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Flashback: Preparing to Leave South Africa (This Dude Abides)

21 Jun

As promised, the continuation of the story is below. Updating a lot of this as we went along would have been too stressful, so some of these details go back over a year. Many times, as events were unfolding, we were left with more questions than answers, and I’ve learned not to state something as fact until it is finished. After all, this was a complicated case; a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous, and there was always new information coming to light.

First, let’s go all the way back to where I left off regarding the entire situation regarding Zandy’s Police Clearance Certificate. At the beginning of July, a few weeks after all the craziness we went through of getting a proper application on file and to be processed with the SA Police Service, I was in Pretoria for my Peace Corps Close of Service (COS) conference. (This conference covers everything a volunteer needs to know to end their time with Peace Corps and some good ideas for reintegrating into an American life in the states.) Zandy forwarded to me the notification that her certificate was finished and waiting to be picked up. I hitched a ride to that office with a Peace Corps driver when we had some downtime at the conference and picked it up. I was really happy. It was a battle, but we had won. I sent Zandy a message and attached a photo of the certificate.

But being South Africa, that couldn’t possibly be the end of that story. It turns out that the original application she filed the preceding May (the one she was told was lost) must have been found. Because it was processed. And a certificate was printed. And mailed. Directly to her apartment. The same day I picked up a certificate from the office that processes them in Pretoria, Zandy picked one up from her mailbox. I couldn’t decide if I was more irritated or relieved.

That conference finished, and as the schools were taking their winter break, I spent over a week in Durban with Zandy. On my way back to the village, I spent a few days with my friends James and Melanie from the UK, who had relocated from the town near my village to outside a town called Mtubatuba that is on the way from Durban to my place. Things were looking up, but we also recently discovered about the time of her medical evaluation that there was another essential document Zandy would need to submit at the time of her visa interview: her unabridged birth certificate.

Early on in the process of gathering documents, the instructions from the USA mention a “long-form” birth certificate. I searched for that in regard to South Africa and came up with nothing. Zandy knew she had her birth certificate, and she knew where it was. Neither of us were expecting a problem. And, neither of us (nor any other South African I asked) knew the difference – or had even heard – of an unabridged birth certificate. After some more investigation, I discovered that standard birth certificates in South Africa don’t list the names of the person’s parents (which, to me, makes it hard to call it a birth certificate if you don’t at least include the name of the mother). Of course, Uncle Sam being thorough about these kinds of things insists that it must be the unabridged certificate presented for the visa interview. In any event, she had to apply for her unabridged birth certificate at the local office of home affairs, not far from her place in Durban. From the information I had read from Home Affairs’ website, unabridged birth certificates were issued upon request. This implied to me that she would have this document in a reasonable amount of time. (Yeah, right.)

At the time she applied in late June, she was told it could take four to eight weeks, though sometimes as long as three to six months. However, there were third-party services advertising online that they could (for a fee) obtain them in under two weeks. On the other hand, people at the home affairs office gave Zandy a number to call, and said if she called them every other day and explain to them that it was urgent that they would finish it in time for her interview. I didn’t want to take a chance on that, and gave Zandy the number to one of the third party services. When she called, they said that since she had already applied on her own, there was nothing they could do to help her now. That meant Zandy was starting a strict regimen of phone calls to Home Affairs. At the time, we had roughly four weeks until her scheduled appointment at the US Consulate in Johannesburg for her visa interview.

In the meantime, I went back to the village and back to the school to put the finishing touches on the school’s library and some last English lessons with the kids. I also happily hosted four of the Peace Corps Trainees from the SA30 cohort (the group that was replacing SA26, my cohort) for three days.

SA30 PCTs visiting me

That same weekend, my parents and my sister threw a wedding shower for Zandy in Ohio.

Envelope gifts Shower

The following weekend, my family in Ohio put on their beer and wine tasting fundraising event for the daycare center in my village. There was much to focus on all at once.

