Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Banana Bread In a Minimalist Kitchen

I was able to get about 3kg of bananas for R5 at Fruit and Veg city: the catch was that they were browning fast. Still, I've been wanting to bake and in the absence of a mixer, measuring cups, bread pans, baking sheets, muffin pans, baking powder, white sugar, and most other things one needs to bake, I haven't done much of it.

Forgot to take a picture until we'd dug in.
Banana bread was  possible without all those things. I could eyeball the proportions in this great recipe. I doubled the recipe so that it would fit in the roasting pan and use up 8 bananas, and used some brown sugar, though not as much as the recipe called for. And the result was really good.

Extraneous picture of Noah

So, the good news for those of us with less-equipped kitchens is that baking is possible!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Laundry Detergent Without Borax

We've gone through our first batch of Home-made laundry detergent, and my experience is that it's quick to make, much cheaper than store-bought, and may just work. I say "may just work" because the diapers are sometimes totally clean, and sometimes they don't seem to be as clean as they were in Boston. But we don't have hot water hookup to our washing machine, so that could be the reason.

The challenge I faced when I arrived in Cape Town is that no-one seems to make their own washing soap here, so two of the three most common ingredients- washing soda and borax- were not freely available. Borax is only available in tiny, expensive quantities to kill/maim cockroaches (at least in the shops I checked) and washing soda is not available at all.

[Eventually, I found Washing Soda (sodium carbonate) at Kismet, the tiny hardware shop in Wynberg, and found that it's also available, more cheaply at Builder's Warehouse in Maitland (but not the one in Tokai).]

Without further ado, here's the recipe.

Washing soda- 1 cup
1 Bar of laundry soap (grated)
Melted in a pot with however much water you can fit comfortably in the pot- you want the soap to be able to dissolve well.

Once the soap is melted, you can mix in about 5-7L (2.5 gallons or so) of water. I learned that it's better to put the mixture directly into the containers you'll be using for storage, because the mixture is semi-solid after it sets and can be hard to relocate.

Wait overnight, and it'll be ready to use in the morning!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Noah makes his first gun

Horrific title, I know. I remember being at dinner at the home of one of my favorite people, Sondra, and her being outraged that her kids found a duck hunting video game on their new console. They loved it. They shot pellets not actual pictures of ducks, but the point was, they were being exposed to guns. This one snapshot became my reference point for gun exposure. No Guns. No Pretend Guns. No Pretend Guns Shooting Pretend Things.

Fast forward 4 years, I was now a parent: I asked Sondra about how to stop Noah being exposed to guns. She sighed. Said it was no use, they'd just make guns out of sticks.

But Noah hasn't watched TV. He hasn't seen a movie. Nowadays it's just the two Mac Airs, sitting beside one another in perfect harmony.

Yet somehow, at the park on Sunday, the following event took place: I showed him a giant piece of bark that I'd picked up to take home, and he went off to behind the slide and I happily commented to Eug,
"Hey Eug, he might break the bark, but I'm ok with it. He's entertaining himself! Woohoo!"
To which Eug replied:
"Uhhh. Jo. I think he's shooting at us from a protected position."
"WHAT??? how does he know about shooting????"
"Uhh....No idea...."

Long story short, he's been making space ships and having strategic battles with daddy. They don't shoot, because, at the speed that spaceships move, guns would be ridiculous, apparently. They send out rockets.

And now, Noah ambushes his parents with bark at the park.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Not Writing about Vaccination (kindof)

I have a rough writing schedule for Concrete Gardener, because I'm like that. I was due to write a post about why I vaccinate. My thoughts were grounded by my public health-research background, and by my experiences in a Public Health Department. I felt like I could position myself, and maybe be convincing to you. I was writing, and I was quite convincing to myself. I read some anti-vaccine stuff, and they sounded sort of crazy to me (though there were exceptions).

I generally have no problem foisting my opinions on you. Yet I couldn't make the post stick. Which is surprising, because the quality of my posts range from "in need of some editing" to "random pictures of Noah":
Where Noah sleeps at Bobsie's. Just kidding. Where he Really Wants To Sleep at Bobsie's, but granny loves him too much.
I think the reason I struggled is because, in this and other things, it's really easy to take positions but very hard to understand where someone is coming from. And it's usually pretty easy to be convincing to ourselves. We spend much of our lives convinced of our own rightness. Which can cage us in a bit.

