Saturday, January 19, 2008

Unexpected Adventure

I truly had the TGIF feeling going for me yesterday. The week had been extremely busy at work as the new academic year moved into week two and full swing. Children are now showing up at the drop in center regularly after school again and that means our day has usually just begun once the final bell of the day rings after class. It has been overly hot these last few days with temps easily hitting 90 by late morning. Under the hot sun, under the weather with a head cold and under pressure to get things going at school as well as wrap things up to be ready for my week of training ahead I was rather exhausted. As I left school Friday at noon, I was feeling extremely happy. The weather had cooled a bit, clouds were rolling in and other than a few loads of laundry waiting crumpled in the hamper at home, I had nothing to do for the next day a half except pack a bag for the coming week, have a cup of coffee or two and catch up on some old Newsweeks. It was going to be great. I strolled down the drive of the school, half a dozen children in tow and crossed the tar road to Rafik's shop. Out of toothpaste at home, I thought I might want to have fresh smelling breath to give my wife a kiss when she got home from her meetings in Pretoria. Rafik is from India and owns a few shops in Seleka and surrounding villages. Always one for conversation, we leaned across the shop counter from each other, sharing a coke, he enjoying his regular cigarette and talked business for almost an hour. Reluctant to leave, but wanting to knock out that pesky laundry and have my schedule completely free, I swallowed the last of my cold drink and bid farewell to Rafik until the next morning. He had invited me to come and see the new shop he opened in a nearby village and see if I had any ideas for helping him set it up.
With the weather being so nice, I decided to postpone laundry a bit more. I struck out for the drop in center to say hello and remind the children about my upcoming training, assuring them that I would be back to play games the following week. While I was there I helped the women install a new printer so they could finish a few reports, had some tea under the tree and caught up with a few of the carers that I had not seen since before Christmas. The afternoon was getting better every minute.
Finally I resolved to get laundry on the line before the sun got too low in the sky to dry anything on the line. A few minutes later I was at the front door. Safiri eyed me through the window from his perch atop the little lookout post we constructed for him from old cardboard boxes. He enjoys watching the chickens and goats make their way through the yard, though I think he is much braver when there is distance and a pane of glass between him and the rest of the neighborhood livestock. I turned the key in the lock and pushed on the front door. Nothing happened. The door was still locked. Strange. Our door has swollen a great deal from the recent rains and so I pushed a bit harder, thinking it was just stuck. Still no luck. Pulling my key from the keyhole, I glanced down. The tooth of the key had snapped cleanly off in the lock. Suddenly Friday afternoon was not looking quite as productive and relaxing as I had thought.
After a few choice words and a failed attempt at channeling MacGyver through my fingernail clipper, a paper clip and smaller keys I realized I was stuck. Both Jessica and I have a key to the house; unfortunately she happened to be in Pretoria and not coming back until the next day. Now, skeleton keys in South Africa are all labeled with different letters and numbers. This means that you can go to the store and buy a new key matching your letter and number which will be pre-cut to match your lock (we have a second lock on the door to keep others with our same key from getting in and that key was still intact). Thoughts were now flying in and out of my head:
Do I have any money for a taxi to town?
Yes, luckily had some in my school bag left from a previous trip to the shop earlier in the week.
Any taxis going to town on Friday afternoon at 3pm?
No, too late in the day.
Anyone in the village I could bum a ride with to town.?
No. They have all made their way much earlier while I was enjoying coke and tea.
Any place in the village that may have these keys?
On my way back to Rafik's I went. Safiri staring longing from his post, wondering why I had not come inside. Luckily I had given him a fresh bowl of food and water before heading to school that morning, I thought. Hopefully it would be enough to get him through as long as this fiasco takes. Rafik greeted me with a smile and a laugh as I explained the situation to him. He pulled out a plastic bag from under the counter full of keys that clinked and clanked as he rummaged through it. Non matching keys were being tossed here and there about the counter and the bag was slowly emptying. As the last key hit the counter with a dull thwack, I heard the words before Rafik said them, 'Sorry, don't have it. Anyone that can get you to town?'