Category Archives: Flashbacks

We Get By With a Little Help from Our Friends

I’m asking for your help again, but this time it isn’t for a school, a daycare center or a library. It’s for my friend–a dear friend in Ohio, Brian​. Brian was recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). We went to high school and college together and he was the lead singer in the first band I was in (and the second … and the third​).

[For the purposes of this story, I’m only counting a “band” as a musical group that actually performed in front of an audience. No offense to the countless folks that I’ve visited in your homes to plug in an amp and blunder our way through Smells Like Teen Spirit and a half dozen Zeppelin riffs. Also, if any of the details below aren’t quite right, it could have something to do with the fact that this tale starts out over 20 years ago, and it’s all from my biased point of view.]

The truth is, Brian (along with our friend Matt) is directly and indirectly involved with many of the musical projects of my past. Of course, Brian and Matt were part of the regular crew in the high school marching band (with our other friends Tom, Paul, Aaron, Steve, Mark, and so on, and so forth). And like lots of teenagers in our area at the time, we were inspired to start rock bands by what we were hearing from Cleveland’s 107.9 (“The END”) and the videos from MTV’s 120 Minutes. So, we did. And ask any musician, playing music with somebody is a good way to forge a friendship. Or maybe we would have been friends anyway and it just turned out that we liked to play music together. Either way, we were teenagers, we were friends, and we started a band (or three).

The first band was called Crosstown Traffic (yes, after the Hendrix song). You see, the guitar player in that first band, Jeremy, was crazy for Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And rightly so – he could play a lot of that stuff even when he was 14 years old. I wanted to play guitar in the band, too, but bassists were hard to come by. So I borrowed a bass for a while and became a bassist. Still in search of a drummer, we played our first show on my front porch for my older brother’s graduation party. The adults were more impressed than the kids, because they actually knew the songs. A few weeks later, Matt asked me if I wanted to come to his house with Jeremy to jam. Finally, a drummer! Later that summer, after marching band had started up again, I was at Matt’s house after marching practice, and Brian was there, too. He said he should be the singer in our band. I’m not sure if either Matt or I were convinced, but we went along with it. Lo and behold, in the span of a few months, Crosstown Traffic went from two dudes on a front porch to a real sounding band.

After some time and a handful of real gigs, Crosstown Traffic found itself at an impasse. Everybody wanted to play newer music (like Pearl Jam and Nirvana … or at least some Van Halen or Pink Floyd) except for Jeremy. Brian, Matt and I soldiered on without Jeremy. When Bob, the quirky little guy from the other end of my street found out, he applied … to be the bassist! This was especially good news for me; I could finally put all those Pearl Jam riffs I had been learning on the guitar to use. I think it was great for Bob, too–he wanted to be in a band more than just about anybody I had ever met.

We named the new formation Flower Punks (yes, after the old Mothers song) and started playing as much as possible at Colonial Lanes in Canfield (they didn’t have liquor, so it was one of the only places for all us under-agers to go on a Friday night). And we were good! We couldn’t pull off a lot of the Stevie Ray Vaughan songs we had been playing before, but the kids at Colonial Lanes really seemed to dig us – even our original songs. We also figured out a promotion scheme: Brian, Matt and I would go there (usually with my older brother, Dale, driving us) when other bands were performing and ask them if we could play a song or two on their break. Even without Bob and with Brian filling in on bass, we could pull off a handful of cover songs (stuff from Weezer’s first album comes to mind) over the span of about 10 minutes. Not that we wanted to show them up (though I know we kinda’ did), we were able to get some of those bands’ friends interested to come see us the next time we were playing there. It worked.

The third band came about when Bob got grounded for the umpteenth time since the formation of Flower Punks. (It was very common that he and his mother would not see eye to eye, but she would always seem to win.) He had already missed our recording sessions some months prior due to a punishment (thanks to a multi-track recorder, I could fill in for him). However, this last grounding not only prohibited him from leaving his house, but rendered his bass guitar contraband. Apparently, he not only would have had to sneak out of his house, but would have to break his bass out of a locked closet in order to remain a working musician.

We had to move on, though we didn’t have to look further than my own house for our next bass player. My brother, Dale, was always hanging out with us anyway, and he was as good as any of the rest of us at playing the bass. The spot was his for the taking. We named the new band “Trace” because one word names for bands were popular at the time, and that was the best we could come up with. We played some more shows, recorded some more songs, and had more fun, but like most bands rooted in high school, it eventually just kinda’ fizzled. Dale and Brian had already graduated and started at Youngstown State, and Matt and I were about to do the same.

