Category Archives: Events

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


Every fan has his day …

Here is yet another story waiting to be told. I’m not quite set up here to be doing proper video editing, so it might be a while before I can finish this. But, the Bruce Springsteen show coming up in Johannesburg has got me excited to share some of the work I’ve done on this little project. Enjoy.


Posted by on 19 January 2014 in Events, Music



An Unexpected Love Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zandy snapping a photo of Ernie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zandy on a date with me in Durban

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

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

Zandy at the Durban Botanical Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erik and Zandy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engagement Ring

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

Engagement Dinner

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


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


My New Normal and Highlights from June to November 2013

When I set up this blog before leaving for South Africa, I wasn’t exactly sure how often I would be updating it. I had read blogs of other volunteers and saw things I liked and other things I wasn’t too crazy about. But like most other parts of this entire Peace Corps endeavor, I really didn’t know how it would work for me until I was in the middle of doing it.

Also at the time of setting up my WordPress account, I subtitled this blog “a collection of (hopefully) interesting tales from South Africa.” With that, I unwittingly gave myself a mandate of what should be included here.

Interesting. Interesting.

After some time at my home in KZN and realizing how often I would actually be able to make updates here, it became apparent that for a story to be written it first had to be interesting to me. The “(hopefully)” part is that the reader finds it as interesting as I do.

For the first six months of living here at my site, everything was interesting, because everything was new: new home, new language, new job, new people in my life, new food, new societal expectations of me, new methods of transportation, new ways of getting clean water into my house, new indigenous plants and animals to take pictures of, and on and on. Anyone in the states who was interested to see what was up with me could come read a story of something that happened here from my fish-out-of-water point of view; something with a beginning, a middle and an end that describes some of the very different aspects of living here along the way.

But then, the “R” word happened: routine. My mornings, my afternoons, my evenings, my nights, my weekends: I know what to expect, and I know when to expect the unexpected. The setting may be different, but the story of living a life doesn’t feel so. I have the same successes and disappointments with my job, my family, my employer, my house, my coworkers, my friends, and … you can fill in the blanks … as anyone making their life anywhere in the world.

I have developed a routine around all the differences living here from what an American is accustomed to, so it has become harder for me to discern the interesting stories.

Even a getaway to a different city or country doesn’t seem so remarkable in story-form, even if the place itself is. After all, I’m traveling with good friends and when I get to the destination, I see pretty much what anyone would go there to see. Those stories seem to be told better through the lens of a camera than through words on a blog. Essentially: “This is what I saw; this is what people come here to see, and now I’ve seen it, too. I’ll remember it, because it was wonderful and I have these great photos.”

This may seem like I am pining for something exotic – that I’ve run out of stories to tell. But honestly, I’m glad I’ve been able to settle into a routine. Some volunteers don’t have that luxury. Some struggle. Some go home early. I’m really happy that I’m comfortable in my living situation. Moreover, my work keeps me pretty busy and I have enough small, everyday successes to counteract the regularly delivered disappointments and failures that seem to be inherent with teaching in a rural South African primary school.

So, with all of the above serving as a disclaimer (and maybe just a big ol’ excuse as to why there isn’t more to read on this lonely little website), I’ll give you some highlights and anecdotes from the past four months.

In late June during the winter break between school terms 2 and 3, I travelled to Mozambique with PCV friends Michael and Katrina, and a new friend from the USA, Michael’s college buddy, Elliot. In a nutshell, Mozambique is gorgeous, especially along the coast. We travelled in 4×4 passenger vans (off-road versions of the Toyota Quantums that are so common for public transport in South Africa) from the southern border of Mozambique. We stayed a few days in Ponta do Ouro, a little beach vacation destination in a cool little hotel right on the beach. It is beautiful.

From there we went north to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. Many reviews paint it as a beautiful and vibrant city, but our experience was less than stellar. I think it was a truly beautiful and modern city at one time, but when I saw it, it was mostly dirty, and in disrepair. I ate some delicious bread and pastries and visited some interesting open-air markets there during the day, but the one night I decided to venture out to see some live music, I was stopped twice by machine gun-wielding police officers demanding to see my passport and visa. There were no problems, as all of my paperwork was in order, but that type of experience is unnerving to me. I was happy to come back to the relative safety and security of South Africa.

