Category Archives: Sight Seeing

December 2012, Part II: Bus Station Blues

The last couple weeks have been filled with preparing for – and starting – the new school year. You know … my actual work here. And though my work can be an adventure unto itself, I know you’ve been waiting with baited breath for the continuing saga of my travels last month.

On Thursday, 13 December, with three other Volunteers and our Peace Corps driver, I traveled northwest most of the day through the rolling, green hills of KwaZulu Natal, ultimately to Pretoria in the Gauteng province of South Africa. Holly had her transportation to her final destination all worked out with the folks she was staying with, so after dropping her off, Sharon, Linda and I were dropped at the Khayalethu guest house/backpackers. Even though it was still within the daylight hours of the early evening, we knew it would be best to spend the night in Pretoria. We figured there would be no transport to get us to our respective destinations in Mpumalanga that evening – at least not anything particularly safe. And, PCVs aren’t supposed to travel at night anyway, especially alone.

It turns out Khayalethu is something of a Peace Corps hangout. They have a restaurant with an outdoor, wood-fire pizza oven, private rooms and dorms with lots of beds, inexpensive nightly rates, and freshly cooked breakfast included. (This sounds like a commercial now.) Since there is still a decent number of Volunteers in South Africa I haven’t met and we were now officially in the “festive season” (as many in South Africa refer to it), it was no surprise to me that throughout that evening I was introduced to lots of folks from the three previous Peace Corps groups: SA-23, 24, and 25. I met Roy, Fran, Joey, Barb, Sean, Stacey and close to a dozen others whose names I had forgotten nearly as quickly as they were told to me.

Linda, Sharon and I ate some good pizza together. They decided to turn in for the evening, but I stayed behind to listen to Roy sing and play some tunes on his acoustic guitar for the crowd of mostly (if not entirely) American people on the patio. After some music discussion, I played a little on Roy’s guitar and he told everyone that was listening some hilarious stories. However, as more beers were opened, the discussion around the table I was sitting at took a turn for the pseudo-intellectual about religion and politics and I thought it better not to get involved. (Ideas I agreed with were well represented, but the whole conversation had an uncomfortable air about it.) For a moment, I forgot I was on another continent. It was the same type of beer-fueled conversation you could hear at any bar in America.

Of course, it isn’t as if Americans have cornered the market on bullshit. I’m sure it was the same type of bar-talk you’d hear anywhere in the world. This bar-talk just happened to have American accents – very familiar to me, but something I hadn’t heard in six months.

Add to that the smell of cigarette smoke. I was surprised at how many of these volunteers smoked, especially considering how half of them aren’t education volunteers, but are in the CHOP program (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Program) – volunteers here to help Africans get healthy. I don’t believe anyone in SA-26 is a habitual smoker, and that is convenient for me as a non-smoker who has lived in parts of the US where smoking in public places has been banned for a considerable amount of time.

I made my exit from the party and found my place in what I believe to be the largest of the dorm rooms there. I had a top bunk of a bunk bed in a room sleeping around 20 American volunteers. Linda was quite certain that they put us all in the same room on purpose. As the evening continued, other volunteers made their way to their beds, most of whom I did not know. Everyone was respectful of keeping it quiet, and it felt very safe.

The next morning I had a great breakfast (quiche, muffins and coffee) with Linda and Sharon. Linda, who had spent a decent amount of time in Pretoria already due to some medical issues and knows her way around, guided me and Sharon on a little trip around the Hatfield area of Pretoria on foot. At a nearby mall, I helped Sharon purchase an adapter for a Mini-SD card, I got some cash from an ATM, and Linda grabbed some things from a drugstore. We were ready to depart Pretoria. We went back to Khayalethu to gather our bags and arrange a taxi to the bus station.

The Marabastad bus station is a main hub for the PUTCO (Public Utility Transport Corporation) busses that run in and out of Pretoria for all the neighboring communities that have folks commuting to the city. When we arrived, I instantly recognized this was quite possibly the most dangerous place I’ve been to yet in South Africa. Of course, since the three of us were headed to different communities, we had to split up.