And I'm still convinced of my rightness on most things, but there's that sliver of "I-don't-know-what-your-circumstances-are-but-they-may-just-may-be-legitimate" in there. Which is just a hair different from all-the-way-convinced of my rightness, but it felt like enough to step back and get perspective. It seems more important to figure out how to relate. Maybe with my own story or whatever.


In the absence of the vaccine spiel I'm going with stream of consciousness today: I'm also struggling with our bathroom. Our bathroom is concrete and smelly and the toilet never gets clean and the paint and plaster on the walls are coming off. At night, it's owned by cockroaches, and it's hard to get it to smell ok.

The thing is, I don't actually mind that much. If we were renting, it's not something I would care about much. This is not to say unhygienic is my life dream, only that I know how to avoid illness, and how to keep Noah healthy, with the bathroom just the way it is.

Yet I mind on behalf of guests, who may expect something different. The second someone enters I feel like either closing the door (maybe locking it, too) or beginning to tell them about our remodel plans. So I wonder if I'm setting unnecessarily high standards for ourselves. We have a house that we own; there's something to being really satisfied with that for a while, unnatural as it feels. Anyway, I'm really hoping we can make this house feel right, without the sense that there's always one more thing we have to do to feel comfortable.

Friday, February 24, 2012

My Cup Overflows

Every week, my sister fits in a trip to Fruit and Veg City in the center of Cape Town, and takes me and Noah along. It's one of the highlights of my week.

The view from the grocery store. Not bad, huh?

I should ask Fruit and Veg City for sponsorship. I like them so much.
The view leaving the grocery. Still not bad!
This is a very literal cup overflowing. This is our food for the week. In Boston, eating like this would have been very, very difficult (very expensive and possibly irresponsible), even in summer. I haven't had to buy a can/tin opener yet because the tomatoes at Fruit and Veg city are so affordable. We can pretty much live on the fruits and vegetables from the week, with some occasional carbs (bread, where the flour is plentiful in our freezer, rice, and pasta)
For some reason Eug and Noah had this long modeling session with all the food.

Giant Sweet Potato

Noah carrying as many mangoes as possible.
Noah and the mini-pineapples 
A big bag of bananas for R5. Made a giant banana bread in our roasting pan.
I don't know which way is up.

Between the gift of the weekly trip, Noah getting treated to riding in the trolley/cart with Kim, the food, and the modeling session, I feel very blessed.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Very Good Breakfast Pear Crumble

[For Lent, I'm trying a fast from Facebook, which always gets addictive and unhealthy when I'm further from friends. That said, Facebook is one main way that people visit the blog- so if you usually look out for my posts on your newsfeed, please consider stopping by even though you don't see them in your newsfeed, or even consider sharing posts.] 

My weekly menu has become a lot more flexible, because I never know what will be good at Fruit and Veg City. Also, I wasn't sure the menu was detailed enough to give people ideas. So instead, I'll try sharing food I made for the first time in the past week. This week, pear crumble!

Pears are in season and cheap- R5/kg (that's about US$.20/lb) but they were being sold in a pretty hard state, so they're not exactly ready to be eaten. Impatient as I am, we've been eating them in Pear Crumble for breakfast, where they're soft (but not squishy) and delicious. I justify them as breakfast food because there's fruit and oats involved. [In other news, I've found that the avocados at Fruit and Veg City are still pretty bad. It's a little early in the season- who knew there were seasons for these things! My gut reaction was to give the avocados to the worms, then I realized my hair could use them.]

This is the recipe I've been tweaking, though I'd recommend substituting honey for some of the butter and brown sugar:

5-6 small pears
Juice from about 1/2 medium lemon
about 1 cup oats
2 tbs brown sugar
a little nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon
enough water and butter to make the topping moist but not completely wet.

1. Peel and cut the pears and lay them on a baking pan- you can use a large baking pan and just spread the pears across half the pan, or use a smaller dish. To keep cooking time short, layering them slightly thinly is better, but you don't want the pieces so tiny that they dry up when you cook them.

2. Squeeze the lemon juice directly onto the pears.

3. in a separate bowl, mix the spices, brown sugar and oats, and gradually add a little water and cut in some butter. I usually add 2-3 tbs butter, because I think butter is great. You can substitute honey for the butter and water and sugar. You're basically trying to get a topping that is a bit like wettish granola.

4. Cook in oven at about 180C/375F for about 30 minutes, or until the topping looks a bit brown.

Enjoy! This is enough for Eug and Noah and I to have a full breakfast. If you have it for dessert, it could probably go further, to serve 5 or 6 people. And if you had some ice-cream with it....

