Monthly Archives: October 2012

Somebody Spoke and I Went Into a Dream

I’ve been asked by more than a few people now for a “day-in-the-life of Erik” post. I fear it might be a bit duplicative of recent blog posts by my volunteer friends here, but sometimes you just have to give the people what they want.

I’m entering my seventh week at my site in KZN. I think I have settled into my home life and work life enough to present the typical day for yours truly.

The sun is already up when my watch alarm goes off at 5:30 am. (It’s a very 80’s-retro Casio watch I got for about $13 on Amazon before departing the USA; it’s cheap, reliable and should last the entirety of my commitment here in South Africa.) Chances are, I was already (at least partially) awake at this time, since my bed sits right next to a window that lets in all that fabulous light.

I glance at my BlackBerry to see if it is flashing red. This indicates if I have a new email/BBM message/FB message. If so, I check out who may have sent me a message while still laying in bed. If you read my previous blog post, you know how much I like these. It is a pretty common occurrence, since most folks who would write to me would do so while I am sleeping, due to the 6 to 9 hour time difference, depending on where they happen to be in the States. If it isn’t a message from the USA, it is likely a late night or early morning message from one of the other volunteers, which can be just as good.

I push open the spot of my mosquito net where my flip-flops were kicked off the night before. I check quickly that no roaches, spiders, or other animal life are inhabiting them before I slide my feet in. Now I’m sitting on the side of the bed, still behind the net except for my feet. I do my best to duck out from under the net without untucking most of it from under the mattress. (I really started trying to keep the net as tight as possible when I found a cockroach in my bed a few weeks back.) At the same time, I make sure to grab my watch, BlackBerry and flashlight that were all laying next to my pillow throughout the night. I’m sure this graceful duck-and-grab maneuver resembles something out of a Jerry Lewis movie, but fortunately I’m the only person that gets to enjoy the ridiculousness of the scene.

The next steps are a bit mundane. I plug in the BlackBerry to charge it up while I start getting ready for the day. I wake up my computer and start iTunes for a little musical motivation. I switch on my electric kettle with about a liter and a half of water for my bath. While I wait for hot water, I fix a bowl of cereal. I’m on my third box of cereal since I’ve moved in. So far I’ve had Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes, and yesterday I opened my first box of Coco Pops Choc’o’s. If I had to guess, I’d say the Kellogg’s brand does a pretty good business in SA.

Because my place is as small as it is, all of this takes place on the same table. Actually, it’s not even a table, but a large desk. I slide the computer and BlackBerry toward the back of the desk and slide the cereal in front of me. The water is heating less than arm’s length away.

By the time I’m finished eating, the kettle will have automatically kicked off and the water will be good and hot. I pour it into one of my large plastic basins (ok, it is really just a wide, shallow bucket) right on the floor in the center of the room. I add about three to five more liters of room temperature water from one of my water storage buckets to get a comfortable washing temperature. I bathe myself in this water, starting with my face (because you want the water at its cleanest when it is on your face). Every body part is washed in a piecemeal fashion. To not make too big of a mess, I try to dry a part before moving on to the next part to wash. It is far from the most thorough bath one could hope for, but it is possible to wash thoroughly all the parts that require a thorough washing.

The rest of my morning preparation probably isn’t too different than what anyone in the States does, with the exception of not having running water or a sink. It all takes the better part of an hour. If I haven’t ironed my shirt or pants for the day, I quickly do so. If I haven’t prepared a lunch for myself the night before, I slap some PB&J on bread, and grab an apple and a chilled bottle of filtered water from the fridge. My lunch, my school books, and my computer are loaded into my backpack.

At about 6:45 I meet my host brother, BS, in the yard between the houses. He is also a teacher at the school where I work, so we greet each other and start the walk to school. The walk to school is usually about 20 minutes or so, the majority of which is on sand roads. If the weather is bad, or another teacher that has a car is in the vicinity, we can usually manage to get a lift.

By 7:10, I’ve settled my stuff into my desk in the Intermediate Phase (grades 4-7 at this school) staff room. Then I go to the main school office and chat up the other teachers as they sign in the teacher attendance log. If it is a Monday or Friday, the nearly 900 learners (as they are referred to here, not “students”) of this entire grade R (not “K” here) through grade 12 school are lined up for assembly.

