Category Archives: Cultural Experiences

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

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


The Runaround: A Tale In (Mostly) Two Cities

This post may seem like I’m complaining. And, I guess I am. But I don’t think I can properly tell this story without the complaints.

On the road to obtaining a US visa for a fiancée, there are many obstacles. One thing is certain: it is nowhere near as easy as movies and TV would have you believe for an American to marry a foreigner in the US – specifically the part where the foreigner is in the United States for the purpose of marrying an American. I don’t mind it having many steps or taking a long time, but I do mind instructions being unclear, outdated and/or contradictory.

Furthermore, I have a feeling that countries with efficient public services can ease a lot of the burden imposed by Uncle Sam in this whole process. South Africa is not one of those countries.

There are five main steps to obtaining a fiancée visa for a South African (provided your fiancée was never married before and doesn’t have any children):

  1. Petition to Homeland Security. This is done by the US citizen. Cost: $340, plus shipping and obtaining all the supporting documentation and evidence. When that is approved you can move on to the next steps. This can take up to five months to get approved, but ours was approved in less than three. Yeah – off to a good start!
  2. Application form. Takes about an hour to fill out, but can be done online. Much of the same info is required as the petition, but this time it is from the foreigner. Cost: $350, but isn’t paid until the time of the last step. We were still under three months into this process when we knocked this one out. Good for us!
  3. Obtaining all the proper paperwork. This could be easier. USA’s forms can be unclear and instructions can be outdated, or just plain wrong. The South African Police Service and Department of Home Affairs are slow and (in the case of SAPS) proving to be prone to mistakes. This is where the problems begin. Cost: mostly time and effort (and frustration and gobs of hair you pull out of your own head).
  4. Medical examination. This isn’t a big deal, except there are only two medical offices in the entire country of South Africa authorized by the U.S. consulate to perform this task, and neither are conveniently located to me or my fiancée. Even though Zandy lives in one of the most modern cities in all of Africa, she is required to travel eight hours by bus to get blood tests, x-rays, vaccinations, etc. The bothersome thing for me is that Peace Corps has relationships with lots of medical offices throughout South Africa, and I’m pretty certain many of these places could do the same work. Cost: about $335 (plus expenses to get there and back, and getting a room for a night because it takes two days).
  5. Interview. This is just for Zandy … from what I understand, I can’t even be in the building. She’ll prove that we are getting married for all the right reasons and that she’s cool to reside in the states. This will take place at the US consular office in Johannesburg towards the end of July. Even though there is a consulate in Durban down the road from where Zandy works, she has to take the same eight hour bus trip to do this. So close, and yet so far.

So, what could be so bad with obtaining paperwork? I had to inconvenience family members to complete some less-than-clearly worded forms and dig up some financial records for proof that I and my family won’t let Zandy become the responsibility of the state once she’s on US soil. I guess that isn’t so bad. Especially when compared to our quest for Zandy’s Police Clearance Certificate.

At the beginning of May, Zandy went to the SAPS station nearest to her apartment to get fingerprinted and apply for her Police Clearance Certificate. Unfortunately for her, only certain stations perform this task, and this wasn’t one of them. She was directed to a different station where she was fingerprinted, paid a R59 application fee (about $5.50 USD), and was told to wait three to four weeks.

After three weeks with nothing in the mail, I started to get impatient. The post boxes at her apartment complex are completely open all the time, and I was nervous that even if it made it there, it may not make it into her hands. Four weeks to the day of her submitting it, she called the office in Pretoria that processes this form to get its status. Of course, they couldn’t find it – not a trace. As far as they knew, the paperwork never made it to their office for them to file it.

So, she went back to the police station to try again. She could have argued for the application fee to be waived, but (knowing that would probably be a losing battle) paid again, and instead asked for the completed fingerprints and form for her to mail them herself.

When she got home, she looked at the form. It wasn’t her name on the form. Oh, that’s because it wasn’t her form. It wasn’t any of her details on this form, except it was her fingerprints. The person doing the fingerprinting at the station swapped her form and another person’s right before she took the fingerprints. As soon as you’re done getting your fingerprints taken, you wash your hands while the person doing the prints slips the form into the envelope. By the time she was home and noticed this huge error, that office was already closed. It was Friday. We couldn’t do anything until Monday, except we would already be on that bus to Johannesburg for the medical exam. We decided that since we would be in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area for a few days, we would get the fingerprints done there and hand-deliver them to the office that processes the certificates. The third time will have to be the charm.

Zandy called the man whose details she had on a form with her fingerprints and told him what had happened. He hadn’t noticed either, but he insisted on swapping them back. So, I said we have to cut his prints off of her form and cut hers off of his before each person traded back their forms. We met him outside the gate of her apartment with a pair of scissors to cut each other’s fingerprints from the forms. It was all sort of useless, but at least some stranger doesn’t have her fingerprints or personal info. I’m sure he’ll have to get a new set of fingerprints taken, too – I can’t see the police service accepting a cut-and-paste fingerprint form for anything official.

So, Sunday night we boarded a bus in Durban and were off to Johannesburg for day one of the two-day medical proceedings. We arrived at Park Station at close to 6:00 am Monday. I was a little wary, because I had never been to Park Station before and hadn’t heard great reviews from other volunteers. I was prepared for the worst in terms of our safety, but it turned out to be pretty tame.

I asked a station security guard for directions to the Gautrain (a metro rail system connecting the neighboring cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria), after we had wandered around the immediate area and hadn’t noticed any signs. She simply said “go up” and motioned to the escalator. I tried to get a little more detail (like “then a left” or “you’ll see the signs”), but she would have none of it. Luckily, at the top of the escalators we saw some clear directions and a few minutes later we were waiting for the next train.

We avoided the taxi rank at Park Station and went directly from the bus drop-off to the Gautrain platform, and seemingly avoided any sketchy situations. We boarded the Gautrain for Sandton – an affluent, metropolitan area of Johannesburg that hosts the US Consulate and a huge mall (Sandton City) containing the required medical office.

At the mall, restaurants serving breakfast were just opening. We staked out the location of the medical office and the ATMs, then sat down at Mugg & Bean (a Perkins-style restaurant, fairly ubiquitous for large shopping centers in South Africa) for a nice breakfast and free wifi to kill some time before the appointment.

We arrived at the appointment early on purpose. We knew they would have Zandy fill out some paperwork, and we were already told that she would have to undergo some blood tests and X-rays. Of course, the detail that we missed (or was possibly left out) was that the majority of the day’s requirements would be done at labs that were not even in the same building. They gave Zandy her prescriptions for the tests and a paper containing some less-than-stellar directions to the hospital/medical center where they would be performed. With the help of Google maps on my phone, we set off on foot – each still carrying our bags for the overnight stay – for the 1.6 mile (2.6 km) walk to the medical center.

Once there, more paperwork was filled out and the required tests were performed. We walked back to the Gautrain station near Sandton City and took the train north to the Hatfield area of Pretoria. After about 35 minutes on the train, we walked the short distance to Khayalethu Guest House to check in to our room for the night. After a snack, a shower, and getting directions to the nearest police station, we were back out again to continue the quest for Zandy’s Police Clearance Certificate.