Throughout those high school years, Brian was a regular guest at our house which meant he was a regular guest performer. All the music gear was set up in the basement, and countless audio cassettes have been filled with whatever nonsense was going on at the time. The music usually wasn’t anything to write home about, but you can count on Brian to be funny. His subject matter was most often the people we knew, and he would roast them in song. If you weren’t in the room at the time, you were fair game. There were many about friends, friends’ girlfriends, and the respective family members of all the guys in the current band. A particular song (more of a rock opera, really) was recorded about me while I was away at a teen church weekend. It had multiple characters, all of whom seemed to end up in “catholic hell.” (If it ever surfaces, I’ll put it online for the world to share a laugh.)

As our high school days came to a close, I think we all actually got a lot better at performing music. Brian, Matt and Bob formed another band, Plunge, with a friend of Bob’s named Joel. And it was at an early Plunge​ show that I was introduced to my subsequent band, Raul, that I played with for about six years.

In the years that followed, everybody more-or-less settled into regular, grown-up lives: jobs, marriages, houses, some with kids … the usual. Dale and I both made our way to Arizona. Matt and Brian ended up living in the same neighborhood in our hometown. And sometimes, the not-so-usual happens.

The story above is merely how my friend, Brian, relates to me, as I got to know and befriend him … and just a glimpse of why he is important to me. The story below is from a website set up to get donations to help Brian and his family and tells how he relates to the world right now, how he has been important to his community and how your contribution can be so important to him.

On August 12th 2015, Brian Newhard was diagnosed with an AGGRESSIVE form of ALS (Lou Gehrigs Disease), a terminal illness. Brian is a loving father of three beautiful kids ranging in age from 6 to 11: Mitchell, Carter, and Olivia. He is also a husband to his loving wife Jenny.

Brian is a full time police officer. Brian and his family live and work in the Mahoning Valley. He is a hard worker, often times working two other jobs to support his family. This diagnosis and the subsequent debilitating symptoms have prevented this  hard-working man from working at all. In fact, he has trouble walking, speaking, eating, and many other basic functions that we sometimes take for granted. 

Brian has always helped others in his job, his personal life, and whenever anyone needs him. Unfortunately at this point, Brian desperately needs your help. His family is absolutely destitute without his income.

Please find it in your heart to donate to Brian so that his family may have the basics in life: shelter, food, and clothing.

Brian needs help. And if his friends (and my friends, and your friends) give a little help, he’ll get by because his wife and kids will get by. The truth is, we ALL get by with the help of our friends … just ask the guys in the band.

To donate online, go to and for more information about the trust that has been set up for his family, go to:

Brian and Family

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Posted by on 28 August 2015 in Flashbacks, Friends, Fund Raising, Music


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


Flashback #3 – Homestay

Another reason the language groups are important is that we are all placed in walking distance to each other in the local villages for the portion of PST that is referred to as “Homestay.”

After the first week of training, each PCT is assigned a Homestay family to live with for the remainder of training. This helps with immersing yourself into living in a rural South African village. There are two communities relatively close to the college, where all of the trainees (and the LCFs) were set up to stay with a host family. Each member of a language group and their LCF stays within the same village, and with any luck, the families they are assigned to are relatively close to one another. I am happy to say that Team Awesome was that lucky. We were all within four blocks of each other, and the blocks in the village we stayed in are pretty small.

The Homestay announcements were a bigger deal than the language group announcements. The day was Friday, July 20. All of us had our luggage re-packed and ready to move in with a family we would be meeting later that day. We were minus our non-essential bag, but had gained our official Peace Corps water filter, mosquito net and medical kit. Additionally, most of us were taking advantage of the blankets and pillows that PC were allowing us to borrow for the remainder of training.

Also, there was the food. As part of their payment for taking us in, the families were supplied with a bunch of groceries. Of course, this makes it easier to feed us, too. Huge heads of cabbage, large sacks of mealie-meal (maize meal), cereal, peanut butter, eggs, frozen chicken … and the list goes on. We had the food allotments laid out the evening before.

Our main hall that we used for instruction at the college was arranged theater-style with lots of additional chairs so it could hold all the folks from the families and the PCTs. Peace Corps vans were sent out to the two villages throughout the morning to pick people up.

The drill: The name of the person (or persons) who came from the village to collect us would be called, followed by the PCT name. We meet at the front of the room, exchange big hugs and smiles, and then go back and sit down with our new family member(s) until all the names had been called for that village. When everyone is assigned to their family, we all get in the food line, the PCT grabs their luggage, we get in a van and make our way to our new home.

But of course, in the excitement of the moment things didn’t go exactly that smooth. My host Mama’s name is called, and then my name. Except I wasn’t sure that it was actually my name that was called. Luckily, Katrina said “That’s you, Erik!” and I rushed up to the front of the room and hugged a lady who couldn’t have looked happier to be meeting a complete stranger.