Assembly starts with a song. One of the older girls (grade 11 or 12) will start a traditional, call-and-response style South African song, and everyone else (teachers included) perfectly joins in. All of this singing would rival any US high school choir, but they don’t even seem to practice. As I’ve explained before, they just know what to do. Nine times out of ten, these songs are in IsiZulu, but every once in a while, a bone is thrown my way (probably not intentionally) and I hear some English singing. All of these songs are religious in nature, specifically Christian. Then, whichever teacher is taking their turn with some motivational talk will do so, followed by a prayer. Again, the prayer is Christian. This all seems a bit weird to me, as supposedly not all of the students are Christian. However, this entire culture seems more concerned with tradition than with the idea that they may be in some way exclusionary.

Then, school starts at 7:45 (even on days when there isn’t an assembly). Periods are an hour long, except for Fridays, when they are only 45 minutes. From what I understand, this truncated Friday schedule is to allow time for the learners to clean the classrooms at the end of the day and to let teachers who have a long commute to leave a little bit early. For most grades, the entire grade fits into one classroom. So, instead of the learners changing classrooms when the periods change, the teachers do.

My teaching schedule is still being worked out as I “find my place” in the school with the help of the Head of Department (HOD) for the Intermediate Phase, as well as the other teachers. My focus is teaching English, and it looks like I will be teaching grades 6 and 7 (at least for now – things could change). By the beginning of the next school year (which starts at the beginning of 2013) I’ll have my own classes that I’ll be responsible for. I look forward to this, as I’ll be starting at the beginning and I’ll have less doubt in my mind as to what content has already been covered for these learners.

Right in the middle of the school day is the period commonly referred to here as “break,” but the American in me can’t help but call this lunch. Even though I bring my own food everyday, the other teachers always have me trying or sharing in the food they’ve either purchased on the school grounds or brought from home. A lunch is prepared for all the learners – free of charge – in the cafeteria, though most learners eat it outside. Considering the poverty of many of the learners, I’m pretty convinced this is the main reason many of them come to school.

Those that do have some cash tend to buy sweets (candy), re-packaged baggies of Nik Naks (Cheeto’s), or one of many of the deep fried foods that about a dozen or so of the local ladies bring to sell. The most popular of these is called a “fet cook”, (Afrikanns for “fat cake”) which is just a deep fried dough ball that – when prepared correctly – is like a really good homemade doughnut. However, I feel those that are sold at my school could use a little more sugar in the dough and could be a little less greasy. I tend not to be picky when they are offered to me, though, as any attempt on my part to give money to the teachers who’ve bought them is usually denied. To contribute, I brought in some quite-less-than-Hershey’s chocolate syrup I purchased at the local grocery store so the other teachers could sample something resembling the very American treat we all know as a chocolate covered donut.

School resumes with a half hour period called “reading for pleasure.” I’ve not seen any learner reading anything that wasn’t specifically given to them at that exact moment in time to read. It is clear to me that not many of these learners are big fans of reading. But maybe it is because their reading skills aren’t very good in the first place? This could become a chicken-or-egg type of question. Either way, my goal is to help them improve their reading abilities. If I succeed, perhaps there will be a few more fans of reading in this village by the time I leave here.

After a few more periods of classes and a half hour at the end of the day where teachers are required to be at the school, either marking papers or preparing lessons, I meet up with BS and we assess how we will be getting home. Half the time, we’re on foot. Sometimes we have a ride with another teacher. Sometimes he’s borrowed one of the other teacher’s vehicles to attend to some business in town. Any way it happens to work out, I rarely have to make the journey home alone.

On days when I walk home, I’m usually there before 3:30. Even though it is dark here by about 6:00 pm, I still have plenty of daylight for walking into town if I feel like it. I can make it to the closest grocery store on foot in almost exactly 30 minutes. I can make it to the library in about 40 minutes. When I’m not going to town, I can fill my evenings with cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and dishes, reading, writing, Internet surfing (as long as I watch how much data I’m using, since I pay by the MB here), phone calls, watching movies on my laptop, or playing the guitar and singing.