Back at the Gautrain, we only needed to go one stop to the Pretoria Station to make our way to the SAPS office. As we were exiting the Gautrain station in Pretoria, about four or five Gautrain security guards stopped us at the door because Zandy was chewing gum. Clearly, these people had nothing better to do. I understand that they want to keep a strict policy of no food or drinks on the train (including gum), but stopping us for a lecture as we are leaving is stupid. We almost walked right past them, and now I wish we had. After all, they are not police (even though their uniforms look as though they could be) and we had things to do. If anyone from the Gautrain management is reading this, please note: bad attitudes on the part of your security guards towards your paying customers’ minor infractions of rules that have no negative effect on anyone will just irritate the customers and encourage them not to use your service.

From there, we walked to the nearest SAPS station. Of course, they informed us that they don’t do fingerprints at that station and we would have to go to a different one. When we arrived at the proper station, it was nearly quarter to four in the afternoon. At that time we found out that they only do fingerprinting from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm. The room where this is done in the station was already locked and lights out. We could have done something else with our afternoon (that didn’t include a lecture from security guards), but as it happened, Monday afternoon accomplished nothing. We went back to our room, watched a movie on my laptop and then walked to a nice restaurant for dinner and a bottle of wine.

Tuesday now had a very full agenda. We were up at 6:00 am, so we could be out the door by 7:00 to grab a quick breakfast at Khayalethu (always nice) and head back to Pretoria to sort out the police clearance application with enough time to take the Gautrain back to Sandton for part two of the medical exam. We checked out of Khayalethu, but Scott and DJ there were very helpful to let us keep our bags there while we were running all our errands throughout the day.

We arrived at the Police station just before 8:00 am. When we got in the room for fingerprints we learned we needed to have a photocopy of Zandy’s ID to submit with the fingerprints. Amazingly, they had to direct us to a place outside of the police station because they don’t do photocopies there. (They can manage to make photocopies in the Durban office, but not in Pretoria.) The extreme level of inefficiency at this point was no longer surprising, but certainly irritating and definitely exhausting. It felt like no one there really wanted to do their job, and if they made it difficult enough, customers would give up so the employees could go back to figuring out other ways of avoiding doing work. I mean, they could buy a photocopier and do the copies for the people on the spot (and even charge them a premium price to do so), but they don’t seem interested in accomplishing … anything.

Back on the street, we found a photocopy place. We made two copies of her ID and a couple copies of her passport, just in case. We went back to the station and Zandy inked up her fingers for the third occasion in just over one month’s time for the same purpose. Then we went to pay the cashier in the next room. The cost, again, was R59. The woman had a clearly bad attitude from the start. She greeted us by saying in a thick Afrikaans accent, “I’m not interested in any stories.”

I’m not entirely sure what she meant by this, and Zandy wasn’t even sure she was talking to us. But, I took it to mean something along the lines of “Don’t tell me any reasons why you don’t think you should pay for this,” even though we hadn’t said anything to anyone yet about the extreme incompetence at the Durban station. And, if that is what she meant, I also take it as an admission of guilt on her part – as if she knows that everyone there is horrible at their job, and there is nothing that anyone could do about it. So, don’t tell her any stories, just pay. Oh, and by the way, she doesn’t make change. So our cost that morning was R60.

In the only attempt she made in any way to be helpful, she started giving us directions to where the application needs to be filed. Since I had already mapped out that building several blocks away the day before, I was happy to end that conversation and we could get away from her as quickly as possible.

We followed the directions from Google and after a little bit of confusion due to street names changing (the police service has not yet updated their own forms to reflect current street names that changed two or more years ago), we got to the office of criminal records where the application for the police clearance needs to be filed. We walked in and asked the receptionist there what we needed to do to file the application. I specifically asked her if it would be okay to have the certificate mailed to a specific address when it was ready. She said it wasn’t a problem and to go wait in queue number two.

We walked right up to the clerk at queue number two and Zandy handed her the paperwork. She filled out a receipt and told us that they would send a text message to Zandy when it was ready to be picked up. I spoke up quickly, “But, we need to have this sent to us in the mail.”

“Oh, you’ll need to bring in a registered envelope from the Post Office to do that.”

“I just asked the woman at the reception desk about having the certificate mailed, and she didn’t say anything about getting a registered envelope from the post office!”

I asked the clerk if we should take our application and come back with it when we have an envelope ready or if it would be okay to leave it with her and bring the envelope later. She said to leave it with her, as a post office is nearby.

I think Zandy has more patience for this sort of thing than I do. When we walked out of the Criminal Records office, we re-examined our situation and decided not to take a chance on the postal service. I’ll be back in Pretoria for Peace Corps-related business in the near future and can pick it up in-person then. Otherwise, Zandy can pick it up in-person before she goes to her interview.

We went back in, but I said Zandy had to go talk to the clerk again by herself because I might start yelling at people. Zandy came back to me and said that the clerk thought it was better that we just pick it up because she doesn’t trust that the postal service would get it to us in a timely manner. Perhaps we’re dodging a bullet. As of today, we’ve already received a text message from them that her application is in process, and I’m feeling better about the whole thing.

It was just after 9:00 am at this point, and Zandy’s appointment in Sandton wasn’t until 11:15. Even with our walk back to the Gautrain, the ride to Sandton, and getting cash from the ATM to pay for the medical exam, we would be early.

We walked in the doctor’s office at about 10:30. Zandy handed them the envelope she got from the radiologist the day before and started to fill out some more papers when the nurse there said she just got a message from the doctor. His wife had been in a car accident and no one was sure when he’ll be in the office. He wasn’t answering his cell phone, so all anyone could do is wait for him to call back with an update.

Zandy came back to the waiting room and explained it to me. This was troubling for us, because we had to be on a bus back to Durban that evening. It was even more troubling for the other woman in the waiting room, as she was supposed to be on a flight at 2:30 that afternoon. I said to Zandy (maybe a little bit too loudly and insensitively to the situation), “I don’t mind if we have to reschedule the appointment, but I don’t want to sit here all day to find that out. There are other things we could be doing instead of sitting in a waiting room.”

Within a minute or two, the nurse came into the waiting room from behind the desk. She explained it all again and said if we want to go that she could call us once she has more information. We were happy with that and decided to find some lunch at the adjacent Nelson Mandela Square. We took some photos of a huge statue of the man himself, and went to the Hard Rock Cafe there for a pricey – yet very American – lunch.

Zandy and Nelson

The hostess and the waitress were both very friendly, and both way more outspoken than what is typical of waitstaff in South Africa. We walked around the whole place and checked out all the memorabilia hanging on the wall and some cool stuff in the gift shop. Then, we sat in full view of a big TV showing videos of U2 live at Red Rocks, Jack White and Alicia Keys, Motley Crue, and so on. I was particularly pleased that they offered free refills for soft drinks, something that is very rare in South African restaurants. I had three glasses of Coke just because I could. We split their appetizer sampler, which actually made for a very large lunch for the two of us, including hot wings, chicken strips, loaded potato skins, and onion rings, with different sauces. Zandy even got to try Santa Fe Spring Rolls for the first time.

Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend someone traveling from the states to visit the Hard Rock Cafe in South Africa, because it feels pretty much like sitting at one in America. But, after the way things had been going for last couple of days, it seemed really necessary … and reassuring.

