December 2012, Part IV: An American In Durban

09 Feb

I realize as I am posting this final installment of my adventures in December that it has taken me over a month to put into words everything of note that happened in that month. Luckily, January had been comparatively calm, which is a good way to start a school year, celebrate a birthday, and get caught up with family and friends in the States.

Within a few days of being back in my village home, I walked to town and went through all the needed steps to get my phone number back and a new BlackBerry. Luckily for me, even in the primarily rural area I reside in, it is possible to buy a smartphone. I felt connected with the world once again.

At the home of my host-family, things were pretty relaxed. About half of my immediate host family members were gone for the holiday break themselves, either in Swaziland or Zimbabwe, on various church-related outings. My only host brother around was Dumesani.

There were, however, some new faces. Extended family members who had been gone for school in Richard’s Bay or Durban were home for the holidays in varying shifts. I was happy to meet all of them: they all had stories to tell and fluent English to tell their stories in. Thobile and Londiwe had lots to talk about, and me being from America with a guitar, a camera, and a laptop helped to make me the center of their attention. But, to be sure, the very-used and several-times-repaired, plush Ernie (of Sesame Street fame) I purchased in town a few months earlier captured all of their hearts.

Ernie had already been a favorite of the little kids around my house. I took great delight in forcing them to say the hard “R” sound in his name. Without any coaching, they tended to say it more like “enn-ee.” Because of my prompting, they now delight in saying the word themselves: Errrr-nie.

However, I wasn’t prepared for Ernie to be so popular with the young adults. Part of it could be the universal appeal of a Muppet. But I suspect much of their love for my orange-colored friend was the plain fact that I – as a white, American male in my mid-thirties – had such a toy on display.

Zandile snaps a photo of Ernie

Zandile snaps a photo of Ernie.

Considering the extra-laid-back condition of my environment (which is saying something, considering how laid back it is under normal circumstances), I could focus on preparing for my honest-to-goodness vacation. Even better, I didn’t really have to plan it.

For the holidays, most of the volunteers were either going camping in the mountains or going to party in the city (or both). I feel like I am camping most of the time as it is, so I opted for the choice with running water and electricity. The plan was pretty simple: Christmas Eve I would travel to Durban and split my time between two backpackers’ hostels over the next 10 days with various other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Backpackers are inexpensive, and with a little bit of research, you can find the cleaner and more well-attended establishments. The two major drawbacks over a regular hotel are 1. (usually) no A/C and 2. sharing bathrooms with strangers. Also, you may be in a dormitory-style room, which means you also may be sleeping next to strangers (though, for a little extra money and advance reservations you can usually find a place where you at least know all your roommates and/or get a private bedroom). With the cost at a fraction of a hotel room, these drawbacks don’t seem so bad.

My traveling companion for the taxi ride was my friend, Vanessa. She came to my house on the 22nd, as her site can be several hours away from mine (in taxis, anyway). Also, my shopping town has a wider selection of goods and direct taxis to Durban. Of course, after the troubles I had gone through earlier in December, I was happy to be traveling with someone I know and trust.

My goal for this trip was to pack as light as possible. After cramping myself into a van with a suitcase AND a backpack on my lap, and then trying to wheel my suitcase through the sand paths of my village on my way back from Mpumalanga, I decided it would be best to only carry what I could take in one backpack. After all, what would I really need on this trip besides shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops and towel?

Better yet, Vanessa and I scored a ride into town on the morning of the 24th from Dumesani on his way to work. After a little waiting for the taxi to fill (again, a 14 passenger, well-used Toyota Quantum), we were on our way to one of the big modern cities South Africa has to offer.

E and V leaving for Durbs.

E and V leaving for Durbs

We arrived in Durban in about 5 ½ hours, right back at the Teachers’ Center taxi rank that I had familiarized myself with just under one week earlier. We hailed a cab from there fairly easily and were on our way to the first of our two backpackers stays: the Hippo Hide.