We sat down together. I tried to pay attention to the rest of the announcements, but Mama had her heart set on introducing me to her neighbors – who were, of course, seated all around us – in the best English she could speak. It was clear the announcements were wrapping up and I could tell Mama was eager to get in the food line.

Of course, I had left my little satchel of study materials, pens, etc. in the seat I was originally sitting in at the beginning of the announcements. So, my dilemma: do I leave my stuff for later and stick with Mama, or try to grab them fast before the food line.

They dismiss us. Mama bolts for food. I bolt for my stuff. Pandemonium ensues. I have to wiggle my way through a thick line of people to catch up with her. I remember thinking at the time that I was every bit as much a meal ticket as I was a new member of the family. But I couldn’t blame her. These people know the value of food, but I have yet to prove myself. For all she knew, I was otherwise useless.

We got our allotment of food and I went to grab my luggage so I could wait in the transport line with my new Mama. Most of the guys’ luggage was on the second floor of the building we had been staying in, which was three buildings away from where we were to wait our turn for transport.

I had ensured that I could carry all of my stuff at one time (thanks to wheeled cases and luggage straps), but I hadn’t accounted for the stairs. When I got to the bottom of the stairs on my first trip down and turned the corner to the sidewalk, one of the Peace Corps drivers was waiting there next to a Peace Corps pick-up truck. He asked if that was all of my stuff.

“No, I need to make one more trip up the stairs – but lots of other guys’ cases are up there still.” I was under the impression he was going to move all the luggage in this pickup to save the rest of the guys from having to do what I was expecting to do: walk across the campus with all my luggage. This made sense to me for expediting getting us all in vans.

He looked at me a little puzzled, but accompanied me up the stairs. He helped me with just my stuff. We threw it in the back of the truck and he said, “Let’s go.” He started the engine and the next thing I knew we were rounding the corner of the campus to where everyone was waiting in line. I think Mama was impressed that I left on foot for my luggage and came back with a pickup, complete with a driver. Line avoided. Erik is already proving to be more than just a meal ticket.

We could fit lots more in the back, but only so many people in this crew-cab style truck. Carolyn, another PCT who was headed to our same village was ready with luggage, food and new Mama, so we loaded them up and we were on our way.

We dropped off Carolyn and her Mama at their place first. I helped unload her stuff from the back. I gave Carolyn a hug and said good luck before I got back in the truck. Of course everyone was a little nervous.

Then we pulled up to the house that would be my home for the next seven weeks.

I started to unload the back of the truck when I was greeted in the front yard by a young South African lady. “Hello! Hello! I am your sister,” she clearly said in Ndebele-accented English. Her name is Abegail, and she is my sister. She is in her early twenties, and is the youngest of the family.

Within seconds I was introduced to my host-dad, or “Baba” as the father is called in Ndebele (and Zulu, and most of the other official South African languages). Right there in the yard, he went over the pronunciation of my new last name, Mahlangu. I practiced it in front of him. I had to, as it includes one of those great consonant clusters not used in English, the “HL”.

According to my Zulu language book it is like pronouncing “SHL”, but removing the “S”. But to be honest, that description doesn’t really make sense to me. To me, this sound is best learned by watching, listening and practicing. I liken it more to sticking your tongue between your teeth and saying a “TH” sound and rolling it into an “L”.

Anyway, within minutes I had moved my luggage into my new room, took off my tie and started to get to know the people who I would rely on for meals, shelter, and family-style companionship for the better part of two months.

Mama was very quick to show me pictures of the rest of her children: her sons that had started their own families and moved out (or mostly moved out) of the house. She was a gogo, as well (South African grandmother), so she couldn’t wait to show me pictures of grandchildren and lots of other extended family. Over the following weeks, I would get to meet them all for myself. I showed some photos of my family on my phone, which are mostly dominated by my niece, Fiona.

Then, I learned about Sipho. It turns out that I am not the first Peace Corps Trainee to stay with them. “Sipho” was the African name they gave him (it is a common African name that translates to “gift”). They had been through all of this before, only a couple of years ago. Now it was starting to make sense how Mama knew so well how to beat the rush of people for the food line, and how calm she was about having a somewhat apprehensive stranger moving into her house.