. I already knew that answer. As we stared at the pile of silver keys in front of us Rafik spotted one without any marking on it. It looked very similar to the key that I needed, maybe even was the exact one! He held it up and said to give it a shot. While I snatched it up and made for the door, he offered to call a few friends in neighboring villages to see if they might carry keys in case this did not pan out. Hoping against hope that it would not come to that I set out down the road back to the house. Waving to Safiri, whining on his perch, I gently slid the new key into the lock. It stopped. Maybe, the fragment of my old key was still in there. Pulling out the key and peering in the keyhole I could see straight through to the oscillating fan I had left on that morning for Safiri, in case it got hot and he wanted to sleep on the table with a cool breeze. Not the old fragment. I tried the key again. Again it stopped without entering the lock. Maneuvering it this way and that I tried in vain to make the key fit. After a few more failed attempts I pulled out the key and inspected it's grooves and markings to see how close I was to making it work. The one groove that did not match was off by about an eighth of an inch and had left a fresh silver scratch mark on the key where it was meeting with the tooth on the lock. Not the key for me.
Again I left Safiri staring after me and was making my way back to the shop when an idea hit. Perhaps one of the women at the drop in center have the same key for one of their houses! Half walking, half skipping I quickly changed course. Surely this was the the answer. Rounding the edge of the drop in center building the women greeted me again and inquired as to my return. Explaining the situation for the second time, I was met with exclamations of 'Oh shame!' 'Sorrrrryyy!' and 'Eish!' as they all pulled keys from their purses to inspect them. It took less than a minute to find out that again lady luck was still not on my side. Thanking them for their time I turned dejected and trudged back out the gate. Words of encouragement and wishes of good luck from the women falling on deaf ears. Kicking up dust as I grumbled my way back to Rafik's shop for the third time that day, I could tell the neighbors were beginning to wonder why I was wandering back and forth around the village. Indeed, I was beginning to wonder the same thing.
Rafik could see in my eyes before I could open my mouth that the unmarked key had not worked. Though he picked up a my spirits a bit with his words. Sounded like a friend of his in Boskop or one in Tom Burke may have keys. I was not eager to start catching taxis to other villages. It was getting on in the afternoon and the later it gets, the fewer taxis there are that run between the villages. However, since my other option was to stay in Seleka with no key and no place to sleep for the night, I grit my teeth and made for the tar road. Never having been to Tom Burke, I opted to head south to Boskop. I found a taxi half full heading my way. Climbing in we made our way to Boskop. At this point I was doing all I could to avoid thinking about my predicament. This proved difficult because I was inundated with questions from the other riders and our driver as to why I was heading to Boskop so late on a Friday. Not wanting to get into my story for a third time, I chalked it up to visiting friends.
As I unfolded myself out of the backseat of the taxi and onto the side of the road at Boskop it hit me that not only was my relaxing afternoon gone, but tomorrow was shot as well. Even if I could get a key here, by the time I would catch a taxi the other way there would be no daylight left to do any work. I found a woman walking down the dirt path that parallels the tar road and in tired Setswana asked her to please point me in the direction of the largest shop in town. She fingered a building across the road on the other side of a small field. Thanking her I made my way under the barbed wire fence and over the patchy grass field.
My time at the Boskop shop was short. The store owners looked the tall, lanky white man up and down curiously as he questioned them in their own language about the keys Rafik had called about. 'Sorry,' they replied, 'we are out and so are the other shops in town. Maybe try Witpoort.' Thanking them for their help they went back to whatever conversation it was that my arrival had interrupted and I stepped my way back to the tar road. Witpoort was the next main stop down the road, but I was pretty sure it did not have a shop. It is the location of the Magistrate's Office, area hospital and the Department of Education Circuit Office. Other than that there is nothing. Still, they had suggested I try, and as I was debating my future a taxi speeding in the direction of Witpoort came into sight on the low rise of a hill in the distance. I crossed the road, flagged it down, and hopped in. Ten minutes later I was disembarking at Witpoort, standing looking for a shop that was not there as the taxi turned around, slowly shrinking out of sight as it made its way back to Seleka. I thought about checking the Magistrate's Office or the hospital to see if perhaps someone there could help me out. Though as I made my way toward the hospital gate I realized that at Friday afternoon a little after 4pm, things had shut down for the weekend. A few last people were being let out of the hospital gate to make their way home. The parking lot was vacant, windows to the offices were dark and shuttered. Across the yard and through the opposite fence I could see the same held true for the Magistrate's Office.
