Monthly Archives: April 2014

South African Reality Check – And This One Goes Out to the Tourism Industry on the Whole

Wasting precious resourcesOkay, I’m not going to even bother editing. I’m just going to write this out. Because I’m pretty positive if I read what I write, I’ll go back through everything to edit it down and make it nice and neat and it will lose all semblance of the vitriol this post deserves. I’m not even going to apologise for calling these places out. It’s appalling what they do, and everyone should be aware of what’s really going on  in this industry.

Without further ado –

Let me tell you a little secret that many of the lodges in the tourism industry of South Africa don’t want you to know. Slave labour is alive and well, and it’s serving you your breakfast at that fancy schmancy lodge you’re paying a grand a night per person to stay at. Want to know what your host is getting paid? Or your guide? Or your room attendant?

Let me give you a little insider breakdown, so you know what actually happens in the hospitality industry here in South Africa. Guides get paid a paltry few grand a month (in Rands, don’t forget). And when I say a few grand, I mean 3-4k on the higher end AT MOST 5-STAR lodges!!! They rely on tips, which the lodge doesn’t tell the guests about, probably because they don’t want the guests to feel obliged (they have, after all, just shelled out two month’s salary to stay at said swanky lodge), and they also don’t want people asking why gratuities – which, by definition, aren’t required – are so necessary for their staff. I don’t know. Maybe because they don’t want people to know that all the money guests pay goes to the owners of the lodge so they can drive their top-of-the-line Land Cruisers and fly their private helicopters and send their children to the top boarding schools in the world? Just a guess.

Staff get paid pittance, and the lodges use the excuse that they ‘provide for housing and food’ while staff is working. The important part of that sentence is ‘while staff is working’, and I’ve heard every excuse in the book as to why they suddenly CAN’T provide decent food and housing, or food and housing at all. The housing is usually appalling (I’ve seen AND lived in it first-hand; I know). You live in a room, sometimes with its own bathroom, sometimes not, sometimes with a roommate, sometimes not. You have no way of keeping food, so you have to rely on the lodge to provide it. And they don’t. You often miss meals because you are too busy working to get food “at the required meal time”, and you end up going to bed hungry. At breakfast you get cereal and milk. Ask for anything else and you are out of line. They let you fend for yourself. God help you if the kitchen staff doesn’t like you…

The last lodge I worked at paid me R5k a month, and I was supposed to share in the communal tips the lodge received. The owners, however, had not paid out tips since April of that year (and I started working there in August). I left in October, and tips still hadn’t been paid out to staff. The owners took the money and pocketed it themselves.

At this particular lodge (which is supposed to be 5-star, by the way), we had to buy our own food, pay for our own electricity, pay for our own internet access, and they even tried to force us to pay for tea, coffee and water. I’m not joking. This was a lodge that often didn’t have running water, period. Which meant there were days when I had nothing to drink unless I bought it from the lodge. And more often than not, I had no water to shower with. I worked with cheetah, cleaning out cat enclosures and quite literally shoveling shit. But after a long, sweating day, I often could not even so much as wash my hands. And my housing at least had a private bathroom, even though it usually didn’t function. More than half the staff didn’t have that ‘luxury’.

For the first week, I lived in a room. I had no way to cook or feed myself. And I was given problems by the owners, who resented that the kitchen had to feed me until I could be provided with proper housing. And my place was a palace compared to the staff quarters for the non-white staff. And yes, it was certainly split white/non-white. The majority of the staff was not even South African (me included), and they lived in two other areas. Their rooms didn’t have kitchens or even bathrooms. They had communal bathrooms. Down the road. Again, this is not abnormal. It’s apparently acceptable to treat the people who keep your lodge running like this.

I should also point out that they ‘encourage’ you to leave on your time off (which is another issue altogether, but we’ll get to that later), which politely means you HAVE to leave the premises and find somewhere to stay for two weeks. Hopefully you have your own means of transportation. Otherwise, you have to find a way to get to a bus and then go…where? Pay rent for an apartment that you aren’t in for 6 weeks at a time? Go stay with mom and dad or some other family member, wherever they may be? And all that money you get paid is immediately down the toilet just getting you where you need to go, because you have NO HOME.