Other highlights from the week:

  • Sourdough pancakes! I love that this recipe uses up quite a bit of starter (none gets thrown away in our household), and that you don't need to add any additional flour.
  • Steak and potato chips night: I can't speak highly enough about having an evening to look forward to almost no cooking and a little really good steak. The potato chips are from a bag. Yes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Bigger Story

This is another longer, more serious post. As Lent starts, I wanted to share some of the things that didn't go as planned in my life, and also the ways in which it's turned out to be better than ok:

Although I'm South African, I'm originally from Durban so our move to Cape Town hasn't exactly been a homecoming. It's something a little different, particularly because I'm returning with Eugene (who grew up in Seoul and has U.S. and Korean family), Noah and Tiny Blob.

I wrote a while ago that our move has helped remind me that I can still have dreams and hopes for the future- even if different, less individualistic dreams than those from childhood. In Boston, I felt part of a breed of students who came and never left, like something in my story had gone awry. I was very attached to the overarching story of my life, rather than to the joy of individual moments or the place those moments seemed to be leading.

Lia and Sergio took us to this church that was built twice- parts are as old as a millennium, and parts are much younger. I really liked the combination. Noah ate maybe 8 clementines outside the church, so we're checking that he's still alive.

Rather than recounting this overarching plan, I'll just refer you to Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. Originality has never been my strength.

Somewhere in the middle of this story came unexpected illness and commitment to an abusive church. Eug and my marriage was suggested by leaders in the church, where suggestions were not just suggestions, and where the construct of marriage was about service to the church and taking a big step of faith for God. After we left the church in 2008, it was very hard to hold in tension my commitment to our marriage as something real and binding (and full of love) and my hope that others not go through what we did. I had returned to the U.S. to marry Eug- We'd married, I hadn't studied medicine, I was now deep in debt (ah, BU) and wasn't really sure what was next, since it seemed like it would take a miracle to leave the U.S. this time.

I love this style of semi-detached houses where we live now. 
Fast-forward five years: Returning to South Africa this year did feel miraculous, and it meant a return to that overarching story. Yet it was an outward return to a story we'd been living for a while. In Boston, our lives were rich. After leaving the southern baptist church, we experienced a lot of healing at the Greater Boston Vineyard. We were tremendously helped by the idea that practical things- money, how we spend our time, how we relate to family, how we treat the poor, how we work- could be part of creating heaven on earth. We could be part of glimpses of God right here, right now. 

We have time to read the local newspaper. And by local, I mean the People's Post for people living in the immediate 2.5 km radius in Salt River and Woodstock. Eug and I read every story. 
I think God gave me back a bit of the story I'd imagined (moving back to South Africa) to help me see all the other ways in which our lives have already been redeemed. I like to think that I'm part of a much bigger story, where the part I play is small, but it fits me perfectly. It's a story of family and creativity and community in a world that is ultimately God's. I'm still learning to notice really good moments, and that God is good in those moments and remains so in the bad ones. I'm convinced that God is fair, and that there's a big part of the picture I don't see yet, where even the suffering of the destitute will be redeemed. Which I believe in my heart, yet find incredibly hard to actually see when I can't get over my annoyance at the beggar at my gate.

Eug and I are both parts of this bigger story. In Boston, the blessings loomed large (baby Noah after miscarriages, paying off debt, having work, friends, a sunny day, Snow Emergencies, Panera, Trader Joe's,  etc) whereas here, my sense is that the bigger story must take center stage for a while while the rest is in flux. We're vulnerable to throwing up our hands and giving in to the uncertainty. I'm not sure if that makes sense- what I mean is that we have fewer grounding facts of our life here- few friends, few plans, few belongings, less financial control, less work, no church yet, and in a strange way, less to struggle against and more struggle.

Noah eats a Super C. For an hour. With pictures.
Rather, we have the dream of things to come, and the thought that somehow, fixing the bathroom forms part of a bigger picture. Fixing the bathroom is not just for the sake of fixing the bathroom, though it has it's own benefits (being less smelly).  It's part of a picture where we have less money but more time and more DIY skills. Which matters, in ways we don't fully understand.

