Imagine your favourite seasonal food. Go ahead: choose any season, any food – but it mustn’t be available year round. You wait for this special item for months, craving it and impatiently passing the time until its arrival. And when it finally turns up, finally hits those shelves, you speed your little keester to the store so quickly that you hope no bulging Atlanta policemen are around. Well, that’s about what it felt like on 6 January when my brother arrived in South Africa. Yes, I am unapologetically comparing John to fruitcake. (Although, that is not my favourite holiday food sopleasedon’tgiveittome.) Seriously, though, it was utterly incredible to be with a family member for nearly a month after being gone for 18 of them. Since he lives in Colorado, our time over here was the longest we’d spent together in our adult lives. The sibling duo picked up right where it left off in 2012 and I daresay we got even closer. You’re my boy, Blue.
As much as this blog is to share my Peace Corps story with those who want to read it, it’s also for me to look back on down the line and recall portions of my history. I fear that taking y’all through John’s and my trip is like putting you in a straitjacket and forcing you to watch hours of childhood home videos… but I’m doing it anyway. So, the sweet, nutty fruitcake arrived on 6 January. I thought I’d keep it together but a couple silly tears squeezed out when he rolled up after 72(!) hours of travel. Before succumbing to much deserved sleep, we enjoyed catching up a bit over the “best” meal I could think of – KFC and a South African beer. Welcome east?
Early the next day, we drove to Cintsa to have a quick hello-tell-me-your-life-story-goodbye coffee with my travel gang before continuing onward. On the way, John reminded me of something that I’d long forgotten even had a name: the ailment that has riddled me my entire life, and with no end in sight. It’s called Laughingjitis and my mom diagnosed me with it back when I was younger. It basically means that I get into ridiculously long fits of giggles caused by memories of things that have happened more so than what’s currently happening. It is quite annoying to the general public and I had many onsets and relapses during the December-January holiday bonanza.
After meeting my other partners in crime and officially saying goodbye to Ted and Briana, my trip continued on as a foursome. Katie, Brandon, John and I travelled to the northern Drakensberg Mountains for a couple days of Mother Nature nurturing – if I know my brother, crossing swift rivers and stalking colourful grasshoppers is one way to beat jetlag. We absorbed views, traipsed trails, found ourselves in coves that looked so akin to my favourite place on earth (Highlands, NC) that I nearly had to pinch myself, and gazed at the second highest
waterfall in the world: Tugela Falls, cascading down an astonishing 948m (kind of makes that pansy bungee jump seem like child’s play). At the backpackers, I’ll admit we were supposed to camp but a bed just sounded so wonderful – and I, being the always supportive sister, had to help an exhausted brutha out with some sympathy sleep. There at the accommodation we met some lovely, refreshing people (don’t backpackers just always host the most interesting strand of folks?), introduced John to a South African Olympic activity called a “braai” (barbeque; cookout; general southern shenanigans), and then our time with the gorgeous northern Draks had come to a close.
On 10 January we headed to Durban for a short stay; John wanted to experience some Indian culture and cuisine. Little did he know, we’d have to call upon our American upbringing and German tendencies when visiting my favourite restaurant in the city, Unity. Katie, Brandon, and I had known about their infamous beer challenge for nearly a year, yet had never tried it. It’s called the Herdsman and consists of 2 litres of beer spread out between four glasses that increase in size (appropriately named the veal, the calf, the cowbell, and the bull) and must be consumed within 90 minutes seconds. Not many have succeeded – no women yet to speak of, which was enough to convince Katie and me to try – and, as the world expected, nor did we. After the allotted time we had each put away a litre or more so, gladly defeated, we took pictures and decided to slowly nurse or give away the remainder. The next day we visited an artisan market, found a café that sells real live bagels(!), and finally got John some lamb curry… Durban always seems to put our meek little village bodies to the test, yet we keep going back.
We said goodbye to Brandon on the 12th and Katie, John, and I rode south to a beautiful coastal area in the Eastern Cape called Coffee Bay. The backpackers where we stayed, the Coffee Shack, is set right on the coastline and provided a slew of enjoyable activities. After simply crashing the first night, we were ready for three full days of fun and quickly got to know the staff and other travellers. John made quite the impression one of the nights there during the backpacker-wide throw down of Killer Pool – one game of pool, 20+ players: you go in rotation of one shot each, the goal being to make any ball in, and once you miss twice – you’re out. Due to an injury in his teens, my brother has one functioning arm and so, with his rippling right bicep and me holding a bottle as the bridge, he ended up being the last one standing! He won a free pass to the next day’s Hole in the Wall hike, where we happily scrambled to a bay side cliff with a stunning
natural cavity, relaxed, and enjoyed some South African toasties. On our final day, we hiked the other direction along the coastline to cliff jump from two locations, first into the ocean followed by a tributary. The Eastern Cape coast is gorgeous and so different from any shore I’ve seen before. We took in rocky crags, huge waves, vibrant flora, and lively rolling hillsides. Unfortunately by the time we reached the ocean cliff, the tide was too high so we continued to the 8m river ledge and spent a long time jumping and frolicking like the toddlers we once were still are. Rejuvenated, re-centred, and with our thirst for nature abated for a little while, it was time to return to my area of central KZN.