Luckily, I found the line for the bus I needed rather quickly. The luck here comes from the fact that there are no signs posted to tell you which line is for the bus you need – you just have to start asking, and hope you can trust the information you’re given. And they weren’t really in anything resembling a line; people were gathered in highly unorganized crowds, next to what looked like the bars of the nice mazes that keep people in lines for a roller coaster. Of course, there was no security to be found to even attempt to keep any order to the queues.

I saw a young man in an official-looking cap, and he had a badge pinned to his chest that read ZCC. I thought he looked official enough for me to ask a question. I confirmed with him that it was the line for the bus to Watervaal – the community in Mpumalanga where I stayed for Peace Corps Training. He then pointed me in the direction of the ticket window to buy a ticket for the ride.

On my way to the ticket window, which was on the other side of the bus station (naturally), I was warned by complete strangers – on two separate occasions – that the place was dangerous and it wasn’t safe for me there. Apparently, my skin color was enough for them to feel concern for me. While I was waiting in line at the ticket window, I saw Sharon walking past the ticket lines, with a less-than-confident look on her face. I called for her to come stand in the line I was in. It appeared to me that she was by herself, but she later revealed to me that she was following someone who told her she should follow them to get her ticket. She thinks now that she may have been being led to a less conspicuous place for this person to rob her, or something worse. Even if that wasn’t what was about to happen to her, it was clear to me that she was passing the place where I knew she needed to be: the ticket counter.

When I got to the ticket clerk, I explained to her where I was going. She seemed apprehensive to sell me a ticket. She told me several times from behind her protective glass and iron bars that the place wasn’t safe, particularly for me, and that I should be very protective of myself and my luggage. The ticket was 39 rand – approximately $4.50 USD – which is really cheap for the distance I was traveling. I instantly understood why so many people were there; low cost, direct transportation + big South African city + Friday + holiday season = hordes of people. She was still exclaiming concerned warnings as I walked away from the counter.

With my ticket, I went back to wait in the mob of people going to Watervaal. I stood next to Harry, the young gentleman in the cap and badge, plus a pregnant lady and her friend. Harry informed me that the bus we were expecting for a noon departure was sent off empty due to a mechanical problem. I knew we would be waiting a while.

While we waited, I learned from Harry that ZCC stands for Zion Christian Church and the cap and badge are an easy way for them to identify each other in public. I explained to him how this is confusing to an American seeing him at a bus station. Luckily, he is a polite, bright, and helpful guy who speaks English (very well) and didn’t think twice about helping me when I approached him out of the blue.

The replacement bus came at 1:00 pm. After seeing the fighting to get on that bus, which Harry and the ladies we were waiting with refused to participate in, I started to mentally prepare myself for what to expect when the next bus arrived.

The next bus arrived at 2:00 pm. I’m not sure, but by that time I figured Sharon and Linda had long since departed for their respective communities. Since it was likely this was the last bus going to our destination that day, we would be forced to fight our way on to it. In all fairness, we should have been first on for how long we waited, but as there were no proper queues (and no one to enforce them if there were), we had no choice.

I had intended to double check the safety of all of my things before boarding the bus. However, the mob of people stampeded the door of the bus before it even came to a complete stop. It was particularly disheartening to see an elderly woman knocked aside and no one giving a second thought to pushing themselves in front of a pregnant woman.

In my haste to make sure I would have a seat on the bus, I failed to properly secure the stuff in my pockets. My suitcase in my right hand was pressed against my wallet in my right front pocket, but my bus ticket in my left hand made my BlackBerry in my left front pocket vulnerable to theft.

Of course, it was stolen.

I didn’t even realize it was picked from my pocket until I went to put my ticket stub in my pocket after the driver had punched it. I’ve been pushed around in a crowd before, but never with a backpack on and a heavy suitcase in my hand. To the credit of the bystanders around me, they immediately tried to help me locate the phone by calling my number. The thief must have already shut it off, because their calls went directly to my voicemail. We all knew that it was quite likely the thief was sitting amongst us.

Because there were more people on the bus than really should have been allowed (if you ask me), I ended up sitting on my suitcase in the aisle about three-quarters of the way to the back of the bus. Harry was standing in front of me. Ndumiso, an acquaintance of Harry’s, was sitting adjacent to us, and I talked to the two of them nearly the whole ride.

I believe this ride would normally take about two hours. Due to traffic and stops to let people off along the way, the journey took until after 6:00 pm – over four hours! Harry was nice enough to travel with me the entire trip, even though his community was two or three stops ahead of mine.

From where we got off the bus, it was more than a half-mile walk to the home of my host family. I was to call them when I got there, but without my phone, I was also without their numbers (which were all stored in the phone). The lesson here is to have phone numbers written down in a different place from your phone in the event your phone is stolen.

So, I would just have to show up. Harry walked with me. Along the way, kids who remembered me from my student-teaching at the nearby primary school came out to the road to greet me. After having your phone stolen and a hellishly uncomfortable ride sitting on a suitcase for four hours, it was nice that people were so excited to see me.

There was still enough daylight to see that Mama, Baba, and Mandisa were outside and saw me coming up the street. Jaki also saw me from the nearby tavern, and before I knew it, they were all greeting me in the road and helping me and Harry with our bags. But one person was conspicuously absent: Abegail, my host sister.

We made it into the house and I quickly realized something else was conspicuously absent: electricity.

I introduced Harry and explained everything that had happened to me that day. They explained that the power company was somehow trying to extort money from them, but I’m still kinda’ fuzzy on those details. Harry called a friend to pick him up where the bus had dropped us, and as it was getting dark, we started to walk that way.

On our way, we met Abegail – she was on her way back from a temporary job she picked up, working security at the two-day Mpumalanga Traditional Music and Dance Festival. She walked with us the rest of the way and helped Harry on his way with his transportation to his home.

I was ridiculously hungry by this point, with my last proper meal being breakfast. We walked back to the house for a great dinner (considering it was cooked with a kerosene burner that kinda’ stunk up the house) that was illuminated by two candles.

I had enough battery power on my laptop to jump online and figure out the protocol to report my phone stolen to Vodacom (my wireless carrier), and to let other folks know of my current phone-less situation via Facebook. I also took a moment to change all the passwords for the stuff I had programmed on the phone, in case the thieves were clever enough to hack into it. Then I showed my gracious hosts a bunch of photos of everything I had been up to since I left training.

With so much excitement packed into one day, I was happy to safely and comfortably go to sleep in the bedroom of what was my home for over six weeks just a few months earlier. Even though without electricity, it was familiar – and a lovely sort of homecoming.

I was looking forward to a low-key weekend. After all, I had to mentally prepare for the journey back to KZN. What adventures would be in store for me this time?

To be continued …


Posted by on 20 January 2013 in Cultural Experiences, Friends, Sight Seeing


December 2012, Part I

Where have I been? If it wasn’t for the video I recently posted, this blog would have grown mold. So, back to the continuing saga. And, since this is titled December 2012, Part I, it is only fitting to start in November.

My last day working at the school for 2012 was also the last day of November: Friday, November 30. I had packed my bags the night before so that I could leave directly after school for In-Service Training (IST), the first of my Peace Corps trainings since Pre-Service Training (PST) in Mpumalanga. The school year hadn’t officially ended yet for everyone else, but everything was pretty much wrapped up by then anyway.

Notable differences between PST and IST are that IST includes people we work with in the communities as participants in the training sessions and that instead of being held in a rundown college, it is held in fancy hotels. (Maybe not officially “luxury” hotels by American standards, but the level of luxury we experienced was far beyond what has become the norm for any of us volunteers.)

IST was split into two sections. The first was a regionally held workshop for volunteers and their supervisors (in most cases, they are the principals of the schools where we work). My regional workshop was held in Richard’s Bay.

My supervisor was gracious enough to drive the two of us there, plus my local PCV friend Briana and her supervisor. The principals were buddies, too, so we never had to worry about awkward stretches of silence during the 3+ hour ride. Everyone had someone to talk to and something to talk about and a native tongue to say it in.

In anticipation of IST, I had baked honest-to-goodness, Nestle Toll House Cookies (thanks to the bag of chocolate chips my parents sent to me, and with the apprenticeship of extended family members who were eager to learn how to make them). The main reason was to have a nice gift pack of cookies for all of my compatriots who are serving in Peace Corps without electricity. I was sure to bake extras, too, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to eat any of the cookies earmarked as gifts for friends.

Of course, the cookies had to be introduced to the principals on the ride there. And, of course, neither of them were content to eat just one.

Thinking about it now, this ride really illustrates the duality of South Africa, simultaneously living within the first and third world. At one point while sitting in a traffic jam, Briana was able to purchase a fresh pineapple from a lady hawking them from the side of the road; she just rolled down the window and bought it for the equivalent of about $.50 USD. At a different point in this short journey, we stopped at a large rest stop/petrol station where I purchased a bottle of water and mocha latte.

We arrived at the the hotel, checked in, and got caught up with the dozen or so PCVs participating in this regional meeting as they all trickled in to the hotel over a buffet dinner. I was rooming with Will, which was cool since we had roomed together for the first part of PST. And the “family” I was part of in PST, with Vanessa and Laura, was reunited again. And it really did feel like a family reunion overall, with all the other volunteers there. I could see marked changes in people even though it hadn’t been too terribly long since I had seen them. After all, people will change in demeanor and appearance over time, but I think PC service in rural Africa amplifies and speeds that process along.

During the days, we had sessions reviewing Peace Corps policies and covering our expectations for the upcoming school year, not to mention some discussion on alternatives to corporal punishment. Nothing too groundbreaking, but it was helpful to make sure everyone is still following the program. At night, there was much socializing and file-sharing and laughing and enjoying free wifi … and EATING! The variety of foods in the bounty laid before us everyday in the buffet was something that none of us were accustomed to, and little did we know how much better things would get in the next part of IST.

But first, we had to be our American selves. You can probably tell by the name of the town – Richard’s Bay – that we were close to the ocean. So, the majority of the volunteers made it a point one evening, just before dark, to get to the beach. It was a little chilly for swimming, but none of us wanted to miss an opportunity to see the ocean, being as close as we were. So, on foot, in around twenty minutes of walking, we found a public beach, dipped our feet in the water and took some photographs of the event for posterity.

Richard's Bay

By Sunday, 2 December, we were checking out of the hotel in Richard’s Bay, saying goodbye to our supervisors, and boarding vans to take us to part two of IST, held in Pietermaritzburg.

After another three or so hour van ride, we pulled in the parking lot of the hotel we were about to spend the better part of the next two weeks. There was a collective resonance of excitement and bewilderment. If we thought we had it good for the weekend, the next week and a half would truly be luxurious.

Protea Hotel - Hilton

Having never been to Europe, my only points of reference for what Europe looks like come from TV, movies, and books. But just looking at the building against the backdrop of the rolling green hills of the Hilton area of Pietermaritzburg, I couldn’t help thinking of the theme from The Sound of Music (“The hills are alive …”). I’m far from an authority on architecture or ethnography, but when some decidedly European looking folks were walking through the parking lot (probably on their way to tea or a tennis match), I exclaimed “This place looks as European as … those people over there!”

The hills are alive ...

So, we checked in and continued reuniting with the volunteers as they arrived from the other regional meetings. After some confusion about roommates, it was determined that I would room with George. This was more than fine by me, and he knew nothing of the confusion until I explained it to him when he arrived. He was part of the group that showed up last (and very late actually).

Settling in to these new digs was pretty easy. Over the next week and a half, we ate like royalty from a fancy buffet. Some of us had drinks at the bar like we were corporate mucky mucks on an important business trip. Others continually broke the hotel’s rule of playing the grand piano in the lobby. Many of us made friends with the folks who work there, be they in reception or in the kitchen or at the bar.