The staff at the Hippo Hide is friendly, the pool is nice (if a bit small), the rooms, kitchen and bathrooms are clean, and the neighborhood is relaxed. It was a perfect place to meet up with other PCVs to have a quiet Christmas.

When we arrived, only Kelsey and Brooke were already there. The others would be trickling in throughout the next couple of days. But, Liz was also scheduled to be in Durban that afternoon, traveling alone.

I had been communicating with Liz via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) throughout the day. She got to Durban shortly after Vanessa and I did, but was having a problem finding the Hippo Hide. (Unfortunately, her taxi driver seemed to be clueless.)

So, while we waited, the four of us decided to jump in the pool. To keep tabs on Liz, I dropped my BlackBerry in the pocket of my swim trunks. Of course, I didn’t think twice about jumping in the pool with it still in my pocket.

Splash! As soon as I jumped in I remembered that the BlackBerry, which I had purchased not a week earlier as a replacement for a BlackBerry that had been stolen not two weeks earlier, was in my pocket. I jumped out and looked at it. Surprisingly, it was still working, though saturated. I knew it could be a problem, so I shut it off and popped the battery out immediately.

The other volunteers (but it seems to me at the time, especially Brooke) were surprised that I wasn’t more upset about it. Well, what could I do? I could only be upset at myself – and trust me, I wasn’t happy with myself – but, what good would yelling or cursing do about it? The milk had been spilt; I didn’t feel compelled to cry over it.

Luckily, I thought ahead when I was packing. I happened to bring my other cell phone. (You know, the plain-jane time machine to 2003 that I had bought the weekend my first BlackBerry was stolen.) I thought I might swap it out for my BlackBerry if I didn’t like the perceived safety of my surroundings at any point. I never thought I would be swapping it out for my own mistake. But, at least I wasn’t without communication, especially if I were to get separated from the other volunteers.

My next step for the water-logged BlackBerry was to find some rice or crackers and a ziplock bag, in hopes that it could be dried out. Other volunteers have gone through the submerging of a phone before, and it seems in most cases they can be recovered. Time would tell.

So, I jumped back into having a good time. I wasn’t going to let something like a cellphone ruin my fun.

Liz arrived. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. John and Rachel arrived while we were at dinner, and met us at the restaurant. We made friends with the waiter, Dexter, who is a US born citizen, but has lived in South Africa most of his life. As he is still young enough, he intends to join the US Air Force.

Christmas Eve Dinner at La Bella

Christmas Eve Dinner at La Bella

We returned to the Hippo Hide, where we found Holly waiting for us. Our Christmas group was assembled.

The next day (Christmas!), we were hoping to meet up with Dexter again for breakfast (he was cooking pancakes), but our schedules couldn’t get aligned and it didn’t quite work out. We did get into a grocery store to buy food for cooking while we stayed at the Hippo Hide. Later that day, we had a smorgasbord, including steaks, corn on the cob, grilled vegetables, and even some Mexican food, none of which would necessarily feel like Christmas, but at least it felt American.

Later that evening, Dexter arrived with some friends and leftover pancakes that we reheated on the charcoal braai (grill). We hung out in the pool. It was an international Christmas shindig.

The next morning, Rachel, John and Holly were moving on to their respective next stops for their holiday break, but Kelsey, Brooke, Liz, Vanessa, and I had our next challenge to conquer: The Big Rush. If you have already seen the video and/or photos, you know what I’m talking about.

At Moses Mabhida Stadium there is a bungee swing. If you have the USD equivalent of roughly $67 (and are willing), they’ll dress you up in a somewhat uncomfortable harness and walk you up the several hundred steps of the arch that goes over the stadium and takes you to a platform that overlooks this impressive structure. Several big dudes hook your harness up to the bungee line with three heavy duty clasps.

And then you jump.