On our way back to South Africa through the dirt roads of southern Mozambique, we encountered an elephant crossing the road. Since it wasn’t in a hurry, we had plenty of time to look at it (from a very safe distance) through the windows of the van. I handed my camera to Michael, who had the best vantage point of the four Americans in the overcrowded transport, and told him to go crazy with the shutter. I’d sort them out and find the best ones later.

Why did the elephant cross the road?

Cape Town
After a few days back at my home, it was July and I was gearing up for a trip to Cape Town. I travelled south to Durban by public taxi with my PCV friend, Shawn, to meet up with another PCV friend, Ted. After one night in Durban, the three of us travelled by bus for twenty-four hours straight to Cape Town.

At the Cape Town bus station, we met up with another PCV friend, Eva. After eating at McDonald’s, watching a street magician perform some card tricks, and browsing at a musical instrument shop all right there at the station, we met up with our PCV friend, Vanessa, and another new friend from the USA, Vanessa’s family friend, Laurie. The six of us piled into a rental car (thanks Laurie!) and headed to Strand – the beautiful beach area to the east of Cape Town that housed the time-share condo that became our center of operations for Cape Town sight-seeing for the next week, as well as a bunch of sharing of movies, music and TV shows. (PCVs have to get American entertainment somehow, right?)

For that week we saw lots that you would expect for a trip to Cape Town: Robyn Island, Table Mountain (hiked up, and took the cable car down), a tour of some of the wineries of Stellenbosch, South African penguins, historical sites, a drive through a township, museums, restaurants, and beautiful views of the ocean(s).

What we didn’t expect was befriending our incredible winery tour guide, Zaahid, to the point of being invited to his house for dinner with his family. He told us of his heritage – “Cape Malay” – of Indonesian descent, though his ancestry had been living in Cape Town for generations. He is Muslim, and invited the six of us to break the fast for that day of Ramadan – which happened to coincide with our trip to Cape Town – with his family. It was educational and quite an honor. And, it was delicious. The food his mother and sister prepared beats traditional Zulu food with a stick (no offense, Zulus). We got to take some leftovers back with us, and he even drove us back and forth to dinner in his tour van.

Cape Malay Ramadan Cuisine

(I think it should go without saying that I highly recommend him as a tour guide for anyone planning to go to Cape Town, but just in case:

Last on our Cape Town itinerary was going to a Friday morning service at St. George’s Anglican Church, the home church of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, where Bishop Tutu himself would be presiding over the service. Eva found out about this regular little occurrence from the lady working at the used book shop adjoining the church earlier in the week. Unfortunately, she and Shawn were sleeping off some drinks from the night before, so Laurie, Ted, Vanessa and I went to the service.

There were quite fewer people gathering for this service than the four of us had anticipated. It was held in a smaller chapel off to the side of the main church auditorium at this historical cathedral. With such a small congregation, the Archbishop had all the visitors introduce themselves. Of the roughly 30 people in attendance, I think half of them were Americans, mostly in South Africa working, studying or both. After the service, there was time for photos with Desmond, and everyone was invited to go across the street to the cafe for a nice breakfast with the man.

Archbishop Tutu with Americans

Later that day, Eva boarded a bus to start the journey back to her site in Mpumalanga, as Shawn, Ted and I got on our bus to take us back to Durban, ultimately for us to make our way back to our individual homes in KZN.

Bus chase
On a 24-hour bus ride, there are plenty stops made. Many of these stops are specifically for dropping off or picking up various passengers along the way. A few are for fuel. Fewer still are the stops that allow everyone to get off.

In the middle of the night, we stop at a fuel station/rest stop. All the lights are turned on in the bus. I wake up and pull the earphones out of my ears. I nudge Shawn and ask if he has to use the restroom. He says no, and let’s me pass him to go. Apparently, he promptly fell back asleep.

