Originally from the suburbia around Washington D.C., USA, Heather came to realize that she wanted change in her life. Her blog, 2summers.net, does not only feature a personal diary of her new life as an expat in Johannesburg and her travels around the continent, but also loads of beautiful pictures that help illustrate what South Africa is all about. In our questionnaire, she talks about the necessary preparation, open minds, and the emotional side of relocating to a new home across the ocean.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to South Africa, etc.
I’m a 37-year-old writer/photographer from the Washington D.C. area in the United States. Before I moved to South Africa, I was living a “normal” American life; I had a townhouse in the suburbs and worked a 9-5 job at a non-profit organization in Washington. But after several work-related trips to Africa between 2007 and 2009, I realized I was living the wrong life. I decided I had to walk away from everything, and I moved to Johannesburg in August 2010.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Six weeks before I moved to South Africa, I decided I wanted to document my experiences in a blog. I knew that I was about to embark on an unusual life change and I wanted to write it down, both for myself and for others who might be interested in reading about it. Also, I’ve always loved travel writing and I thought this was a good opportunity to try it out. Johannesburg is a fascinating city and a major hub for people traveling to Southern Africa, but there were very few people blogging about it when I moved here.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
That’s a tough one – I’ve written a lot of posts! But right now, my favorite is Bright Lights, Big City, a post about a night-time photo-walk through a neighborhood called Braamfontein. Walking in Joburg at night is a special experience. I feel that this post really illustrates the love affair I have with this crazy city.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Johannesburg differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Johannesburg is different from Washington D.C. in almost every way. It’s bigger, dirtier, and noisier. Joburg is more like New York City or Los Angeles than Washington – it’s huge and sprawling and serves as a melting pot for the entire continent of Africa. It’s difficult to get around if you don’t have a car (which I don’t), because public transport is unreliable. Life here, quite simply, is more challenging than anywhere else I’ve lived. I wouldn’t say that I experienced culture shock though. I’m an adaptable person. I moved here because I wanted to change my life completely, and to make it more challenging. I love the way Joburg straddles the line between the developing world and the developed world. Everyday life can be frustrating at times, but the joys and constant surprises you experience while living here are worth the frustration.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in South Africa? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I don’t think anyone can ever be “fully prepared” for a life change as big as this. I literally gave up everything and started again. I had no job awaiting me in South Africa. I didn’t have a company to help me move. I brought everything I owned in three suitcases. Also I moved across the world for love, which is never easy. I knew it would be hard, and it was. It still is. The biggest challenges that I’ve faced since moving here have little to do with the country I’ve moved to, but rather the tumultuous emotional events that have occurred in my personal life as a result of the changes I’ve made. No preparation that I could have made ahead of time would have changed those events. And anyway, I have no regrets.
However, one logistical thing I would have done differently would have been to do more research on visas and work permits before I moved here. The South African Department of Home Affairs can be a very difficult agency to deal with, and I’ve got the battle scars to prove it. Expats are better off dealing with the embassies in their home countries before they come here. If you do it that way, you’re much more likely to get the visa that you want/need in a reasonable period of time.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
One of the biggest expat challenges I’ve faced since moving here is overcoming my fear of driving in Joburg, on the opposite side of the road from what I was used to in the States. At first, I tried to escape my fears by purchasing a bicycle, but I found that cycling in Joburg is also quite challenging. Read about my hilarious first attempt to cycle in Joburg in Cycling in a Town Where Car is King. I later hired a car from a company called Rent-A-Wreck, and the story of my first drive in “the Super Wreck” is also rather funny: An American Girl’s Guide to Driving in Joburg.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in South Africa?
- Don’t believe the hype and horror stories about crime in South Africa. Sure, you need to be careful here, as you do anywhere else. But there is no need to cower inside your house and stress about robberies and carjackings. Go out, be smart and aware of your surroundings, and enjoy this beautiful place.
- Sort out your visa before you come here.
- Come with an open mind.
How is the expat community in Johannesburg? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Joburg is a fantastic place to be an expat. I’ve made more friends in my 18 months here than in my previous 35 years combined. It’s an incredibly friendly city, for both locals and expats. Unlike in Cape Town, we can’t climb mountains or lay on the beach to pass the time. We make friends instead.
How would you summarize your expat life in South Africa in a single, catchy sentence?
I’m going to cheat and pull straight from the tagline of my blog: “I’m an American suburbanite living a quirky expat life in Johannesburg.”