Rich and Meghan selling raffle tickets John, Bill and Jeff provided live music Dad, Aunt Peach, Uncle Bill and other volunteers for the Beer and Wine event

When we had less than a week before her interview and still didn’t have Zandy’s proper birth certificate in our hands, we called the consulate and rescheduled the appointment for four weeks later. The new appointment was set for August 21. Besides Zandy’s regular calls to Home Affairs, I started sending emails and looking for other phone numbers to try to find out why this had become such an ordeal to get a fairly simple document that Zandy has a right to have in her possession.

Of course, when we weren’t continuing this fight for the certificate, it was back to business as usual for me and Zandy. So much so, that it seemed like many people in South Africa didn’t really believe we would go through with it all. Coworkers of Zandy’s would follow up a question like “When are you leaving?” with a question like, “So when are you coming back?”. Some people just flat-out didn’t accept it as happening. People in my host family seemed to avoid the subject all together. My only explanation for this (and only way to comfort Zandy) was trying to look at it from their point of view. For most of the people living here, the idea of getting married to someone and moving to a country on the other side of the world seems unimaginable. Even when the answers are pretty obvious, many people in South Africa couldn’t help themselves from asking “why?” or “how could you do this?”

As a way of keeping everyone informed and to make our plans more solid in the eyes of the doubters, Zandy and I worked out a schedule for everything that would be taking place over the next two months. I printed several copies and handed them out to many members of her family.

Schedule for Erik and Zandy

August 2 – small farewell party in the afternoon/evening for Erik and volunteers Michael, Katrina, and Diana, hosted by Erik’s host family.

August 9-10 – Erik travels to Durban to help Zandy prepare for her USA visa interview.

August 20-24 – Erik and Zandy travel to Johannesburg for Zandy’s visa interview. Once her visa is confirmed, Zandy can give notice at her work.

September 5 – Erik’s last day working at the school.

September 6 – Erik’s gives gifts to future in-laws (refrigerator, small oven, guitar, housewares, etc.); moving day!

September 7-14 – Erik travels to Pretoria to officially close his service with Peace Corps.

September 20 – Erik meets with Shawn and Lettie to discuss the transfer of funds for construction of the daycare; Zandy and Erik say farewell to the village.

Sometime after 22 September – Zandy and Erik traveling to USA (tickets will be purchased once Zandy receives her visa).

My hope was that people would take it more seriously and that Zandy and I wouldn’t have to keep re-answering the same questions. The first item on the schedule went off splendidly. It was too bad we couldn’t get more of the local volunteers there, but everyone was in the midst of closing things out at their schools. For sure, it was a hectic time for all of us.

In the USA, things that weren’t listed on the schedule were still going off as planned. The following weekend, my brother and sister-in-law and many friends in Arizona concluded the raffle they were holding to benefit the daycare center in the village. Within a week after that, all of the funds were raised. It felt great to have this major item off of my to-do list and I knew it would make it easier to hand off the project with all the funds raised.

Then, I found out that Peace Corps medical staff couldn’t see me the week I originally planned for to do my Close of Service. Our schedule was already requiring changes, but it wasn’t a big deal. What was a big deal was having a week until Zandy’s interview, and still not having that birth certificate.

I called the consulate again, and they advised we do the interview as scheduled on the 21st and send the birth certificate when we could get it. I asked them about the various third party services that advertise how quickly they can get them. The person I talked to at the consulate seemed reluctant to actually recommend we try to use one. In situations like this, you have to be aware of how you ask your questions to get the information you need. I understand that the consulate would not want to put themselves in a position of endorsing one of these third parties; after all, it isn’t clear how one of these companies goes about doing the work they do and if it is completely on the up-and-up. But it is clear that South African Home Affairs is less than effective (and less than honest), and at that point Zandy and I were fully willing to pay an additional fee to get what we needed. So I asked if they had heard of anyone having success using one of these third parties. The answer was something along the lines of them not hearing about any problems using these services. So I asked which company she was aware of people using and not having had any problems with. I got the name of one (of which their website I had already bookmarked) and called them right away.

