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Category Archives: Cultural Experiences

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:

http://www.citypress.co.za/columnists/it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child-20110507/

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.

Dumisani

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.

tent

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.

gifts

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.

spear

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.

bride

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.