I can cook pretty much anything that I know how to cook, as I have this nifty toaster-oven with two burners on the top. They are known amongst the volunteers as “stovens” – a combination of stove and oven – though I would argue that any oven with a stove on top should then carry this same moniker, regardless of its size. The oven is large enough for a decent sized baking dish and it came with its own baking sheet. I’ve roasted chicken, fried potatoes, made omelets, baked cookies, sauteed onions, boiled eggs, fried sausage, baked biscuits, boiled noodles, and toasted bread. And, you may have guessed, the task it does worst is make toast (just like most other toaster ovens).

I also have a small refrigerator and the town is big enough that the grocery stores stock a decent variety of foods. I just don’t have the option for fast food on a whim anymore, so I have to cook more often. Or, I just don’t eat on a whim.

Sometimes I have guests from the neighborhood. It is fun to have them sample some American-style cuisine. Believe it or not, just yesterday I introduced one of my neighbors to a PBJ! (I assume this is an isolated case though, since I was eating plenty of PBJs in Mpumalanga throughout training.) Needless to say, he really enjoyed it.

And if the door is open when I’m playing the guitar, it won’t be long before I have a small audience of neighborhood children. Musical instruments seem to be rare around here, except for in the churches.

Once it is dark, I’m generally in for the evening. It can be really, really dark out here. Even with many of the houses having electricity, there just aren’t enough lights for me to really see my way around.

Before bed, I boil a little more water to wash my face (and anything else that feels too gross to sleep without washing). Other bedtime routines include shaking out my sheets and blankets to make sure they are bug-free and tossing out any water I’ve dirtied throughout the evening’s washing of dishes and/or clothes and myself.

Before turning out the light, I switch on my flashlight (did I mention how dark it can be here), grab my phone and watch, kick off my flip flops, and awkwardly crawl through my mostly tucked-in mosquito net into bed. I re-tuck what I can from the inside, switch off my flashlight and – before I know it – the whole thing starts all over again. At least until the weekend …


Posted by on 15 October 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Everyday Life


Messages From Home

Hearing from family and friends is important. The farther the distance you are from them, the more you cherish it. I’ve known this for years, but Peace Corps has amplified it.

For the most part, correspondence from home doesn’t even have to contain any real substance. Mundane details of someone’s daily routine become fascinating; real news about someone important to you takes on a new level of importance. Many of my compatriots here get extra excited for a handwritten letter, but I’m too impatient for that. Not that I would turn down a letter, though. I appreciate the time and effort of pen and paper, and the sensation of physically holding the envelope that someone half a world away addressed and stamped. But email is right next to immediate and nearly nothing can be as reassuring as a phone call.

But all of it is great. Even smoke signals, carrier pigeons, and messages in bottles can perform that all important task of letting someone know you are thinking of them, and reminding them to reach out and touch you back, at least every once in a while. All of it makes you feel like you really aren’t that far away.

I really am that far away. Or, better stated, I am just far enough away to feel like I am missing out on things, because it just isn’t the same as being there. Ideally, there would be some kind of magic pause button that I could hit just before leaving. “Ok, nobody do anything important until I get back. This includes but is not limited to: births, deaths, marriages, medical operations, new culinary inventions, any general important milestones, and parties. Especially parties.”

When leaving for South Africa, I set a goal not to return to the U.S. for the duration of my two-year commitment. Not that I wouldn’t love to see everyone, but I want to take advantage of my physical position on the planet. To boldly go as many places you’ve never been before as you can is easier (and cheaper) when you are surrounded by new places at every turn.

And I knew before I left how I would be forfeiting the opportunity to be around for things that it really pains me to miss (or, at least it just bums me out a bit). My niece, Fiona, will be nearly five by the next time I see her. My friend Tina’s baby (that she hasn’t even had yet) will be close to two by the time I meet him. Family reunions have already happened, and more are sure to come and go. And Gramma Lil’s 80th birthday party I missed by one month! Come on!

But then, there’s Facebook. For the most committed of FB users in my friends-list, I suppose I know your every move. Some of you are losing weight. Some of you are at a bar drinking. Some of you regret going on a date with some loser last week. Some of you torment me with pictures of cookies, mochas, elaborate breakfasts, etc.

Don’t stop any of this. I know I used to be a harsh critic of publishing the mundane, but now I find it strangely comforting.

