Category Archives: Sight Seeing

My New Normal and Highlights from June to November 2013

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

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

Interesting. Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did the elephant cross the road?

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

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

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

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

Cape Malay Ramadan Cuisine

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

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

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

Archbishop Tutu with Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to get on!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. T's write up for JAK

Ms. M's write up for JAK

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph at school

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

Joseph Headshot Print

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

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

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

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

Limpopo, like Arizona

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

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

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

Impromptu Limpopo Concert

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

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

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

SA26 T-shirt

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

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

SA26 MST Group Shot

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

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

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

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


December 2012, Part IV: An American In Durban

I realize as I am posting this final installment of my adventures in December that it has taken me over a month to put into words everything of note that happened in that month. Luckily, January had been comparatively calm, which is a good way to start a school year, celebrate a birthday, and get caught up with family and friends in the States.

Within a few days of being back in my village home, I walked to town and went through all the needed steps to get my phone number back and a new BlackBerry. Luckily for me, even in the primarily rural area I reside in, it is possible to buy a smartphone. I felt connected with the world once again.

At the home of my host-family, things were pretty relaxed. About half of my immediate host family members were gone for the holiday break themselves, either in Swaziland or Zimbabwe, on various church-related outings. My only host brother around was Dumesani.

There were, however, some new faces. Extended family members who had been gone for school in Richard’s Bay or Durban were home for the holidays in varying shifts. I was happy to meet all of them: they all had stories to tell and fluent English to tell their stories in. Thobile and Londiwe had lots to talk about, and me being from America with a guitar, a camera, and a laptop helped to make me the center of their attention. But, to be sure, the very-used and several-times-repaired, plush Ernie (of Sesame Street fame) I purchased in town a few months earlier captured all of their hearts.

Ernie had already been a favorite of the little kids around my house. I took great delight in forcing them to say the hard “R” sound in his name. Without any coaching, they tended to say it more like “enn-ee.” Because of my prompting, they now delight in saying the word themselves: Errrr-nie.

However, I wasn’t prepared for Ernie to be so popular with the young adults. Part of it could be the universal appeal of a Muppet. But I suspect much of their love for my orange-colored friend was the plain fact that I – as a white, American male in my mid-thirties – had such a toy on display.

Zandile snaps a photo of Ernie

Zandile snaps a photo of Ernie.

Considering the extra-laid-back condition of my environment (which is saying something, considering how laid back it is under normal circumstances), I could focus on preparing for my honest-to-goodness vacation. Even better, I didn’t really have to plan it.

For the holidays, most of the volunteers were either going camping in the mountains or going to party in the city (or both). I feel like I am camping most of the time as it is, so I opted for the choice with running water and electricity. The plan was pretty simple: Christmas Eve I would travel to Durban and split my time between two backpackers’ hostels over the next 10 days with various other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Backpackers are inexpensive, and with a little bit of research, you can find the cleaner and more well-attended establishments. The two major drawbacks over a regular hotel are 1. (usually) no A/C and 2. sharing bathrooms with strangers. Also, you may be in a dormitory-style room, which means you also may be sleeping next to strangers (though, for a little extra money and advance reservations you can usually find a place where you at least know all your roommates and/or get a private bedroom). With the cost at a fraction of a hotel room, these drawbacks don’t seem so bad.

My traveling companion for the taxi ride was my friend, Vanessa. She came to my house on the 22nd, as her site can be several hours away from mine (in taxis, anyway). Also, my shopping town has a wider selection of goods and direct taxis to Durban. Of course, after the troubles I had gone through earlier in December, I was happy to be traveling with someone I know and trust.

My goal for this trip was to pack as light as possible. After cramping myself into a van with a suitcase AND a backpack on my lap, and then trying to wheel my suitcase through the sand paths of my village on my way back from Mpumalanga, I decided it would be best to only carry what I could take in one backpack. After all, what would I really need on this trip besides shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops and towel?

Better yet, Vanessa and I scored a ride into town on the morning of the 24th from Dumesani on his way to work. After a little waiting for the taxi to fill (again, a 14 passenger, well-used Toyota Quantum), we were on our way to one of the big modern cities South Africa has to offer.

E and V leaving for Durbs.

E and V leaving for Durbs

We arrived in Durban in about 5 ½ hours, right back at the Teachers’ Center taxi rank that I had familiarized myself with just under one week earlier. We hailed a cab from there fairly easily and were on our way to the first of our two backpackers stays: the Hippo Hide.

The staff at the Hippo Hide is friendly, the pool is nice (if a bit small), the rooms, kitchen and bathrooms are clean, and the neighborhood is relaxed. It was a perfect place to meet up with other PCVs to have a quiet Christmas.

When we arrived, only Kelsey and Brooke were already there. The others would be trickling in throughout the next couple of days. But, Liz was also scheduled to be in Durban that afternoon, traveling alone.

I had been communicating with Liz via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) throughout the day. She got to Durban shortly after Vanessa and I did, but was having a problem finding the Hippo Hide. (Unfortunately, her taxi driver seemed to be clueless.)

So, while we waited, the four of us decided to jump in the pool. To keep tabs on Liz, I dropped my BlackBerry in the pocket of my swim trunks. Of course, I didn’t think twice about jumping in the pool with it still in my pocket.

Splash! As soon as I jumped in I remembered that the BlackBerry, which I had purchased not a week earlier as a replacement for a BlackBerry that had been stolen not two weeks earlier, was in my pocket. I jumped out and looked at it. Surprisingly, it was still working, though saturated. I knew it could be a problem, so I shut it off and popped the battery out immediately.

The other volunteers (but it seems to me at the time, especially Brooke) were surprised that I wasn’t more upset about it. Well, what could I do? I could only be upset at myself – and trust me, I wasn’t happy with myself – but, what good would yelling or cursing do about it? The milk had been spilt; I didn’t feel compelled to cry over it.

Luckily, I thought ahead when I was packing. I happened to bring my other cell phone. (You know, the plain-jane time machine to 2003 that I had bought the weekend my first BlackBerry was stolen.) I thought I might swap it out for my BlackBerry if I didn’t like the perceived safety of my surroundings at any point. I never thought I would be swapping it out for my own mistake. But, at least I wasn’t without communication, especially if I were to get separated from the other volunteers.

My next step for the water-logged BlackBerry was to find some rice or crackers and a ziplock bag, in hopes that it could be dried out. Other volunteers have gone through the submerging of a phone before, and it seems in most cases they can be recovered. Time would tell.

So, I jumped back into having a good time. I wasn’t going to let something like a cellphone ruin my fun.

Liz arrived. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. John and Rachel arrived while we were at dinner, and met us at the restaurant. We made friends with the waiter, Dexter, who is a US born citizen, but has lived in South Africa most of his life. As he is still young enough, he intends to join the US Air Force.

Christmas Eve Dinner at La Bella

Christmas Eve Dinner at La Bella

We returned to the Hippo Hide, where we found Holly waiting for us. Our Christmas group was assembled.

The next day (Christmas!), we were hoping to meet up with Dexter again for breakfast (he was cooking pancakes), but our schedules couldn’t get aligned and it didn’t quite work out. We did get into a grocery store to buy food for cooking while we stayed at the Hippo Hide. Later that day, we had a smorgasbord, including steaks, corn on the cob, grilled vegetables, and even some Mexican food, none of which would necessarily feel like Christmas, but at least it felt American.

Later that evening, Dexter arrived with some friends and leftover pancakes that we reheated on the charcoal braai (grill). We hung out in the pool. It was an international Christmas shindig.

The next morning, Rachel, John and Holly were moving on to their respective next stops for their holiday break, but Kelsey, Brooke, Liz, Vanessa, and I had our next challenge to conquer: The Big Rush. If you have already seen the video and/or photos, you know what I’m talking about.

At Moses Mabhida Stadium there is a bungee swing. If you have the USD equivalent of roughly $67 (and are willing), they’ll dress you up in a somewhat uncomfortable harness and walk you up the several hundred steps of the arch that goes over the stadium and takes you to a platform that overlooks this impressive structure. Several big dudes hook your harness up to the bungee line with three heavy duty clasps.

And then you jump.

You drop 88 meters and swing out an arc of 220 meters. According to Guinness and his book of records, it is the world’s tallest swing. It is exhilarating. For as scary as it feels to be standing that high up, and then just take a big jump, by the time it is over you instantly want to do it again.

Moses Mabhida Stadium

Moses Mabhida Stadium

I’m very happy I paid the extra money for the video, too.

The five of us were in a group of 16 jumpers. Since I was the only PCV who opted to buy the video, I was separated from my friends; they jumped first while I waited for the videographer to ascend the steps. That was a little disappointing, but at least I made fast friends with all the people next to me in the line of jumpers. Nervous energy and huge grins seem to make everyone more friendly.

PCVs in Big Rush swing harnesses

PCVs in Big Rush swing harnesses

Because they hoist you back up to the platform after the jump, you also have to walk down all those same stairs when it is over. So, by the time we got back down to terra firma we were pooped. We grabbed some food and drinks at one of the restaurants at the base of stadium (with a few new friends from the jump) while we waited for my video to be edited and burned to a DVD. Then we explored some of the nearby shopping and a casino that is just a short walk away, ultimately heading back to the Hippo Hide.

The next day, my phone – after sitting in a baggy of crackers for the preceding 48 hours – was working. I was relieved, but I knew it would be best to get a new battery for it. (From what I understand, submerging one of these batteries can be problematic.)

Our group’s mission for the morning and afternoon was to check out the Victoria Street Market and sample the popular Durban cuisine known as “bunny chow”. Bunny chow (or just simply “a bunny”) is a curry dish (your choice of meat or vegetarian) served in a hollowed-out quarter-loaf (or half- or whole-loaf) of bread. I opted for the lamb. I’m happy to report that this stuff is delicious.

Unfortunately, the lamb was still on the bone. This wasn’t really a problem until, while I was pulling meat off the bone, I managed to squirt curry sauce in my eye. Luckily, Brooke had some eye drops. After crying through several extra napkins, my vision was pretty much back to normal and the stinging wasn’t so bad.

I understand that pepper-spray is supposed to be much worse than what I went through, by several magnitudes. This reinforces my resolution to do whatever it takes to never be sprayed by pepper-spray.

To add insult to personally inflicted (though accidental) injury, after we ate I discovered my phone to be completely dead. I was hoping it was just an issue with the battery, but a trip to a nearby repair shop confirmed that something was fried in the phone itself. I would be better off with a new one. The cost of repairing it plus a new battery would be over one third of the cost of a new BlackBerry and they could not guarantee that the phone wouldn’t need to be repaired again in the future.

In a knee-jerk reaction, I bought a new one on the spot. The thought of the runaround I seemed destined to endure to have this phone repaired was too much for me at that moment. My American credit card was presented. To make myself feel better, I minimized my spending for the rest of that day.

On the bright side, after returning to the Hippo Hide, we met up with two more PCVs: Katie and Laura.

Laura on Hippo Hide's rope swing

Laura on Hippo Hide’s rope swing

The next day, (28 December) the (now) seven of us went to the beach. The beaches in Durban are pretty nice, very much like ocean beaches in any big seaside city in the USA, lined with restaurants and shops and piers. Not nearly as secluded, picturesque and serene as the beaches near my village, but it’s nice to have the option of getting an ice cream cone or a burger and fries in the middle of the day if you want to.

Of course, we all got sunburns to varying degrees, too.

That evening, we made a feast of Mexican food at the backpackers. We shared it with a couple of German girls who were also staying there. This was our last night at the relaxing Hippo Hide backpackers. The next day we would be checking into a party!

Tekweni Backpackers is situated down a side street of Florida Road, the happening part of Durban, with all the cool clubs and restaurants, and not completely out of walking distance of the beach (especially for PCVs who are used to a lot of walking). The place was designed for partying: a patio with a bar, pool, big stereo system, big TV, billiards, and picnic tables … they even have a hammock. Inside, there is a large kitchen, a sitting room with lots of couch space and a TV, and many rooms for when it’s time to crash. The fine folks who run the place are friendly and are there to party with you. And it is fenced off, private and secure, so we were safe. It was perfect for New Year’s.

After we checked in, some of us walked down the street for some groceries. Everyone seemed a little cranky from sunburns and lack of sleep (due to the sunburns). Spirits were lifted a short time later when we were introduced to a bunch of other Americans – Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Swaziland who were also on vacation had just arrived.

I found this delightful. Speaking with some of them in the pool, we instantly started comparing notes on our experiences. Swaziland is a much smaller country than South Africa. There are fewer volunteers, so volunteers from different groups within Swaziland seem to know each other a lot better, whereas, the PCVs I know really well in South Africa are restricted to my group, SA-26. Like South Africa, there are many more girls than guys, but at least I was no longer the only American male. That evening, I went to dinner with a big group of them.

In fact, over the following four days I found myself hanging out with the Swaziland volunteers just as much or more than the South Africa volunteers. In particular, I found myself shooting pool with Emily, Hillary and Chris (who also shares my fondness for Castle Milk Stout), talking South African history with Blythe and Jack, or just plain ol’ chatting and dining with Caitlin, Kelsey, Heather, Peter, Jami, Lauren, Abdul, and more. There were quite a few of them. Even with my friend, Rakeesha (and for a short time, Susan) joining us to reinforce the South Africa contingent of PCVs at Tekweni, the Swaziland volunteers had us outnumbered nearly two to one.

And then there was Clerisse. She seemed a quiet observer at first, but then I learned of her unpredictable wit. Her dedication for what she wanted to do as a volunteer appears to surpass what Peace Corps wanted her to do. After sharing my umbrella with her through the downpour on our walk to a New Year’s Eve dinner at a Thai restaurant, we ended up being each other’s date for the rest of the evening.

By the time the clock struck midnight in Durban, the Swazi volunteers had essentially taken over a room at one of the Florida Road dance clubs. I’m happy I got to see this group cut loose and cut a rug. In the early morning, we returned to Tekweni to see their party was still going strong.

Before I turned in for some much needed sleep, I realized that parties in the States were just starting, if they had started yet at all. When I woke up the next morning, I was just in time to post a Happy New Year message on Facebook to my friends and family in Arizona (thanks to the nine-hour time difference). Then, after some breakfast, I took a nap.

Being that the vacation plans had a built-in party recovery day, we didn’t leave Tekweni until 2 January. Before checking out, I managed to squeeze in a walk to and from an honest-to-goodness bakery with Swazi PCVs, Heather and Kelsey. I had some pastries and got a bagel to go.

It was time to say goodbye to all of our friends, new and old. Vanessa and I were joined for the journey back to northern KZN by our friend Diana, who had just finished up one of the camping/hiking trips with other PCVs. I split my bagel with them as we waited on Tekweni’s front porch for the taxi that would take us back to the Teachers’ Center taxi rank.

Village life and a new year in the rural South African schools were waiting for us to return.


December, 2012 Part III: Traveling In South Africa Is Like a Box of Chocolates – or – Trade Seats, Get a Burger!

As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I heard cheering from inside the main house. Something must be going well for the ZA Soccer team. They are playing right now in Durban, and many of my PCV friends are there. I seriously considered going for the match, but I just can’t get into soccer enough to justify spending the money. All of my American (and non-South African) readers benefit from me not cheering on the “boys” (Bafana Bafana), as I’ve spent this time completing the next installment of what may be the most story-filled month of my life.

When I woke up the morning of Saturday, 15 December, the thought crossed my mind that by being with these people again, I was in someway being rehabilitated of all the luxury I had been experiencing over the previous two weeks and all the commotion of the previous two days. Specifically, I thought of the part of Forrest Gump where Jenny comes to stay with Forrest to kick her drug habit and stop drinking. Not that my situation was nearly that dire, but it felt nice to “hit the reset button” in a safe place with people who were happy to see me.

Mandisa and I walked to the small grocery store around the corner (Pinkies Tuck Shop) for some bread, peanut butter, and cookies (or biscuits, to be South African about it). After breakfast, Mandisa and I prepared to go to day-two of the Mpumalanga Traditional Music and Dance Festival. We were to meet Abegail there, as she was working security there again that day.

It was a much larger production than I was expecting, but it was so hot and sunny that most people sat far from the main stage in the covered bleachers of the small stadium it was being held. The field in front of the stage was vacant, but it was clear that by the night it would be filled with people. I was exhausted most of the day, and at one point I even fell asleep in the bleachers. When it started getting dark, Mandisa and I grabbed a taxi back to the house. As Mama was finishing the preparation of dinner, I shared some of my favorite scenes from Singin’ in the Rain and Swing Time on my laptop. It was cool to have a bit of a cultural exchange after all the African dancing we watched earlier that day.

Abegail and Mandisa at the Music and Dance Festival

Abegail and Mandisa at the Music and Dance Festival

I was then treated to another nice, home cooked dinner (by candlelight). In the middle of dinner, Sabelo, one of the brothers in my family there – and a sometimes resident at the house – walked in and exclaimed he could only see me sitting there because of the color of my skin. We all had a laugh over that as he joined us in our dim dining. Afterwards, with no electricity other than what was stored up on the battery of my laptop, we all turned in for the evening.