In this context, realizing that God is good and that we are part of much, much bigger story seems either like small comfort or like more than enough to sustain us through unsettled times. I'm hoping it can be plenty, and also that we can catch glimpses of that story even as life seems strange. May God bless you in your part in the story. And have a great Lent, if you are thinking about Lent this year.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Homebirthing and Empowerment

As I'm getting closer to Tiny Blob's due date, I recently received our Homebirthing Checklist. I heard from a friend it's called being "empowered", and I actually do feel pretty empowered. Yet the list is very, very down-to-earth and makes me think of cleanup more than the beauty of childbirth.

My last birth experience was frantic, quick and extraordinarily painful. I got the unmedicated experience I'd been hoping for, but spent so much (10 hours, give or take) of the labour pretending to myself I wasn't in labour that the labour ended up being more about getting through than anything else. If I watch a TV show while I'm in labour this time, it certainly won't be Glee. Moments after the birth, I remember Eug disappearing with Noah  and the nurse and finding myself alone, in a fair amount of pain, in the storage closet at Mt Auburn, and wondering what I was supposed to feel or do. Wishing I'd forced them to let me breastfeed or told someone I couldn't get the stupid gown off to breastfeed because of the blood pressure cuff and being pathetically weak at that point. Eug called his mom and my parents; I think I wrote an e-mail to EeCheng on my iPod and told her to come over, and waited for what seemed like infinity before Noah and Eug returned. In the end, it didn't matter so much- these things are trivial compared to the enemas, shaving and episiotomies of our mothers (or worse, complications)- but this time round I get to stay with my baby.

Proof of the blood pressure cuff they wouldn't take off.

I do feel empowered to make choices, and I wonder if this sense of choice helps to make the experience a little less alienating. I wonder if being at home will make me less distracted by the hustle and bustle, and more able to see and experience the process. I'm not romanticizing- it's painful and gritty and there's a lot of blood involved- but it's also miraculous and I don't want to miss that.

Which I guess brings me back to being 30+ weeks pregnant and hoping to defend a PhD proposal in about 6 weeks. Which I don't bring up to make you think I'm tough. My sense is that, unless my personality changed in some fundamental way, the only way to get through my dissertation and be a loving mom is to do the defense before I have Tiny Blob, rather than soon after.

The question I'm trying to wrestle with is: how do I not miss out on these last ten weeks of pregnancy over something so ultimately trivial as a PhD proposal defense? Being pregnant is miraculous, and it may not happen again, so I hope I can notice the kicks and the rolls and the urge to prepare (less the tiredness and the heartburn). I want to imagine this next phase in our lives, and be grateful for it. Then, when labour rolls around as the bridge between our current world and the world in which we have two boys, I pray it can be about more than cleanup or survival or enduring a lot of pain.
Noah in his current, exuberant state.
And for your enjoyment, the home birthing list:
• 10 - 20 linen savers ( available from Birth Options / Dischem/ large pharmacy’s)
• 2 big buckets (1 for linen, other for waste) with black bags in each
• 2l ice cream or similar container for the placenta
• Thick plastic sheeting for bed and floor (old shower curtains are good) available from e.g. Plastics for Africa, Builder’s Warehouse…
• old towels- at least 8
• mat for kneeling on (e.g. foam/ camping/ yoga)
• Heater and/or hot water bottles/ heated wheat packs – birth environment needs to be warm
• Plug point close to envisioned birthing area (but be aware of safety electricity vs. water!)
• Mobile light e.g. desk lamp , strong torch)
• Sports drink bottle / straws
• Face cloths / water spray bottle
• Hand held mirror ( cheap at the Crazy Store / Chinese shops)
• Gym ball
• Roll of paper towel
• Roll of cotton wool/ gauze
• Disinfectant / cleaning wipes / cloths
• Stuff for mom (maternity pads, undies, etc.)
• Stuff for baby (nappies, vest, babygrows HAT, etc.)
• Digital thermometer
• Music
• Camera / video recorder!
• Suitable food/ drinks for the occasion!
• Pain tablets for after birth e.g. Panado / Ibuprophen / Mypaid

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Two More Blogs

This past week, Noah had almost zero tantrums and was generally about the incredible human being I've had the pleasure of being with. Which was a change from the previous week, when things like
a) walking in the door b) Waking up c) Anything
would make him scream and cry and lie on the floor for a long while. Somehow, putting him in his room until the tantrum was over worked amazingly well, also for helping me not to totally freak out that my child was freaking out. Moving has brought with it a lot of struggle, which I think Noah internalized. That and getting closer to aged two. I'll talk more about [the deeper parts of] moving in the next few days

In the meantime, I wanted to bring your attention to two more blogs on the right. One is Momentary Delight, the blog of a friend who is really good about sharing about faith experiences. I don't write very much about Christian faith here, though it's at the center of Concrete Gardener, mainly because I haven't been able to figure out how to share in a way that's true but feels safe- for me and for readers. I'm hoping it's something I can learn how to do. In the meantime, read Momentary Delight.