And the food photos, though temporarily torturous, actually have inspired me to flex my cooking muscles. Folks in my rural South African neighborhood have now tried chocolate chunk cookies (since you can’t seem to get chocolate chips in town). Kids from the neighborhood were very literally and audibly licking their chops as I was spooning the cookie dough on to the baking sheet. If I hadn’t known firsthand the authenticity of their anticipation for this out-of-the-ordinary delight, I would have thought they were paid to overact how badly they wanted to eat the stuff. I should have recorded a video of them. It would be a YouTube sensation.

And then, there’s bad news. In the three months since leaving the United States I’ve learned of the death of a childhood friend and my dad needing to have his thyroid removed due to a cancerous tumor. If there were ever times for wanting to be closer, it is these.

Sadly, I couldn’t attend my old friend Bob’s funeral. It is hard to say if I would have figured out a way to be in Ohio for it had I still been living and working in Arizona when it happened, especially since it happened the weekend after my Grandmother’s big birthday party that I definitely would have been in Ohio for. Bob was one year younger than me and lived down the street from me growing up. We were in a band together in high school (the Flower Punks!). He played bass guitar. We were really close for a good part of our formative years as rock and roll musicians, but I haven’t talked to him in a long, long time.

The way he died was really unfortunate and sad, too. He was hit by a car while walking down the road. The news report …

Because he was something of a Youngstown fixture (especially due to his bass playing, which was quite good), he was still running in circles of people I still talk to from time-to-time, some of whom are folks I consider to be friends for life. So due to this unfortunate event, I’ve been in contact with many people who I haven’t talked to in years, like my high school friend, Lee Ann. As she wrote in a Facebook conversation we had in the week following, the funeral was “… the worst high school reunion I never wanted to attend.” But, I’m glad to know so many people were there for it, and for each other.

Happily, on the other hand, my dad’s surgery was a success and he is recovering quickly. Though there were some moments that I wished communication was a little more immediate and/or thorough, sometimes – no matter where you are – the only thing you can do is wait. And as Tom Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Through a couple of email messages and a couple of phone calls leading up to the surgery, I was confident that the procedure had a high chance of going smoothly, as my mom and dad were both very optimistic. Then the big operation day arrived: just this past Monday, October 8. I was told I would get an email from my sister when he was in recovery with an update on his status.

What I hadn’t counted on was a mystery text-to-email message that I received on Monday evening. It came from a phone number that I didn’t recognize and it wasn’t signed, so I assumed it was from the hospital – like some kind of update service you could sign up for before going into surgery. The information contained only the basics (the “who” and the “what”), followed by “keep him in your positive thoughts and prayers.”

After a few more hours with no updates, I called my sister’s house. I got to have a nice chat with my brother-in-law, Dan, who helped me piece together that the message I had received earlier was from my Aunt Peach (my mom’s sister), that the message was sent to a bunch of other people who know my mom and dad, and that though they did find some additional cancer cells and would have to do a more intensive post-op therapy, everything else was going as smoothly as possible. But honestly, just talking to somebody about it all can calm you down a lot … more than you consciously realize until the conversation is over.

Something else I should point out here is that I decided to watch Amistad on this particular evening while awaiting the update of my dad’s condition. I had picked it up at the library earlier that day. Watching people suffering in a fight for their freedom – and, in effect, their lives (even if some of the historical parts were bent to further dramatize this Spielberg flick) – is not recommended for the day a loved one goes under the knife. I knew I should have checked out the remake of The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin instead. C’est la vie.

I did get an honest-to-goodness email update from my Mom late last night. (Due to the time difference, it was early evening for her when she sent it.) It is thorough to the point of how nice the people are at the hospital and how good the food is there. Things seem to be even better than in the picture painted by Dan.

All of this reflecting on communication makes me realize how much I rely on it. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of how much the majority of the volunteers in my group communicate with each other on a daily (hourly, perhaps) basis. That would require its own blog post.

It makes you appreciate what our war-time armed services personnel go through even more; they have limited ability to communicate with their loved ones on top of the already hellish conditions of war. My hat is off to them. Or, more appropriately, I salute them.