As I explained to them that Zandy had already applied for it, I was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to help us. To my delight, they said they didn’t expect that to be a problem at all. In fact, they said in many cases they can get these documents in a matter of a few days, and rarely does it take more than two weeks. I got the payment information, transferred the money and hoped we would have it before we went to the interview.

Nothing in this process has been too easy, and this was no different. I was kicking myself for not doing more investigation into these third-party document companies back in June after Zandy was turned down by the first one. Of course, they didn’t have it finished in time for the interview, but after reading customer reviews on reputable, independent websites, I was confident that they would be able to produce it in a reasonable amount of time.

So, the time came for us to travel to Johannesburg and do the interview. I was prepared for them to not even allow me in the building, but happily I was able to sit with Zandy in the waiting room and even stand by her side when she was interviewed. The people at the consulate were clear in their instructions and pleasant in their demeanor. As the part of this whole process we were dreading the most, it turned out to be the easiest. The woman who conducted the interview seemed apologetic and even a little sad that she couldn’t grant the visa right away since we were still deficient one unabridged birth certificate. She reassured us that once the birth certificate was in their office, they would be able to grant the visa within a week’s time or less.

Zandy and Erik outside the Consulate in Johannesburg

We headed back to Durban with a clear plan of what needed to be done. Since I would be spending more and more time at her apartment, we worked out getting a key for me, before I headed back to the village for my last two weeks of school.

Back in the village, I had started giving away many things that I knew I wouldn’t be able to take with me. No matter where you live in the world, it is hard to know just how much stuff you have accumulated until it is time to move. And, since at the end of my last week, Zandy would join me in the village to hand off so much of my things to her immediate family, I started baking so we could make it something of a celebration. As her mother, uncle and one of her sisters also don’t live in the village, we were looking forward to a little family reunion/send-off party.

Also in my last week at the school, Zandy got the notification that she could pick up her birth certificate. She got it, and had a courier service send it to the consulate right away. I was hopeful that we’d be hearing within a few days of sending it over that her visa would be ready.

On the Thursday of my last week at the school, September 4th, the principal and teachers held a little farewell party for me. It was nice – complete with a meal, a few nice parting gifts, and words spoken by key members of the faculty and community. But it was small by Zulu standards. The principal encouraged me to invite a handful of kids. I would have preferred to invite all of the sixth grade (38 kids) and then some, but I knew what the principal had in mind. I invited four of the older kids who I had become particularly close with through the library, knowing I would bring my guitar the next day and have some fun with the younger kids.

Erik's going-away party at the school My friends at the party

The next day, September 5th, was my last day as a PCV at the school. It was a bit chaotic – more chaotic than it normally is. I took my guitar into the grade 6 classroom at the lunch break. Within about 20 minutes there were so many kids in the room, that no one could hear me playing anymore. I couldn’t hear myself singing. When the lunch break was finished, I went back to library. Different kids came in at different times to say goodbye and snap photos from their cell phones (which they really aren’t supposed to bring to school, but I didn’t feel like I was in a position to give them a hard time about that right then). Many of the kids (and even some of the teachers) told me they didn’t want me to leave, but I assured them I would come back in the future to visit. And they could always find me online, too, if they wanted to keep in contact with me until I could come back to visit.

With all of these things happening in the days leading up to moving away from the village, I still managed to bake a cake and a batch of chocolate chip cookies to have at the little party when Zandy joined me there to pass on all of my stuff to her family. But with a few days to go, we learned her Uncle Arthur couldn’t make it. And then her mother decided she wouldn’t come either. With that news, her younger sister decided it would be better to come when all the rest of them were there. So we would have to reschedule.

This wasn’t terribly shocking to me. Her uncle wanted to have a meeting in the village a few months earlier, but I couldn’t attend because it would have been the weekend of the COS conference. It could have been an honest scheduling conflict, but it felt like it was a reminder that no matter how much Zandy and I tried to plan these things, other people were going to exert whatever small amount of control they felt they had over the situation.