Then I got a tour of the property from Baba. The home is very neat and clean, constructed in the common method for the area: concrete block with a corrugated metal roof. The main house has three bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. The two-bay garage is connected by a small breezeway. Another smaller house sits on the other side of the driveway with two rooms that are accessed from the outside. One of those is mostly just used for storage and their chickens (at least six chickens, but hard for me to say exactly how many), and the other is a guest room for any family members that need a place to crash. A third building adjacent to these is a decent sized, thatch roof rondavel, which serves as Sebelo’s place (one of my host brothers), though it wasn’t common for him to be present the majority of the time I was staying there, as he was working out-of-town. In the shade of the second house and an avocado tree is the garden, that mostly contains a small crop of spinach. In the corner of their lot is a pen for their one, well-mannered cow.

Before I knew it, I could smell dinner being cooked. It was served right there in the living room, as seems to be pretty common (at least in this neighborhood). As with much of South Africa without indoor plumbing, a small plastic basin with warm, soapy water is passed around for everyone to wash their hands before eating. A simple blessing is said over the food (in English, though this may have been for my benefit): “God, please bless this food we are about to eat. Amen.”

Eating is something these folks take seriously. Quantities are large and everybody eats fast. In a culture where people generally don’t get in a hurry over much of anything, South Africans can make fast American eaters look like chumps. And there is very little they won’t eat, including fat, skin, bones, gristle … you name it. The first week of training prepared me for what types of food to expect, but nothing can quite prepare you for someone to eat a heaping plate of maize-meal porridge (the previously described “pap”), pan-fried vegetables and a large piece of fried chicken in record time with only the largest of cleanly picked bones remaining at the end.

Also, Baba and I were the only people afforded the luxury of silverware. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty to go around; the ladies just seemed to prefer to eat with their hands. This is traditional, but there is also a trick to it. The pap is used as a somewhat sticky vehicle for the other foods on your plate. You could compare it to the way flatbread is used in middle-eastern cuisine, or the way you can use a thick piece of Italian bread to mop up what’s left of the sauce after eating a plate of spaghetti. (I’m making myself hungry just typing this.)

We watched television throughout dinner and the rest of the evening, and much like Americans, this was the evening ritual every night I stayed there. Usually we just watched whatever was on SABC 1 – this channel is a free, over-the-air station that switches in and out of English and the Nguni languages, often within the same program. On weekends, SABC 1 is very good about showing American movies that either spent very little time in theaters, or were straight-to-video in the USA. It seems that escaping American entertainment is impossible.

At some point on any given evening, Mama brought out a tray of hot water, instant coffee and some teabags. “Any time is tea time,” was a common thing for her to say as she performed this ritual, as well. I usually opted for actually making myself a cup of tea, while the others made themselves some strong java.

Many other PCTs would describe how their little host-siblings would drive them crazy as much as be endless sources of entertainment. But since I had no little ones running about the house, I had a very calm, quiet environment to come home to every evening after a long day of Peace Corps training. I couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable situation. I’ll be happy to stop in and see them whenever I am in that general area of South Africa.

As for my African name, I had to wait a few days. While visiting the family a few days after I had moved in, Jafta, my eldest host-brother, decided I should be “Mongezi.” I was told that this translates to “Addition.” I know it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Gift,” but I took it in the spirit in which it was intended. I will happily respond to the moniker “Mongezi Mahlangu” for the rest of my days in South Africa and beyond.

Baba, Mongezi, Jaki, Abegail, and Mama


Posted by on 3 October 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Flashbacks


Flashback #2 – Welcome to PST

I stayed up far too late working on this, so enjoy the fruit of my labor. 🙂

When we touched down in Jo’burg (for the uninitiated, this is a very common nickname for Johannesburg), there was still a hint of daylight. Due to the six-hour time difference from Eastern Time, it was already evening on Thursday, 12 July. But we didn’t have time to enjoy that, because we quickly found ourselves rounding up luggage and standing in line to get our passports and visas checked out. When everyone made it through, we were greeted by some more new friends, including some of the PC-SA big wigs and a couple of volunteers named Chad and Jonelle. They and the drivers assisted us to our bus and the loading of the luggage onto the truck.

On the way to the training site, I remember thinking as we drove on a divided highway in the dark that the terrain didn’t seem too different from central Florida (other than the fact that we were on the wrong side of the freeway). We stopped at a truck-stop of sorts. Some of us – actually just those of us who had some SA currency (Rand), which trades at roughly 1/8th of the USD – bought some snacks (not me). Others of us used the restrooms (me). From then on, the view outside was very dark, and the roads much more narrow. A few hours later, we pulled into an Education College in the Mpumalanga province of SA, which was our main hub of Pre-Service Training (PST), and became known to all of the PCTs as M-hub.