The other blog is my sister's blog, Circles in the Sand. I love my sister's writing style and her gentleness.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Attempts at Zero Waste in Cape Town

I'll start with questions for those living in Cape Town (or other parts of South Africa), before talking about our experience of reducing waste here in Cape Town:

  • Does anyone get milk in returnable glass bottles? Could you help me do the same?
  • Does anyone go to the butcher with their own containers- any suggestions on this?
  • Mushrooms and cheese also seem to be always packaged in plastic. Are there places where this is not the case?

My husband, one-year-old son and I recently moved from Boston, USA to Cape Town, South Africa. I'm originally from South Africa, but we'd been living in Boston for more than a decade. We'd got into a rhythm of gradually reducing our footprint (and perhaps plateaued) in Boston, but Cape Town is totally new to us.

We arrived with very little and have been gradually making decisions about everything from second-hand furniture, paint, shelving, beds, and food.

Zero Waste vs. Zero Landfill Trash
If I interpret "zero waste" as not wasting anything, I'd say South Africans are doing pretty well. Broken electronics find a new life, again and again, as they move down the economic food chain. This is similarly true for bottles, tins/cans and other trash. They are reused before they are recycled. The exception to this seems to be plastic bottles that line the streets of our neighborhood.

With good weather and a strong agricultural infrastructure, food uses up much fewer miles to get to our plate- even without any effort on our part. Electricity is expensive and pre-paid, so we watch your meter go down in real-time as I cook. However, both water and cooking are primarily fueled by electricity, rather than gas. Electricity is really inefficient at these two tasks.

But "zero landfill trash" is a different story. Recycling depends on the individual- there's no free neighborhood recycle pickup. Produce tends to be packaged (in plastic bags and polystyrene), even more than in Boston, and it's difficult to get milk in reusable jars. With recycling as less of a viable option, we're less likely to use it as a fallback option. Here are some things we've been trying:
  • Starting worm bins. We started with about 1000 worms, and they are multiplying fast. We have the advantage that they can stay outdoors all year round, but the disadvantage that we're often under siege by ants. The worms are able to consume the fairly large amount of organic and paper waste we produce every day, and we will soon be able to start fertilize our container garden with rich worm castings.
  • Using soda bottles (not bought by us) as self-watering containers. This helps use bottles on the street usefully.
  • Using deposit (returnable) bottles when we really feel like soda. I'm keeping the caps, and have an idea for how to use them.
  • When we have to buy things in packaging, we're favoring glass, and using these glass containers for freezing leftovers, and for other storage.
  • We haven't bought a can/tin opener, which means that there's virtually no metal waste in the house.
  • I buy flour, pasta, sugar and rice at the local large-volume shop, Makro, and keep them in our deep freeze, so that they can't be attacked by all the ants. I buy produce at the local Fruit and Veg City, which doesn't require you to bag and pre-weigh produce (as all other stores do), meaning no plastic bags, and no labels.
  • Rather than buying a large fridge-freezer, we bought a small bar fridge and a chest freezer. The chest freezer is relatively full, so seems to require very little energy to keep cold. The bar fridge is also quite full, and it's much less likely that we'll waste food: we see what's there as soon as we open the fridge. We also bought second hand household appliances wherever possible.
  • I keep sourdough starter for bread, so there's no need to buy the tiny pre-packaged yeast packets, and the sourdough is essentially waste-free. I cut the large loaf into 4 pieces and freeze three, so that it's fresh when we eat it.
  • We have a small house, and a solar geyser.

In a society where most people's footprints have nowhere to go but up, and a street that's totally concrete, I want our little house to be overflowing with green life. I dream of our home being a haven and a place that uses resources in creative ways. Thanks for being part of this dream!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Noah's first visit to the Penguins

Thanks to the fact that we don't have real jobs, we're able to do fun stuff on Fridays. This past Friday was Noah's first time meeting the penguins. 
It's windy here...

They don't let you roam around with the penguins anymore (there are paths), but Noah could still see them. He called them ducks. Which made us doubt whether we could have just gone to the nearest park.