I saw a few people getting off the bus, but it didn’t occur to me that they had bags with them. I followed one of them off, right into the restroom. Then it occurred to me, that I probably shouldn’t have gotten off the bus.

In the short time it took me to use the toilet, I returned to where the bus was and saw an empty parking space. A short distance away, I see the bus, ambling slowly towards the on-ramp to the highway. I start running to catch it. I’m nervous, but confident I can catch up.

Then, in the shadow of the back of the convenience store, I can’t see any of the ground below me and manage to fall in the parking lot. I got up as quickly as I could, with scrapes on my hands and a fresh charlie horse on my upper leg from where my wallet in my pocket broke my fall. I start running again, and catch up to the bus, even more panicked now that I’ve taken a spill. I pound on the door to get the attention of the unsuspecting driver.

Meanwhile, in the bus, the guy who was sitting in front of me wakes up Shawn and informs him I am running outside the bus to catch it. Shawn makes it to the front of the bus just as the driver brakes and opens the door.

“I need to get on!” I shouted.

“Who told you to get off?” he shouted back.

“I don’t know … I saw all the lights on and people getting off!” I complained.

Then, quite condescendingly he quickly replies “No no no no no no no no no no. Don’t get off the bus unless someone says you can get off the bus.”

I limp onboard, now quite obviously covered in dust from the parking lot. I followed Shawn back to our seats where he, Ted and I discuss the near disasters of the past few minutes before we all fall back asleep. Had I been left behind, it would have been a really big inconvenience. Had I gotten badly injured in the fall while chasing the bus, it could have been a lot worse.

About an hour later, we stop again at an officially sanctioned stop for passengers to get off and stretch their legs, use the restroom and buy a refreshment. As soon as they are finished making the announcement over the bus’ PA system, Mr. Helpful in the seat in front of me turns around and says, “You can get off the bus now.” Then he laughs.

Under my breath I say, “Yeah, thanks for the heads-up, Jerk.” Where was his helpful advice an hour ago?

Back to school sadness
A few days later I was starting term three at the school. Right back into the daily grind, as if all the traveling of the past month didn’t even happen. I did have lots of new shows to watch on my laptop though, so I was excited for that. Maybe unreasonably excited, but I really had no idea how much I would enjoy all seven seasons of 30 Rock.

About two weeks into the term, I arrived to school to see one of my grade six students crying in the teachers’ staff room. I quickly learned that one of the other sixth grade boys had died a few days before in a freak accident that involved a home remedy for sinus congestion. It’s hard telling exactly what went wrong, but Joseph “Arizona” Khoza was no longer with us.

I teach grade six in the first class period on Mondays. I walked into what was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Most of these 46 kids in grade six learned this bad news right before starting their school day, just like me. They don’t prepare you for this in Peace Corps Pre-Service Training. Then again, I doubt there is much training for this included with a four-year university teaching degree. I had the kids write whatever they wanted to – it didn’t have to be about Joseph, just whatever might make them feel better. They could draw pictures and use my crayons.

Mr. T's write up for JAK

Ms. M's write up for JAK

That evening I started writing with the intention of putting the story here on the blog, but it didn’t feel right at the time to post anything. Not that I would have gotten anything for it, but it seemed exploitative to me to tell the world a story about a matter that really needed to have some reverence to it.

The following is what I wrote at the time. It is something of a eulogy, though I never delivered it publicly, nor would the majority of the people in attendance at his funeral understand what I was saying.

At times, he tried my patience. More often he made me laugh. He was never the best pupil, but he always attempted the work. I called him “Mr. Arizona” in class, which was a selfish way of reminding myself of home and an easy way to remember his name. He had so much personality … he wasn’t afraid to talk to me and speak loudly enough to be heard (as so many of these kids are). I enjoyed being his teacher; I enjoyed more that he was my friend. I will miss him.

Which brings us to his funeral. It was pretty standard, as far as Zulu funerals go: two circus-sized tents, hundreds of people, multiple pastors preaching fire and brimstone, and a closed casket.

