in the Ashtown Burials series by N.D. Wilson - I would highly recommend them!) and arrived back late that evening.

The next two weeks were spent visiting my friends in North Carolina and Minnesota! It was so nice to get a chance to catch up.


Sarah and I (above) and Anna (below). My girls are getting so big now!! You can read our story here.



My best friend has a BABY! I'm an auntie...well, I have been an auntie for years but now I am one again!

Shortly after returning from Minnesota in the beginning of June, I received my self-addressed envelope in the mail with my passport. I opened it in anticipation, to discover that my visa said it was valid for three months - not three years!

To say I was shaken would be an understatement. I didn't know what had happened, particularly since the expiry date on the visa wasn't for another three years. That led me to think it might be a mistake, but mostly, I was just freaking out. My life here is basically my whole world...and it was very difficult to trust God with the thing most precious to me. That night was pretty tough as I waited to call the consulate the next morning and see if they had made a mistake.

I was reminded of one time in church when our pastor asked us to write down the one thing that mattered most to us, that was the most valuable, and leave it under our seat when we left as a sign that we were surrendering it to God. I didn't do it because, quite frankly, I told myself it was silly, but honestly, that in itself was probably a pretty good diagnosis of my heart attitude.

It was one of the more unpleasant 24-hour periods of my life, but all in all, I can be thankful that God is working in me and loves me too much to allow anything to take precedence over Him...even working for Him and relationships with the church. And, I was very happy to discover the next morning that they had made a mistake and I could send my passport in for correction immediately! Please join me in praying, however, that I will somehow, some way be able to obtain paperwork that is more stable than a volunteer visa!

It was good to be able to spend time with my family while I was home. My grandma was not doing so well at assisted living so we moved her to a nursing home, which was difficult. It took a long time to get her dementia medicine sorted. She seems to be doing a lot better now, for which we are grateful.


Out for ice cream - my birthday and the day we moved her


Cousins!


Hiking with friends


What with one thing and another, two months flew by very quickly and soon it was the end of June! I flew to South Africa on a Monday, arrived Tuesday, and went to Joburg on Wednesday to apply for my Mozambique visa. This took all day and required catching a ride at 5:30 AM and using public transport to come back, as my car was out of commission. I packed for Malawi that night after small group - with probably the least amount of forethought/effort I've ever put into a multi-country trip. Food for the bus trip (besides snacks)? That would have been nice. I'm pretty sure I can never look a chili cheese puff in the eye again...

Anyway, by the time we left at 5:30 AM for the bus the next day (I overslept - my body apparently couldn't take the sleep deprivation one day longer) I was very, very ready to sit and do nothing, if not for the entire 34 hour trip duration, at least for a while.


Boarding the bus

34 hours is a long time. Especially when you're basically subsisting on chili cheese puffs and coconut biscuits. At least that helped with the toilet situation. Since we rode the "nice" bus, we had a toilet. This toilet, however, could only be used for #1, which meant that we needed to time all other bathroom needs according to the schedule - and let me tell you, those buses hold a LOT of petrol, so it became a game of "whose tank is bigger?"....I had the cheese puffs working in my favor, though, so I ended up making it without any serious incidents.

There was a bit of a scare at the SA/Zimbabwe border where I was told I might not be able to get the Zim transit visa. Thankfully there was nothing to the warning and I was actually able to obtain one that was good for the return trip as well. I've been to Zim now and I have the papers to prove it, but it was dark both going and coming back, so I really haven't seen anything of the country besides a very questionable toilet in Harare in the middle of the night. I'm a bit sad that that, and the tumble dryer effect as the bus tried to make up time, are the only memories I have of that country. Hopefully someday I'll get a chance to return and see more!

We made it past the notoriously corrupt Zim/Mozambican border, although not without temporarily leaving half of our party behind when they went to go brush their teeth. The officials wouldn't let them walk across, but they were able to catch a ride on another bus and meet us at the next checkpoint, 100 yards or so down the road. We traveled through what is very much the "back country" of Mozambique, NOT the tourist area (very little in the way of towns at all, actually) and it was an enjoyable drive with a lot to see. I'm pretty sure my phone was dead by this point, so I couldn't take pictures.

We arrived at the Mozambique/Malawi border and stood around in a huddle for a long time while pickpockets, hawkers and beggars circled us like the prey we were. None of us lost anything - we were very careful, but I saw someone rob one of the vendors and run away. Someone bought a SIM card and some airtime from one of the vendors and we were able to call our host, who was on the way to pick us up. Hooray for skipping out on the rest of the bus ride!


Avoiding pickpockets like the pros

We very much enjoyed the ten days we spent there! If I'd been a faithful blogger, I would have done this a lot sooner and given you a day-by-day account, but this post is already getting kind of long so I'll just give you the highlights.

Obviously one of the best parts was getting to stay with the Chilingulos. It was so nice to be able to catch up with them and they were wonderful hosts, welcoming us into their lives with them, power outs and all. (There are a lot of power outs in Malawi - usually every day.) I loved getting to know people from the church there as well. Reformation Bible Church has 30-odd members, if I remember correctly, and most of them are in the young adult age group. We attended several conferences/seminars with them, including some that Donovan taught at the church and a marriage conference at a Bible school.


