RSS

Category Archives: Everyday Life

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

Advertisements
 

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.

 

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.

Mozambique
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: http://www.itoursa.com/)

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?

PST
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.

http://567362.spreadshirt.com/

SA26 T-shirt

MST
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.

 
 

In the Name of Your Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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:

 
2 Comments

Posted by on 26 February 2013 in Events, Everyday Life

 

By the Numbers

I’ve been in South Africa for nearly four months – and at my site for two months now – which is enough time that I ought to stop counting things here (as in, “this is the seventh time I’ve eaten at KFC since I’ve been here”). But I haven’t. The following list also includes some info I’ve been asked about (like my class sizes). Hopefully, this helps to fill in some more of the blanks.

  • PCVs teaching in schools in the same general area I am: 6
  • PCV Leader in our area: 1
  • Average number of times per week I see other PCVs: 1
  • Other Americans I’ve seen in person (excluding PCVs) since arriving at my site: 0
  • German volunteers in this area: 1
  • Approximate distance to town: 3 km
  • Average number of visits to town per week: 4
  • Average number of times per week I walk to town, just to do something on my own: 1
  • Honest-to-goodness supermarkets in town: 3
  • Shops that refer to themselves as “supermarkets”: too many to count, but nearly all of them.
  • Local chicken restaurants trying to compete with KFC: at least 4, off the top of my head – probably many more
  • Fast food burger chains: 1 (Steers – similar to Burger King, I’d say)
  • Pizza chains: 0 (There was one, but it went out of business before I got here)
  • Grades I have been teaching English: 6 and 7
  • Learners in grade 6: 42
  • Learners in grade 7: 48
  • Teachers for grades 4-7 (including me): 8
  • Classrooms per grade: 1
  • Learners per desk: 2 (This is a connected bench/desktop designed for two people, though I often find three learners have crammed themselves into a desk, while other desks sit vacant. I think it is a combination of cultural differences and the weirdness of 11-13 year old children.)
  • Oldest learner in grade 6 (that I know of): age 16
  • Oldest learner in grade 7 (that I know of): age 17
  • Minimum passing grade for most subjects: 50% or less, depending on the subject
    Note: One could actually fail more than one subject completely and still pass the grade. Thus, there are learners in grade seven who are nearly illiterate in English (let alone being able to speak it).
  • Learners I know by name: less than 12 (They’re hard names to remember … or I’m not trying hard enough.)
  • Grade 7 learners that have been to my home for help with homework or to see photos from the USA: 3 (Sfiso, Sibongile, and Khulekani)
  • Host family members: hmmm … hard telling … lots
  • Percentage of family members that speak reasonably fluent English: better than 50%
  • Number of mangos given to me by various children in the village in the past week: at least 2 dozen

  • Live snakes I’ve seen in the village: 2
  • Snakes I’ve seen in my outhouse: 1
  • Lizard fights I’ve witnessed inside my house: 3
  • Lizard fights resulting in lizards falling off the wall: 1
  • Lizard fights resulting in one lizard having a chunk of his tail bit off: 1
  • Weddings I’ve attended: 1
  • Funerals I’ve attended: 1
  • Churches I’ve attended: 3
  • Books I’ve checked out from the local library: 1

  • DVDs I’ve checked out from the local library: 3
  • DVDs from the library that were in a condition to actually play on my computer: 2
  • CDs I’ve checked out from the local library: 11
  • Number of songs added to my iTunes library: I’ll never tell
  • Haircuts I’ve had in South Africa: 4 (this includes the first one that I gave myself)
  • Cost of the haircut I got yesterday in town: R20 (this is less than $2.50 USD!)
  • Buckets I’ve purchased: 4
  • Buckets currently on loan from my host family: 2
  • Average number of times per day the electricity goes out: 1
  • Approximate number of hours the electricity has been out in the past week: 60

Interested in some more numbers on ZA? They recently released their census info …

 
7 Comments

Posted by on 3 November 2012 in Everyday Life, Teaching

 

Somebody Spoke and I Went Into a Dream

I’ve been asked by more than a few people now for a “day-in-the-life of Erik” post. I fear it might be a bit duplicative of recent blog posts by my volunteer friends here, but sometimes you just have to give the people what they want.

I’m entering my seventh week at my site in KZN. I think I have settled into my home life and work life enough to present the typical day for yours truly.

The sun is already up when my watch alarm goes off at 5:30 am. (It’s a very 80’s-retro Casio watch I got for about $13 on Amazon before departing the USA; it’s cheap, reliable and should last the entirety of my commitment here in South Africa.) Chances are, I was already (at least partially) awake at this time, since my bed sits right next to a window that lets in all that fabulous light.