Earlier that week, I was told that Joseph’s family had no photos of their son; as in zero. I had lots since I had brought my camera to school a couple of times throughout the year so far. Joseph was a bit of a ham, and not unlike most other kids in South Africa, loved to have his picture taken. It could be just that the family didn’t have any recent shots. Either way, I had prints made of all the shots I had that he was in for them to have.

Joseph at school

I also helped to layout the program for the funeral during the school week leading up to it, using a photo I took of him at the end of term one. It was just a snapshot, but the lighting and his pose made it seem almost like a real, planned portrait. After cropping other kids out of the background, we had a suitable, recent photo. It was then blown up and hung on the tent poles at the front of the main funeral tent.

Joseph Headshot Print

A bit more sad was the fact that there were so many kids there, all dressed in their school uniforms. Luckily, my friend Vanessa was in town that weekend and accompanied me to the funeral. We got tired of listening to Zulu preaching and went outside under the trees with the kids. We showed them photos on our phones of things in America. It softened the whole event.

Lastly, why was his nick-name Arizona? I don’t know. I just know that he had that name before I met him, so I don’t think it had anything to do with me. But, how could I not like him with a name like that?

Later in term three – late August – I grabbed my guitar and traveled to Limpopo by way of Pretoria to serve a week as one of the PCV trainers for the next group of education volunteers in their PST (Pre-Service Training). My PCV friend Monica met up with me in Pretoria, and we traveled to the training site in Limpopo by way of comfortable, air conditioned Peace Corps transportation with Peace Corps driver, TK.

In Limpopo, we stayed at a rented house with electricity, indoor plumbing and all modern appliances (including a microwave!) for the better part of a week. The house and the neighborhood – even the mountains in the near distance – looked like they could have been plucked from a Phoenix, AZ suburban community. I felt really at home there.

Limpopo, like Arizona

We took turns cooking and hung out with other Peace Corps staff, most of whom we don’t get to see all that often, like Victor. Victor is in charge of training new volunteers and is a big George Harrison fan. When I saw him in June, he was disappointed that I didn’t have my guitar with me. I wouldn’t make that mistake twice.

Also, I was asked by the trainees (through my friend, Eva, who had been training them the week prior) to bring the guitar. A few of them are players but didn’t have one available to play while they were training. I know what it is like to want to play a guitar and not have one available, so how could I say no?

For the training, I did sessions on teaching vocabulary and creative use of available technology in a South African classroom. (Specifically, how to make your laptop serve many purposes in an otherwise technology-free environment.) And, because I brought my guitar, it ended up getting passed around on breaks and I got to sing a few songs, too.

Impromptu Limpopo Concert

While Monica and I were enjoying modern living, she convinced me that we needed to take the bull by the horns and finally get our official Peace Corps SA26 t-shirts designed and printed. Armed with a few of Monica’s ideas, a hand-drawn design that we had seen all the way back at our PST, and my laptop, we finalized a design to send to a printer.

All-in-all, it was a productive and fun week of Peace Corps work.

Do you want one of our t-shirts? I put the design up on a print-on-demand t-shirt site (link below). We don’t get a cut of the money or anything like that … it’s just a way to fly the Peace Corps South Africa colors for us back in the states (or anywhere you may be). If you get one, email me a photo of you wearing it.

SA26 T-shirt

By the end of September, term three was finished and I found myself headed back to Pretoria (again). This time it was for Mid-Service Training (MST). SA26 got to reconvene (minus a couple of folks who had some other pressing matters to attend to) at Khayalethu, the preferred accommodation of Peace Corps Volunteers while staying in Pretoria. We spent a couple days getting medical and dental checkups, and a couple days with some sessions about keeping us sane and productive for the next year of service.

But the real fun came in having so many of us together again. The t-shirts were finished in time (thanks to Monica) that we were able to pose for group photos. We had a white elephant gift exchange. We swapped more movies, music and TV shows. We went out to eat. We shopped at malls. We acted like Americans in a westernized city.

SA26 MST Group Shot

Wrapping it up
I didn’t include nearly all the details of what’s been going on lately, but I hope you at least chuckled at the thought of me wiping out in a dark parking lot while chasing down my bus. I think that’s decent entertainment.