You drop 88 meters and swing out an arc of 220 meters. According to Guinness and his book of records, it is the world’s tallest swing. It is exhilarating. For as scary as it feels to be standing that high up, and then just take a big jump, by the time it is over you instantly want to do it again.

Moses Mabhida Stadium

Moses Mabhida Stadium

I’m very happy I paid the extra money for the video, too.

The five of us were in a group of 16 jumpers. Since I was the only PCV who opted to buy the video, I was separated from my friends; they jumped first while I waited for the videographer to ascend the steps. That was a little disappointing, but at least I made fast friends with all the people next to me in the line of jumpers. Nervous energy and huge grins seem to make everyone more friendly.

PCVs in Big Rush swing harnesses

PCVs in Big Rush swing harnesses

Because they hoist you back up to the platform after the jump, you also have to walk down all those same stairs when it is over. So, by the time we got back down to terra firma we were pooped. We grabbed some food and drinks at one of the restaurants at the base of stadium (with a few new friends from the jump) while we waited for my video to be edited and burned to a DVD. Then we explored some of the nearby shopping and a casino that is just a short walk away, ultimately heading back to the Hippo Hide.

The next day, my phone – after sitting in a baggy of crackers for the preceding 48 hours – was working. I was relieved, but I knew it would be best to get a new battery for it. (From what I understand, submerging one of these batteries can be problematic.)

Our group’s mission for the morning and afternoon was to check out the Victoria Street Market and sample the popular Durban cuisine known as “bunny chow”. Bunny chow (or just simply “a bunny”) is a curry dish (your choice of meat or vegetarian) served in a hollowed-out quarter-loaf (or half- or whole-loaf) of bread. I opted for the lamb. I’m happy to report that this stuff is delicious.

Unfortunately, the lamb was still on the bone. This wasn’t really a problem until, while I was pulling meat off the bone, I managed to squirt curry sauce in my eye. Luckily, Brooke had some eye drops. After crying through several extra napkins, my vision was pretty much back to normal and the stinging wasn’t so bad.

I understand that pepper-spray is supposed to be much worse than what I went through, by several magnitudes. This reinforces my resolution to do whatever it takes to never be sprayed by pepper-spray.

To add insult to personally inflicted (though accidental) injury, after we ate I discovered my phone to be completely dead. I was hoping it was just an issue with the battery, but a trip to a nearby repair shop confirmed that something was fried in the phone itself. I would be better off with a new one. The cost of repairing it plus a new battery would be over one third of the cost of a new BlackBerry and they could not guarantee that the phone wouldn’t need to be repaired again in the future.

In a knee-jerk reaction, I bought a new one on the spot. The thought of the runaround I seemed destined to endure to have this phone repaired was too much for me at that moment. My American credit card was presented. To make myself feel better, I minimized my spending for the rest of that day.

On the bright side, after returning to the Hippo Hide, we met up with two more PCVs: Katie and Laura.

Laura on Hippo Hide's rope swing

Laura on Hippo Hide’s rope swing

The next day, (28 December) the (now) seven of us went to the beach. The beaches in Durban are pretty nice, very much like ocean beaches in any big seaside city in the USA, lined with restaurants and shops and piers. Not nearly as secluded, picturesque and serene as the beaches near my village, but it’s nice to have the option of getting an ice cream cone or a burger and fries in the middle of the day if you want to.

Of course, we all got sunburns to varying degrees, too.

That evening, we made a feast of Mexican food at the backpackers. We shared it with a couple of German girls who were also staying there. This was our last night at the relaxing Hippo Hide backpackers. The next day we would be checking into a party!

Tekweni Backpackers is situated down a side street of Florida Road, the happening part of Durban, with all the cool clubs and restaurants, and not completely out of walking distance of the beach (especially for PCVs who are used to a lot of walking). The place was designed for partying: a patio with a bar, pool, big stereo system, big TV, billiards, and picnic tables … they even have a hammock. Inside, there is a large kitchen, a sitting room with lots of couch space and a TV, and many rooms for when it’s time to crash. The fine folks who run the place are friendly and are there to party with you. And it is fenced off, private and secure, so we were safe. It was perfect for New Year’s.