I glance at my BlackBerry to see if it is flashing red. This indicates if I have a new email/BBM message/FB message. If so, I check out who may have sent me a message while still laying in bed. If you read my previous blog post, you know how much I like these. It is a pretty common occurrence, since most folks who would write to me would do so while I am sleeping, due to the 6 to 9 hour time difference, depending on where they happen to be in the States. If it isn’t a message from the USA, it is likely a late night or early morning message from one of the other volunteers, which can be just as good.

I push open the spot of my mosquito net where my flip-flops were kicked off the night before. I check quickly that no roaches, spiders, or other animal life are inhabiting them before I slide my feet in. Now I’m sitting on the side of the bed, still behind the net except for my feet. I do my best to duck out from under the net without untucking most of it from under the mattress. (I really started trying to keep the net as tight as possible when I found a cockroach in my bed a few weeks back.) At the same time, I make sure to grab my watch, BlackBerry and flashlight that were all laying next to my pillow throughout the night. I’m sure this graceful duck-and-grab maneuver resembles something out of a Jerry Lewis movie, but fortunately I’m the only person that gets to enjoy the ridiculousness of the scene.

The next steps are a bit mundane. I plug in the BlackBerry to charge it up while I start getting ready for the day. I wake up my computer and start iTunes for a little musical motivation. I switch on my electric kettle with about a liter and a half of water for my bath. While I wait for hot water, I fix a bowl of cereal. I’m on my third box of cereal since I’ve moved in. So far I’ve had Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes, and yesterday I opened my first box of Coco Pops Choc’o’s. If I had to guess, I’d say the Kellogg’s brand does a pretty good business in SA.

Because my place is as small as it is, all of this takes place on the same table. Actually, it’s not even a table, but a large desk. I slide the computer and BlackBerry toward the back of the desk and slide the cereal in front of me. The water is heating less than arm’s length away.

By the time I’m finished eating, the kettle will have automatically kicked off and the water will be good and hot. I pour it into one of my large plastic basins (ok, it is really just a wide, shallow bucket) right on the floor in the center of the room. I add about three to five more liters of room temperature water from one of my water storage buckets to get a comfortable washing temperature. I bathe myself in this water, starting with my face (because you want the water at its cleanest when it is on your face). Every body part is washed in a piecemeal fashion. To not make too big of a mess, I try to dry a part before moving on to the next part to wash. It is far from the most thorough bath one could hope for, but it is possible to wash thoroughly all the parts that require a thorough washing.

The rest of my morning preparation probably isn’t too different than what anyone in the States does, with the exception of not having running water or a sink. It all takes the better part of an hour. If I haven’t ironed my shirt or pants for the day, I quickly do so. If I haven’t prepared a lunch for myself the night before, I slap some PB&J on bread, and grab an apple and a chilled bottle of filtered water from the fridge. My lunch, my school books, and my computer are loaded into my backpack.

At about 6:45 I meet my host brother, BS, in the yard between the houses. He is also a teacher at the school where I work, so we greet each other and start the walk to school. The walk to school is usually about 20 minutes or so, the majority of which is on sand roads. If the weather is bad, or another teacher that has a car is in the vicinity, we can usually manage to get a lift.

By 7:10, I’ve settled my stuff into my desk in the Intermediate Phase (grades 4-7 at this school) staff room. Then I go to the main school office and chat up the other teachers as they sign in the teacher attendance log. If it is a Monday or Friday, the nearly 900 learners (as they are referred to here, not “students”) of this entire grade R (not “K” here) through grade 12 school are lined up for assembly.

Assembly starts with a song. One of the older girls (grade 11 or 12) will start a traditional, call-and-response style South African song, and everyone else (teachers included) perfectly joins in. All of this singing would rival any US high school choir, but they don’t even seem to practice. As I’ve explained before, they just know what to do. Nine times out of ten, these songs are in IsiZulu, but every once in a while, a bone is thrown my way (probably not intentionally) and I hear some English singing. All of these songs are religious in nature, specifically Christian. Then, whichever teacher is taking their turn with some motivational talk will do so, followed by a prayer. Again, the prayer is Christian. This all seems a bit weird to me, as supposedly not all of the students are Christian. However, this entire culture seems more concerned with tradition than with the idea that they may be in some way exclusionary.

Then, school starts at 7:45 (even on days when there isn’t an assembly). Periods are an hour long, except for Fridays, when they are only 45 minutes. From what I understand, this truncated Friday schedule is to allow time for the learners to clean the classrooms at the end of the day and to let teachers who have a long commute to leave a little bit early. For most grades, the entire grade fits into one classroom. So, instead of the learners changing classrooms when the periods change, the teachers do.