Now we’re approaching the end of term four. Next week, the kids will take their final exams. A few weeks after that, my first full year as an educator will come to a close.

What do I have to look forward to? Next year I hope to do some worthwhile English training of the teachers at my school, and I’ll be focusing on helping to put the school’s library in a more functional fashion. I’ll also be teaching grade six (my current grade five) an extra half hour per day of reading comprehension skills. Hopefully this will really improve the performance on their standardized testing.

P.S. Something else to look forward to: Springsteen is coming to South Africa early next year. Yes, I already have tickets.


Play It Forward

The next group of Education Volunteers (SA28) arrived in South Africa in early July, and I am part of the team of Volunteer trainers to get them prepared for teaching South African kids in South African schools. In mid-June I wrapped up the second term of English teaching for my learners a week early so I could attend what Peace Corps calls the General Training Of Trainers (or GTOT). When that training was finished, I was shuttled to Pretoria where I had a little over 24 hours to spend before heading back to KwaZulu Natal. The following post recounts the little slice of serendipity that occurred there on the afternoon of Saturday, 22 June 2013.

“Hey, Erik, do you want a guitar?”

I wasn’t expecting this question, especially from Taura, whom I had just met. She was sitting outside at Khayalethu guest house/backpackers with about half a dozen others from her SA24 cohort. They were in the process of reconvening one last time in Pretoria for their Close of Service (COS) conference that was to start the next day. I was only there as part of my travel route back to my site after the GTOT sessions that were held that week outside of Polokwane, Limpopo. Within a matter of hours I would be on an overnight bus bound for KZN, ready to start my three weeks of time off from teaching.

In my head I answer, “Yes, of course – but do I want the particular guitar you’re about to offer me? And at what cost?” Out loud I muster up, “Um … maybe?”

It seems that the word had spread to her cohort that I play the instrument and that I might be a good candidate to take this one off her hands. She quickly explained to me that she wasn’t trying to sell it and that this guitar had some PCSA history behind it. It had been passed between different volunteers and she thought it would be good to continue the tradition. That alone was reason enough to at least look at it.

I followed her inside to fetch it. As we walked, she continued to give me all its pros and cons, just in the interest of full disclosure. From our conversation, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect before I saw it. She explained that it’s small and clearly not too expensive. It comes ready with a gig bag (a soft, zippered case), a strap, a tuner, some chord books, some picks and some extra strings. However, the strings currently on it really ought to be changed and overall it could use a little cleaning. Already I have a vision in my head of a student model guitar that doesn’t receive much love because it doesn’t get played too frequently.

We brought it back outside and set the case on the picnic table. The logo on the case was familiar, but when I unzipped it to reveal the guitar itself, I was absolutely floored.

Flashback to over a year ago. Like all the other SA26s, I was sorting out my personal belongings and preparing to depart for South Africa. One of my top priorities was figuring out how to best bring a guitar with me. I did a fair amount of comparison shopping and tried several travel-size guitars before settling on the “Little Martin”; a well constructed, Mexican-manufactured acoustic with decent sound and playability (and it wasn’t too expensive).

But then I had to actually pack everything I was to bring with me. To my dismay, after several attempts of configuring my luggage (with a lot of help from my sister, Sara), I couldn’t make it fit in a way that I felt confident it would arrive in South Africa in one piece. I decided not to bring it. I knew I would be able to buy something in country, and I did just that. While still in Pre-service Training (PST), I found a guitar at a mall that has been more than adequate for playing and singing … and even writing and recording some music at my site, too. So, I really don’t need another guitar.

But there it was: a Little Martin. Exactly what I had left behind in the states, from the gold logo on the gig bag right down to the style and color of the wood finish on the body, sitting before my very eyes on that picnic table.

Little Martin

Taura showed me the Sharpie-signed names on the back of the six previous custodians of what I feel is now truly a PCSA heirloom. I sat down and started tuning up its rusted strings.