Now let’s chat about ‘time off’, shall we? You work in cycles in the tourism industry. Most places I know of do six weeks on, two weeks off. That’s 6 weeks straight, 7 days a week, and usually 14- to 16-hour days (in some cases longer). Then you get your two weeks off, of which two of those days are spent getting wherever it is that you call home. So really, you get twelve days off. Now do the math. There are 52 weeks in a year, which means 52 weekends, right? That’s 104 days you would normally have off in any other industry, just for weekends – not including holidays, vacation days, etc. Do the math for a lodge cycle. You get 84 days off. That’s IT! That’s 20 days LESS than there are weekend days in the year. AND you don’t get paid extra for working on a holiday, and you don’t get holidays off. And some lodges don’t give you any extra days for actual leave, which is not only wrong, IT’S ILLEGAL! And yet it continues to happen. And even better? I’ve worked in a place that tried to take away people’s leave days. They would overbook and understaff and then expect employees to give up their leave time, WITH NO COMPENSATION.

Here’s another fun tidbit. My fiancé, who now works at one of these shitshows, is not allowed to have me visit him unless I use one of his bed nights. Bed nights are nights given to staff so that they can have guests come stay at the lodge. Staff get one per month or more. It might seem like a cool perk except THEY GET ONE A MONTH. AND if a room at the lodge isn’t available, I get to shack up with my fiancé and his roommate in their little tiny hovel AND THEY STILL TAKE HIS BED NIGHTS AWAY FROM HIM! So, essentially, unless my fiancé comes to see me, I don’t see him for months at a time.

People ask me why I don’t get a job where he and I can work together. Been there, done that. After working in that industry and seeing what I’ve seen, I’ve had enough of it. I won’t go back. And he doesn’t get paid enough to come visit me. Which means I spend most of my year not seeing my fiancé. Great situation, isn’t it?

When staff have tried to form unions to ensure they get paid a decent wage and are treated better, they’ve been threatened by lodges (who have all the money, so it’s a tough battle to win). They’ve been fired. They’ve been bad-mouthed by the lodge (which is also illegal, by the way) and banned from working in the industry. All kinds of bad things came of people asking to treated decently.

I write this not because I’m lazy, greedy and don’t want to work, and the people who work in this industry are also not lazy, greedy or don’t want to work. I write this because this industry is absolutely disgusting and people in it are afraid to speak up. Government certainly isn’t doing anything about it. There is no legislation that makes it mandatory for these lodges to provide their staff with higher wages, no legislation that denies them the ability to use their staff like slave labour, no legislation that protects these people and requires that they have decent housing, food and pay. And somehow the lodges manage to get out of the legal requirement that employees work a maximum number of days per year, which is being grossly overstepped in this industry.

I get a lot of people saying to me, “Well, you know. That’s the industry. If you don’t like it, get out.” Really? So, you think the thing to do is to run away and let it continue happening? Because by saying that, you are perpetuating it. You are saying it’s okay; just don’t make it your problem, right? No, it’s not okay.

Lodges spring up all the time. Lodges that purport to be any number of stars, though they more often than not pose as five-star, yet don’t offer anywhere near a five-star experience. They sure charge for it, though.

These lodges do not deserve to be in business. They are using up valuable resources and space and not providing anything in return, except money to line their own pockets. They often employ people who are not South African (me, case in point), so they aren’t contributing to the South African community. They spend more money on marketing than on paying their staff and keeping up their places.

People need to know what goes on in this industry, and something needs to be done. I’m tired of seeing friends of mine work their tails off, hoping to scrape by on tips, and then having guests not tip them because they don’t know any better. And the fact of the matter is, the guests shouldn’t HAVE to tip these guys for them to be able to make a living. In some cultures, tips are considered rude. How dare these lodges lay the onus on the guests, who are already doing their part by paying to stay there!

I’m not saying people shouldn’t tip. But I am saying that the lodges are making out like bandits, not paying their staff enough, and taking no responsibility for the fact that they take total advantage of their staff. While I know I am only one person, and I’m also aware that there probably aren’t a whole lot of people reading this, I do hope those who do read it will share it. This needs to go viral in a big way. This practice needs to stop. And I need you guys to help me. Please consider passing this along.

Thanks for listening to me vent.


All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa | Leave a comment

My South African Adventure: Continuing On My Soapbox to Appreciate All Things…

Who said hyena are ugly?

a little chocolate drop of cuteness

Hyenas Are Fascinating, Not Disgusting

I saw this article and it made me think of my recent post about how we love supporting the cute, cuddly, and/or vegetarian creatures. But everything else?  Nope. Does it fit our perception of what is considered “pretty”? No? Kill it. Wait! What??? How would you feel if someone said that about you? What if you were a fugly baby and your parents looked at you and said, “Oh well, let’s try again,” and then threw you out the window? Every creature – big or small, cute or fugly – is important.