But there is a difference. The Peace Corps conference was scheduled months in advance of the meeting her uncle wanted to have. I found out about him wanting to have that meeting less than a week before he wanted to have it. But, we still didn’t have Zandy’s visa and I would still be making another trip to the village for passing on the daycare center project before leaving South Africa. So, it didn’t really matter … except for the baking I did. And all that really meant was more cookies and cake for the people who were there.

Zandy arrived early in the afternoon on Saturday, the 6th. I had already boxed or bagged up all the stuff that was going over to her mother’s and sister’s houses, which are situated only about 200 yards away from the little house I was staying in. With the help of brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends, we moved everything on foot in less than one hour. Many hands make light work.

I truly don’t think anyone (except for me) really realized how much stuff I was handing off to them. Even just the amount of stuff I had for my “kitchen” rivaled in quantity what many families in the area had, if only smaller in physical size. My pots and pans were of a better overall quality, yet smaller than what most people in the village would deem as adequate for cooking for a large family. And since all of my things were no more than two years old and really only used for cooking for myself, I think their condition could be described as “like new”.

Later we had a nice dinner with Zandy’s granny, and the rest of her immediate family that stays in the village (and lots of cake and cookies). The next morning Zandy and I were on our way back to Durban, but not without having a (hopefully) concrete day for our little farewell party (and corresponding family meeting): Saturday, September 27. This was fine with me, as Zandy and I currently had bigger fish to fry.

Back in Durban, Zandy was back to work, but I was killing time at her apartment for the better part of the week. After a call to the consulate, I learned that everything sent to them has to go through a security screening in their mailroom, and though we had confirmation of it being delivered there, her birth certificate hadn’t made it to the desk of the person reviewing her file. So, we were still waiting.

Also this week, Zandy had to negotiate the termination of her employment. I never expected it to be something that even required negotiating. We decided that Zandy would come with me back to the village on the 19th, and we would stay there with her family until the 28th (the day after our newly rescheduled farewell party). Her workplace (a betting parlor for horse races and soccer games) was in the process of changing ownership, and really wanted her to stay for the entire month of September. It seems they were disappointed, but they finally agreed to Zandy’s terms: her last day would be the 18th.

With the dates for the rest of the month set, I traveled to Pretoria for Close of Service with Peace Corps early on the 13th. I left a few days earlier than necessary so I could meet up with my friend, Kristina, from Arizona. She and four friends were doing a big tour of southern Africa for a safari and lots of other wonderful sightseeing. She arrived the morning of the 13th in Johannesburg. Having already checked-in to Khayalethu (the usual PC accommodation in Pretoria) I took the 45 minute Gautrain rail system ride to meet Kristina at the hotel she was staying. She and one of her friends let me show them around Sandton, the area of Johannesburg I had become most familiar with through trips for Zandy’s visa requirements. I’m sure it was a bit mundane compared to the other things she would see on her trip, but I was very happy to see an American friend. Kristina has the distinct honor of being the only person I had known before joining Peace Corps who got to see me as a PCV in Africa.

Erik and Kristina in Johannesburg

And she got in just under the wire, as by the following Wednesday, my time as a volunteer had come to a close. After three days of medical evaluations, closing accounts, and signing paperwork, on September 17 my status changed from Peace Corps Volunteer to simply American abroad. (Technically I became an RPCV or Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, but that didn’t feel quite right as I had not yet “returned.”)

Also while I was in Pretoria, Zandy let me know that her last day at work would be September 17 instead of 18 and I was able to confirm that Zandy’s birth certificate was with her file at the consulate. It’s difficult to say when exactly the document went from their mailroom to the person handling the case, but I was mostly just relieved that it wasn’t lost.