Hard Rock Cafe Johannesburg

After lunch, we still hadn’t heard from the doctor’s office, so we walked back to get an update. It turned out that only minutes after we had left, the doctor arrived at the office. Apparently, the accident wasn’t too serious. They said they couldn’t find Zandy’s number and that is why they hadn’t phoned. Of course, we know they hadn’t looked very hard, since they had already phoned her more than once in the past couple weeks to confirm the appointment. Whatever. They were able to see her right away.

After some vaccinations and peeing in a cup, Zandy was finished. They assured us that they would send all of the required medical information directly to the consulate and it would be there within a week. We paid and were on our way back to Pretoria to collect our things so we could travel back to Durban that night.

We had enough time to spare in Pretoria that I was able to pick up a few things for the library at my school, and in the lounge of Khayalethu, after picking up our bags, we sat and watched another movie on my laptop. We took one last trip on the Gautrain to Pretoria Station, where we had plenty of time to have dinner at McDonald’s and make jokes about all the gum we should have chewed on the train that day.

About 8:00 pm we were boarding the bus for an 8:30 departure. We could have taken the same bus and just gotten on it later in Johannesburg, but at the time I made the reservations I still had never been to Park Station before and didn’t want to be there after dark. The benefit to getting on in Pretoria is that it is the start of that bus trip and we were some of the first people on to pick our seats. All of the people who boarded in Johannesburg had to take whatever seats were left.

On Wednesday morning, safely back in Durban, Zandy and I grabbed breakfast at the Mugg & Bean near her apartment. Later that morning, I got on a taxi to head back to the village.

One step to go.


An Unexpected Love Story

If you had told me any of this would happen when I boarded the plane for South Africa in 2012, I would have laughed and told you how unlikely I thought it was.

The first time I met Zandile (pronounced zawn-DEE-lay) was at my little house, January 3, 2013. I had returned the day earlier from my holiday vacation in Durban. (If you’ve been reading this blog all along, you’ll remember that as the trip I jumped into a swimming pool with a nearly new Blackberry, squirted my own eye with lamb curry sauce, and did a bungee swing over Moses Mabhida Stadium.)

Zandy (for short) ran up to my open front door and introduced herself. People I didn’t know coming right to my door was not uncommon at the time, but this was different. To begin with, she was wearing serious workout clothes – shorts, a tank top/sports bra, and running shoes – which are all seldom seen in the village on women. The fact that she wasn’t wearing a long skirt stuck with me.

I was pretty sure she was related somehow to my host family, because of her striking resemblance to Thobile, a cute, university attending girl who was a sort of niece/cousin to my host brothers and sisters and who I had only met a few weeks earlier. Zandy explained she was Thobile’s older sister. She was visiting her family from Durban, where she lives and works. She had heard about me from others in the family, about how I was the American who could cook and bake, and that I could play the guitar and sing.

Of course I thought she was attractive. As I had explained to PCV friends of mine who had met Thobile, she was similar to Thobile, but a looked and acted a little older (… and looks like she should be a fitness model).

When we were talking about the fact that I could cook, she more-or-less challenged me to how good it would taste. Challenge accepted, I invited her to come back for dinner. I already had an idea for an improvised red pasta sauce for that day which would contain minced pieces of pepperoni sticks – courtesy of a care package from Kelly in the USA – and between 1/3 and 1/2 of a bottle of Castle Milk Stout (my favorite commercial beer sold in South Africa).

That evening she returned for dinner. I think she was impressed with my pasta dish. And, I know she was impressed with Ernie looking over us, his head peeking out of a clothespin bag suspended from my mosquito net. In the early days of my residency in KZN, the tattered plush Ernie doll (of Sesame Street fame) was an attraction to my house for kids of all ages. She took photos of him on her phone (though no photos were taken of me at the time).

Zandy snapping a photo of Ernie

It was kinda’ like a date. It was a date, it just wasn’t set up as one. We had lots to talk about and it is always nice to talk with a Zulu whose conversational English was way beyond that of the people who lived in the village full-time. But the distance of where she lived and my lack of transportation and funds made it seem that this would be the extent of our relationship. I never thought it was realistic for me to seriously date someone while I was here anyway, and I was okay with that. A day or two later she went back to Durban.

Fast forward three or four months. Zandy was visiting her family again and made a point to stop in and see me, too. We talked some more and seemingly picked up from where we had left off back in January. She now had a Blackberry which made staying in contact with her in Durban via BBM (Blackberry Messenger) easy. This was great to me because I liked her, and I felt like I now had a real friend living full-time in one of South Africa’s major metropolitan areas.

I knew I had some Peace Corps-related travel and vacation-related travel coming up in the near future that would take me through Durban no less than four times. I was hopeful to meet up with Zandy for lunch or dinner or whatever was convenient. But it didn’t happen; our schedules just couldn’t sync up.

But we still managed to check in with each other from time to time on our smart phones. In August, I was again passing through Durban for Peace Corps-related traveling, and we finally matched our schedules for a meet-up on her turf.

I had to meet her at her work, as she was recently hired by her previous employer for a new business of his: a horseracing and sports betting club. I arrived sometime after 5 pm, and she had to work until 7. I would be on a bus to Pretoria by 10 that night, so we had just enough time in between for a proper dinner.

Without the worry of the village listening in to our conversation, I think we both felt free to speak our minds, and yes, we liked each other and yes, we wanted to see more of each other.

Chance was in our favor. At the end of that week I was passing back through Durban on my way home, resulting in another date. A few weeks after that Zandy ran (that is, mostly walked) with me in the 10k running race we did for the KLM foundation. (She is a great distance runner and can do between 10k and 20k any day of the week as part of her regular training. Her staying with me was completely for my benefit.) A few weeks after that, I passed through Durban on back-to-back weekends because of my Peace Corps Mid-Service Training (MST). By the end of September, through a bunch of lucky circumstances giving us a regular dating schedule, she was my serious girlfriend – no doubt about it.

Zandy on a date with me in Durban

And over that time I got to know all about her, too. Zandy is 24 years old, turning 25 in a few months. She aspires to be a personal trainer. Her parents split up when she was about eight years old. She’s the second oldest after her older sister. Her younger sister and brother are twins. She is an aunt to two little girls (her older sister’s daughters). She has a much younger half brother that her mother had some years after Zandy’s father had passed away. And her dad sounds like a pretty cool guy that I would have been honored to meet, too.

The best way I can describe our relationship is that we are alike in all the ways we need to be to love each other and be together; we are different in all the ways that make our relationship endlessly interesting and part of life’s greater adventure.

Zandy at the Durban Botanical Garden

We were expecting a less-than-favorable reception of the news of our relationship from her family, the folks I am living with. After all, they are pretty conservative about a lot of things; living where they live and following the customs and traditions they follow more-or-less means we should expect a negative reaction. And, these are the people who opened up their home to a stranger from the USA who they’ve decided to trust.

So, how do I even tell them? Or should she tell them? The easiest thing to do for both of us was just not tell them.

But keeping this news from them also meant keeping it from nearly everybody, regardless of where they live in the world. The last thing I would want is for someone I’m close with in my host family to find out I’m dating someone else in their family through one of my friend’s or family member’s innocent posts on Facebook about my girlfriend. I could see it now: “Hey Erik! Heard you’ve got a new squeeze in South Africa … what’s her name again? Zen Delay? Sun Dial? Venn Diagram? I don’t know how you understand any of those Zulu words, but good for you!”

