Somebody Spoke and I Went Into a Dream

15 Oct

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


16 responses to “Somebody Spoke and I Went Into a Dream

  1. Teri Mulcahy

    16 October 2012 at 5:19 AM

    Awesome read! Thank you for sharing. I totally look forward to sharing your experiences! Hope all is well for you and your family. Thinking of your dad and hoping that is going good! I look forward to more Erik time! Take care. Miss you! : )


    • erikhendel

      16 October 2012 at 7:35 AM

      Thanks, Teri! It is my pleasure, as always. And, my dad is recovering pretty well from all accounts.


  2. Colleen

    16 October 2012 at 5:47 AM

    woke up got out of bed dragged a comb across my head. nice to know all is well with you. sounds like you have a handle on your new life. your dad’s healing quickly. still waiting for his voice to get back to normal. No school band? Just singing? I’ll be looking to read more. Love ya.


    • erikhendel

      16 October 2012 at 10:24 AM

      No school band. Few people can afford instruments. I have seen some clever 5th graders make “guitars” out of plastic bottles and sticks. I believe they created them for a technology class. If they had access to real instruments, there is no telling how much music could be made.


  3. Dale Hendel Jr.

    16 October 2012 at 6:54 AM

    At least you can get peanut butter. Talasi’s friend, who’s been to Europe multiple times, brought her own to France because it’s hard to find. According to Wikipedia, it’s mainly popular in North America, the UK, the Netherlands, and parts of Asia. I would guess you can get it in South Africa because of the history of people from the Netherlands and the UK settling there. It might not be available through most of Africa.


    • erikhendel

      16 October 2012 at 10:31 AM

      Peanuts are very common here. Many of the subsistence farmers in my village grow them. I’m not sure how peanut butter gained its popularity here, and your guess is probably true. There are large shelves of peanut butter in most of the large grocery stores I’ve been to here. What is strange to me is how popular canned pilchards are. Not a very tasty fish, if you ask me, yet they may take up more shelf space than any other meat or protein food. Luckily, one of the grocery stores in town stocks a modest amount of tuna, too. Tuna sandwiches are my go-to dinner when I don’t feel like enduring the extra heat of my stove or oven.


      • Dale Hendel Jr.

        19 October 2012 at 6:15 AM

        I’d be interested to try the pilchards. I know that depending on where you are, pilchard can be synonymous with sardine, but sometimes there are distinctions between them. I eat canned sardines and herring, so I would probably like it.


      • erikhendel

        19 October 2012 at 1:35 PM

        Yes … They are like sardines, but bigger. I might like them more if they weren’t canned in tomato sauce. (Think Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, only greasier.)


  4. Les

    17 October 2012 at 11:45 PM

    Thanks again for the glimpse into your adventure. It’s always good for me to read about your experiences and realize what I take for granted. I think I may just have to have a PBJ when I get home tonight. Glad to hear your dad’s on the road to recovery.


  5. Kristin Parks

    21 October 2012 at 6:08 AM

    Hey Erik, been following your journey; reading all of your posts. So awesome what you are doing!. Totally miss our Starbucks runs. 🙂


    • erikhendel

      21 October 2012 at 6:27 AM

      Yeah … I could really go for a Java Chip Frap right now. I guess it will make it taste that much better when I get to have one in a couple years. It is great to hear from you, though. I owe you an email!


  6. marykatedennyz

    23 October 2012 at 10:05 AM

    Erik, my alarm clock that you help to set for me is still keeping the international time! Thanks.
    Really enjoyed reading the blog. Half wishing I was still there but it was best that I returned due
    to illness and some unfinished biz here. Those children are lucky to have you playing the guitar for them. That adds to their experience. Stay well. Mary Kate


    • erikhendel

      23 October 2012 at 10:47 AM

      I’m happy your clock is still working. Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to read about little old me.


  7. Kelsey

    9 November 2012 at 11:34 PM

    You can walk to town/your library? Color me green with envy. That sounds nice.


    • erikhendel

      10 November 2012 at 12:11 AM

      Yes – I am quite lucky in that respect. Transportation rarely makes it into my weekly expenses list. And, if I need something from town in the middle of the week, I just go … no waiting for the weekend.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: