If you had told me any of this would happen when I boarded the plane for South Africa in 2012, I would have laughed and told you how unlikely I thought it was.
The first time I met Zandile (pronounced zawn-DEE-lay) was at my little house, January 3, 2013. I had returned the day earlier from my holiday vacation in Durban. (If you’ve been reading this blog all along, you’ll remember that as the trip I jumped into a swimming pool with a nearly new Blackberry, squirted my own eye with lamb curry sauce, and did a bungee swing over Moses Mabhida Stadium.)
Zandy (for short) ran up to my open front door and introduced herself. People I didn’t know coming right to my door was not uncommon at the time, but this was different. To begin with, she was wearing serious workout clothes – shorts, a tank top/sports bra, and running shoes – which are all seldom seen in the village on women. The fact that she wasn’t wearing a long skirt stuck with me.
I was pretty sure she was related somehow to my host family, because of her striking resemblance to Thobile, a cute, university attending girl who was a sort of niece/cousin to my host brothers and sisters and who I had only met a few weeks earlier. Zandy explained she was Thobile’s older sister. She was visiting her family from Durban, where she lives and works. She had heard about me from others in the family, about how I was the American who could cook and bake, and that I could play the guitar and sing.
Of course I thought she was attractive. As I had explained to PCV friends of mine who had met Thobile, she was similar to Thobile, but a looked and acted a little older (… and looks like she should be a fitness model).
When we were talking about the fact that I could cook, she more-or-less challenged me to how good it would taste. Challenge accepted, I invited her to come back for dinner. I already had an idea for an improvised red pasta sauce for that day which would contain minced pieces of pepperoni sticks – courtesy of a care package from Kelly in the USA – and between 1/3 and 1/2 of a bottle of Castle Milk Stout (my favorite commercial beer sold in South Africa).
That evening she returned for dinner. I think she was impressed with my pasta dish. And, I know she was impressed with Ernie looking over us, his head peeking out of a clothespin bag suspended from my mosquito net. In the early days of my residency in KZN, the tattered plush Ernie doll (of Sesame Street fame) was an attraction to my house for kids of all ages. She took photos of him on her phone (though no photos were taken of me at the time).
It was kinda’ like a date. It was a date, it just wasn’t set up as one. We had lots to talk about and it is always nice to talk with a Zulu whose conversational English was way beyond that of the people who lived in the village full-time. But the distance of where she lived and my lack of transportation and funds made it seem that this would be the extent of our relationship. I never thought it was realistic for me to seriously date someone while I was here anyway, and I was okay with that. A day or two later she went back to Durban.
Fast forward three or four months. Zandy was visiting her family again and made a point to stop in and see me, too. We talked some more and seemingly picked up from where we had left off back in January. She now had a Blackberry which made staying in contact with her in Durban via BBM (Blackberry Messenger) easy. This was great to me because I liked her, and I felt like I now had a real friend living full-time in one of South Africa’s major metropolitan areas.
I knew I had some Peace Corps-related travel and vacation-related travel coming up in the near future that would take me through Durban no less than four times. I was hopeful to meet up with Zandy for lunch or dinner or whatever was convenient. But it didn’t happen; our schedules just couldn’t sync up.
But we still managed to check in with each other from time to time on our smart phones. In August, I was again passing through Durban for Peace Corps-related traveling, and we finally matched our schedules for a meet-up on her turf.
I had to meet her at her work, as she was recently hired by her previous employer for a new business of his: a horseracing and sports betting club. I arrived sometime after 5 pm, and she had to work until 7. I would be on a bus to Pretoria by 10 that night, so we had just enough time in between for a proper dinner.
Without the worry of the village listening in to our conversation, I think we both felt free to speak our minds, and yes, we liked each other and yes, we wanted to see more of each other.
Chance was in our favor. At the end of that week I was passing back through Durban on my way home, resulting in another date. A few weeks after that Zandy ran (that is, mostly walked) with me in the 10k running race we did for the KLM foundation. (She is a great distance runner and can do between 10k and 20k any day of the week as part of her regular training. Her staying with me was completely for my benefit.) A few weeks after that, I passed through Durban on back-to-back weekends because of my Peace Corps Mid-Service Training (MST). By the end of September, through a bunch of lucky circumstances giving us a regular dating schedule, she was my serious girlfriend – no doubt about it.
And over that time I got to know all about her, too. Zandy is 24 years old, turning 25 in a few months. She aspires to be a personal trainer. Her parents split up when she was about eight years old. She’s the second oldest after her older sister. Her younger sister and brother are twins. She is an aunt to two little girls (her older sister’s daughters). She has a much younger half brother that her mother had some years after Zandy’s father had passed away. And her dad sounds like a pretty cool guy that I would have been honored to meet, too.