But, like all good things, we didn’t want this good thing to end. Many times I’d say “I wish I could show you this in America …” or “If you were in America, you would love this …”. It didn’t take long before I just invited her to come back with me. “Come with me when I go back to America next year. If you like it, stay.” The invitation was accepted.

Now we had to tell her family about us. And this time, the news is even heavier, because it’s not just that we’re dating, but that Zandy is planning on moving to the other side of the globe. On top of that, the idea of Zandy running off to America with me is the equivalent of marriage in their eyes, whether or not a ceremony or rings are involved. This will certainly require some navigating of cultural expectations; I want to respect her family and their traditions, but likewise they have to respect that, when it comes to things like relationships and marriage, I come from a culture that is quite different.

Zandy started by telling her older sister. Then she told her mother. After she talked to her mother, we set up a time when I could meet with her mother in Durban. Her mother also doesn’t live full-time in the village, so it was relatively easy to set up a time in mid-December when the three of us could sit down (at a McDonald’s, of all places) to discuss our future in America. From there, her mother would tell the rest of the family. And a few weeks later when she was in the village herself, she did. This hasn’t gone 100% smoothly, but the people this affects the most are generally positive about it.

At that point, I felt free to tell my family in America about Zandy. “I have a girlfriend. Her name is Zandile, but she usually goes by Zandy. She lives in Durban. We met nearly a year ago, and we’ve been seriously dating the last five months. And I want to bring her with me when I come back to America.”

Erik and Zandy

In this respect, I can count on my family to be happy for me. They are, and I knew they would be. My father said, “If my kids are happy, then I’m happy.” To this I replied, “That’s good, because if my parents are happy, I’m happy.”

Of course, all of this got me thinking very hard about marriage. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve gone back and forth for years on whether or not marriage was something for me. But everything about this is telling me I should. Many times in the past I thought “What’s the point, especially if you have no immediate plans for kids?” Maybe I just was never with the right person for me to marry before.

Recently, someone I had just met over the holidays who has family in the village (and had no knowledge of who I was dating) asked me if I would marry an African girl. I answered yes, without hesitation. Why shouldn’t I?

So, now I had a different question for Zandy. And even though I knew the answer, it didn’t feel right until I did one of the few universally customary things we do in America: buy a ring.

Since she knew my question and I knew her answer, it didn’t feel weird with the two of us going ring shopping together. I headed back to Durban to spend time with Zandy and make this engagement official.

Over two days we went to at least six jewelry shops, plus a couple of department stores looking for a ring that she liked the look of and liked the feel of. After we found it, we went to a few more shops, just to make sure we weren’t jumping on something too soon. Within 30 minutes of looking elsewhere, we knew it was right.

Engagement Ring

After some additional clearances with my American credit card, the ring was off to be sized. We had enough time for a movie and lunch and picked up the finished ring that afternoon. When we got back to the hotel room, I officially asked her and presented her the ring, and she officially said yes. Later that evening, we got dressed up and went to the restaurant at the historic Royal Hotel in Durban to celebrate. And since this all happened on a Monday, we happened to be the only people in the restaurant.

Engagement Dinner

The next day, I called my parents to tell them. My mother answered the phone and when I told her, she could barely contain herself. Now that they know, I thought it best to put the whole story here. There are lots of details to work out yet for actually getting married (dates, locations, etc.), and though I could ask people to hold off on asking about those details, I’m sure that won’t stop them. But we’re excited – the wheels are in motion!


Posted by on 8 January 2014 in Cultural Experiences, Engagement, Events


In the Name of Your Father

Term 2 is about finished. I’m not certain, but I think these kids might actually be learning something. I’ll be traveling around different parts of South Africa for a conference and some training (and some fun) coming up over the next couple-a-few weeks, but I had some thoughts on fathers and Father’s Day to share before I go.

Too often in South Africa, children are fatherless. Or, to be more accurate, they lack people to play that part: the positive male role model. You could make an argument that this is a big problem all over Africa, or in the USA and maybe even any other country in the world, but it seems to be particularly prevalent here. I’m certainly not the first person to notice this or write about it. A simple search on Google for “Fathers in South Africa” can get you started, and then there seems to be lots of books on the topic. Here’s a good, short, unvarnished place to begin:

After reading the above article, I can’t even begin to pretend to wrap my mind around all the contributing factors to this problem here. The best I can do is observe and read … and offer whatever assistance I can within the limits of being a volunteer.

The family I stay with is good in regard to having a good number of positive male role-models, but still not ideal. There are men around. They are all employed in some capacity. They all contribute to the overall well-being of the (very large) household and they all lend a hand with all the kids. But most of them are not fathers themselves. So, how do we account for all the kids running around this place?

Given a choice, you wouldn’t expect very many people to choose single parenthood – but here, it has become completely normalized for women to just pop out some kids, no matter of their situation. It isn’t just culturally acceptable to be a single mother; it is culturally expected that as a woman you have at least one child, regardless of your relationship status. And the women in my host family are no exception.

As for fathers, actually being involved in your child’s life seems to be culturally optional. And unfortunately, too many opt out.

The good news is there are people who recognize this problem and want to do something to turn it around. This is why that same Google search returns pages like these:

I recognize how fortunate I am to have grown up in the USA – of course, it’s easy for any American to appreciate everything living in the States provides you as soon as you get a good, firsthand look at a developing nation. But the longer I stay here, the more I can appreciate how much I got out of growing up with my family (immediate and extended), and even some of my teachers and friends. By comparison, I have what seems to be an unending supply of positive male role models.

Second Sons

Second sons: Grandpa Richard flanked by my dad and me, July 2012

Depending on the situation, I often think of the people I know well who would perform the best under the given circumstances. Everyone we know is better than us at something, so it’s helpful that I feel I always have someone to ask for assistance. And if I can’t ask the person I know who knows best, I can just try to think like them.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. The notion of “What would _________ do?” has to pass through everyone’s mind at some point, like when faced with a problem to solve or a big decision.

This especially holds true for both of my grandfathers. “What would Grandpa Richard do?” or “What would Grandpa Bud do?” are quite useful in situations where something needs fixed or requires a creative solution.

(Of course, lots of people like to fill in this blank with “Jesus.” However, turning the other cheek or turning water into wine aren’t super helpful skills when trying to correct the wiring in your house, concoct a better-than-average recipe for baked beans, or design removable screens for your old-fashioned windows. Then again, JC was a carpenter; perhaps my velcro/net window screens – oft-imitated by nearby PCVs – were divinely inspired after all.)

But when it comes to my father, I seldom think that way – and I don’t have to. In many ways I act like him without even trying. (I can already hear people joking that one of him is enough.) The older I get, the more I hear my dad’s voice coming out of my mouth.

Be it nature or nurture, we have a tendency to become our parents.

Maybe that’s the root of problem here in South Africa. Many people are being nurtured in an environment where the fathers are absent. So as they become adults, it seems the young men aren’t thinking twice about being absentee fathers themselves.