I did not know where to go now. Slumping to a seat on the side of the road I flipped out my phone and browsed through my contact list to see who I could call. On the first page was Ben's name. Ben and Susie live in Abbotspoort, a village further south of Witpoort on same road that I currently sat stranded upon. Emptying my pockets into my hand I counted up a small bill and few coins. Enough money left to get me back home looked back up at me, but no more. Even if I got home, what would I do then? Where would I sleep? Sending a quick text, I asked if Ben and Susie would be interested in company for the evening and if they happened to know how much a taxi from Witpoort would cost. Not knowing exactly why in the world I would be sending this message to them, they still eagerly responded saying they had a thermarest pad and a sleeping bag with my name on it. Luckily the cost to head south to Abbotspoort was the same as making my way back north. The first good luck I had encountered over the last few hours.
Crossing the road I approached a baakie (pickup truck), it's bed loaded with a heap of tomatoes, a couple dozen watermelon and half a dozen people. 'Where could I catch a taxi to Abbotspoort,' I asked. Smiling and laughing that I was trying speak their language they told me that taxis would be hard to come by but they themselves were heading back to Abbotspoort right then. They proudly asserted that I must be on my way to see Tiro and Mokgadi (Ben and Susie). I agreed and they told me that they knew Tiro and Mokgadi very well! 'We will take you right to the school where they work!' they exclaimed. Offering me a seat in cab, we buckled in, others hanging on in the bed and the small troop of South Africans, fruit, vegetables and one American made the final trek for the night. We laughed and talked on the way down, my spirits rising a bit knowing that I at least had a place to sleep for the night. They explained how they had met Tiro and Mokgadi, knew their host family and were very happy that I was coming to see their village. I answered their questions about where I was living, if I had a wife like Tiro did, and what type of work we were doing. We made it to our destination in no time at all, though a bit slower than normal due to our payload in the back. As I thanked them all and shook hands, promising them I would be back often, they promising to visit us in Seleka, they pointed just across the road. Through the trees and fences I could see my sanctuary for the night. A quick hop over the ditch and a narrow dirt path brought me to the yard where Susie was chasing the neighbor kids with water bottles as her squirt guns and Ben was draping some laundry on the line with his host mother. I arrived with the clothes on my back, a school bag, and a new tube of toothpaste and a few coins left jingling in my pocket. Warm hugs, smiles and a place to sit awaited me. With my adventures over, at least for the day (key problem still not solved) I was happy to indulge their questions on what it was that actually brought this far. They laughed with sympathy at my plight and we decided that the first order of business would be to get some dinner under our belts before we figured out what I would do the next morning. We made our way back toward the tar road, Ben and Susie being greeted by all their neighbors and introducing me. I following with answers to the questions of where I live, what I do, etc.
At the shop we were gathering some bread and supplies for a night of grilled cheese and tomato soup (warm meals are always a remedy for long, hard days, or weeks, in my case). As Ben and I talked with the shop owner, she is also one of the teachers at his school, he casually mentioned my reason for being in Abbotspoort. She halted our conversation and said a few quick words in Sepedi to someone in the back room of the shop. He hurried off only to return a short minute later, producing two keys bearing the exact letter and number that I had been looking for all afternoon! Ecstatic at my good fortune I happily exchanged the last of my coins for these two pieces of metal that had suddenly become more precious than gold.
As we exited the shop bound for the house, I was back on cloud nine. In a few short hours, that at times felt like days, I had gone from footloose and fancy free, to homeless, broke and stranded on the side of the road, back to smiling and relaxed. Finally I was able to laugh at myself and the events of the afternoon. Yes, I had lost my afternoon of laundry, but I still had the whole following day. I could rise early and catch a taxi back to Seleka in time to wash and have my things on the line by mid-morning drying a summer breeze. Also, I had gained an evening with friends, a warm meal, a walk to the river as the sun went down and a game of cards. Not bad outcome for what seemed a dire situation earlier.
Arriving back home this morning to an attention starved kitten, though still well fed kitten (his food and water had lasted him through the night), I looked back on my unexpected adventure and came away with three lessons. One, always have a spare key. Two, keep a bit of cash in your pocket for just these types of days. Three, life will always turn out well when you have good people to turn to for help. Everyone I met that afternoon was more that willing to help me in my distress and that is a lasting characteristic of this country that will never go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Monday, January 14, 2008