The night of September 17, I boarded a bus back to Durban. It’s hard telling exactly when and where it happened, but there was a big wreck involving a semi truck in the middle of the night on the main road from Pretoria to Durban which caused a huge traffic jam and a delay of over three hours. When I finally got into Durban, Zandy met me on the walk halfway from the Durban bus station to her apartment. We were really happy that we would have a day to spend together in Durban before going back to the village. I was really happy to be off the bus.

Later that day, while we were in the middle of eating a nice lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, an email came through on my phone that her visa was finished and ready to be picked up or sent via courier. We did a little happy dance while we were sitting at the table. At that point, I think both of us were too excited to continue eating, so we had the rest of the food wrapped up. We went back to the apartment and made the arrangements for it to be delivered. Since we would be in the village for over a week, we arranged to have her passport, visa, and all the other completed paperwork for Zandy to be delivered to the main DHL office in Durban, where we could pick it up once we returned to the city.

Back in the village, everything kept pretty much to schedule (albeit the revised schedule). We arrived in the late afternoon of the September 19, I met with PCV Shawn, Lettie and my host brother, Bonginkosi, a couple times about how to get started building the daycare center, and Zandy and I started preparing for the party we would have the next weekend. I stopped in the school a few times to see the kids, the library and teachers. I emphasized to them that I was no longer a volunteer; I was merely an American visitor – just a “dude” who wants to say farewell once more before going to America.

Shawn, Lettie, and Bonginkosi with the plans for Vikelani Abantwana

We also started to figure out our arrangements for traveling to America. By making at least one stop along the way, we figured out we could save a substantial amount of money and get to see another part of the world we had never seen. We settled on London; by flying there first and staying for a few days, rather than taking a direct flight from South Africa to the US, we would cut the price of our overall airfare by nearly one third. The only issue is that Zandy, as a South African, is required to have yet another visa to visit the UK. (Luckily, US passport holders do not require a visa to visit the UK.) This means more paperwork and processing time, but we were still pretty excited to get to see London.

Zandy’s mom arrived on Wednesday, her Uncle Arthur arrived on Thursday and her younger sister, Thobile, arrived on Friday. Her whole family was now there for the party on Saturday which had grown into something much larger than Zandy and I were anticipating over the preceding week. For example, we ordered a cake from a local bakery at the beginning of the week: 18” x 18” square, enough to easily have cake for thirty people. On Friday night, a 20′ x 40′ tent was being erected in the yard, with about 100 plastic chairs placed inside. Not quite to the size of a local wedding or funeral, but it was clear to everyone in the village that we were having a shindig.

Zandy and TT (Thobile) Raising the party tent

Saturday arrived and several women from the village (some I didn’t even know) had arrived and starting cooking before Zandy and I even got out of bed. Once we were up, we started helping out here and there, but we still needed to pick up the cake. The party was supposed to start at 1:00 pm, so we still had plenty of time. We made a list of other last-minute essential items from town and set off for town. Not even 10 yards away from Zandy’s sister’s house, someone driving past stopped, asked if we were headed to town, and then gave us a lift.

In town, we got what we needed fairly easily. Since we hadn’t really eaten a proper breakfast (considering all the cooking and preparing already in progress at the house), we also decided to grab a quick bite for ourselves in town. I presumed that once we were back at the house, we may not have an opportunity to eat until the party. Back at the house, guests were already starting to arrive. We put the cake in a safe place and got cleaned up for the party. Zandy was put to work with more food prep duties, so I went to taking photos and greeting guests.

Wedding Cake #1

The weather was pleasant enough, but it was rather windy in the morning. Certain parts of the tent were being whipped around by the wind, so I found the bungee cords I had recently gifted to the family and tied everything down. One of my friends that I had personally invited arrived shortly after, a teacher from the school, Mr. Mnyandu. Since I knew the party would be officially starting soon, I recruited him for taking photos with my camera.