So, as we descend upon another Father’s Day, don’t look at it as only a day for honoring your dad. Look at it as a day to be thankful for all of your positive male role models – regardless of their relation to you or if they are even still alive – and be thankful that you grew up in culture that recognizes and embraces their importance. You wouldn’t be who you are without them.


Something Old, Something New, Something Butchered, Something With Entirely Too Much Sugar In It

What’s been going on that I have been neglecting the blog? For starters, school. To be the best teacher I can be demands a lot of my time. It’s hard to believe one term has already come and gone. I recently had to fill out a report for Peace Corps covering the first term of school, and I expect I’ll cover a lot of those topics in an upcoming post. But for now, enjoy this latest glimpse of Zulu culture as experienced through the eyes of someone who now feels deeply entrenched in Peace Corps culture.

Last Friday night, five of my PCV friends came to visit me at my site for the weekend. The main event was the Zulu version of an engagement party for one of my host brothers, Dumisani, and his bride-to-be, Zanele. It is called “lobola” which entails the beginning of the negotiations for how much he will pay the family (in cows or their cash equivalent) of his bride-to-be to marry her. (Think of it like the man having to buy the woman away from her family to join his.)

But the fun-filled weekend actually started Friday morning. Most of us were to meet with our local Department of Education managers that day at the Education Resource Center in town – a building that I would say is far too nice when compared to many of the schools in the district it serves. If some of the schools were as modern and well kept as this Resource Center, maybe the students would have better chances for success.

Anyway, in true Zulu fashion, the meeting which was originally scheduled for 2:00 pm was rescheduled for 9:00 am just two days prior. The volunteers (all of us still willing to attend after the last minute time-change, that is) arrived between 9:00 and 9:15. We waited in reception for more than thirty minutes while a receptionist tried to get the DOE attendees to answer their cell phones. We were then led into a conference room, where we waited for at least another 45 minutes before the receptionist and the remaining volunteers agreed to give up and scrap this meeting. We walked across the street to one of the local lodges and had an early lunch.

The meeting wasn’t a total loss. The volunteers had lots to talk to each other about, considering we now have one full term of teaching on our own under our belts. But, we could have done that at a different time. Keep in mind, if we weren’t attending a meeting that morning, we would have been doing our actual jobs: teaching children. (And, in these schools, there is no such thing as a substitute.)

So, our conversation continued over cold drinks and a lunch of cheeseburgers (that more closely resembled meatloaf sandwiches) and fries. We waited for our compatriots (who decided against coming to what turned out to be a non-meeting) to join us as their schools let out. (As a general rule, all schools “knock off” early on Fridays, though curiously enough, I’ve never seen a printed schedule that reflects this Friday anomaly.)

After some more food and more catching up, we journeyed down the street to the grocery store to stock up on supplies for the weekend. Those of you who keep up with my Facebook page already know that my friend Kelly in Phoenix, Arizona had recently sent me a large care package that included many important items for creating a fiesta of Mexican food.

Box contents Kelly 4-9-2013

The timing of the package’s arrival was nearly perfect for me to host five Americans who truly miss south-of-the-border cuisine. We just needed to buy ground beef (or “mince” in the South African parlance), a block of cheese, rice and vegetables; Kelly took care of the spices, salsa, chiles, refried beans, and – most importantly – the tortillas (flour and hard AND soft corn to choose from!).

Diana, Katrina, Michael, Shawn, Vanessa and I then walked to my site, which was already abuzz with activity in preparation for Saturday’s proceedings. That evening, in between figuring out sleeping arrangements and socializing with members of my extended host family, we cooked and enjoyed our Mexican feast in my little house.

We also had a chance to talk with who Dumisani designated as his negotiator in the lobola process: Mr. Gumede. Unfortunately, no one was really forthcoming with details of how all this works. Like most things in South Africa, we would figure it out as we went along.

On Saturday morning, we rose early enough to enjoy Katrina’s recipe for french toast before getting ready for what was sure to be a long day. I was in a suit and tie, as it was my brotherly duty to be dressed up for the occasion. Vanessa was in traditional Zulu attire (and excited that she had a good excuse to wear it, I think). The rest of the volunteers were comfortable in casual attire. We were ready to travel across the village to the bride-to-be’s family’s house for whatever we were to encounter next.

As I was reminded by Dumisani (and all of my host brothers, for that matter) on several occasions, I was extremely encouraged to take lots of photos of the event. So before we even left my yard I had started snapping them.


Part of the custom of the negotiating is gift-giving. Just to seek an audience with the family costs you the first cow and bunch of blankets (and apparently several cases of soft drinks). The cow was dropped off the night before. All of the other things and a bunch of people were loaded into the back a large truck. Luckily, the Americans got to ride in a smaller, extended cab pick-up. Add to that a few more car-loads of people, and you have yourself a lobola caravan for a journey that takes under 10 minutes in an automobile.

They were expecting us at 10:00 am. We arrived about 25 minutes later than we were supposed to, which is pretty good by the standards of “African Time” and how many people we had transported from one home to another. However, our late arrival was something of a faux pas as it pertains to the negotiations. Apparently we had already incurred a small fine for this. But, this is all part of a “dance” – a traditional, back-and-forth of haggling every detail of what happens over the course of the day. (I mean, really, come on! It’s not like there was a chance we weren’t coming; the cow had already been delivered!)

We got out of the cars, but we were just milling about in the area of the yard where we had parked, away from the houses on the property. They weren’t officially letting us in to their home yet. It was a bit weird. We could see them. They were all outside.

One of the first things I noticed was a large decorated tent. I knew lobola was serious business, but I wasn’t sure just how serious until I saw the tent. For an event to be tent-worthy, they had to have been expecting lots of people. Moreover, they were willing to spend the money to rent the tent, plus all the tables and chairs.


Next, I noticed the cows. It was pointed out to us that the largest and oldest was the gift cow. I’m still unclear where the other half dozen cows were from; perhaps they were just the bride’s family’s existing stock.

BS and cows

My best guess is that over 50 people from my host family were there, mostly adults. Probably close to twice that many people from the bride’s family were there. A group of this many Zulus means singing and dancing – it’s automatic. I’m desensitized to it now. But this was somewhat different in that my family was doing their own singing and dancing different from what the party-hosting family was doing. It was like a good-natured dancing and singing throw-down, and at least a little cacophonous.

However, the Zulus in my family were taken aback (and elated) when Vanessa (known to all the folks in attendance by her Zulu name, Sbongile) started dancing with them. She was already dressed for it, and she’s certainly not shy.

Vanessa dancing

Plus, we didn’t have much else to do. We were waiting (and the Americans weren’t even sure for what). It turns out that this is part of the negotiation ritual, too. Make the buyers sweat a little bit. Make ’em wait.

Finally, after a good 30 minutes of the sing/dance-off, we were allowed to parade ourselves over to the waiting family with all the gifts. We dropped them off, then made our way back to where the cars were parked, and to wait some more.


Luckily, the Americans were granted a reprieve about ten minutes into this next round of waiting. It was time to start slaughtering the cow! The oldest men from my family were in charge of this task, while the bride’s family (mostly the women) were on hand to keep the singing going. I get the feeling that traditionally we wouldn’t even be allowed over for this part of the day’s events, except that we were all curious to see it (and we were kinda’ special guests as it was).