After we checked in, some of us walked down the street for some groceries. Everyone seemed a little cranky from sunburns and lack of sleep (due to the sunburns). Spirits were lifted a short time later when we were introduced to a bunch of other Americans – Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Swaziland who were also on vacation had just arrived.

I found this delightful. Speaking with some of them in the pool, we instantly started comparing notes on our experiences. Swaziland is a much smaller country than South Africa. There are fewer volunteers, so volunteers from different groups within Swaziland seem to know each other a lot better, whereas, the PCVs I know really well in South Africa are restricted to my group, SA-26. Like South Africa, there are many more girls than guys, but at least I was no longer the only American male. That evening, I went to dinner with a big group of them.

In fact, over the following four days I found myself hanging out with the Swaziland volunteers just as much or more than the South Africa volunteers. In particular, I found myself shooting pool with Emily, Hillary and Chris (who also shares my fondness for Castle Milk Stout), talking South African history with Blythe and Jack, or just plain ol’ chatting and dining with Caitlin, Kelsey, Heather, Peter, Jami, Lauren, Abdul, and more. There were quite a few of them. Even with my friend, Rakeesha (and for a short time, Susan) joining us to reinforce the South Africa contingent of PCVs at Tekweni, the Swaziland volunteers had us outnumbered nearly two to one.

And then there was Clerisse. She seemed a quiet observer at first, but then I learned of her unpredictable wit. Her dedication for what she wanted to do as a volunteer appears to surpass what Peace Corps wanted her to do. After sharing my umbrella with her through the downpour on our walk to a New Year’s Eve dinner at a Thai restaurant, we ended up being each other’s date for the rest of the evening.

By the time the clock struck midnight in Durban, the Swazi volunteers had essentially taken over a room at one of the Florida Road dance clubs. I’m happy I got to see this group cut loose and cut a rug. In the early morning, we returned to Tekweni to see their party was still going strong.

Before I turned in for some much needed sleep, I realized that parties in the States were just starting, if they had started yet at all. When I woke up the next morning, I was just in time to post a Happy New Year message on Facebook to my friends and family in Arizona (thanks to the nine-hour time difference). Then, after some breakfast, I took a nap.

Being that the vacation plans had a built-in party recovery day, we didn’t leave Tekweni until 2 January. Before checking out, I managed to squeeze in a walk to and from an honest-to-goodness bakery with Swazi PCVs, Heather and Kelsey. I had some pastries and got a bagel to go.

It was time to say goodbye to all of our friends, new and old. Vanessa and I were joined for the journey back to northern KZN by our friend Diana, who had just finished up one of the camping/hiking trips with other PCVs. I split my bagel with them as we waited on Tekweni’s front porch for the taxi that would take us back to the Teachers’ Center taxi rank.

Village life and a new year in the rural South African schools were waiting for us to return.


2 responses to “December 2012, Part IV: An American In Durban

  1. Sara

    9 February 2013 at 1:07 PM

    Ernie looks to be in great shape–he’s even got his ears!

    Everyone in the States is very happy you paid the extra money for The Big Rush video, too. Had I been there, I probably would have skipped getting the video, but it’s much more fun for all of us to see you on that crazy swing than just hearing about it.

    Sounds like a great holiday, even with the cell phone troubles and pepper-spray-esque bunny chow. I’m glad you had a good time!


    • Erik Hendel

      9 February 2013 at 3:23 PM

      I heard more than one of my compatriots regretting they hadn’t purchased the video. I just wish that they gave me the unedited footage, too. I’d love to know what I actually said to the camera, but I only remember for about half of what is shown in what they gave me.

      It was a really great holiday … things I’m sure I never would have experienced if it was not for Peace Corps.



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