As an aside, you may have noticed more and more abbreviations and acronyms popping up in this tale. Don’t worry, it bothers me, too. Try explaining to a non-native English speaker what M-hub means. It is so much easier to just say “I’ll be at the college today.” And how redundant is it to include “PC” in ANY of these abbreviations? We know what organization we joined. I’m fine with simply saying I’m a “trainee,” but apparently that isn’t good enough. I am literally a PCT going through PST who meets fellow PCTs at the M-hub. We are far from finished with the abbreviations; I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and I am sure there are plenty more I haven’t learned yet.

Back to our arrival … there were a bunch of young-ish looking South Africans (Host Country Nationals, as native folks are often referred to, at least by PC) singing to us in a language (or perhaps languages) that we didn’t understand. They started before the busses were even parked. We got off the busses and stood in a big group, and watched as they performed. It was equal parts exhilarating and awkward. They were really good. We were really tired. Every once in a while there would be words we could understand like “Peace Corps.” We didn’t know if we should clap our hands in time, attempt to sing along, or just stand there like deer in headlights. Most of us went for the third option.

Weeks later I was reminded of a particular song they sang that was entirely in English. That shows you how out of it I was.

It turns out that the majority of these folks were our Language and Culture Facilitators (you guessed it: LCFs). They weren’t supposed to speak to us in English for the first couple weeks of training, though we figured out later that they all can speak English well. It is supposed to immerse us to help us learn the local language. But I’m not sure how well that works when not all of the PCTs are learning the same language. To be honest, I would not have been able to tell you if they were speaking different languages from each other or not. It was all Greek to me. But more on language learning later.

We unloaded all the luggage into one room. This took more time than it seems like it should have. But all (or almost all) of us had three pieces of luggage each. The expectation is that at least one of your bags is your “non-essentials” bag that you don’t have access to throughout training. But, for the time being, we were lugging those, too.

We then regrouped to get the lowdown on sleeping arrangements and expectations for the next day. We gathered up our luggage (again) and found our rooms in the mostly vacant dorms of the college. This time I had two roommates: John and Will. The male trainees (who were outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 by women) were sent off to a separate building than the females. Married couples (of which we have two) slept on the first floor of the ladies’ dorm. By the way, each building is referred to as a block; this seems to be a SA thing (or perhaps Afrikaans or British). The guys’ block has three doors, but only one was unlocked. Of course it was the door that was the least convenient to the rest of the blocks in the college that we were actually using.

In our room were four beds. Since there were only three in our room, one of those beds was used for storage … and mostly storage of my stuff, to be honest. Each of the beds we used had a simple – yet very workable – foam mattress with a sheet, blanket, pillow, and very thick comforter.

The college overall seems a bit neglected. Many of the buildings seem to be unused other than by PC. (I know there are classes there, but it seems far from a bustling hive of educational activity.) There is a high brick wall that seems to divide the college into two sections, with a big steel gate to go between the two halves of the campus. Naturally, the side we mainly used is the side in need of more attention. Falling apart sidewalks, ill kept landscaping, and broken windows are the norm. None of the buildings appear to have heat. (Thus, the very thick comforter is a necessity; keep in mind that this was the middle of winter for the Southern Hemisphere.)

The bathrooms in the dorms are pretty good, but they could also use some basic maintenance. Sinks with both cold and hot water are scarce. Shower curtains are more like nets that water passes right through. Next to each bathroom is a laundry room with two large basins and three ironing boards for doing all your laundry. (No washers or dryers, of course; hang your clothes to dry on the lines outside.) An iron would have come in handy if anyone had one.

On the other hand, peacocks and ostriches can be found running around the grounds throughout the mornings, and the college is situated high enough on a hill that you can view the neighborhoods down in the valley. And for the most part, it felt and looked as if we were somewhere on the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ in the winter. The ground looked very similar, the plants looked very similar, and the weather for winter (warm days and chilly nights) is just like that of the Sonoran Desert.

Sunset outside the college

We were very secure there, considering all the fences and security guards 24-7. There is an official looking (and decently kept) track and field with a large concrete grandstand and bleacher sections – local youth soccer teams came to play there while we were residents. Sunsets are pretty and the stars in the southern hemisphere are fantastic, especially during a new moon. And, running water and flush toilets are quite luxurious compared to the conditions in the surrounding villages, as we all found out later.

So, for over one week, this was our home.

Within the first couple of days we had the opportunity to reassess the contents of our non-essential bags, before having to relinquish them. I am happy to report that I decided to throw the dice and hold on to my laptop. (It turns out that – for me – having a computer IS essential, and in no way did I ever feel like it was ripe for theft.) My good camera I thought best to send off as a non-essential item. That may have been a mistake, but I was still able to take photos with my cell phone. Unfortunately, the Verizon Wireless Android I have doesn’t actually work as a phone in SA, but it is still handy as a camera, video recorder, voice recorder, MP3 player, and flashlight (or “torch” as they are called in SA – all the English here is very British).