On Sunday morning, I was feeling good. I got out of bed, cleaned myself up for the day and made my way outside.

I turned the corner on my way to the toilet, and saw a goat that didn’t belong to the family (as they don’t own any) scrounging around the yard. On my way back from the outhouse, I saw Mandisa washing clothes around the front of the house and let her know about the goat. She picked up a handful of gravel to chorale it out of the yard. (The girl’s got a good arm AND good aim, by the way.) The goat darted through the open part of the gate where it apparently got in.

As I walked with her past their small mango tree, a wasp (or some other kind of biting, flying pest) flew down the back of my shirt through the neck hole and started to bite my back. I let out some surely strange yelps as I ripped off my shirt. Apparently this pest has been a problem in the past for Baba, as he was bit on the face and the ear, which I was told caused him some swelling. Luckily, swelling wasn’t a problem for me. Mama helped me put some anti-itch cream on all the bites. (It was fortunate that I had brought it with me for a mosquito bite I received right before leaving my site over two weeks earlier.)

In the late morning, Abegail accompanied me to a neighboring town that has a rather large shopping center. My plan was to have a temporary replacement phone and a bus ticket on a private bus line from Pretoria to Durban for Monday, and I needed to have these things before heading back to Watervaal.

The phone I bought cost about the equivalent of $15 USD, and to use it feels like stepping back in time – at least from a technological standpoint. But, I was in a tight spot and it was more than adequate. To make it work, all I had to do was insert the SIM card from my 3G modem and I was reconnected to the outside world.

The bus ticket was to be purchased at the Shoprite grocery store. My first choice of bus line and time was already sold out. My next choice was the Intercape bus line, with more stops along the way and a little bit higher cost, but it would have me departing Pretoria at 9:30 and arriving in Durban by 6:00 pm – not perfect, but good enough. I handed over my credit card, signed on the line, and waited for my ticket.

But things weren’t to be that easy. When the lady at the service counter of the grocery store tried to print the ticket I had just purchased, she discovered the ticket printer was not working. I asked her if she knew if my reservation was still in Intercape’s system, and that if she could just print a receipt for me that I could take to the bus station and have my ticket printed there. She looked at me with a blank stare and said “But I can’t print your ticket.”

So, without knowing for sure if I had a reservation for the bus or not, I thought it best to get a refund. But then I still needed to get a ticket. My thoughts: “I can deal with this. Intercape also has online ticket sales. I’ll just go back with Abegail and first thing when I walk in the door, I’ll logon and buy one. No problem.”

She began to process my refund. Because they are a grocery store, they are used to taking returns of merchandise. So she asks me to sign a type of returns ledger that requires all my contact details: address, phone number, etc.

This was the point in which I lost my cool. This lady – as a matter of protocol – was asking me for personal information that she clearly did not need. She didn’t need these details to sell me a ticket, why on earth would she need it to return my money for a ticket she was incapable of producing?

“My address?! You want my address?!?! For what? You didn’t even sell me anything, because YOUR printer doesn’t work! Are you going to track me down when your printer is working again to make sure you get me a ticket?” In the address blank I wrote in large letters “USA”, scribbled my signature, grabbed my return receipt, and walked out.

Of course, this poor lady was taking the brunt of all my frustrations from the past several days just because she was following the steps for processing a return at their store. She had probably seen hundreds of other customers before me that day and was in no state of mind to single out my unique situation. Abegail could tell I was stressed out.

We returned home with only one of the two objectives met. I got back on my computer and quickly secured a reservation for the same bus (a few bucks cheaper, too). Now I just had to figure out how I would be in Pretoria by 9 am the following day. I asked Abegail for her suggestion: “Don’t take the public busses – take a taxi!” Good advice, but then Sabelo pipes up, “Tomorrow is a holiday – there won’t be any taxis or busses.”

My heart sank. This was not what I wanted to hear. But he was right about it being a public holiday that Monday. South Africa celebrates the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December, and because that was a Sunday, it was observed on Monday. I knew this, but didn’t think to make sure public transportation would be in service.

After some more discussion, Abegail suggested I ask Jafta, the eldest brother of the family, to drive me. He was expected to come for a visit later that day as it was, and time permitting, he would take me, Abegail and Mandisa to his house to visit with his wife and kids. That seemed like a good plan. I had never been to Jafta’s house the whole time I was staying with the family during Pre-Service Training. I had only seen some pictures of it and knew that it was very nice, even though still unfinished.

Throughout the day, no one could seem to get ahold of Jafta. I’m sure I was visibly nervous about possibly having wasted money on a bus ticket that I couldn’t get to the bus station for. Mama resorted to calling some people that may or may not have been private taxi drivers … seemingly, anyone she knew of who might be a driver for hire the next day.

I packed my bags as it was getting dark. We ate dinner. We even had dessert. I resigned myself to the fact that Jafta wasn’t coming, and announced as much to the family. I figured I would get up really early and take my chances for finding some kind of transport to Pretoria on my own. Even on a holiday, money would surely talk someone into getting me there. I grabbed the bag of small toys that I brought for Jafta’s kids, and showed them off to the rest of the family by candlelight.

Then, as if out of a movie, we see headlights. Jafta had arrived! I explained to him my situation, and he offered to take me; I was happy to pay him for gasoline and his trouble. Finally, I had a solid plan. (I think Mama had prompted him in an earlier message that I would be asking him, but I’m still not sure. Abegail said it was important that I ask him; in other words, they weren’t going to ask for me. Still, he seemed to know of my predicament before I even started talking.)

As it was so late, Abegail and Mandisa wouldn’t be heading over to visit his house with me. Instead, I would just go to his place to spend the night there so that first thing in the morning, he could drive me to Pretoria.

When we arrived at Jafta’s house, all I could think of was how incredible it is. It looks like a house that a big-time drug dealer would live in on Miami Vice … except it was visibly unfinished in some areas and had no air conditioning (which it really could use), and they seem to have a bit of a mosquito problem.

Jafta’s kids were staying with his wife’s folks for the night, since he and his wife both had to work late that day. (He’s in construction and she’s a nurse.) She prepared a meal for him, and in true South African style, I was given a big ol’ plate of food, too. I told her I already ate, but she insisted. It was delicious, and I ate it all. Of course, it was totally unnecessary, but it’s hard for me to turn down food when the plate is already made up.

In the morning, I was brought a bucket of warm water for bathing. I bathed in a plastic basin, as is my usual custom. However, I was actually bathing in a bathroom and the bucket was sitting where, clearly, a shower is intended to be installed. C’est la vie.

Stranger still, I managed to get no less than seven(!) mosquito bites (or some other kind of insect bite) on the bottom of each of my feet in the process. I didn’t even know it until I was drying them off. That tube of anti-itch cream was again put to good use.

Then, we quickly loaded my luggage into his truck and managed to leave earlier than we planned. (This is a very un-African circumstance.) We were originally allowing for two hours travel time, but left nearly a half hour ahead of schedule. There was very light traffic on the way into Pretoria, I’m sure due to the holiday. However, we passed several public busses on the way, and a handful of taxis. I then felt bad that Jafta had gone out of his way for me, but in an African context, I’m sure he thought nothing of it.

With leaving almost 30 minutes early and traveling in light traffic, I arrived at the bus station shortly after 8:00 am. I didn’t need to be there until 9:00 for a 9:30 departure. I offered to buy Jafta breakfast, but he was eager to get back to Watervaal – I know he had lots of work to do that day.

I confirmed my reservation at the Intercape ticket counter. I was still hoping to get some breakfast for myself, but unlike the Marabastad bus station or any taxi rank I’ve ever been to in South Africa, there wasn’t a hawker to be found (that is, the people who walk around trying to sell food, beverages, cell phone airtime, and various other goods). There was only one restaurant in the bus station and it wasn’t open yet. Being hungry is nothing compared to other travel mishaps I’ve endured recently. So, since I had some time to kill, I called my friend and fellow PCV, Vanessa, and brought her up to speed on the trials and tribulations of my weekend.

Thankfully, the Intercape bus line is run very well. I had a baggage claim ticket for my suitcase, I dealt with very pleasant staff, they had snacks for sale on board (probably why there were no hawkers allowed at the bus terminal), and no problems along the way.

Intercape Bus

Intercape – Go With God … or at least Jesus!

What I wasn’t expecting is that they are a super Christian organization. There were prayers at every stop, christian-themed movies shown throughout the ride and even my fellow-passengers felt the need to bless me.