Within a few minutes of strumming chords and plucking out melodies, I could see I was holding the attention of the group of volunteers in front of me. It seemed they wanted a show. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love an audience. I proceeded to put on a little impromptu performance fueled by requests for what I figure to have been around 45 minutes to an hour. Little by little, the audience got bigger as more and more of the 24s were arriving. In between songs, there were hugs and handshakes from the new arrivals, and when Howell showed up with his violin, a few of the jams became fiddle-infused.

I’m sure none of my performances were my most accurate renditions. I played and sang many of the songs I used to perform on a nearly weekly basis for over three years before accepting my invitation for Peace Corps, but I was feeling as rusty as the strings. I had fun, and I’m pretty sure the 24s did, too, especially when I got everyone to sing along with songs like Billie Jean and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). I even managed a half-baked version of Sweet Child O’ Mine. And what show like this would be complete without the obligatory Skynyrd?

My fellow 26, Diana, had been there for the handing off of the guitar, and asked that if I didn’t want it, would it be okay if she had it. Again, I don’t need another guitar, certainly not at my site … and certainly not one identical to a guitar waiting for me in America.

D wants to learn, and this will be an excellent instrument to learn on. I cleaned it up and replaced the rusty strings. I added my name, too, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s now hers to learn from and pass on. Hopefully she can pass it on to the next volunteer in a way as meaningful and fun as it was passed to me. And she can happily sign her name next to mine and all the PCVs who came before us who made this all possible:

  • Taura Jackson, SA24
  • Paula Priebe, SA21
  • Andrew Bernish, SA18
  • Erin Eskilsen, SA16
  • Joey Cardella, SA16
  • Dan Ond???, SA14 (Unfortunately, the signature is rubbing off!)


1 Comment

Posted by on 21 July 2013 in Events, Friends, Music, Training


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box contents Kelly 4-9-2013

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

BS and cows

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

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

Vanessa dancing

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no tie

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

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

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


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

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

Bride-to-be, sitting across from the groom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Unfortunate Example Of “TIA”

So, do you remember that half-marathon I said I was going to mostly walk in and promised to do my best to finish? Do you remember how I asked you kind folks for money for me to “run”? Well, it has been cancelled for this year. (This comes on the heels of a last minute date change, too.)

I’m disappointed, and for some reasons more than others. On the bright side, I am saved the possible embarrassment of finishing last (or not finishing at all).

I am very disappointed that I won’t get to see some of the other volunteers that I rarely have a chance to see these days. I miss my PCV friends.

But I am most disappointed that – after asking all you fine folks to donate money to the organization in my name so that I could participate – I even have to make this awkward announcement.

First, know that I am honored by your generosity. I raised nearly double the amount required for me to run, and had the race not been cancelled, I suspect even more dollars would have been raised in my name. You are great folks for doing this for me. I hope this snafu doesn’t preclude anyone from donating to anything I may be drumming up support for in the future.

Now, with all of that said, let me say that I’m not surprised. This is a good (though unfortunate) example of when one just shrugs their shoulders and says “T I A” (this is Africa).

Sometimes things go smoothly. Sometimes events happen as planned. Sometimes you’ll be a witness of some honest-to-goodness efficiency. But as long as these aren’t your expectations, you could live in Africa, too.

This may seem like a real downer of blog entry, but in actuality, it is like all important life lessons rolled into one:

  • Roll with the punches.
  • Expect the unexpected.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  • Be thankful for what you’ve got.
  • Play the hand that’s dealt ya’.

Feel free to add your own in the comments. With your combined wisdom, we can author the next “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or – better yet – get Doctor Phil taken off the air!

On the bright side, even as I type this post, I got an update that KLM (the organization PCVs are helping to raise funds for) and other PCVs are looking into jumping into a different race happening somewhere in South Africa later in the year. It may happen, it may not. I know I’ll be fortunate for the opportunity if it does, and I’ll try not to be disappointed if it does not.

In the meantime, feel free to listen to one of my songs from a few years back about how typical it is for things in life to just not work out:


Posted by on 26 February 2013 in Events, Everyday Life