Also within the first couple of days, we all seemed to form particular cliques. Not on purpose; I think these things just happen. It isn’t as if the cliques compete with each other or have any ill will towards each other. (That is, it isn’t like high school.) We all just ended up hanging around the same little groups of people, especially in our free time or during meals.

My free time clique included me, Vanessa and Laura. Vanessa and I are nearly the same age and Laura seems like she should be our age (even though she is in her early 20s and looks even younger). The free time we had at the college was mostly in the evenings and we filled it by playing Quidler and/or just talking. But we could be ourselves and decompress from the sensory overload that we were enduring.

Also because of these cliques, when we were all in the actual training sessions, more often than not everyone would end up sitting in roughly the same place in the room. Like some kind of psychology experiment, we were proving how humans are creatures of habit. So much so with me, Laura and Vanessa, that later on in training, Ted (who was always sitting almost directly across from us) decided that the three of us looked like a small family: Vanessa and I being the parents, and Laura our daughter. Of course, this family notion stuck, and was even extended to include Briana and Brandon as the aunt and uncle, since they would almost always be sitting next to us. But at meal time, I usually made it a point to move around and mingle more.

Which brings me to food. Of the ingredients in the food we were introduced to at the college, none were particularly exotic. However, their preparation at times was uncommon to the Americans, like cheese and butter sandwiches on white bread, or this interesting concoction called “pap” (pronounced like “pop” – and the English word they use for it is porridge). It is a maize-meal based food that is essentially a less moist version of grits. It is very common across SA, but can differ in its preparation depending on the region.

Having a strong British influence, the South Africans that planned and conducted our training were always good about leaving time for us to “take tea” every day between breakfast and lunch. This was usually just your choice of tea or instant coffee with exceptionally dry cookies (“biscuits,” if you prefer). Sometimes they had small sandwiches, like the aforementioned cheese and butter on white bread. We were never in danger of going hungry.

What we learned while we were living at the college is a bit of a blur. We started getting inoculations and vaccines. We started getting scared by the safety and security coordinator about crime, violence, public transportation issues, sexual assault, etc. We started to hear about volunteer diversity. We started getting stuff, like our own medical kit and our own mosquito net. We started to get interviewed individually about our health backgrounds and where we might be best placed in the country. And we started learning important education, culture and language lessons.

Well, for language at this point we were mostly given standard greetings in five of the eleven official SA languages: IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, SiSwati, Afrikaans, and Xitsonga.

It was originally assumed that any of us may be assigned any of these languages, except for Afrikaans. Afrikaans greetings are taught because it is quite common in the country and many of the blacks were taught this in school during apartheid. As a matter of fact, we were told that there is an assumption on the part of older blacks (especially since most of the PCTs are white) that we will know how to speak it. So we learned how to say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good night.” Then we learned how to say “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.” Then we learned how to say “I don’t speak Afrikaans.”

I found out recently that Xitsonga was cut from the list of possibilities because there were no suitable sites to send any of us in the regions that speak that language. So, we were down to three possibilities, and most of us got assigned IsiZulu.

The language assignments were a pretty big deal and they took place on Wednesday, 18 July. Not only did we find out what language we were to learn, but we were broken into groups of about four to six trainees and found out which LCF was assigned to our group. Additionally, the people comprising a group would most likely be located in close proximity to each other when we got assigned our permanent sites. So you’ll want to know them pretty well and you’ll want them to be people you get along with fairly easily.

Brandon, Katrina, Michael and I were assigned to a group to study IsiZulu, with Minky assigned as our LCF. I’m not sure how long it took, but within a very short amount of time most in our group were referring to us as “Team Awesome.”

Team Awesome makes me feel a little old, and in more than one way. For starters, I’m not crazy about the name. It sounds more appropriate coming from the mouth of someone in their early 20s than it does from me. Secondly, I make many jokes and/or references that none of them get. For example, I don’t expect Minky (being a black South African) to get references from Family Ties, but the fact that Family Ties was cancelled before anyone else on the team was born makes me look ancient. As a matter of fact, at one point I referred to myself as the Dennis Miller of the team because my references are too obscure for all of them. Fittingly, none of them knew who Dennis Miller is (and they were more than happy to tell me so).

Minky was instantly like our mom. She had held the position of LCF before, so she knows well how to navigate the Peace Corps training universe. And we couldn’t ask for someone who was more dedicated to our team. She can be sassy, but she knows her stuff so well that she is entitled to some sass. She is especially good at knowing how to focus on the important stuff we needed to learn. And, she is an example of how Peace Corps can have a positive influence – even just in training – as we were having daily cultural exchanges. Even when we weren’t trying, cultural exchanges were happening because we were all committed to communicating with each other. It is simple, but effective.