A guy sitting across from me, who had boarded at a later stop with his family asked if he could trade seats with me, right after I pulled a bunch of things out of my backpack. I guess my body language said it was really an inconvenience for me. He started apologizing right away, and said that he just wanted to sit next to his wife so their toddler son could stretch out on their laps. I said, “It’s okay … we can trade, just give me a moment to collect my things.” He blessed me.

The rest of the ride, he offered me some of whatever he had: cookies, Coke, chips, whatever. I declined. Then we got to a rest stop about lunch time. I went inside to get a burger. He saw me in line and insisted he buy it for me. I let him. He blessed me again. When we stopped in Pietermaritzburg, he and his family got off the bus, but not without him blessing me one last time. But really, how could I complain? Trade seats, get a burger!

Also, towards the last couple hours of the trip, a little girl sitting a few seats up and caddy-corner of me started to play peek-a-boo with me. She reminded me very much of my cousin’s daughter, Olivia. After the stop in PMB, the girl’s mother noticed, and she struck up a conversation with me. She could tell right off that I was American from my accent. There were plenty of open seats by this time, so it was easy for me to move up and sit next to her. Lorraine is a native South African of Indian descent, divorced, two-kids, and English is one of her first languages. It was really nice to actually talk to someone for the last hour or so of the trip.

The bus finally arrived at the station in Durban. I got off, grabbed my suitcase and said goodbye to my new friends.

My plan was to meet up with my friends, George and Eva, who were staying in Durban as part of their holiday time. As they are also PCVs, they were staying on-the-cheap at a backpackers there. George had already given me the address and the number for a taxi. I didn’t need to call for a taxi, though, as there were plenty waiting at the bus station. Apparently these taxi drivers weren’t taking this holiday off, either!

I called George and Eva while en route, and within minutes I was walking up the steps of Surf and the City – an old, large house that was converted to a backpackers’ hostel. I found it really cozy and I would probably stay there again. After telling my friends about all of my adventures from the weekend, the three of us took turns cleaning up for the evening and then we headed to Florida Street for dinner.

On our walk to find a restaurant, Eva suggested an experiment for dinner: we would all attempt to pass ourselves off as being of the upper class of the Southern US, through the use of that specific accent and manner of speaking. Then, we settled on an Italian restaurant. All of the people working there were South Africans, so it seemed as good a place as any for this experiment.

The food wasn’t bad, but it was clear we weren’t in an American Italian restaurant. (No bread served with pasta dishes? What?) We must have been doing okay with our experiment, too, as our server asked us shortly after we sat down if we were from Texas. I declared I was from Greenbow, Alabama. (Forrest Gump was still on my brain, apparently.) Miss Eva quickly said she was from Tennessee, which is true. Then, Mr. George, almost breaking character, said he was from South Carolina. (Keep in mind that George is from California and of Japanese descent.) We must have passed the test, though, because nearly everyone else who worked there – at different points throughout our evening – had a reason to visit our table. I’m pretty sure they just wanted to hear us talk. It was a whole mess of fun, I do declare.

We came back to Surf and the City and ended up having a nice long conversation with a young Australian couple (Tim and Grace) in the living room there. I even got to pick a little on an acoustic guitar that was sitting in the corner. We turned in for the evening with a plan for getting some good coffee with our breakfast in the morning.

The next morning, we did just that. In addition to good coffee, I had a croissant with eggs and cheese, and before long, the accents returned and kept going about 75% of the time we were talking with each other. Later that morning, after Eva and I traded some music and movies on our computers, I was on my way to the taxi rank in Durban called Teachers’ Center (I guess because it is adjacent to a large building that says “Teachers’ Center,” but I’m still unclear as to what happens at a building with such a name).

I was finally on my way back to my home in the Northern part of KZN, cramped with my suitcase and my backpack into one seat of a well-used 14 passenger Toyota Quantum – the gold standard of cheap transportation in South Africa. Nearly six uncomfortable hours later, I was back in my shopping town, and I quickly found a taxi to take me the short distance up the tar road to my village. I dragged my suitcase through the sandy roads all the way to my little house, and breathed a sigh of relief. I was so happy to be home that I knew it truly is my new home.

I had a little under a week to relax at home before I was to be off on my next adventure: back to Durban. But this time, I would be meeting up with other friends, spending time on a beach, and finding time for other entertaining (and sometimes painful) mishaps.

To be concluded …