My teaching schedule is still being worked out as I “find my place” in the school with the help of the Head of Department (HOD) for the Intermediate Phase, as well as the other teachers. My focus is teaching English, and it looks like I will be teaching grades 6 and 7 (at least for now – things could change). By the beginning of the next school year (which starts at the beginning of 2013) I’ll have my own classes that I’ll be responsible for. I look forward to this, as I’ll be starting at the beginning and I’ll have less doubt in my mind as to what content has already been covered for these learners.

Right in the middle of the school day is the period commonly referred to here as “break,” but the American in me can’t help but call this lunch. Even though I bring my own food everyday, the other teachers always have me trying or sharing in the food they’ve either purchased on the school grounds or brought from home. A lunch is prepared for all the learners – free of charge – in the cafeteria, though most learners eat it outside. Considering the poverty of many of the learners, I’m pretty convinced this is the main reason many of them come to school.

Those that do have some cash tend to buy sweets (candy), re-packaged baggies of Nik Naks (Cheeto’s), or one of many of the deep fried foods that about a dozen or so of the local ladies bring to sell. The most popular of these is called a “fet cook”, (Afrikanns for “fat cake”) which is just a deep fried dough ball that – when prepared correctly – is like a really good homemade doughnut. However, I feel those that are sold at my school could use a little more sugar in the dough and could be a little less greasy. I tend not to be picky when they are offered to me, though, as any attempt on my part to give money to the teachers who’ve bought them is usually denied. To contribute, I brought in some quite-less-than-Hershey’s chocolate syrup I purchased at the local grocery store so the other teachers could sample something resembling the very American treat we all know as a chocolate covered donut.

School resumes with a half hour period called “reading for pleasure.” I’ve not seen any learner reading anything that wasn’t specifically given to them at that exact moment in time to read. It is clear to me that not many of these learners are big fans of reading. But maybe it is because their reading skills aren’t very good in the first place? This could become a chicken-or-egg type of question. Either way, my goal is to help them improve their reading abilities. If I succeed, perhaps there will be a few more fans of reading in this village by the time I leave here.

After a few more periods of classes and a half hour at the end of the day where teachers are required to be at the school, either marking papers or preparing lessons, I meet up with BS and we assess how we will be getting home. Half the time, we’re on foot. Sometimes we have a ride with another teacher. Sometimes he’s borrowed one of the other teacher’s vehicles to attend to some business in town. Any way it happens to work out, I rarely have to make the journey home alone.

On days when I walk home, I’m usually there before 3:30. Even though it is dark here by about 6:00 pm, I still have plenty of daylight for walking into town if I feel like it. I can make it to the closest grocery store on foot in almost exactly 30 minutes. I can make it to the library in about 40 minutes. When I’m not going to town, I can fill my evenings with cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and dishes, reading, writing, Internet surfing (as long as I watch how much data I’m using, since I pay by the MB here), phone calls, watching movies on my laptop, or playing the guitar and singing.

I can cook pretty much anything that I know how to cook, as I have this nifty toaster-oven with two burners on the top. They are known amongst the volunteers as “stovens” – a combination of stove and oven – though I would argue that any oven with a stove on top should then carry this same moniker, regardless of its size. The oven is large enough for a decent sized baking dish and it came with its own baking sheet. I’ve roasted chicken, fried potatoes, made omelets, baked cookies, sauteed onions, boiled eggs, fried sausage, baked biscuits, boiled noodles, and toasted bread. And, you may have guessed, the task it does worst is make toast (just like most other toaster ovens).

I also have a small refrigerator and the town is big enough that the grocery stores stock a decent variety of foods. I just don’t have the option for fast food on a whim anymore, so I have to cook more often. Or, I just don’t eat on a whim.

Sometimes I have guests from the neighborhood. It is fun to have them sample some American-style cuisine. Believe it or not, just yesterday I introduced one of my neighbors to a PBJ! (I assume this is an isolated case though, since I was eating plenty of PBJs in Mpumalanga throughout training.) Needless to say, he really enjoyed it.

And if the door is open when I’m playing the guitar, it won’t be long before I have a small audience of neighborhood children. Musical instruments seem to be rare around here, except for in the churches.

Once it is dark, I’m generally in for the evening. It can be really, really dark out here. Even with many of the houses having electricity, there just aren’t enough lights for me to really see my way around.

Before bed, I boil a little more water to wash my face (and anything else that feels too gross to sleep without washing). Other bedtime routines include shaking out my sheets and blankets to make sure they are bug-free and tossing out any water I’ve dirtied throughout the evening’s washing of dishes and/or clothes and myself.

Before turning out the light, I switch on my flashlight (did I mention how dark it can be here), grab my phone and watch, kick off my flip flops, and awkwardly crawl through my mostly tucked-in mosquito net into bed. I re-tuck what I can from the inside, switch off my flashlight and – before I know it – the whole thing starts all over again. At least until the weekend …

 
16 Comments

Posted by on 15 October 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Everyday Life