Hence why this article made my smile. I love hyenas. I think they are fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all because they are one of the few species where the female is the dominant figure in the clan (yup, a group of hyena is called a clan). The sexes are incredibly difficult to tell apart, the female is often bigger than the male, and they all make the most astounding vocalisations.

Yes, hyena really do giggle. I’m convinced that the sounds used when the bad gremlins were hatching in the movie Gremlins were actually hyenas. And if so, it’s yet another example of people misunderstanding these incredibly intelligent animals. I feel a need to help change this negative perception. I also have to admit, two of my most treasured memories of Africa include episodes with hyenas (one where a male came up to my fiancé and I and drank from the bathtub in front of us, and another, where a mother and her two cubs slept on my front lawn like domestic dogs and let us sit with them for a good hour).

Hyenas are not dogs and they are not cats. Though their behaviour is more in line with canines, they’re actually more closely related to felines. However, they are actually their own little family (Hyaenidae).

I’ve checked this out in a few different places, and it appears that no one can make up their mind as to how many species of hyena there are. I’ll go with there being four species of hyena – spotted, brown and striped and, of course, the family misfit – the aardwolf. And the aardwolf – threatening as it may sound – is insectivorous, pretty much living on termites. A little bit of a letdown there. With the exception of the aardwolf, whoever named the different species of hyena suffered from a severe lack of creativity. And even their Latin names are boring. Crocuta crocuta? Hyaena hyaena? Really?? At least the brown hyena and the aardwolf got a little more variety, Parahyaena brunnea and Proteles crostata, respectively. I wonder if they might get more love if we renamed them. The Golden Spotted Hyena? The Mahogany Hyena? The Zebra Hyena? Sounds much nicer than plain old spotted, brown and striped. Anyway…

So, one of my beefs with the bad rap hyenas get has to do with lions. Everyone praises the lion. The incorrect perception is that lions are the mighty hunters while hyenas do nothing but steal everyone else’s food. Yet as far as scavengers go, lions scavenge much more than hyenas. In fact, spotted hyenas in particular are actually quite good at hunting and catching their own prey. It’s often the lions who come in and take the hyenas’ food, not the other way around.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here are some good sites if you want to learn a bit more about these fascinating, misunderstood creatures. After all, better to come from the experts than some girl from New Jersey…

Oh, and they spell hyena like so in South Africa: hyaena. Eish, somebody needs to start a petition to make all spellings of English words consistent.

African Wildlife Foundation


Okay, I’m not sure about the expertise of this last link, but I still think it’s a good read: Another Land

And my hyena anthem would have to be: Beautiful, by Christina Aguilera, because honestly, words can’t bring you down, little hyena. Rise above!


Creature of the night

Creature of the night


All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Conservation, Education, nature, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All things big and small – grace among the wild things

Lenny climbs out of his crib

Leonard, the little castaway

Lenny climbs to get a better view

Lenny climbs to get a better view

I read an article today that actually caused me to stop what I was doing. I focused. This doesn’t happen often. It was called “When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?” The reason I mention it is that something about what I read compelled me to start writing. For this, I apologise. There’s a good chance that no matter how hard I try to keep this post from rambling off into the stratosphere, it probably will, despite my best intentions. I blame my befuddled brain.

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, to be honest, I’ve been struggling to write lately. Too much work, too little energy, too much pressure on myself to produce something of Pulitzer calibre. Which, let’s be honest, is not likely. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever let my fear of not saying something profound keep me from saying something anyway. But lately I’ve been feeling…I don’t know. Pensive? Apprehensive? Doubtful? Not sure what it is. Maybe it’s all of the above. But I haven’t wanted to write. Or, better yet, I haven’t felt I had anything to say that anyone might care to hear. I’ve actually been feeling lost in my thoughts. Like I’m in a full-on lexicographic labyrinth and I have no idea where I’m trying to go. I cannot find the magic words.

Since childhood, I have had a tenuous and tumultuous relationship with writing. Throughout life, I found myself using writing as an outlet for every ounce of darkness and light I had tucked inside me. And it seemed to scare people a little. Or a lot, if you were my parents. So it was something I was comfortable with, yet afraid of, if that makes any sense. It was yet another thing about me that made me different, and I was kind of tired of being different. I just wanted to be.