The Chilingulos - Newton, Vanessa, Chisomo, and Karabo


Church


Chisomo helping (or maybe just being cute) at a conference

On Saturday, we attended a prison ministry headed up by a local pastor. It was so cool to see how God is working even in the darkest of places. We were not allowed to take phones inside, so there are no pictures, but there were probably a hundred or so men there, eager to praise God. Maybe not all of them are serious, or some of them are putting it on, but there is definitely change happening in a number of men. Some of them even finished serving their time and went on to seminary. The man who heads it up is a former inmate and some of the current inmates play major roles in the prison church there.

We spent several afternoons during the week doing evangelism at a local teachers' college and on the street. This is not my strong suit and I was encouraged by how eager the members are RBC are to share the Gospel! It made me nervous, but it was great to do it alongside them, even if they were WAY better at it than me!




We also enjoyed a day out at Lake Malawi. We stopped on the way for some street food - "chiwaya" - which is potatoes cooked in a fryer that looks kind of like a sink, and meat - in our case, goat intestines - which I did try! Deep fried, they aren't too bad, although I did leave most of them for the people who REALLY enjoyed them...=) I forgot sunscreen, and of course no one had any because I was one of the few people there who was actually capable of getting a sunburn...but somehow I managed to escape without one. The water was too cold and rough to actually swim but we enjoyed spending the day together and playing games.


On the way


The chiwaya place



Visiting friends - Mercy (far right) was an intern here at MBH and we had dinner at her house.


Visiting a carpentry business run by a guy from RBC. There are a number of people from the church who have started businesses that seem to be thriving and it's cool to see!


I can't keep up with the men when it comes to eating pap...haha!


Two of my teammates

Saturday night (after the marriage conference) we spent doing outreach at a local music festival. A couple people from the church were singing/rapping there, but the festival as a whole wasn't entirely Christian. No alcohol was officially allowed on the grounds, but I'm pretty sure half the attendees were drunk. Never have I ever been proposed to/hit on so many times in my life. The guy manning the booth with me was deep in some soul-winning conversation so I banded as many of the ladies around me as possible for backup...I managed to get out WITH my purse and WITHOUT a ring on my finger, so I'd say it was a success or at least not a complete disaster.

One of my favorite parts of Malawi? The signs!


The meaning of this sign is slightly unclear....haha!


Look, Shoprite has made it to Malawi!

Also seen (I didn't manage to take pictures) were:

Cc's God's Chosen Cosmetics and Salon
God's Time Barbershop
God's Will Car Wash
God is Wonderful General Plumbing Works
God First Furniture and Joinery Workshop
Praise God Kennedy Butchery
Blessings Shoppings
Lost but Found Halaal Butchery
In Christ Salon and Cosmetics
No Blackout Salon and Barbershop
Let God Be God Shop
Highly Favoured Cosmetics
Rock of Ages Takeaway
Praise God Shop

I enjoyed my week in Lilongwe! There was always something new to see when we went out for a drive!

I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the entire Mozambican Visa Ordeal, which definitely deserves to be capitalized. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I needed a return transit visa for Mozambique, and I needed to apply for it in Malawi. The timeline went something like this.

Monday: Show up at consulate. Realize we didn't check hours for visa submission. Consulate is closed.
Tuesday: Show up at consulate. Realize they won't let me in wearing flip flops ("slipers" and "bere muscles" were both apparently on the banned list), so I need to wear either Newton's or Garakai's shoes. I ended up wearing both of them, at different times, getting blisters, and making memories!


Garakai was stuck wearing my flip flops throughout this whole process...

Apply for visa. Realize that all that Malawian currency I just pulled out is not accepted because I'm not Malawian. They want USD. I have $20, not $50, so we need to find a place to exchange money. One place you have to have an account. Another place only has $100 bills and $8 in change. I don't want to trade money on the black market, so we have to drive all the way across town to somewhere where we can exchange money. (Let me take a moment to mention that Newton - our host - was an absolute saint throughout this entire frustrating process!!) Return, submit money for visa, which will come out Thursday.
Thursday: Went to Lake Malawi and made arrangements for it to be picked up, but it accidentally didn't get picked up.
The person felt really bad and totally went out of the way to help us, which culminated in a crazy weekend where we went and picked up the lady who ran the consulate after church on Sunday (we had to pay a bike taxi to show us her house), drove her to her boss's house to get the keys, drove to the consulate where we got my passport (yay! although I was feeling less than victorious at this point...just exhausted!), drove to the bank so I could pull money and give her a tip, then drove her back home. Oh, but the Sunday afternoon sounds uneventful? Throw in the fact that she was called "Mai Apostle" and ran her own church. The two very tactful, very kind, but very Reformed guys in the vehicle with me waited till I had my passport in my hand before they started in on the questions...😉

We headed back home that next week. I'd like to say the bus trip back was uneventful, but at least one of our members was nearly detained and thrown in a hospital for ten days to prove that she didn't have yellow fever from being in Zambia six months prior (i.e., they were looking for a bribe...) After that rather nerve-wracking scenario, we managed to finish out the rest of the trip and make it home, tired but all in one piece and not stuck in the back of a Mozambican police station or some hospital somewhere. All in all it was a very memorable trip!