Category Archives: Training

My New Normal and Highlights from June to November 2013

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

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

Interesting. Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did the elephant cross the road?

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

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

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

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

Cape Malay Ramadan Cuisine

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

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

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

Archbishop Tutu with Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to get on!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. T's write up for JAK

Ms. M's write up for JAK

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph at school

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

Joseph Headshot Print

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

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

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

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

Limpopo, like Arizona

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

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

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

Impromptu Limpopo Concert

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

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

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

SA26 T-shirt

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

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

SA26 MST Group Shot

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

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

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

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


Play It Forward

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

“Hey, Erik, do you want a guitar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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