Back at home, Noah has dibs on all the best food in our house. Including grapes, which are ripening fast on my dad's vine. He promises to get a cutting for me this coming winter! This picture also hints at the changes that have been taking place in our kitchen. I'll share a lot more pictures soon. There's a lot to do, but given we're doing things ourselves, and on the cheap, we're in a really good place.

And in other news, the sourdough has gotten it's groove back. The secret seems to be: don't leave it to rise too long (10 hours is plenty here in summer) and use 1.5 cups, instead of 1 cup, of starter.  This is 50% whole wheat; I really like that it doesn't seem crumbly or gritty. 


Just a quick note to bring your attention to the Blogroll on the right. I had one a while ago, around the time I also had adsense (ha!). Check out these friend's great blogs!

If you're interested in being added to the roll, let me know! I'm looking for blogs of people who are not too far removed, rather than showcasing the blogs that already have 4 million hits a day.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Choosing a Bar Fridge for a Family

When Eug and I moved to Cape Town, we had no appliances.

I suggested that we try a bar fridge and deep freeze rather than a fridge freezer. A chest freezer allows us to buy staples in bulk. A small fridge seemed like an interesting way to lessen food waste, energy use, and the length of time between buying something and eating it.

We're not all the way to doing without a fridge, but there's a whole subset of the sustainability movement who are. Who knew? They argue that, if every family in the world had a fridge, global warming would be even more terrifying than it is now. I find that argument compelling, even as I am unsure on how to live without a chest freezer or a car in a city like Cape Town- that is, one either has to buy staples occasionally, and store them in a deep freeze (at least during summer), or spend a huge amount of time and money buying in small quantities and storing (in this scenario, baking bread and eating pasta and rice might be replaced with carb or non-carb alternatives that I don't really know about yet). So cities are just not set up for people to do without a fridge.

Our experience with a small bar fridge has been really good. I've had to think about how to finish everything in the fridge, and there's no space for getting a lot of condiments. Both these things are good, I think. I find myself carefully figuring out how to finish everything in the fridge over the course of the week, so that there's space for fresh fruit and vegetables. I'm not tempted to buy three different kinds of yoghurt and cheese.

Anyway, so here's my plug for a bar fridge (if your fridge breaks).
  1. It is cheaper to buy.
  2. It uses a little less energy.
  3. It uses less space.
  4. It helps me eat the way I'd like to eat- that is, it helps me to eat fresh, from scratch meals and helps prevent food waste. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I've Updated the "If You're New" Page

Hi everyone, 

Please consider checking out the "If You're New" Page, freshly updated (and copied below for your convenience).

Now that Eug and I have actually managed to quit our jobs, move to Cape Town, pay off our student loan and consumer debt, and live in a house that is paid for (three big goals we've been working towards since I started the blog), it seemed like a good time to rethink how to make the blog, and our story, helpful and interesting to readers. 

Thank you very much for reading, and may 2012 be a great year. 

I started Concrete Gardener when my husband Eug and I were living in a tiny apartment in Watertown, just outside Boston. I was interested in exploring social responsibility in the U.S. context. That is, if we have so much, how do we:

  1. Enjoy what we have.
  2. Not take more than we need.
  3. Use what we have really well.
I'm still interested in those things, though our location has changed and many of Eug and my dreams around working less and doing more have come true. After working in a state government Refugee Health program for several years, I'm now telecommuting part time, doing a PhD, and helping to take care of our son Noah. Eug runs his own Graphic Design business, and also works from home while helping to take care of Noah.

I'm South African, and after 12 years away, Eug, our son Noah, and I moved to South Africa at the beginning of 2012.

My dream for the blog this year is to speak to people in my life stage- those in their 20s and 30s who are figuring out how to live "well." I'd love living well to include making space for others- whether they be workers in China who make my Apple products, or neighbors, or family.

I've been humbled to find that the questions are totally different here in South Africa- not only because of economic inequality, but also because work culture, shops, public transportation, the second hand market, and recycling are all so different. So the blog is not "how to" do frugality, simplicity, or minimalism. It's just a story of our family and things we're trying out. I hope it'll be helpful to you.

Here are some past posts to check out:

Down to just two bags and two plastic totes (Our experience of radical minimalism)
More Wonder Years to Come (may it be so!)

Some Recipes

Some Posts Involving Noah and Parenting

As a side project, Eug and I are really interested in sharing the stories of entrepreneurs through Conferre, though we're envisioning a simple blog format in future. 