I was happy to let the hotel do my laundry, even though it was at my own expense. The price per item was cheaper than what you would pay in a similar hotel in the States, but most of the PCVs still found it to be too expensive. So, as we are all now accustomed to hand washing our clothes, many of them found themselves washing their laundry in their hotel room bathtub and hanging their clothes throughout their rooms to dry. I guess you can take the volunteer out of the village, but in some ways you can’t take the village out of the volunteer.

Most of us had two counterparts from our villages for the remainder of the training sessions: a teacher counterpart from our school for the sessions covering teaching in South African schools and a community counterpart for the sessions covering secondary community projects. In my case, both were teachers from my school. There were volunteers from previous groups to train and help facilitate some of the sessions, Peace Corps staff for other sessions, and Peace Corps brought in some experts for what turned out to be the most educational and engaging sessions. Not all of it was great, but I feel like overall it was well worth the time.

And the evenings continued to be a festival of socializing, whether at the bar or whoever’s room ended up being the center of activity. It was not uncommon on any given night to have ten or so of us piled into a room. But we were responsible, and only once do I recall the hotel telling us to quiet down. My friend, Rakeesha, being a part-time beautician, set up a makeshift shop in her room for haircuts, manicures and pedicures. I happily stopped in for a chat and a haircut.

In the midst of all of that, we were making frequent trips on foot, down the road to a shopping center. Because a Secret Santa gift exchange amongst the volunteers was organized, many of us were getting last minute Christmas gifts, essentials that may be hard to find in our respective shopping towns, or just a cup of coffee from the coffee shop there.

However, as we neared the end of our stay there, I started to get antsy. I knew I was starting to lose patience with just about everyone. It is funny how even a luxury hotel can start to feel constricting if you have limited options and resources for alternatives. Luckily, my friend Amy suggested going out to dinner for one of our last nights there. Surprisingly, the only other taker on that offer (besides me) was Rakeesha. To be honest, I’m not even sure who the invitation was extended to, but in the long run, it was probably better that it was a small group. The hotel staff helped us arrange a taxi and we went to a brew-pub, Old Main Brewery, a short distance away.

This was a truly great time. I felt like I got to know the two of them much better. Just being in a different environment with a specific small group of people can totally change your attitude, and I really needed it.

And it was excellent to have nachos. It was even better to sample the pub’s three beers, all brewed right there. Of the three, I really like their Imperial Stout (so much so, that I walked back the next day for another).

On our last full day there, Amy was again instrumental in arranging a trip to a local mall. Since many volunteers were gearing up for camping trips immediately following the training, for some this trip to the mall was essential. On the other hand, I was trying to keep my load as light as possible since my next trip after IST was all the way to Mpumalanga to visit my host family from Pre-Service Training. I was happy to go to the mall, though, for another change of scenery and a different choice of restaurants.

The next day, Thursday, 13 December, after eleven nights of luxury, all of the volunteers were heading out at different times throughout the morning for catching their transportation to wherever they were headed next. There were lots of hugs with each group that left. It will be three months or more before some of us see each other again, and the better part of a year until we are all together at the same time.

Since the Peace Corps office is in Pretoria, and I would have to pass through Pretoria to get to Mpumalanga, I was catching a ride on a Peace Corps van. The other PCVs traveling with me were Holly, Sharon and Linda, with each of us having to pass through Pretoria to get where we were going. But what was in store for me in Pretoria began a whole new adventure unto itself.

To be continued …


Posted by on 7 January 2013 in Friends, Sight Seeing, Training


Sometimes I’m just a tourist …

I am terribly behind on posting stories of everything that has happened over the past month. I have pages of notes, but need to get busy on writing it out so it makes sense to anyone other than me. In the meantime, check out the video of what I did the day after Christmas. It has little to do with being a Peace Corps Volunteer, other than it happens to be in South Africa and I was on vacation …


Posted by on 5 January 2013 in Sight Seeing