And overall, Team Awesome was a really good team to be on. They are all bright, highly motivated, and way better at learning a second language than I am. They are the type of people who I think most Americans picture when they think of Peace Corps volunteers. I appreciate them. Even though PST is over, we’re still a team. And most of the time I do feel like I’m in their same age group.


Posted by on 17 September 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Flashbacks


Flashback #1 – Taking Off

It is still raining. A thatch roof is only so leak-proof.

Little drips from the ceiling.

And I seem to have some time for more blog updates. So let’s take time to paint some of the background …

The beginning of my Peace Corps journey takes place, of course, in the USA. There was much I had to do just to get an invitation to PC, including all the times I had to run through the reasons one might want to actually go through with such a thing at age 34. Then there were all the preparations and goodbyes to my friends and family in Phoenix, Arizona (my “home of record” and where I’ve lived for the nearly nine years leading up to PC), and all the fun one can have on a week-long solo road trip across the US. But we’ll skip all that for now and just focus on the time spent right before departing for South Africa.

For a week and a half leading up to my departure, I was staying with my parents in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. It was great. I visited all the friends and family that I could. I got to visit Gramma Lil, in lieu of attending her 80th birthday party, which occurred about one month after I left. Grandma and Grandpa Hendel were in town from Florida in time to see me before I left, too (which was a nice surprise to me). They were there to attend the Hendel family reunion in Pennsylvania — another event I had to miss, as it took place the weekend after I left.

There were a bunch of little tasks, errands and research I wanted to squeeze in during my time in Ohio, but most of them just didn’t happen. When I get to talking with my mom or my dad (or both) or anyone in my family or close friends, time just disappears. But I am more than ok with that. I’m sure I really needed to do so before being away from all of them for a couple of years. Time is our most precious commodity, and I think that is one of the best ways to spend it.

And then there was the task of packing. My sister, Sara, was instrumental in the packing of the suitcases that came with me to SA. We tried at least three configurations of the cases before settling on what actually flew. I was disappointed that the little guitar I bought for the journey couldn’t make it, but with her help (and one of her suitcases) we managed to get a lot of stuff in three suitcases within the weight and size restrictions. But better than that, my dress shirts, dress pants and suit coat had nary a wrinkle by the time I got to my host family’s house over a week later. Sara is truly gifted in the art of packing luggage. To be honest, I’d say she was in charge of this task, and I was merely an apprentice.

So, at that point I was ready for “Staging.” Staging is a day of training in the US to make sure everybody who accepted their PC invitation has all of their affairs in order and really wants to take this plunge before they sit on a plane for 16 hours. They answer lots of questions and give you plenty of opportunity to get to know your fellow trainees. Plus, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy hot showers, warm-seated flush toilets and American meals before our extended period of “roughing it”.

The Staging event took place in Atlanta on 10 July, and my travel arrangements were made several weeks in advance through a particular company that does Peace Corps travel arrangements (as well as arrangements for other US government agencies). I was set to fly from Pittsburgh to Atlanta that morning.

Registration at Staging was supposed to start in the early afternoon that day, and the flight they arranged for me was cutting it very close for me to get to the hotel/conference center within the time allotted for registration. I really didn’t want to be late. I would have preferred to have been there early, but the person I spoke with that made the travel arrangements assured me it would not be a problem. I sent an email to the person in charge of staging so she knew there would be a possibility of me being late.

My parents drove me to the airport. That ride was very nerve-wracking. I’m not sure why, but that was the most nervous I’ve been about this entire endeavor so far. I felt like my parents were nervous for me, too. Maybe their nervousness was being projected onto me. Maybe my nervousness was being projected onto them, in turn amplified by them and projected back on me, creating a huge cycle of nervousness. Maybe this is all in my head. I just remember trying not to think too much about what I was about to do and instead focus on the music and chatter on the radio (the WDVE morning show!). And then, when that didn’t work, I remember thinking to myself “Being nervous is a perfectly normal human reaction; embrace this perfectly human moment.”

After smiling my way through getting my baggage fees waived at the airport and more hugs and goodbyes with mom and dad, my flight to Atlanta took-off and landed without incident. I quickly grabbed my luggage and found a taxi to the hotel/conference center. For some reason – probably cost – Staging was held at a location that was in an Atlanta suburb about 30 minutes drive from the airport (which seems crazy when you consider how many hotels are right by the airport). I arrived with about 30 minutes to spare before the end of the time designated for registration. And then I got in a line that was about twenty people deep and started introducing myself to my fellow Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs).