If you're interested in getting in touch, I'd love to hear from you, either through the Facebook page or by e-mail at . 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Solar Water Heating in Cape Town

As I mentioned in a previous post, our solar geyser/water heater was installed on Monday. Today, someone came to install a timer, so that we can get our Eskom rebate (of about 1/4 of the total cost). As you may be able to tell from the picture, our roof is pretty steep, and there's no way to get up on the roof from our property. But it was still possible! I wanted to share what I learned about solar power in the last few months:
Yes, our neighbors have security cameras...
There are two kinds of solar power- water heating and electricity panels. Solar water heating is often the first step in moving towards alternate energy, because so much of South African electricity is used on heating up water (around 40-50%). It's also the simplest kind of solar power, as (in most cases) the sun simply heats up pipes filled  with water, and the heat rises to the solar geyser. There's no electricity involved in our system, but the geyser is connected in such a way that we can use electricity to heat it up on cold or rainy days.

Some people retrofit their old geyser, so that all that's on the roof is the panel. The only challenge with this is that you still need electricity to pump the water through the panel.

The cost for a geyser + panel + installation etc here in Cape Town ranged from about R15,000-R25,000. Our system had a rebate of R5332, which was the highest of the rebates we saw.

In the Southern hemisphere, the system is most effective on a North facing roof. Right now, in summer, we have scalding hot water without ever needing to turn on the electricity. Long may it last.

What's out of place here?: A timer can turn on the geyser during non-peak hours so that it is on only for a short spurt of time. 
In other news, Eug is working hard on our bed. We've never actually had a bed before, so I'm pretty excited. We may even be able to do underbed storage. You can see our benches, which we've been painting and varnishing.

And Noah loves his Malaysian tracksuit- thank you Sam and Julie. On Tuesday, he wet himself and still didn't want to take his pants off. That's love.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Some totally irrelevant photos will be included as proof that we have internet. And I'll take photos of our new geyser as soon as I can. 
This is to show the "before" photo of a chair and desk we bought in Salt River.
I knew we'd been a bit grumpy and down when I got the first comment I've ever received around complaining. We HAVE been grumpy. Sorry. Immigrating is hard, and it's no reflection on South Africa- South Africa is awesome- like the U.S. it has its quirks- but that's not the sum total of anything.

We've been praying for our house and for the things that had us down, and others have also been praying for us. I'm really encouraged, not just by actual concrete changes, but also by a sense that we are supported in supernatural (and natural) ways. We had a massive ant infestation that seems to be easing up. It's the little things...

Noah helps with painting, but he has to be naked for his craft to show through. (Don't worry, not the real paint).
First: Our solar geyser installation was completed. We knew our steep roof with old clay tiles and shared wall made installation difficult, but our neighbors graciously allowed the installation from their property with no complaints, and the process is (almost) complete. After a day like today, the water is almost boiling- the geyser will likely not use any electricity during the summer months. We're one of the only houses on our street with a North facing roof.

I'm hoping that, conservatively, the geyser will pay for itself in about 4 years. [On the one hand, we don't spend nearly as much on electricity as the average home (R300 vs. R1000); but on the other, the only other major energy cost in our household is the stove.]

Second: Just as the solar installers were leaving, two teenagers came and asked if we'd like new CFLs. CFLs, really? From Eskom (the national energy provider), for free. They changed out our bulbs for us. It was a small thing, but it felt like grace. We've been meaning to change out the bulbs but it's hard to throw away working bulbs, you know? Apparently they're recycling the old bulbs and helping people with the transition to CFLs.

Third: After phoning Telkom at least a few times a week for over a month, as of 4pm we had the line we needed to get internet. MWEB helped us the rest of the way. VICTORY!

Noah sits on daddy's head whenever he can. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mini-Retirements for Families: Could Semi-retirement be better?

[Still no internet, but I'm at my parent's house because the calls to Telkom take so incredibly long that they eat up all my cell phone money- yesterday R100 on hold to Telkom- so it gives me a chance to show you a picture of Noah =)]
Noah the Lion
In 2011, we traveled with our one year old for about two and a half months and eventually landed up in South Africa. During the first half of the year, while we were still living in Boston, we took trips to South Africa, Korea, and Mexico, as well as a local trip to Myrtle Beach. Apart from using a lot of fossil fuel, Eug and I thought a lot about the concept of mini-retirement and travel in the context of family.