My host brother, Leave, arrived and let me know that he would more-or-less be the MC for the program that would precede the meal, which he also assured me would be very short: a prayer, a few words from Lettie and then a few more from Uncle Arthur. “Maybe 15 minutes, but I think less than that,” he told me more than once. He asked if I would want an opportunity to say anything during the program. Off the top of my head, all I could really think to say was thanks to everyone for coming and to recognize all the people who had spent so much time on preparing food.

Of course, the program was considerably longer than Leave had said, but that was expected. Praying here also includes singing. And singing happens between each person who speaks. And Leave, as the MC, had to introduce everyone who would then speak. Then he opened it up for anyone else present who wanted to say anything, and of course there were some. Some people decided dancing was also necessary. Then it was decided that I should sing something and play the guitar. This was all very nice, but in hindsight it was really smart that we ate in town.

Leave MC's in front of Bonginkosi, Uncle Arthur, Dumisani, and Erik

It even seemed like the wind slowed down considerably by the time the party started. It was hot, but not too bad under the shade of the tent. The food was good, the cake was good, and it was great for me and Zandy to visit with so many people I had gotten to know over the previous two years … many of whom Zandy had known all her life. We took turns taking photos and posing for photos.

Erik and Mr. Musa Mnyandu Cut the cake! Just some of the ladies helping with catering Posing for photos!

In the early evening, the guys who had erected the tent the day before had arrived to take it down. If those in attendance hadn’t yet figured out the party was over, the tent coming down was an obvious signal. Some clouds were rolling in and the wind picked up again. We spent the rest of the evening indoors with Zandy’s family, looking at all the photos from the day’s event and listening to Uncle Arthur play (in South African style) my guitar that I had just gifted to him. I took some notes on his alternative tuning and fingerings, happy to have been given one last music lesson here.

Uncle Arthur playing his new guitar, Lando sings along

The next morning, we spent more time saying farewell to family, friends, extended family, and neighbors. It seemed many of them needed to be reassured (again) that we would be coming back to visit them in the future. We took lots more photos, too. Amazingly, there was still some cake left, so breakfast was cake and coffee before we went to town to find transport back to Durban.

Zandy and the family Erik and the family Uncle Arthur, Erik and Zandy

Once we were back in Durban, we confirmed our plans for the coming week. The next day, Monday, September 29, our friend (and Zandy’s former boss), Blaine, gave us a lift to and from the DHL office to pick up Zandy’s passport with her USA visa. This was a momentous occasion, and Blaine graciously treated us to breakfast afterword. At breakfast, while taking another look at the visa, I discovered that it had actually been issued and printed on September 17. This means that my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Zandy’s last day of work, and the issuing of her visa all happened to be the same day. Sure, this is just a coincidence, but it feels like that can be a day that we celebrate for years to come.

Then, on Tuesday morning, September 30, we started the process for Zandy to get a visitor’s visa for the UK. We were confident we had enough time for that to process before our trip, which was still two weeks away. Their website gives expected wait times and everything looked fine. Except as the remaining days in South Africa came and went, we still didn’t have her UK visa.

The most troubling thing was in order to get the UK visa, she had to hand over her passport which has her US visa affixed inside it. The very document we had waited so long for was no longer in our hands, and we weren’t sure if we would have it in time for the flight. With only four days before we had to leave Durban, we pulled the plug on our London plans.

First, this meant getting Zandy’s passport back from the UK visa processing and forfeiting the application fee. Then, I had to get our flight changed so we wouldn’t be spending any time in London. The somewhat sickening part was that we still had a layover in London for a few hours, but couldn’t leave the airport even if we had time. Even with the forfeited UK visa application fees and airfare change fees, it was still cheaper than a direct flight from South Africa to the US. I had to keep reminding myself of this fact to not feel like I had just thrown a few hundred bucks down the drain.

So, everything was (re)settled. We would be traveling to Johannesburg by bus on the night of October, 14 for our flight from Johannesburg to Pittsburgh, with stops in London and NYC, leaving October 15 and arriving October 16. We were ready.

Bags are packed, ready to go

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