For as long as I can remember, I have found myself unable to grab the right word out of my brain to say exactly what it is I want to say. I don’t like public speaking for this same reason. And I always get told I speak too quickly, which is equivalent to being told you need to chill out, you need to calm down, you need to be someone you are not. I cannot help that my brain moves faster than my tongue is capable of keeping pace. But whether it’s something I can control or not, hearing those words has kept me from opening my mouth in the first place. And by extension, it’s kept me from opening my thoughts up to scrutiny. I’ve held in much I would’ve loved to have bled out over the page. Lovely image, I know. But a verbal hemorrhage is sort of what I feel needs to happen.

What does this all have to do with me being in South Africa, loving my wildlife, and writing a headline such as the one this post has? Well, perhaps all the energy I’ve kept tightly bound inside has finally broken through some poorly defended section of my brain. Lately, I’ve felt like my entire body is on fire, reverberating with these wild vibrations that are pushing against my insides and squeezing my heart and lungs ever tighter and tighter. I often can’t breathe. It’s the closest approximation I have of what it must feel like to jump out of your skin.

Sitting here, listening to clicking stream frogs sending their unanswered love calls into the cool night air, I wonder some times whether I feel so tightly wound because I simply do not belong where I am. I mean that in a physical and a metaphysical way. I love the pulse of a city, but I melt in the masses of people, industry, technology and closed spaces. I don’t belong in cities. In nature, I feel like my whole being suddenly feels a release. And yet in the bush I’m still bound. I can’t just wander off, unless I have a death wish. I must stay within the confines of a small space, still watching the world from what feels like a large, wide-open window. I’m stuck in between.

baby monitor lizard

Morning with a monitor

It’s in times like these that I relish the small things. And I really mean the small things: the lizards, the frogs, the birds, the rodents, and yes, even the spiders and snakes. I feel more connected to the animals and invertebrates that cluster around the warmth of my home than I do the behemoths of the land that everyone comes to Africa to see. By no means am I implying I don’t like the big guys. Elephants, lions, rhinos, buffalo…I love them all. But I am disconnected from them. I cannot reach out and touch them. In many ways, they are as close to me as are the stars in the sky. I can watch, I can admire. But I cannot connect.

The smaller creatures come into my world, sharing my space with me. They sit with me, they chatter away to me, they eat my soap and my mosquitos. They keep me company in what can be a very lonely, cold world. And this unlikely friendship, if you can call it that, blesses my life with a sweet, gentle grace. I feel alive. I feel part of something. I feel real.

These little things never get the attention of their much larger wildlife cousins. For some reason, so many other people I’ve met seem to feel they don’t matter. Or they aren’t good enough to care about.

Before Waldo became an indoor frog

Waldo’s wilder cousin

I think about my little baby gecko, Leonard. Most people I know would not enjoy having geckos hatch in their clothes. I love it. I think it’s amazing that, regardless of all the things humans do to keep our species separate from everything else in the animal kingdom, the animal kingdom still sticks up its middle finger to us and finds a way in. I don’t like getting bitten or stung, but I also don’t begrudge other life from sharing this spinning blue and green ball with me. I say “Good morning” to my resident jumping spider. I usher ants, crickets and scorpions out of the way. People look at me as though there’s something wrong with me for doing these things. Why?

Perhaps it is exactly this question that has kept me from writing. Why? Why do we not love all things, big and small? Why do we discriminate against the creatures we don’t find appealing (for whatever reason, whether it’s their scales, their multiple legs, their ability to eat holes through our bags of flour, etc)? Who are we to choose what’s worth saving and what isn’t? What’s important and what isn’t? Are humans simply that shallow? “Why” is a very uncomfortable question for a lot of people in this world.

Usually when I ask why, I receive anger. I receive vitriol. How dare I ask something that begs someone to think! To answer for their behaviour! To answer, period! Well, why not? People seem to have no problem demanding that of me. Why can’t I ask the questions?

So, with this in mind, I will have to find a way to keep writing. Because someone has to ask. Someone has to wonder. I hope you will wonder with me.

My morning alarm

my incessantly pecking friend

Friendly sea creature

in an octopus’ garden

Mantid vantage

World upside down


All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Expat, Frog, gecko, nature, South Africa, Wildlife, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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