We'd long thought that mini-retirements were the holy grail of awesome things to do. While I still think mini-retirements and travel are wonderful, our travel experience makes me tend towards a sustained decade of semi-retirement, particularly when our babies need us most. Here's why:

1) Being "minimalists" with a one year old and a pregnant member of the family still leaves you with too much stuff to comfortably carry about for anything more than about 1km. We could have traveled with somewhat less if we weren't taking pretty much everything we owned. So it's doable, but the key to making a mini-retirement affordable is not renting or having a vacant house anywhere.

3) Traveling isn't super relaxing with a one-year-old. Our most relaxing trip was when Noah was 13 months old and we went on a very short trip to Cancun, Mexico (after being refused entry to the UK), because we were able to swim for hours every day. I'd really advocate slow, swimming-friendly travel for people with little children (this is where elimination communication is very useful, because poop was never a concern). Myrtle Beach was also very nice, also because my mom-in-law watched Noah and we had extra support. The highlights of our trip on the Melody were the four swims we were able to take in Cadiz, Tenerife, Dakar, and Walvis Bay (Dakar was the most gentle and unexpected)- I wish there had been more opportunities. Even though it isn't super-relaxing, you can still travel with a one year old. Having children is not the end of travel!

5) Taking care of a baby is a full-time job. So it doesn't make sense to plan to take a mini-retirement where you work full time on your creative endeavors, unless you're NOT traveling or your spouse is NOT doing anything else.

6) We came to believe that part-time work for both spouses, and staying in one place, works better for us when Noah is so small. After about two months in South Africa, we're still not settled (we don't have internet, for example) and we're still spending more than we'd like. My take on this is that staying in one place long term (or being able to afford a furnished apartment or hotel hehe) is a good idea, as I think it'll be a while before we're able to spend a day now and then on the beach, or spend a day doing nothing. In the interim, we're learning to live on less, and gradually fixing up our house to be a welcoming place. Every day we have at least two meals together, and Noah is getting tons of time with both of us, both miracles I sometimes take for granted in what still feels like busy-ness.

You could also try to make money on your child's good looks
A decade of semi-retirement seems a bit obnoxious- who gets to do that?! I recognize that this only works if you have at least one partner with potentially location independent income, that it depends on education and the state of the market and unemployment and so many other factors. And it's extremely difficult to do in the U.S., where health insurance is so difficult to afford outside of employment. These limitations aside.... Eug and I each earned between 40 and $50 000 in the U.S.; the key to being able to work less was the two years we spent keeping our expenses low and working full-time before we had children. In those two years, we were able to pay off over $50,000 in student loan debt, and save enough for about 40% of the cost of our little house. We were then able to pay off the remaining 60% in the two years that followed.

Eug stopped work about 2 years before I did, which meant, essentially, a drop to one income for a time while he built up his business as a graphic designer. By having flexibility in one parent's schedule, and some flexibility in my schedule, we saved a lot of money on daycare and give Noah the benefit of one-on-one love from a parent. It also meant I was reliable at work, when a lot of women can't be, which in turn gave me the flexibility to work from very early in the morning until 2 or 3pm and to pump throughout the first year.

Two years later, when I stopped full-time work, I was able to get two alternate streams of income, which makes us at least partially location independent. Doing a PhD at this point in my life wasn't super strategic, but it's worked out very well: Noah and Tiny Blob will be close together in age, so being effective in full-time work would have not have been feasible, but getting a PhD just might be.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

This Week's Menu Winner: Tomato-Basil Soup (As well as this week's menu)

Fruit and Veg City was selling 5kg of tomatoes for R20 last week (that's less than US$.25/lb), so we've eaten tomatoes in the form of lentils, pasta sauce, and Tomato-basil soup. The surprising menu winner for the week was Tomato-Basil Soup. The soup is really quick, easy, and tasty:

1.5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
Around 20 Tomatoes
Fresh basil, chopped
A couple of cloves of garlic.
Simmer for a few minutes.

Add some heavy cream, if you have it.
Blend for about 2 seconds


Week of January 29
Monday Hake + Pepper + mashed potato
Tuesday Pasta with Tomatoes and green peppers
Wednesday Left over lentils + pan fried potatoes
Thursday Risotto with pine nuts + vegetable + garlic +SA Parmesan
Friday Steak and chips (Chicken wings were WAY too much work)
Saturday Left over risotto
Sunday Soup + sourdough bread