After a nine-hour car ride on the 16th we arrived at Rorke’s Drift, an ecologically and historically rich area near me for John to meet some of the Rattray family, Ben – the CEO of the David Rattray Foundation, and the other Volunteers who live in my surrounding area. Before we knew it, the foursome that became a threesome had become a twosome and John and I were off to my village – a moment that we’d both been greatly excited about. It was ridiculous, almost surreal, to watch portions of my two families unite. Months ago, when I first told them that my brother would visit, Mama gave John a Zulu name: Thokozani (“they are happy”).
Within an hour of arriving, Baba and Thokozani had already started on the men’s preparations for his welcoming party the next day: thanking the ancestors for the provision of a goat, slaughtering and skinning it, and moving it inside. Meanwhile, Mama, my sisters, and I made sure the food preparations were in order as well as keeping tabs on how the mqomboti (traditional beer) was coming along. John and I prepared his first village meal over my gas tank, drank parasite-free filtered water, had a hilarious and lengthy stalemate with a ginormous spider, and were lulled peacefully to sleep by a crescendo of livestock musings.
The following day…wow. Mama and Baba had been planning Thokozani’s welcome for a few weeks, but even they were shocked with the turnout. I think nearly the entire village came to our house to meet and welcome the newcomer. I remember standing on my porch,
watching Baba take off his hat in disbelief and gasp, “Look, Thandeka, they are flocking.” One of the first activities of the day included John and me receiving the isiphandla traditional goatskin bracelet, confirming the forefathers’ approval.
My lovely Ma’am Khumalo brought traditional Zulu pants, umqhele (goat headband), and ihhawu (shield) for John to don and complete his transition. We socialized, tried the traditional brew, attempted the Zulu dances, and served around 500 people before happily sitting down and chowing on some leftovers. As it was dubbed, “Thokozani’s Day” was perhaps as Zulu as one can get within the amount of time John had been in the village. People kept wishing him a ‘Happy Birthday’ – we later realized that this was because he was considered a newborn; an addition to the clans… what a beautiful sentiment that is, hey?
The next few days at my site allowed for John to visit school, meet the staff, participate in some Books For Africa sorting, play English games with my learners, and otherwise soak up all other pros and cons that come along with being a PCV. A homestead downside that quickly became noticeable: my village’s incessant lack of water (coupled with the pokiness of my water filter) made for hot, thirsty days. A project downside reared its ugly head at my school one night when we were trying to use a projector to trace the World Map countries on an exterior wall and, at the last minute, electricity failed us. While frustrating, I was almost glad to be able to show John the brick walls that PCVs hit time and time again within their projects…you just have to back up and try again from a different angle.
Time is certainly not of the essence over here, and I think that’s a good thing – sustainable change never came from quick or easy efforts. The upsides of his stay included spending time with my host family, exploring some natural wonders of my site, visiting a sangoma (traditional healer) that my family knows quite well, and simply taking a few days off of the common tourist’s trodden path.
That is, until we started touring again. With just one week left of his time in South Africa, we decided we hadn’t nearly had enough mountains so we pointed our muzzles south and aimed for Sani Pass in the lower Drakensbergs. (If you recall my backpacking adventure from December 2012, it started and finished at this very same place.) We lapped up the vibrant scenery like dehydrated hippies and enjoyed chatting with other travellers before setting off on a little two-night date with Nature. It’s a funny thing, hiking; it allows you to fully immerse yourself in the natural world as we were once strictly meant to (well, okay, minus the Lycra and the polarized sunglasses and the energy bars). The next two days were long and lovely: we stayed in a massive cave, collected water from the falls at our front door, used fire to cook and keep warm, and forewent our tent for sleeping on the earth. We forgot books or a deck of cards but it was a blessing in disguise – why must we always search for entertainment? Even if you’ve watched a river surge by for two hours, just watch some more, just… be. Thus, our desire for wilderness quenched yet again, we traipsed home to the backpackers and – I kid you not – right as the buildings came into view, I decided to twist my ankle and bum up my knee. So, no, “Thandeka” does not translate to “graceful.”
At this point we only had one destination left, Johannesburg – a place we were excited to visit, yet dreading because it plays host to that infernal institution known as an international airport. We did make the most of our couple days there, visiting hot spots around the area whilst in a consistent state of Laughingjitis as we rehashed the last three weeks. John got his South African history fix and paid homage to Nelson Mandela at the Apartheid Museum, we got some final souvenirs at a local market, and were able to squeeze in a trek to the Cradle of Humankind. Y’all, that was simply stupendous. We went on a cave tour where our ancestors are still being excavated, wandered around a thorough anthropology/environmental museum, and got six inches away from Mrs. Ples – a 20 million year old hominid skull. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Eventually 29 January rolled around, the day of departure – but what was our final stop before the airport, you ask? A brewery of the local South African beers. It was quite an interesting tour, one very different to the Stateside breweries I’ve been to in that it shares much more about the history and culture(s) of beer in this country and less about the production process. Finally, with (literally) all of our thirsts satiated, that dear brother of mine took off to a foreign land across the sea. But not without the cliché public sob fest – what’s a family gathering without a little drama? John has always been one of my best friends and, if this trip is any indication (and if he doesn’t try to overstuff me with Gouda again), we’ve got a lot of fun times ahead. Sala kahle, Thokozani; I’ll see you in October!