I am lucky that so many people are following my little adventure here, if for no other reason than for when they tell me so. It gives me an opportunity to talk/write to them and reminds me of how I am connected to my home and my hometown and all the people who are important to me. But the truth is, even just reading a stupid Facebook update about what someone ate for breakfast allows me to have my cake and eat it, too … to a degree. (Cake for breakfast: a wonderful, Cosby-esque idea. Better make it chocolate.) So, to my friends and family, keep up the good work. If you write to me, email me, FB message me, call me, whatever, you know I will happily return the favor in kind.


Posted by on 10 October 2012 in Everyday Life


Kosi Bay Getaway

It occurs to me that folks reading this in the USA – or even other volunteers not so close to the beach – may think I’m bragging a little. Make no mistake; I am. 🙂

Yesterday morning I left the house early for what I was expecting to be an adventure, and I was not disappointed. The plan was to meet up with my fellow volunteers to see the beach, and if we were lucky, find some cheap lodging in the area for the evening. The plan was pretty loose.

Going off of some basic instructions from a previous volunteer in this area, Briana, Diana, Katrina, Michael, Shawn and I met in town to pick up some basic provisions and find transport to the mouth of Kosi Bay.

I could write about the particulars of this locale, but Wikipedia already does a pretty good job of that.

After Shawn and Michael negotiated with the drivers at the taxi rank, we had a price set, and the six of us were off to see the Indian Ocean. The drive was longer than I had expected, but much of it was on winding, sand roads through the bush. Along the way, we had to stop at a gate to pay the entry fee (20 Rand each – about $2.50 US).

When we arrived, we all got David, our driver’s cell phone number so that we could call him to come pick us up. The only problem was that we all quickly realized that there is no cell phone reception there. Change of plan: we told David to come back for us at 2:00 pm.

It is absolutely beautiful there, and the water temperature was just perfect. It would be difficult to ask for nicer weather for our day there, too. I could write about what it looks like there, but my photos can tell a better story of that.

See some more photos here …

So, after floating in the bay and running out into the ocean, eating cookies I made a few nights earlier, snapping dozens of photos, and getting sunburned, we knew we were running out of time. But, we didn’t really want to leave.

We went back to the area where we were dropped off that morning (it’s like a parking lot, but I’m not sure that is what I would call it) and started preparing to be picked up. Then, Shawn spotted a Land Rover with a sign on it for “Kosi Bay Cabanas.” He walked down to the nearest part of the beach and quickly found the manager of this particular lodge, Gustav.

Michael and Katrina were already resigned to going back to town, but the rest of us were in for whatever accommodations we might be able to procure (at a decent price). It isn’t terribly busy for tourists right now, so we got a great price for the four of us to spend the night, and Gustav was able to transport us, too. I don’t want to get into particulars about the prices, as he may have been taking pity on us poor volunteers. But also know that I would recommend this lodge to anyone who cares to see this beautiful part of the world.

Unfortunately, we were still on the hook with David, who was expecting to transport six people back to town (not two). We wanted to keep ourselves in this driver’s good graces, as we may need him again. We got the price reduced to the cost of five people returning to town, but I’m sure it was still worth his while for making the trip back out.

So, the four that were staying had time for another quick wade in the bay before heading to the lodge via Land Rover with some other folks that were staying there. When we got to the lodge, we were able to quickly make ourselves at home, take a dip in the pool, and get cleaned up (under a real, indoor, running-water shower) for dinner with new friends we had made at the lodge: freshly brai’ed (grilled) Rock Salmon and chips (french fries). Then, we spent the rest of the evening in the lounge chatting with Gustav about anything and everything.

When we woke up this morning, we were already reflecting on what an excellent day we had. Before breakfast, Gustav took us for another quick drive to the lake part of Kosi Bay that is closest to his lodge. Our hope was to see some hippos (from afar), but no luck on that front. Then we went back and enjoyed a delicious Afrikaner-style breakfast (… probably more like brunch).

Gustav was also nice enough to drive us back to our respective villages, after a quick stop in town for a little grocery shopping. An additional benefit for me is that I got to see the places my friends live, which I normally have little opportunity to do.

So, this isn’t a typical day in South Africa – or anywhere. It just feels like a small award that we won as part of being selected to serve in Peace Corps in this little corner of the world. But I hope to redeem this award as frequently as possible while I’m here.

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Posted by on 5 October 2012 in Friends, Sight Seeing