The best way I can describe our relationship is that we are alike in all the ways we need to be to love each other and be together; we are different in all the ways that make our relationship endlessly interesting and part of life’s greater adventure.
We were expecting a less-than-favorable reception of the news of our relationship from her family, the folks I am living with. After all, they are pretty conservative about a lot of things; living where they live and following the customs and traditions they follow more-or-less means we should expect a negative reaction. And, these are the people who opened up their home to a stranger from the USA who they’ve decided to trust.
So, how do I even tell them? Or should she tell them? The easiest thing to do for both of us was just not tell them.
But keeping this news from them also meant keeping it from nearly everybody, regardless of where they live in the world. The last thing I would want is for someone I’m close with in my host family to find out I’m dating someone else in their family through one of my friend’s or family member’s innocent posts on Facebook about my girlfriend. I could see it now: “Hey Erik! Heard you’ve got a new squeeze in South Africa … what’s her name again? Zen Delay? Sun Dial? Venn Diagram? I don’t know how you understand any of those Zulu words, but good for you!”
But, like all good things, we didn’t want this good thing to end. Many times I’d say “I wish I could show you this in America …” or “If you were in America, you would love this …”. It didn’t take long before I just invited her to come back with me. “Come with me when I go back to America next year. If you like it, stay.” The invitation was accepted.
Now we had to tell her family about us. And this time, the news is even heavier, because it’s not just that we’re dating, but that Zandy is planning on moving to the other side of the globe. On top of that, the idea of Zandy running off to America with me is the equivalent of marriage in their eyes, whether or not a ceremony or rings are involved. This will certainly require some navigating of cultural expectations; I want to respect her family and their traditions, but likewise they have to respect that, when it comes to things like relationships and marriage, I come from a culture that is quite different.
Zandy started by telling her older sister. Then she told her mother. After she talked to her mother, we set up a time when I could meet with her mother in Durban. Her mother also doesn’t live full-time in the village, so it was relatively easy to set up a time in mid-December when the three of us could sit down (at a McDonald’s, of all places) to discuss our future in America. From there, her mother would tell the rest of the family. And a few weeks later when she was in the village herself, she did. This hasn’t gone 100% smoothly, but the people this affects the most are generally positive about it.
At that point, I felt free to tell my family in America about Zandy. “I have a girlfriend. Her name is Zandile, but she usually goes by Zandy. She lives in Durban. We met nearly a year ago, and we’ve been seriously dating the last five months. And I want to bring her with me when I come back to America.”
In this respect, I can count on my family to be happy for me. They are, and I knew they would be. My father said, “If my kids are happy, then I’m happy.” To this I replied, “That’s good, because if my parents are happy, I’m happy.”
Of course, all of this got me thinking very hard about marriage. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve gone back and forth for years on whether or not marriage was something for me. But everything about this is telling me I should. Many times in the past I thought “What’s the point, especially if you have no immediate plans for kids?” Maybe I just was never with the right person for me to marry before.
Recently, someone I had just met over the holidays who has family in the village (and had no knowledge of who I was dating) asked me if I would marry an African girl. I answered yes, without hesitation. Why shouldn’t I?
So, now I had a different question for Zandy. And even though I knew the answer, it didn’t feel right until I did one of the few universally customary things we do in America: buy a ring.
Since she knew my question and I knew her answer, it didn’t feel weird with the two of us going ring shopping together. I headed back to Durban to spend time with Zandy and make this engagement official.
Over two days we went to at least six jewelry shops, plus a couple of department stores looking for a ring that she liked the look of and liked the feel of. After we found it, we went to a few more shops, just to make sure we weren’t jumping on something too soon. Within 30 minutes of looking elsewhere, we knew it was right.
After some additional clearances with my American credit card, the ring was off to be sized. We had enough time for a movie and lunch and picked up the finished ring that afternoon. When we got back to the hotel room, I officially asked her and presented her the ring, and she officially said yes. Later that evening, we got dressed up and went to the restaurant at the historic Royal Hotel in Durban to celebrate. And since this all happened on a Monday, we happened to be the only people in the restaurant.
The next day, I called my parents to tell them. My mother answered the phone and when I told her, she could barely contain herself. Now that they know, I thought it best to put the whole story here. There are lots of details to work out yet for actually getting married (dates, locations, etc.), and though I could ask people to hold off on asking about those details, I’m sure that won’t stop them. But we’re excited – the wheels are in motion!