December Holiday

How time flies! One day you are at the onset of a long break from work and a holiday vacation, then next you open your eyes and the first week of work in the new year has already come and gone in flash.

December was a whirlwind of fun and excitement. School ended for the students at the end of November and the staff stayed on until the 4th of December to tie up loose ends from the year. With five weeks of break from schools ahead of us, we felt as though we had all the time in the world to catch up on email, update friends via this blog and post some more pictures of what we have been up to. Obviously those goals seem to have escaped us! Those first few weeks of December were spent doing a good deal of work at the Drop In Center to organize for the end of year party held annually for the children there. It was a busy time, but the event went off with great success and we had a wonderful day. Our final week before heading out on our holiday vacation was spent with friends in the village. We hosted dinner at our place one evening for a good friend to celebrate a good year and all of the help he has given us in getting settled in the village. We introduced him to tacos, complete with homemade guacamole, sour cream and cheese. He was thoroughly impressed and enjoyed every bite! It was nice to have a friend over for the evening. We truly enjoy hosting and it feels like a big step to have already made good friends in these short months to invite into our home.

On the eve of our departure for holiday adventure, Brandon and Rachel came to our place so that we could all leave together the following day to head out for Pretoria. We enjoyed a rather eclectic meal that consisted of anything in our combined refridgerators that needed to be consumed before departing for a couple weeks. It turned out to be a rather cold, rainy night, in fact one of the coldest we have had in quite sometime requiring long pants and socks just to sleep comfortably. The low temp that night dipped into the low 40's farenheit, which we realized later was within 10 degrees of the high temp back home in Minnesota! Not typical for this time of year, but we were not complaining since the alternative is weather in the 90's. En route the next day we stopped in Ellisras, the town where we do our shopping etc. to drop off Safiri. Our friends, Pieter and Denise, were kind enough to look after him for us while we were gone. He lived up to his name by traveling relatively well in his box on Jess' lap all the way to town in the taxi. We tried to be discrete about having him on the taxi with us, not because animals are uncommon on taxis (in fact, chickens are quite common) but because we already draw enough attention to ourselves as it is. Adding a cat in a box with blankets and toys might be pushing the envelope. We did get a few inquisitive stares and confused faces, but all of our fellow passengers thought it was more or less hilarious that we would carry our cat with us to town. I suppose that all we need to do now is get a lease for him and start taking him on walks through the village. Then any doubt about how crazy the Americans are will be put to rest!

With Safiri settled in and introduced to Pieter and Denise's two dogs (quite a shock for all parties involved), a wonderful meal shared with friends, and good night's sleep under our belts, we caught a 5am bus on our way to Pretoria and holiday enjoyment! We arrived and spent the day exploring Menlyn Mall, which is enormous, savouring the taste of a Cinnabun for breakfast, and catching a movie. It is rather incredible that in a few short hours we can transport ourselves from a quiet life in the village to a bustling mall in the suburbs of the city. Most people in our village will never see the suburban, upper-middle class side of their country. They see it on TV and read about it in the paper, but it still remains an idea in their mind, yet to be seen with their own eyes. We feel privileged to be able to live and work in the village, to exchange conversation about our respective lives with our friends here and to be able to learn from each other. Yet at times is easy to feel guilty about the privilege we have to pick up and leave for a time to explore the city and the country. Our mobility is a bit of a double-edged sword, allowing us to connect in ways many others cannot, or do not, and at the same time it clearly defines us apart from those we live and work with. What we have come to realize is that there is no ill feeling toward us for this ability, only a desire to learn about what it is that we do when we leave, where we go, and how much of this beautiful country of theirs we will be able to see.

The following day in Pretoria we ventured out to collect a bag that was being held for us in a nearby suburb. Amanda, a good friend and former colleague of Jess was kind enough to tote along an extra suitcase with her in November when she came to South Africa on business and leave it with a friend for us to pick up. Packed with goodies from home contributed by family and friends from all over we were extremely excited to finally retrieve it. So on a sunny, warm morning we hopped in the rental car with Brandon and Rachel to find our bag. They were kind enough to chauffer us around a bit, and it helped pass some of the time while they waited for Brandon's parents to arrive that evening from home. We met up with our bag and it's handler, Wojtek, who is an exceptionally personable man who invited us in to share a seat on his patio in the shade and chat for a while. It was a great way to pass an afternoon and we very much enjoyed getting a chance to meet. Our hope is to cross paths again the next time we are in the Pretoria area. The genuine sense of welcome we felt at his home is a characteristic that seems to run through most any of the people we encounter on our travels here, one not found in every corner of the world. We have come to appreciate this hospitality more and more everyday.