This process wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure it was far from painless for the cow. But, there is a method to it, and even some honor in how it is done, considering they pulled out a special spear for just these types of occasions.

The first thing they do is tether the cow to a large tree: one rope on one of its hind legs and another on its head. Then they take up the slack in the ropes so it is fairly immobile and pretty close to the tree. The spear is unwrapped from a decorative ribbon, and the oldest brother prepared for the kill.

He skillfully moved in towards the beast, pierced it in the heart, and quickly backed off as the beast let out some dissatisfied noises. Unfortunately, this had to be repeated. By the second stabbing, blood was spilling pretty freely. The animal couldn’t take it anymore and had to sit. Less than two minutes later, it had to lay down. It was time to put it out of its misery.


Over the next five or so minutes, the cow was dragged by the men closer to the large branch of the tree from which it would be hung for cutting off its hyde. Once it was in position, they began to slit its throat. This is when I started feeling kinda’ bad for the animal.

Up until this day, it probably lived a pretty good life for a cow: grass-fed, low-stress, not a care in the world. Then, one day in its twilight years, someone decides it’ll be a good idea to tie it to a tree and stab it in the heart. It gives up and decides it is time to lay down and die. But just when it thinks its day couldn’t get any worse, the brother of the dude that stabbed it decides its respiratory system has to be discontinued.

It got bloody (or should I say “bloodier”?). The cow took its final breaths.

Now the men could hitch the rope that was attached to the cow’s head to a pick-up truck standing by to hoist it into a hanging position for butchering. After taking a bunch more photos, I had had my fill of this scene (as did most of the Americans by then), so I went back to where my host family was still singing and dancing by the yonder parked cars.

It was just after noon at this point, and everyone was getting pretty hungry. (The french toast from breakfast seemed like a distant memory.) My gift for the event was a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but I was clever enough to not drop them with the other gifts when we did our traditional parade of gift-giving earlier that morning. I knew they were going to be a gift for someone that day, so I didn’t feel bad when I had just enough to treat all the people standing around the cars to one cookie each. So what if the bride’s family missed out? Anyway, there weren’t nearly enough to give one to every person there. After I gave one to the (relatively) small group surrounding me, only two were left: one more for me and one more for the groom.

For about the next 30 minutes we took some more photos and chatted. Finally, we were given the ok to enter the tent. We were directed to sit at one of two very long tables in this festively decorated, white tent. Shortly after that, they started serving us refreshments of fruit, muffins, chips, and soft drinks.

So, Dumisani and all the folks in my host family – who had been enjoying each other’s company outside all morning and into the afternoon – were now sitting under a tent to enjoy each other’s company some more, except for the fellas who were still busy butchering the cow. The bride’s family was yet to join us. I took off my tie.

no tie

And, for about the next four or so hours, that was what was happening. It’s hard to decipher exactly how long it was, because when you really aren’t doing anything for so long, you get a warped concept of time.

Throughout that time, the butchering team joined us. Then, the bride’s family. Finally, dinner was served as it was getting dark outside. Everyone consumed mass quantities. (None of the food came from the freshly slaughtered cow, by the way. That we started consuming the next day.)

And then, after we had all eaten, the bride-to-be made a grand entrance to the tent. Now the families were all singing and dancing to the same tune.


The sky had been threatening rain throughout the day, but it held off from really serving us up a downpour until about the time the party was over. We hurriedly crammed ourselves back into the extended cab pick-up for the jaunt back to my house.

It became clear to me by the end of the party that throughout all of these events outside and under the big top, Dumisani’s negotiator, Mr. Gumede, was inside the bride’s family’s house, doing his best to get the girl for the least amount of cows. We waited so long for dinner because it wasn’t to be served until they had reached an agreement. When I asked one of my other host brothers if the negotiations had shaken out in Dumisani’s favor, his response was “he won.”

Bride-to-be, sitting across from the groom

To cap off the evening, I had planned to bake another batch of chocolate chip cookies for my PCV friends. I put them to work chipping up bars of chocolate (since it seems to be impossible to buy a bag of chocolate chips in South Africa). I started mixing the other ingredients. But, we were talking and I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I was doing.

I definitely put in too much butter. And, I realized after we started that I didn’t have enough treacle sugar (a delicious and abundant substitute for recipes that call for brown sugar). But, the biggest (Hugest? Most colossal? How could I have done this?) issue was when I accidentally mixed up my containers of flour and powdered sugar.

The cookies were a joke. I tried to fix the batter as I went along, but I still hadn’t realized the powdered sugar mishap, so all of my attempts were based on the notion that I had just used too much butter and an improper balance of white and brown sugar. I put the rest of the cookie dough (can we even call it that?) in the freezer to deal with at another time. The weird stuff I had pulled out of the oven was partially eaten by all of us in strange pieces and many crumbs (it did have nice big chunks of chocolate in it, after all), and the remainder was put in a tupperware in the fridge. We went to bed.

Even now, it is unclear to me how much of what went into that cooke dough was flour and how much was powdered sugar. All I know for sure is that I no longer have powdered sugar in my house, and I only figured all of this out yesterday evening.

Sunday morning, I orchestrated some breakfast burritos with the six remaining eggs I had and the Mexican food leftovers. They were delicious and I feel it was a step in the right direction for redeeming myself after the cookie failure.

All the PCVs readied themselves for the walk back into town, where they would find transport to their respective sites. I went along to pick up some items that I would need for the week ahead … and to catch up with Jonelle, our PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader), who was planning to be in town that morning, too.

As we were finishing packing up everybody’s stuff, Diana decided to give the frozen, unbaked cookie dough a taste test. To her delight, it was quite delicious that way. Everyone had a chunk or two (or three). I think (I hope) that everyone felt they got some benefit out of chipping all of that chocolate.

By late Sunday morning, it was back to just me in my little house, preparing for the upcoming week of classes and reviewing the 600-plus photos I had taken the day before. However, the after-lobola-party was just getting underway, right outside my door.

Dumisani was given a considerable amount of beef from the freshly butchered cow, and quite a delicious stew was prepared for the party with it and served over rice. A plate was even delivered to me by the kids. I joined the party for a while and enjoyed some more food. The cow did not die in vain.

But the question on all the after-party-goers’ lips was “Where’s Sbongile (Vanessa)?” Until the next big family event that all my PCV friends attend, I guess I’ll have to work on my Zulu dance moves.

PS: The baked, sugary, chocolate chip concoction that went into the fridge was subsequently consumed by mixing it with cream cheese and roasted almonds. It tasted so good that I am contemplating figuring out how to do it again. The unbaked, frozen dough remains … for now it is untapped creativity.


December 2012, Part IV: An American In Durban

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.


December, 2012 Part III: Traveling In South Africa Is Like a Box of Chocolates – or – Trade Seats, Get a Burger!

As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I heard cheering from inside the main house. Something must be going well for the ZA Soccer team. They are playing right now in Durban, and many of my PCV friends are there. I seriously considered going for the match, but I just can’t get into soccer enough to justify spending the money. All of my American (and non-South African) readers benefit from me not cheering on the “boys” (Bafana Bafana), as I’ve spent this time completing the next installment of what may be the most story-filled month of my life.

