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Category Archives: Engagement

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

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Almost There

“Are you counting days?”

I was asked this question by different people at different times and in different situations over the past few weeks. I want the answer to be “yes,” but that’s not yet possible.

My host family recently hosted a small gathering of Peace Corps Volunteers in this area to say farewell. My last day at the school will be September 5. My last official day as a Peace Corps Volunteer was supposed to be September 11, but it looks like that will have to be postponed a week or so due to some scheduling conflicts with Peace Corps. Zandy’s visa interview will be on August 21, unless we can’t get the proper copy of her birth certificate in time, forcing that appointment to be postponed (again). A good cliché for this situation: I’m shooting at a bunch of moving targets.

And then there’s the daycare fundraising project. Between two fundraising events run by my family and friends in two US cities, plus direct donations, $5415 has been raised of the needed $6685 to construct the building.

Almost there.

If you haven’t already attended one of the fundraisers or donated directly, please consider donating online this week. If nothing else, keep sharing this information. Know a celebrity on Twitter? Get them to re-tweet this link: bit.ly/1vpRJYe Know someone looking for a worthwhile tax-deductible charity? Drop my name.

We’re so close to funding the construction of this facility. The sooner the money is raised, the sooner they can start construction. We will all be proud to hand this project off to my local colleagues. The icing on the cake will be knowing it was funded before I had to leave the village. Help me make that happen.

A good friend in Arizona commented online earlier today how great my family and friends are. I couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t have come this far without them. They are all so eager to meet Zandy, too, and she is excited to join this great extended family I’m so lucky to be a part of.

And thank you all, now more than ever, for all of your support.

 
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Posted by on 11 August 2014 in Community, Engagement, Friends, Fund Raising

 

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!

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