Early the next morning we caught a cab to Pretoria Station and the bus that would carry us south to our main destination, Amanzimtoti. Having met up with some fellow PCVs at the backpacker the night before, five of us climbed aboard at 7am. The drive was scenic to say the least. Initially we drove through Pretoria and Jo'burg to pick up a few more passengers at other stops and then made our way into the countryside. Initially we drove through grassy fields and rolling hills that gradually morphed into crisp plateaus that rose straight up out of the surrounding flatlands. Eventually we came to a point of winding descent into the valleys east of the Drakensburg mountains. Hills and cliffs climbed around us as we snaked our way through and every once in a while we could glimpse the Drakensburg themselves off in the distance. This continued for the remainder of our drive (quite a time when the overall trip took just over nine hours) and as we finally made our last drop toward the coast and Durban we finally looked out upon the end of the land and the vastness of the ocean. We were picked up at the Durban Station by the landlord of the house we had rented for the holiday. A quick half hour jaunt south of and we were there.

The house was beautiful. Room for all 11 of us, with multiple showers to clean off all the sand and salt each day. Five minutes walk to the beach, grocery store, bottle store, restaurants, coffee shop, book store etc. Out of 10 days in Amanzimtoti, Jess and I spent 9 of them on the beach. The water was perfect, large waves crashed on shore all day long, and it was relatively quiet apart from Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Each day we would fill a bag with some light literature, some food to graze on and a bottle of sunscreen. Shouldering the umbrella we would make the trek down the hill and across the beach front road right to the waterfront. Naps were a common occurance. With shade, a cool breeze, and the sound of the water it was hard not to doze off. One of our favorite activities was sending a delegation over to the Indian restaurant for take away. For 9 rand (about $1.30) we would get vegetable curry bunny chow. It was incredibly good and large enough to split between two people. The coast around Durban has a rather large Indian population. Along with that comes fabulous Indian cuisine and we took full advantage. The one day we did stray from the beach, we ventured to Durban proper to explore the Victoria St. Market. Housed in large purple and pink building just off a trainstop and shadowed by the overpassing interstate it is packed with small African craft boutiques and Indian spice shops. Bins full of Masala, Tikka, Biryani and other wonderful spices crowded out of entry ways onto the sidewalk. We mingled around for the afternoon and enjoyed chatting up store owners. It was a Sunday and the market was a bit quieter, which we prefered. After having our fill of shops, we were now thoroughly craving a traditional Indian meal. Taking direction from one of the women who had helped us at her shop, we hopped out onto the street. A few rights and a couple of lefts later we were sitting down to one of the best meals of our holiday. Not only was the food tremendous, but the owner himself took care of us and made the entire experience memorable.

In the evenings after the beach we took to either relaxing or exploring the neighborhood. One night we had a large braai with friends and sat watching the lights of ships pass up and down the coast. Another night we ventured to nearby 'Funland', which was complete with bumper cars, arcade, bowling, and bar. There we stunned the local population with amazing renditions of classics during their weekly karaoke night. The locals also stunned us with their own versions of classics as well as their amazing ability to dress as if it were still the 1980's. Most nights however were spent making dinner with whomever was around the house and playing games. We sat on the patio eating and talking into the night, guarding our food from the monkeys that enjoyed stealing from the table when they could.

It was the holidays and of course we celebrated them together. Christmas morning we all woke and gathered around the table to share a homemade breakfast of egg's benedict and vanilla cinnamon pancakes. Our friend Erin had made Santa hat stockings for everyone and we decorated a paper Christmas tree with ornaments. With our yule log burning on the TV screen behind us, we also played a gift exchange dice game which was a big hit. People took calls throughout the day from friends and family back home telling of sunburns, great food, huge waves and a much needed rest. It was the best way to spend the holidays when you are away from home. A highlight of the day was watching a train of Santa had clad beach goers descend the stairs en route to another day of fun in the sun. We rang in the New Year by heading down to nearby tavern with a patio overlooking the ocean. We danced, talked and took in a beautiful night. As the clock struck midnight we toasted having made our way through everything to get to this point and to a successful year ahead of us all.

As we made our way back up through the hills and watched the ocean disappear behind us on our way back to Pretoria we felt refreshed and ready to head back to our villages. The last few months had been exhausting as we struggled to learn new communities, people and languages. Having the chance to recharge mentally and physically was extremely beneficial and will make a world of difference as we approach this new year. As we walked up to our front door after our journey back, cat in hand, we were greeted by all of neighbors with excitement, eager to know how our holidays had gone. People waved as we went to the store to pick up a few provisions and children were continually asking us if we were going to be back at school this year, wanting to make sure we would still be around to hang out with them. We felt as though people were welcoming us home again, and in many ways this is becoming our second home.


The opinions expressed are our own and do not reflect those of the Peace Corps, the U.S. Government, the Republic of South Africa, or and other person, party, or organization mentioned on this website.