When I woke up the morning of Saturday, 15 December, the thought crossed my mind that by being with these people again, I was in someway being rehabilitated of all the luxury I had been experiencing over the previous two weeks and all the commotion of the previous two days. Specifically, I thought of the part of Forrest Gump where Jenny comes to stay with Forrest to kick her drug habit and stop drinking. Not that my situation was nearly that dire, but it felt nice to “hit the reset button” in a safe place with people who were happy to see me.

Mandisa and I walked to the small grocery store around the corner (Pinkies Tuck Shop) for some bread, peanut butter, and cookies (or biscuits, to be South African about it). After breakfast, Mandisa and I prepared to go to day-two of the Mpumalanga Traditional Music and Dance Festival. We were to meet Abegail there, as she was working security there again that day.

It was a much larger production than I was expecting, but it was so hot and sunny that most people sat far from the main stage in the covered bleachers of the small stadium it was being held. The field in front of the stage was vacant, but it was clear that by the night it would be filled with people. I was exhausted most of the day, and at one point I even fell asleep in the bleachers. When it started getting dark, Mandisa and I grabbed a taxi back to the house. As Mama was finishing the preparation of dinner, I shared some of my favorite scenes from Singin’ in the Rain and Swing Time on my laptop. It was cool to have a bit of a cultural exchange after all the African dancing we watched earlier that day.

Abegail and Mandisa at the Music and Dance Festival

Abegail and Mandisa at the Music and Dance Festival

I was then treated to another nice, home cooked dinner (by candlelight). In the middle of dinner, Sabelo, one of the brothers in my family there – and a sometimes resident at the house – walked in and exclaimed he could only see me sitting there because of the color of my skin. We all had a laugh over that as he joined us in our dim dining. Afterwards, with no electricity other than what was stored up on the battery of my laptop, we all turned in for the evening.

On Sunday morning, I was feeling good. I got out of bed, cleaned myself up for the day and made my way outside.

I turned the corner on my way to the toilet, and saw a goat that didn’t belong to the family (as they don’t own any) scrounging around the yard. On my way back from the outhouse, I saw Mandisa washing clothes around the front of the house and let her know about the goat. She picked up a handful of gravel to chorale it out of the yard. (The girl’s got a good arm AND good aim, by the way.) The goat darted through the open part of the gate where it apparently got in.

As I walked with her past their small mango tree, a wasp (or some other kind of biting, flying pest) flew down the back of my shirt through the neck hole and started to bite my back. I let out some surely strange yelps as I ripped off my shirt. Apparently this pest has been a problem in the past for Baba, as he was bit on the face and the ear, which I was told caused him some swelling. Luckily, swelling wasn’t a problem for me. Mama helped me put some anti-itch cream on all the bites. (It was fortunate that I had brought it with me for a mosquito bite I received right before leaving my site over two weeks earlier.)

In the late morning, Abegail accompanied me to a neighboring town that has a rather large shopping center. My plan was to have a temporary replacement phone and a bus ticket on a private bus line from Pretoria to Durban for Monday, and I needed to have these things before heading back to Watervaal.

The phone I bought cost about the equivalent of $15 USD, and to use it feels like stepping back in time – at least from a technological standpoint. But, I was in a tight spot and it was more than adequate. To make it work, all I had to do was insert the SIM card from my 3G modem and I was reconnected to the outside world.

The bus ticket was to be purchased at the Shoprite grocery store. My first choice of bus line and time was already sold out. My next choice was the Intercape bus line, with more stops along the way and a little bit higher cost, but it would have me departing Pretoria at 9:30 and arriving in Durban by 6:00 pm – not perfect, but good enough. I handed over my credit card, signed on the line, and waited for my ticket.

But things weren’t to be that easy. When the lady at the service counter of the grocery store tried to print the ticket I had just purchased, she discovered the ticket printer was not working. I asked her if she knew if my reservation was still in Intercape’s system, and that if she could just print a receipt for me that I could take to the bus station and have my ticket printed there. She looked at me with a blank stare and said “But I can’t print your ticket.”

So, without knowing for sure if I had a reservation for the bus or not, I thought it best to get a refund. But then I still needed to get a ticket. My thoughts: “I can deal with this. Intercape also has online ticket sales. I’ll just go back with Abegail and first thing when I walk in the door, I’ll logon and buy one. No problem.”

She began to process my refund. Because they are a grocery store, they are used to taking returns of merchandise. So she asks me to sign a type of returns ledger that requires all my contact details: address, phone number, etc.

This was the point in which I lost my cool. This lady – as a matter of protocol – was asking me for personal information that she clearly did not need. She didn’t need these details to sell me a ticket, why on earth would she need it to return my money for a ticket she was incapable of producing?

“My address?! You want my address?!?! For what? You didn’t even sell me anything, because YOUR printer doesn’t work! Are you going to track me down when your printer is working again to make sure you get me a ticket?” In the address blank I wrote in large letters “USA”, scribbled my signature, grabbed my return receipt, and walked out.

Of course, this poor lady was taking the brunt of all my frustrations from the past several days just because she was following the steps for processing a return at their store. She had probably seen hundreds of other customers before me that day and was in no state of mind to single out my unique situation. Abegail could tell I was stressed out.

We returned home with only one of the two objectives met. I got back on my computer and quickly secured a reservation for the same bus (a few bucks cheaper, too). Now I just had to figure out how I would be in Pretoria by 9 am the following day. I asked Abegail for her suggestion: “Don’t take the public busses – take a taxi!” Good advice, but then Sabelo pipes up, “Tomorrow is a holiday – there won’t be any taxis or busses.”

My heart sank. This was not what I wanted to hear. But he was right about it being a public holiday that Monday. South Africa celebrates the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December, and because that was a Sunday, it was observed on Monday. I knew this, but didn’t think to make sure public transportation would be in service.

After some more discussion, Abegail suggested I ask Jafta, the eldest brother of the family, to drive me. He was expected to come for a visit later that day as it was, and time permitting, he would take me, Abegail and Mandisa to his house to visit with his wife and kids. That seemed like a good plan. I had never been to Jafta’s house the whole time I was staying with the family during Pre-Service Training. I had only seen some pictures of it and knew that it was very nice, even though still unfinished.

Throughout the day, no one could seem to get ahold of Jafta. I’m sure I was visibly nervous about possibly having wasted money on a bus ticket that I couldn’t get to the bus station for. Mama resorted to calling some people that may or may not have been private taxi drivers … seemingly, anyone she knew of who might be a driver for hire the next day.

I packed my bags as it was getting dark. We ate dinner. We even had dessert. I resigned myself to the fact that Jafta wasn’t coming, and announced as much to the family. I figured I would get up really early and take my chances for finding some kind of transport to Pretoria on my own. Even on a holiday, money would surely talk someone into getting me there. I grabbed the bag of small toys that I brought for Jafta’s kids, and showed them off to the rest of the family by candlelight.

Then, as if out of a movie, we see headlights. Jafta had arrived! I explained to him my situation, and he offered to take me; I was happy to pay him for gasoline and his trouble. Finally, I had a solid plan. (I think Mama had prompted him in an earlier message that I would be asking him, but I’m still not sure. Abegail said it was important that I ask him; in other words, they weren’t going to ask for me. Still, he seemed to know of my predicament before I even started talking.)