So, now it started to feel real. And I didn’t feel so nervous anymore – mostly just excited. Of course I had nothing to worry about as far as time was concerned; the entire registration process for everyone took at least an hour more than they had allotted. Little did I know how much this was to serve as foreshadowing of things to come. (Stated times are often merely suggestions in SA, and I’m told this holds true throughout the continent.)

As we individually completed our registration in the hallway, we joined the freshly registered in a conference room and began our “ice-breaker” exercise. It consisted of finding people in the room who fit particular descriptions or had previously performed particular jobs. This served as a way to talk to as many people in the room as possible and ask them questions about themselves. I didn’t even come close to completing the exercise, but I feel it worked well. I was doing my best to remember the names of everyone I was meeting, and I think I did ok with that, too.

Then the official program had begun. In retrospect I feel it fits my description of all the PC training I’ve been through to this point. You can break it into thirds: one-third is worst-case scenarios so that we’ll be “scared straight” into following rules, regulations, and guidelines; one-third is a CYA on the part of PC so if anything bad happens PC can say “we told you so – it was in the training – don’t blame us”; and one-third is actually really useful things we need to know.

It also became very evident who of the new trainees had read all the important materials, based on some of the questions that were asked. This sounds like a criticism of the PCTs (well, in some cases it is), but it is really a criticism of PC. They gave us so much to read before we got there it was hard to know which of it was really helpful. Also, some of the different documents were contradictory (like how one document discourages bringing a laptop due to it being a target of theft, while other documents encourage doing so for assisting with work and as entertainment in your downtime). However, in some cases I feel these types of contradictory situations are inevitable. The longer I am here, the more I see how this entire situation is – and will be – highly individualized.

In the midst of Staging it was explained that we are SA-26. In other words, I am part of the 26th group Peace Corps has sent to South Africa since Nelson Mandela officially asked the US for help. It seems that the even-numbered groups are education volunteers and the odd-numbered groups are health volunteers. Or at least that is how it has gone since SA-22 (I think). I’ve now met folks from 20, 22, 24, and 25.

At the end of that day’s training we had lots of time for a good dinner. A bunch of us went for seafood, where we were also greeted with a really talented, upbeat jazz band playing a lot of standards. This was a really cool, serendipitous American sendoff, especially considering they had live music on a Tuesday evening in an Atlanta suburb. (Who’d have guessed that?) We splurged on deserts. Then, we went back to the hotel bar and played pool and Foosball. And we didn’t have to get up extra early the next day, since we didn’t have to leave the hotel until the early afternoon. PC staff were sure to tell us that this wasn’t common and that usually PCTs had to get to bed early for 3 AM wakeup calls.

I shared a room with Jonathan H. He was a good roommate, as he opted for sleeping while most of us partied, and I didn’t seem to disturb him when I came back to the room late. The morning of Wednesday, 11 July included a short walk to McDonald’s for breakfast (it was that or Chic-filet), since I missed the hotel restaurant’s breakfast time frame. After checking out of the hotel room, most of us continued getting to know each other in the hotel lobby. I also made some last-minute calls, texts and emails to friends. I found out there was already a Facebook group for us (I wish I had known sooner), so I managed to join that and friend a couple of my fellow PCTs. Then we loaded up a couple of busses.

We got to the airport with what seemed like plenty of time to spare. Then, we rounded up all of our luggage and waited in line at the ticket counter for what seemed like an eternity. Nothing about international travel seems to happen with any amount of expediency. (Or maybe that is just my limited international travel experience talking.) We finally got everything sorted and made our way through security. It turned out to be a much shorter wait to get on the plane than I had anticipated, but that is just because of how long it took the 44 of us to get to the gate.

Then, the plane: it is easily the largest and poshest aircraft I have had the pleasure of riding. Once we passed first class and business class (which had funky – yet comfy looking – reclining pod type seats) we were greeted in the coach section with three rows of three seats each. I had an aisle seat on the right of the middle row. I quickly traded seats with the man across the aisle from me so I could sit next to two other PCTs (Andrea and Katie R.). Even though I barely knew these folks at the time, we definitely had plenty to talk about (of course)!

When we weren’t talking to each other, there was plenty of time for other activities, like watching TV and movies on the built-in screen in front of each of us. I watched three movies: Exporting Raymond (a documentary about the Russian version of Everybody Loves Raymond), Good Fellas, and True Grit (the new one). There was plenty of food served, and – I’m not sure if they do this on purpose – it seemed less and less American as we got further from the States. Intertwined with all of that fun, I did a fair amount of sleeping.

And then, as easily as we took off, we touched down in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Posted by on 16 September 2012 in Flashbacks