As it was so late, Abegail and Mandisa wouldn’t be heading over to visit his house with me. Instead, I would just go to his place to spend the night there so that first thing in the morning, he could drive me to Pretoria.

When we arrived at Jafta’s house, all I could think of was how incredible it is. It looks like a house that a big-time drug dealer would live in on Miami Vice … except it was visibly unfinished in some areas and had no air conditioning (which it really could use), and they seem to have a bit of a mosquito problem.

Jafta’s kids were staying with his wife’s folks for the night, since he and his wife both had to work late that day. (He’s in construction and she’s a nurse.) She prepared a meal for him, and in true South African style, I was given a big ol’ plate of food, too. I told her I already ate, but she insisted. It was delicious, and I ate it all. Of course, it was totally unnecessary, but it’s hard for me to turn down food when the plate is already made up.

In the morning, I was brought a bucket of warm water for bathing. I bathed in a plastic basin, as is my usual custom. However, I was actually bathing in a bathroom and the bucket was sitting where, clearly, a shower is intended to be installed. C’est la vie.

Stranger still, I managed to get no less than seven(!) mosquito bites (or some other kind of insect bite) on the bottom of each of my feet in the process. I didn’t even know it until I was drying them off. That tube of anti-itch cream was again put to good use.

Then, we quickly loaded my luggage into his truck and managed to leave earlier than we planned. (This is a very un-African circumstance.) We were originally allowing for two hours travel time, but left nearly a half hour ahead of schedule. There was very light traffic on the way into Pretoria, I’m sure due to the holiday. However, we passed several public busses on the way, and a handful of taxis. I then felt bad that Jafta had gone out of his way for me, but in an African context, I’m sure he thought nothing of it.

With leaving almost 30 minutes early and traveling in light traffic, I arrived at the bus station shortly after 8:00 am. I didn’t need to be there until 9:00 for a 9:30 departure. I offered to buy Jafta breakfast, but he was eager to get back to Watervaal – I know he had lots of work to do that day.

I confirmed my reservation at the Intercape ticket counter. I was still hoping to get some breakfast for myself, but unlike the Marabastad bus station or any taxi rank I’ve ever been to in South Africa, there wasn’t a hawker to be found (that is, the people who walk around trying to sell food, beverages, cell phone airtime, and various other goods). There was only one restaurant in the bus station and it wasn’t open yet. Being hungry is nothing compared to other travel mishaps I’ve endured recently. So, since I had some time to kill, I called my friend and fellow PCV, Vanessa, and brought her up to speed on the trials and tribulations of my weekend.

Thankfully, the Intercape bus line is run very well. I had a baggage claim ticket for my suitcase, I dealt with very pleasant staff, they had snacks for sale on board (probably why there were no hawkers allowed at the bus terminal), and no problems along the way.

Intercape Bus

Intercape – Go With God … or at least Jesus!

What I wasn’t expecting is that they are a super Christian organization. There were prayers at every stop, christian-themed movies shown throughout the ride and even my fellow-passengers felt the need to bless me.

A guy sitting across from me, who had boarded at a later stop with his family asked if he could trade seats with me, right after I pulled a bunch of things out of my backpack. I guess my body language said it was really an inconvenience for me. He started apologizing right away, and said that he just wanted to sit next to his wife so their toddler son could stretch out on their laps. I said, “It’s okay … we can trade, just give me a moment to collect my things.” He blessed me.

The rest of the ride, he offered me some of whatever he had: cookies, Coke, chips, whatever. I declined. Then we got to a rest stop about lunch time. I went inside to get a burger. He saw me in line and insisted he buy it for me. I let him. He blessed me again. When we stopped in Pietermaritzburg, he and his family got off the bus, but not without him blessing me one last time. But really, how could I complain? Trade seats, get a burger!

Also, towards the last couple hours of the trip, a little girl sitting a few seats up and caddy-corner of me started to play peek-a-boo with me. She reminded me very much of my cousin’s daughter, Olivia. After the stop in PMB, the girl’s mother noticed, and she struck up a conversation with me. She could tell right off that I was American from my accent. There were plenty of open seats by this time, so it was easy for me to move up and sit next to her. Lorraine is a native South African of Indian descent, divorced, two-kids, and English is one of her first languages. It was really nice to actually talk to someone for the last hour or so of the trip.

The bus finally arrived at the station in Durban. I got off, grabbed my suitcase and said goodbye to my new friends.

My plan was to meet up with my friends, George and Eva, who were staying in Durban as part of their holiday time. As they are also PCVs, they were staying on-the-cheap at a backpackers there. George had already given me the address and the number for a taxi. I didn’t need to call for a taxi, though, as there were plenty waiting at the bus station. Apparently these taxi drivers weren’t taking this holiday off, either!

I called George and Eva while en route, and within minutes I was walking up the steps of Surf and the City – an old, large house that was converted to a backpackers’ hostel. I found it really cozy and I would probably stay there again. After telling my friends about all of my adventures from the weekend, the three of us took turns cleaning up for the evening and then we headed to Florida Street for dinner.

On our walk to find a restaurant, Eva suggested an experiment for dinner: we would all attempt to pass ourselves off as being of the upper class of the Southern US, through the use of that specific accent and manner of speaking. Then, we settled on an Italian restaurant. All of the people working there were South Africans, so it seemed as good a place as any for this experiment.

The food wasn’t bad, but it was clear we weren’t in an American Italian restaurant. (No bread served with pasta dishes? What?) We must have been doing okay with our experiment, too, as our server asked us shortly after we sat down if we were from Texas. I declared I was from Greenbow, Alabama. (Forrest Gump was still on my brain, apparently.) Miss Eva quickly said she was from Tennessee, which is true. Then, Mr. George, almost breaking character, said he was from South Carolina. (Keep in mind that George is from California and of Japanese descent.) We must have passed the test, though, because nearly everyone else who worked there – at different points throughout our evening – had a reason to visit our table. I’m pretty sure they just wanted to hear us talk. It was a whole mess of fun, I do declare.

We came back to Surf and the City and ended up having a nice long conversation with a young Australian couple (Tim and Grace) in the living room there. I even got to pick a little on an acoustic guitar that was sitting in the corner. We turned in for the evening with a plan for getting some good coffee with our breakfast in the morning.

The next morning, we did just that. In addition to good coffee, I had a croissant with eggs and cheese, and before long, the accents returned and kept going about 75% of the time we were talking with each other. Later that morning, after Eva and I traded some music and movies on our computers, I was on my way to the taxi rank in Durban called Teachers’ Center (I guess because it is adjacent to a large building that says “Teachers’ Center,” but I’m still unclear as to what happens at a building with such a name).

I was finally on my way back to my home in the Northern part of KZN, cramped with my suitcase and my backpack into one seat of a well-used 14 passenger Toyota Quantum – the gold standard of cheap transportation in South Africa. Nearly six uncomfortable hours later, I was back in my shopping town, and I quickly found a taxi to take me the short distance up the tar road to my village. I dragged my suitcase through the sandy roads all the way to my little house, and breathed a sigh of relief. I was so happy to be home that I knew it truly is my new home.

I had a little under a week to relax at home before I was to be off on my next adventure: back to Durban. But this time, I would be meeting up with other friends, spending time on a beach, and finding time for other entertaining (and sometimes painful) mishaps.

To be concluded …